Can you get VC money and mentors if you don't play hockey with Guy Kawasaki?

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Girl_hockey A reader sent a really thought-provoking email to me last week.  To paraphrase,

"It seems like a lot of the strategies for getting mentors or investment money only make sense for people with big school connections or influential work buddies.  I am a self-made man and do not have the kinds of connections others do.  I am the sole income earner in my family and don’t have a lot of extra money left over at the end of the month.  Saving 12 months expenses or raising venture capital seems pretty difficult at this point."

Challenges like these really get my juices going.  Not all of us went to Ivy League schools, live in wealthy neighborhoods with CXOs as neighbors, or belong to a ritzy health club (my local paper The Arizona Republic recently did an article on a Scottsdale health club that boasts hundreds of influential members.  Many people join just to rub (sweaty) shoulders with potential clients.  "Hey, Jim, would you spot me on my bench press?  By the way, how would you like to form a joint venture?").  If you are lucky enough to live in Atherton, California and play hockey with famed venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, you can get advice on the ice.  For the rest of us:

  1. Create a learning plan.  Make a list of the specific skills, knowledge and information you need to succeed in your business venture.  Get as detailed as you can, including such things as "learn basic accounting," "learn how to create a marketing plan," "learn how to write an executive summary," "understand import/export law in Russia," "understand the steps for choosing and setting up an e-commerce website," etc.  Once you have your long list, organize it by logic (what do you need to learn first to understand the rest) and priority (what will get you started on the road to entrepreneurship the quickest).
  2. Exploit the hell out of your local librarian.  Quietly, gently exploit that is.  I can’t believe that we don’t spend more time at libraries, taking advantage of the sage, patient, FREE skills of librarians.  You can research your field to your heart’s content, read a huge stack of business books or access all kinds of industry and trade directories without paying a cent.
  3. Stalk professionally.  Don’t do anything that would make people think you are creepy or saddle you with a restraining order.  Just pay careful, close attention to the leaders in your field. Read everything they write.  Find out where they are speaking and attend the event.  Join their email list.  Subscribe to their blog feed.  Where appropriate and possible, introduce yourself.  (I went to a WalMart parking lot to meet Robert Kiyosaki in person the first time.  He was promoting his new book "Before You Quit Your Job."  There was hardly anyone there, so I got to talk to him for a few minutes while he signed my book.  I told him I was writing my own, so he wrote "best of luck on your book" on his inscription. I don’t even care if he meant it or not, it just gave me a little spring in my step to put that on my bookshelf.)
  4. Forage for free samples like your Aunt Gertrude does at Costco.  For those of you not familiar with Costco, it is a large volume retailer that sells gigantic quantities of food, appliances and books.  It also has little "free taste" stations sprinkled throughout where you can get samples of all kinds of interesting food.  All of us have a relative that drags her family of 5 there for a free lunch, right?  I call that penny wise, not tacky.  Do the same for information you need about your business.  Many professionals these days offer free reports or information to entice you do join their email list (I know I do!).  Take advantage of this!  You can always unsubscribe from any list that doesn’t provide value.
  5. Join email lists of interesting thinkers and test them out.  In addition to the free information described above, you can learn a lot by receiving regular communication from successful business professionals.  Pay attention to what they talk about and how they talk about it.  Do they drive you crazy with too much email or promotional offers?  If so, take note so that you won’t make the same mistakes with your business.  Make sure to also join your competitors’ lists.   You want to make sure you are providing a faster, better, more efficient, more interesting or less tacky alternative than others serving your target market.  Get to know what they are offering.
  6. Go to free or low-cost government-sponsored training classes.  I know I almost lost you at "government sponsored" since you may think they offer bad information taught by disgruntled postal workers.  Guess what?  There is some excellent information available through the Small Business Administration, SCORE, and loads of other local not-for-profit organizations.  They are often hungry for clients, and will bend over backwards to get you the information you need.  SCORE also offers free, unlimited counseling and mentorship, a real rarity these days.
  7. See if you can trade for a workshop or conference fee.  If you are eager to attend a big-buck conference or workshop and can’t afford the entrance fee, contact the organizers and offer to volunteer in exchange for admission.  Some conferences have specific programs in place to handle this, and others may just accommodate your request to be a good corporate citizen.  I know a very expensive consultant who always offers a free seat to her $6,000 workshop for a motivated and worthy participant.  She does not advertise it, she just waits to see who has the most "ganas" (inner fire, exuberance, drive) and asks for it.  There is no guarantee you will get a free ticket, but there is no harm in asking.  If they do accommodate your request, make sure you are a tactful teacher’s pet and show up on time, pay rapt attention to the content and send a nice personal note afterwards.
  8. Get support and feedback from online forums.  Most industries have good online forums where you can pose questions to your peers and get support and feedback.  They are becoming a regular part of professional coaching services, such as Robert Middleton’s Action Plan Mastermind Group.  You get access to his forum after purchasing the Infoguru Marketing Manual (a read I highly recommend if you want to start a service business).  Startup Nation has a community forum for entrepreneurs.  I am sure there are others for your industry of choice – please send me links!
  9. Don’t be afraid to contact the "Biggies" in your field.  One consistent comment I have heard from high-powered CXOs or big time authors is that "Everyone thinks we get hundreds of emails or calls a day.  We actually don’t!"  If there is someone who you have always admired and want to contact, go ahead and try!  I learned this lesson as a 16-year old exchange student in Switzerland.  I had to write a paper on US-Swiss relations so, being a little intimidated by researching in French, I decided to ask the US Ambassador John Davis Lodge if I could interview him.  Much to my delight, he agreed, and I had one of the biggest thrills of my teenage life.
  10. Ask for money LAST.  Based on the title of this post, I know you were thinking, OK, what about VC money?  In my experience, if you have done the hard work of learning everything possible about your business, making honest and heartfelt connections with leaders in your field and creating a well-researched business plan that demonstrates actual return on investment, you shouldn’t be shy to approach a VC.  They are all about finding a diamond in the rough and supporting gutsy, passionate businesses.  Related to point #3, make sure you stalk VC professionals to find out what they are made of.  Guy Kawasaki’s blog is great, and I have just run across some fun and interesting Canadian VCs who are launching a new reality show for entrepreneurs called Dragons’ Den.  Please let me know about other good ones.

