The key to finding and meeting VCs isn’t cold emails or playing a high-volume game — it’s all in the introductions. And anyone can get them.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have success in building technology businesses and have established great connections. This made our Series A process for Atrium much more straightforward.
To be clear, establishing yourself in Silicon Valley makes it much easier to meet investors.
But it’s also beside the point.
All too many founders say ‘I’m not connected in Silicon Valley, I’m not successful, so I’ll never be able to raise money for my business’.
Of all the common questions I get, “How do I meet investors?” ranks at or near the top. As a founder who went through an exit, and later invested in companies myself, I have experience from both sides of the table.
There are two critical factors to consider when you want to fundraise for your startup:
- Almost everyone who has been successful in Silicon Valley had no network when they arrived and just figured it out.
- Meeting investors is like a sales funnel. Success is predicated on a repeatable process of building and leveraging connections. It’s nothing special and anyone can do it. There are millions of successful sales people around the globe today.
It’s not who you know: it’s who your network knows. Building and leveraging your network to get intros is the tried and true way to meet investors and get funding.
I’m going to show you the process and explain how I was able to raise a Series A with 0 investors in my contact list.
But first . . .
How not to meet investors
It’s important to precede a list of suggestions with a stern warning of how you can shoot yourself in the foot before you begin.
The amount of bad advice out there about meeting investors is appalling and detrimental to the startup community. It’s hard to know where to start, but here is a brief list of what not to do.
1. Cold Email
When I was a YC partner, I would get emails every day from random people saying “Invest in my startup.”
Not even a good explanation of what they do or what’s in it for me.
Have empathy and think about your audience (this applies to all aspects of business communication, not exclusively to investors).
For 99.99% of those inquiries, I just didn’t have time to actually respond to them. Otherwise, I would spend my entire day talking to random people.
Cold email is almost never going to work and is a subpar use of your time — which is the single-most valuable asset for a startup founder. We’ll get more into the opposite of this in the how-to section.
I wish this went without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t. One of my partners at YC had a founder show up outside his house.
Don’t track someone through social media, or show up at an investor’s house and expect that to not creep them out (yes, this has happened to me before).
Even if you identified the right investor, this is simply the wrong way to go about it. Investors don’t respond to this — it’s a perverse incentive. Rewarding this type of behavior will lead to its proliferation, even if you found a great fit.
3. Not targeting your search
Don’t waste your time on investors who don’t look at your space, or haven’t shown a propensity for investing at your current stage.
What’s the point?
Investors typically have a focus for both:
a) Industry (e.g. biotech, health, enterprise SaaS)
b) Funding round (seed, growth, Series A)
When you contact an investor who doesn’t meet both of your criteria, you may be ruining an opportunity for future consideration.
The importance of networks means your reputation is of utmost importance. If word gets around that you are aimlessly sending cold emails, you might miss out on a future opportunity.
We’ll go over how to find and target the right investors in the next section.
4. Too many (or few)
There’s a delicate balance between highly personalized/targeted outreach, and acknowledging that it’s ultimately a numbers game.
The funnel metaphor couldn’t be more apt.
You’re only going to convert so many, so you need to get enough in the top (the “volume”).
But identifying too many prospects can — intentionally or not — detract from the quality of each individual relationship, thereby limiting your chances of closing a deal.
Find the sweet spot of just enough, but not too many.
5. Favor partners over associates exclusively
A lot of very smart people I really respect say “don’t talk to associates.” I actually disagree with this.
Per the point above about cold email, connections are king — and better than not getting in touch at all.
Obviously talking directly to a partner is preferable, but it’s realistically not always an option. Take what you can get. If you have an “in” with an associate, you’re only one level removed from the investor.
6. Try to “hack” your fundraising
Like all aspects of startups and business, there is no universal hack that magically works. Sure, some people have used counterintuitive and ingenious methods to get investor attention.
But this is not a hack; rather, it’s a different approach to the same principles (which I explain below).
And one last point: you should know whether you’re even ready to talk to investors in the first place. More on that here – Guide to Raising a Series A.
3 Steps to Finding and Meeting Investors
The following 3 steps will be broken down and provide an actionable way for you to start meeting the right investors — aka those who will be interested in your company.
1. Identify the right type of investor and build your list
You don’t want any investors; you want people who have the ideal resume, background, and demonstrated interests in funding your startup.
The answers to two basic questions will guide the filtration process:
- What round am I raising?
- What category of startup am I?
If you’re a biotech company, don’t target investors who haven’t been involved in biotech.
If you’re raising a seed round, don’t target investors who exclusively invest at later stages. You want to respect everyone’s time and carefully curate your list.
This simple rule alone will narrow down your scoping process.
Get as specific as possible
Don’t just stop at the firm.
Target specific partners, angel investors, etc. You want the people with the relevant background. At most firms there are different folks who specialize in different industries.
If you’re a biotech company, target the biotech partner. Choose the person who’s most relevant to you.
Knowing that a certain firm has invested in your space is only the starting point. You want the person with influence who can make a decision about your company.
Organize your list
I usually organize my curated list of investors in an investor tracking sheet with all relevant details.
I don’t want to be too prescriptive about the length of the list, as there’s no magic number. However, I generally find that a minimum of 10, and ideally in the 15-20 range is good. Too many more and it’s hard to do it well and target effectively; much less and you’re not feeding the funnel.
Use your network
Another source of investor leads — and your best bet at actually reaching them — lies within your network.
This requires a distinction. The next point is about using your network to get connected to the investors you’ve already identified. Here, I mean that you actually use that network to identify the investors in the first place (at which point the connection is predetermined).
Talk to your friends and network about your company and lay out your investor criteria (industry + investment stage) to see who someone knows. Odds are, you’ll get multiple leads this way.
