May 23, 2021

First-Time Founders—How To Give Investors the Right Signals - With Alex Luce

First-Time Founders—How To Give Investors the Right Signals - With Alex Luce

Alex Luce, Partner at Creative Ventures, talks about investing in first-time founders, the mistakes they tend to make and the green flags that they can show investors. We also touch on some major red flags that Alex sees and how those can be avoided.


Alex's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexluce/
Creative Ventures:
Website: https://creativeventures.vc/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Creative_VC
Early stage accelerators for scientific founders and hardtech companies mentioned in the episode:
https://www.activate.org & their resources at https://www.activate.org/learn
https://chainreaction.anl.gov
https://innovationcrossroads.ornl.gov
https://nmleep.com
Endless Frontier Labs: https://endlessfrontierlabs.com
https://indiebio.co
Creative Destruction Labs: https://www.creativedestructionlab.com

Transcript

And today the guest speaker, we'll have Alex loose partner at crave Ventures. And in this episode, we'll talk primarily about 1st, time found because creative Ventures focuses on them.

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And Lisa will talk about investing in those 1st,

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time founders,

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the green flags that he can show to an investor while being a 1st time founder and,

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of course,

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the red flags that she should try to avoid and also we'll talk about some key mistakes that those 1st time founders make and how they can build long term relationships with investors.

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So, Alex, let's kick it off by. You're giving us some background on yourself and on creative Ventures.

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Well, 1st off constant team. Thanks for, for having me I've really enjoyed listening to some of the other guests on your show. So, my background is in science and technology. I started my career as a researcher, um, in material science, but new, pretty early on.

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I wasn't going to stay in academia. I was always much more interested in in, in the business side of things and and frankly, and seen science make an actual impact on society and oftentimes for it to do that it needs to get outside of the lab. And into the.

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Into the marketplace, um, so I've sort of been part of this lab to market.

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Journey if you will while working at at startups, uh, at R. P. E. which is a U. S government agency, that's the DARPA for energy technology and now on the investing side.

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So,

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I've,

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I've seen it from a couple of different angles and I'm really passionate about folks out there coming in with scientific and technical backgrounds who are trying to commercialize a research and new science as for

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creative Ventures.

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We're an early stage fund. So, for us, that means Pre, seed, seed and Series A, with most of our focus on seats. So we like to lead seed rounds. We're a deep tech fund. Meaning we try to look for technology.

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That's a fundamental differentiator for business.

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And also, what ends up forming a competitive mode, or a defensibility of of that business versus the competition that said, I will say, as a deep tech fund we don't look for technology to invest in.

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We don't like go out and try and scout the latest technology trend we really focus on markets so we start with macro and look for massive secular trends, which create global problems, a secular here, maintain long term and not going away.

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So examples include.

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You know, things like rising healthcare costs due to chronic diseases, worse effects of climate, change, various labor shortages and industrial sectors.

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And and then we really do work to try and understand the problems that these secular trends are are creating. And what they mean for for industry. And society, so you're probably asking well, why are you with deep tech fund?

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And the answer to that is that these problems are massive and long term in nature. And if existing technology was capable of solving them.

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It probably would have done so already. So you have.

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Pre existing problems, which will continue to persist and we try and look for the intersection of that with a new technology that can come in and offer an advantage versus what's currently available to solve these problems.

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Nice I love the certainly, my was here a lovely focus of the fund. So let's go over the basics some extra questions or you already mentioned what stage what industry and last question on that side is what's the average access for you guys.

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Yeah, for us, it's arranged, depending on what stage of the company we might be investing on. So could be a couple of 100 K and, you know, an early preceed company um, could be up to a couple 1Million in a bit of a later company.

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Um, I would say most of the rounds that we tend to do are in the round size of around 3 to 7Million these days.

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Ponder so we'll probably most likely we're going to touch onto the issues that you try to tackle thoroughly creative Ventures a bit later on for now let's focus on the 1st time founders. So you mostly investing people who are doing their 1st company. Why is that?