Just remember to let us know when your humble beginnings lead to great fame and fortune based on your very own blend of hustle and flow.  I don’t know about you, but I root for the underdog every time!

12 Responses to “Can you get VC money and mentors if you don't play hockey with Guy Kawasaki?”

  1. JJ says:

    I’m part of a team actually offering a possibility of playing hockey with Guy Kawasaki! Check out our auction on eBay, we’re one of the teams in Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Week Challenge. Thank you!

  2. Jawwad Farid says:

    But do you really need VC money?

    Yes to have a pot of money simplifies life and removes a number of complications, but is that the right short term goal? The amount of time that you spend searching for venture capital, may be better utilized working with customers, building a product, figuring out how to get to revenues and getting your business closer to your next big produtive milestone.

    I say this because I have two different experiences. My first involved spending more than two years looking for the elusive VC cash, ignoring real customers who could have supported and carried the business further. End result – death by business plan rewrites and the search for a better valuation.

    My second experience involved building a business from scratch with no VC funding at all. In the same amount of time it took the first one to fail, the second supported 12 employees and became cash flow positive from its 6th month. Today the businesses grosses 250,000 dollars in revenues in a country where the average per capita income is less 800 dollars a year. Yes it is small but it is ours.

    I would take a look at what you want to achieve and see if I can find some way of getting there without VC funding. It will be a slower, more painful journey but atleast I will get somewhere.