2. Find out how to get connected
People are always much more receptive to introductions from people that they know and trust. The “warmer” the person that’s giving you the intro, the better.
Your primary objective with this process is to find the best person to give you an intro; someone who is seen as credible to the investor.
If you’ve raised a seed and are targeting a Series A, you have the best type of referral: an investor in your company.
Referrals from investors are the strongest because they’re putting their money where their mouth is.
It’s a good signal if I recommend a startup that I’ve recently become acquainted with to an investor friend; it’s an extremely strong signal if I’ve already put my own cash on the line.
Find out how your current investors can connect you with someone on your list, and use them as a method for building the list in the first place. When you are asking your investors who they can intro you to, feel free to share the Google sheet you are using to track with them. This is much better than just asking ‘What investors do you know that would be interested in my company?’ Odd’s are that that investor doesn’t keep a list of other investors and their interests in their head — it’s much easier for them to look at a list and see who they know.
Why you need double opt-in
There’s an awkward stage between a cold email and a fully-vetted introduction: a “single opt-in” email.
That’s when someone I know makes an unsolicited intro, without first running it by me.
There’s a lot of companies that I’m not interested in meeting with. Maybe I’m not interested in the space, have a conflicting investment, or have soured on the space.
That’s why double opt-in has become a standard best practice for introductions. Both parties get briefed on the other so that when the introduction happens, you can move forward productively.
You don’t waste anyone’s time. The alternative — single opt-in, or none at all — is a waste of everyone’s time. It also puts the recipient in an awkward position. I’ve had to tell a friend or acquaintance “no thanks,” putting everyone in an uncomfortable spot.
Having a person who can act as a connection to an investor isn’t enough. To get an investor’s attention and not be a hindrance, you need the double-opt-in.
3. Use double opt-in to send a super targeted & concise email
Here’s how double-opt-in works:
- Send an email to your connection that can be forwarded.
- What you do
- What makes you special
- A “hook” to get them interested in learning more.Two paragraphs and extremely concise:
- Your connection emails the investor to say “Here’s a summary of these guys, do you want an intro?”
- Investor has everything they need (in digestible format) to learn more, or pass.
It’s that simple.
The magic is in the email, the strength of the connection, and the ultra-relevance of the investor (as established in step 1).
This is why I say there are no excuses if you really want to meet investors.
In fact, I anonymized an email I received which lead to my investment in the company. Check it out for a great starting point when you start to make investor email connections.
How to meet investors when you really have no connections
I had 0 startup connections when I first started fundraising, resulting in my firm belief that anyone can do it.
Having connections isn’t the requirement; it’s access to connections that matters, and this is something entirely within your control.
1. Lean on your friends (what I did)
The first thing to do is go lean on your friends who are entrepreneurs.
Every entrepreneur has friends who are entrepreneurs.
When I first showed up in Silicon Valley, I leaned on Adam Smith and Matt Brezina, the founders of Xobni, a YC-backed company. They were friends of mine I’d met in Boston, providing my access to the people I needed to meet.
They had raised a seed round from a lot of great angel investors, including Paul Buchheit and others.
We asked them for some intros to their investors and extended network. This got us in touch with Aydin Senkut (Felicis Ventures), and eventually Paul Buchheit (the creator of Gmail).
Those intros led to the initial funding for Justin TV, which eventually morphed into Twitch.
We didn’t have any investor connections, but our friends did — and that was how I got my start in the Valley.
2. Make new connections
Let’s say you just got here and don’t know anyone. No friends, no network, nada.
It’s still doable.
People are intimidated by the concept of “networking,” but meeting people is surprisingly simple.
You can come to the Bay Area and meet entrepreneurs very easily.
Sure, you might not be able to meet Steve Huffman from Reddit or Patrick Collison from Stripe on day one. But, you can meet somebody who’s raised seed money, Series A, maybe even more — in a relatively short period of time.
Meet people at networking dinners and conferences. If it isn’t these folks, then I guarantee they know other people who are founders or angel investors.
You can meet founders/angels and their extended network. Founders and investors have a diversity of friends and partners — including people who personally aren’t founders or investors. You can often get an intro to a founder and investor through one of the senior employees at their companies.
I’ve talked to friends of my employees about startup investment opportunities.
Another idea: lean on people doing an accelerator like Y Combinator or 500 Startups. You either know someone going through the program, or can meet someone who knows someone at any event I described above.
3. Go through an accelerator or bootcamp
You can talk to friends at Y Combinator, 500 Startups, or another accelerator . . . or you can try and get your startup in.
This is a phenomenal way to get access to networks.
It’s like seed fundraising on easy mode.
Based on the strong network you inherit, you have access to practically anyone in Silicon Valley (using the framework from the previous section).
Remember that meeting investors comes down to warm intros from people who the investor trusts. YC provides everything you could want in that respect.
It’s also great credentialing and a brand stamp on you as well. This type of endorsement almost certainly leads to a valuation bump compared to the Silicon Valley average.
Or you can use a fundraising bootcamp. There are many of these — here at Atrium, we have Atrium Scale. This provides startups with the credible intro you need to talk to investors, but also helps you maximize your opportunity with that intro.
You learn how to:
- structure a narrative
- get investor intros
- talk to investors
- determine what kind of metrics you might need to raise your next round.
Then before and after the bootcamp we help secure intros (the “warm lead” you need).
There are plenty of well-connected people who do bootcamps, and this is an excellent complement (or even standalone method) for meeting investors and getting intros.
Meeting investors seems daunting but is like anything in the startup world: apply first principles thinking and boil it down to the core idea (getting a warm introduction).
There are shortcuts you can take to getting introductions, such as bootcamps like Atrium Scale, but if you put in the work and follow this process you will give your startup a chance.