Efficient Research: The Lean VC Way

LaunchCapital sees a lot of deal flow. In 2011, our team saw over 2,500 deals, 285 of which made it to some sort of diligence phase. With 2 (now 3) Analysts/Associates spending the 65 - 75% of our time on diligence, deals tend to bottleneck and efficiency is essential. While “social proof” is an efficient way for VC’s to screen companies, it's only one piece to the puzzle and the herd mentality is often misleading/dangerous. The influx of money into the seed and early stage markets is also creating an adverse selection problem. As more companies get funded, metrics that were once attractive aren’t so attractive anymore. Raising a Series A has become more difficult and performing deep diligence in order to make smarter investment decisions is crucial. We also realize that the time entrepreneurs spend fundraising takes away from building awesome products, so turnaround time on a decision (includes a “no”) is very important to us. So overall:

 Lots of deals + lots of diligence + a quick turnaround/decision = Research Efficiency.

 To better understand how we research, it’s probably helpful to know what we research. For the most part, a deep diligence dive consists of 6 major parts with some general questions we want to answer: 

  • Market Research/Sizing – Is the market big enough? Do we understand it?
  • Competitive Diligence – What does the competitive landscape look like?
  • Financial Analysis – Do the company’s assumptions make sense? Cost of Customer Acquisition too high? Breakeven? Runway?
  • Customer Calls – Do potential customers need this product? What problem is this company addressing?
  • Previous/Interested Investor Calls – Social proof? Lead investor? Will the round come together?
  • Entrepreneur/Team Background Check – Is this an A+ team? Previous experience? Excellent advisors?

After going through this same process many times, I’ve developed a few research techniques that I think will be helpful to most. The two diligence segments I’ll focus on are Market Research and Competitive Diligence because the last four are pretty straightforward (financial modeling, phone calls, and in-person meetings). So here goes nothing:

Market Research

  • When starting market research there are a few good phrases to Google to give you a jumping off point.  For example, if you are performing diligence on the mobile space, good phrases are “mobile industry report”, “mobile statistics”, “mobile market size”, “mobile industry data”, “mobile industry trends”, etc.
  • Most industries have trade associations or industry groups that provide statistics and research on their industry. Usually they’ll provide a “fast facts” page with good information or sources to do more digging on. 
  • Research companies produce a wide variety of industry reports, but they are costly.  If you come across a report that looks like it would include the data you are looking for, try to find blogs or articles that mention it by name.  Authors of these blogs usually have access to the data and may pull certain statistics or charts from the report.  Also, press releases of these reports may give summaries, overall data, or other information that may be useful. If you perform a PDF advanced search on Google, I’ve found that you sometimes get lucky (~10% of the time) and someone has uploaded en entire report.
  • Searching Google images is also a great way to pull relevant charts/graphs. If you find a chart that’s appropriate, check out the article it came from because it’s usually relevant to what you’re looking for.
  • Another problem is finding the most up to date data.  In some industries (especially the technology industry), data may significantly change year over year.  Try searching Google News for the most up to date articles or include “2011” or “2012” following your search query. Keep macro events in mind when using older data. A 2009 retail report produced during the recession might have very different outlook and projections than a more current report.
  • Digging into Quora questions and responses is another great place to find market info.

Competitive Analysis

  • The first step in putting together a competitive landscape is searching a couple market keywords and adding “companies” or “products” to the end of the search.
  •  Usually the biggest players will bubble to the top. If the company is public, the first place I look for information in the 10-k annual report. Companies give good information on their market, recent trends, business risks (great for identifying potential challenges), and a list of competitors to build on.
  • It might be obvious, but once I’ve developed a list of potential competitors I check out the company website! The about us, product, and pricing sections usually have good information. Also, I tend to find more in depth pricing and revenue model information buried in the FAQ’s. Lastly, check out the press section to lead you to articles about the company. Most articles highlighting a company talks about what they do, how much it costs, how many customers/users they have, revenue growth, and other nuggets of information that could be useful in an analysis.
  • One of the unintended consequences of Angel List is that it’s made researching early stage competitors much easier to research! Pretty easy to use keywords and market filters to give an overview of competitive companies that are currently fundraising.

Additional points from our Boston Associate, Tom Egan:

  • A key part of competitive diligence is reading into how the company positions their product.  You can gain a ton of insight into how they view the 'problem', their customers and how they think their product solves the 'problem'.  Founder/CEO blog posts are also great sources of info for this section.  I usually like to temper those will reviews by people outside of the company - if it's an app, look at reviews on iTunes to find out how the customer is using it (e.g for Runkeeper - "I love using this one my bike!") and whether or not it solves the problem ("I hated having to map my runs out after running.  I always forgot.  I already carry my phone for music, so this is perfect.").  If it's a SaaS product, look for industry articles, press coverage, or reviews in other marketplaces (Google, Salesforce, etc).  Try to think about the decision making process that a customer would go through when they decide to buy this product or a competitive product.  Figure out what are the fluff features vs. the features that matter.  Figure out if there is a non-traditional use case.   
  • For private companies it may be very tough to find market performance data, especially something that is consistent across all of the companies.  One good tactic is to understand the metrics that drive the particular business model and key in one those.  If it's a consumer facing company, look at web traffic from compete, Qunatcast or Doubleclick ad planner.  If it's a SaaS company, look for PR/Blog Posts about number of users or some other metric that is put out to indicate that the company is doing well designed to be found by potential customers.

As Fred Wilson mentioned on his blog, in today’s world the information is out there, you just need to know where to look.

List of Other Useful Websites/Resources

  • Docstoc
  • Slideshare
  • U.S. Census Data
  • U.S. Labor Bureau
  • Google News
  • U.S. Department of Commerce
  • Business Week
  • Angel List
  • TechCrunch
  • Crunchbase
  • Pandodaily
  • Quora

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