  3. Diane Ensey says:

    We live in a fairly small city (80,000) and my husband found a way to meet every influential decision maker in the city – he showed up at a task force meeting about revitalizing the downtown. There were about 30-35 people there, but each one, except for my husband, was one of the “old school”. Not that that was held against him at all. He made some fabulous contacts that he has followed up on

  4. Its Not Just Who You Know

    There is no doubt about it, that knowing the right people can help when growing or starting a business. What is not often considered is that knowing someone is not enough. Most people who have the influence to help or make things happen have the intell…

  5. Super advice Pam. I always think – I wish I said that myself!

    What I am learning is that contacts and relationship building takes time. So, the contacts I made several years ago and kept in contact with are now a great resource and support for me. As you build the trust over time, you not only learn from them but open the doors in the future for informational interviews, informal mentoring, and potential strategic ventures.

    I am also a HUGE fan of being a self-directed learner. Let’s face it, school’s out. It is up to YOU to find the resources and knowledge you need. Libraries are great, the internet is super, and even low-cost strategies like subscribing to free podcasts or audiobook subscription services like audible.com allow me to “read” (ala listen) to a wealth of business advice on my drive to/from my day job and at my desk when things are slow (or the work is tedious/boring).

    And kudos for the very creative, catchy title for this post. Love it!

    Warmly
    -Paula

  6. Soni says:

    Great website and great advice

    i am preparing to launch a micro-isv in the software field. i am in the final phase now – i’ve just had to build the product (:

    yours advices match my progression up to there and make a good recaps. they encompass what i’ve done counsciously or not.

    i’ve read only one of your post and will certainly come back to read more

    Thanks a lot

    Soni
    Conanza.com

  7. Sean Wise says:

    Great post as always, but for the record, even some of us “biggies” have open door policies…..even if we like Hockey!

    Sean Wise
    Wise Mentor Capital
    Dragons’ Den

    ———

    Good to know Sean! Somehow I had to think the title of the blog post would catch your eye, being Canadian and everything. I am sure Guy is not the only VC who plays hockey, eh? 😉

    Best of luck on your show auditions!

    -Pam

  8. robert says:

    Invaluable advice. I guess there are times when one way or the other, everyone of us, Guy included, must have thought or perceived ourselves to be insignificant life forms who were unable to access the right old boys networks or get invited into the right club.

    Persistance and lack of fear of rejection is required to get what you want. Adopt the DI principle.

  9. Josh says:

    Great site, Pamela – I’m a fan!

    For help with creating your entrepreneurial learning plan, you may want to check out the Personal MBA: http://www.joshkaufman.net/personalmba/

  10. Good suggestions Pam. The only thing I would add is that it’s never too late to start making those connectons as well. It takes time to build strong personal relationships in business. I recommend a great book on the topic called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferazzi. Keith recommends focusing your efforts on helping others when networking instead of trying to meet people who can help you. He says that building strong friendships with people you’ve helped can only improve your chances of success, especially when you need help. I find this to be true in my experience. I really hate it when people I have worked with in the past only call when they need something and never make the effort to just be good friends. Unfortunately, it’s very rare that I ever get a call from a friend who just wants to find out how I’m doing and how they can help me in whatever I’m pursuing at the moment. So give it a shot and stand out from the crowd. It can only help your chances of success in your business pursuits. At the very least you’ll create some good friendships.

  11. Derik says:

    Pam,
    I am a (hopefully) soon to be entrepreneur. I am currently following these steps, though not quite in this order. I have been investing a great quantity of my off time researching my field of preference and am now at the point that I feel I should continue my education and so tonight I sit (Two hours past my bed time heh…) and am writing my learning plan.

    thanks and keep up the good work!

    – Derik

  12. Dave says:

    First, I greatly enjoy reading your blog. I’ve recently left the cubicles and started my own biz, and everything you write only reinforces my new direction. That, and the monetary success!

    One thought about this entry. You should do a follow-up on how to write the email to the CxO. To me, this is one of those ‘moments of truth’ from the writer’s perspective that would be tough to work through without getting all mixed up emotionally.

    Keep up the good work!

    Thx,

    Dave H.

    _________

    Thanks Dave!

    That is a great suggestion! I will do a follow up. I think I will invite my friend Jill Konrath to weigh in too (she wrote the book Selling to Big Companies … http://www.sellingtobigcompanies.com).

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