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Why do you prefer? 1st time founders over the founders?

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Probably re, sold their companies in the past, or, you know, who have at least some kind of traction in this. I mean, some kind of traction in the startup world in the best.

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Great question,

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I would say that it's it's probably a common sentiment on on our investment team that I'm part of this thesis and focus was born out of

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all of our,

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our team members.

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I'm having direct experience,

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running a business for themselves,

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and oftentimes own experience being a new founder,

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and frankly things that they wish they would have known,

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are done differently and what they could go back and correct.

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If they were able to do.

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So,

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um,

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you know,

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there are many lessons learned along the way and,

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you know,

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something that that we feel that we have to to offer is now,

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frankly,

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some,

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some experience in that,

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oftentimes,

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it's easier to raise money and capital.

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If you're a experienced a founder, as you mentioned, right? If you with multiple exits these days, uh, you know, people are probably likely to throw money at you.

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But we do believe that, um, there are 1st time founders out there who are just as capable of building an amazing business. They just need a little bit more. Maybe help. I'm getting started along the way.

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Forgot time, you'd myself, so definitely makes a lot of sense personal love funds who love to invest in the 1st, time founders who might not have tons of experience. A question about that. How do you decide which founder makes is going to make a good founder?

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If they have, like, literally.

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Close to 0, previous experience in that field specifically. So what are basically the green flags that you might find in a founder or future founder that are going to tell you that this person is going to be really good at this company for X amount of reasons.

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So, definitely 1 of the things we look for with is sort of market 1st, lens that I mentioned previously is founders who have a great understanding of the market that they are going after. And they don't always have to be coming from that industry. Sometimes.

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They certainly will be, you know, maybe they've been working in that industry for a while and have experienced those pains directly themselves and are now leaving that to start a company. That's a great perspective.

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But, we'll also see, founders, maybe coming, more from from an adjacent industry. Who do the time and the legwork to really get to know in industry. So, what does that mean?

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That means talking to customers that means doing research again I touched on we work with a lot of.

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Um, people coming from science and technology background, so it certainly means getting outside of the lab, so to speak and, and spending time out there in the industry, um, you know, understanding what the pain points are.

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And oftentimes what some of the incentives are for and against adoption of a, of a new product or technology, you know, 1 of the things we we often talk about is, uh, you know, we don't invest and technology and search for problem.

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Um, we really look for people who really understand a problem space, and then are able to marry that to a technological tech.

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Technology solution I was trying to.

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Down to quote, but I don't have enough time so let's move on to the next question and let's talk about some red flags that 1st hand founders might show to investors. So, what can serve as a really, really, really a red flag for you whenever you're speaking to the 1st time founder.

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Uh, you know, for us when people.

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People approach us and tell us that they have a around, that's a closing in a week, or on a very tight compressed timeline and there's basically, you know, no, no opportunity to do diligence. Get to know them.

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You know, they're really trying to drive a tight fundraising process that, you know, I think that that could work and and certainly, I wish them the best, but it's not compatible with our our process. Um, cause we tend to be pretty, pretty thorough.

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Um, and, you know, often being, uh, end up being quite informed, um, you know, as as a result. Um, but, yeah, I think certainly, um.

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Time compress time, um, you know, another thing is just, uh, honesty and integrity, I think is core. Um, you know, it goes back to oftentimes there are a lot of, uh.

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Problems out there with ambiguous solutions, or where there's no clear answer certainly, you know, when when people are perfectly okay, um, being willing to admit, they don't know the answer to a problem or question. Um.

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It it's totally fine I think, um, you know, when you see the opposite, uh, it's definitely a red flag.

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100% red flag. Absolutely right here. And by the way, let's just make more about the due diligence that you run on those companies. So what are the major things that you're trying to research in the company is the background of founders is that the field itself?

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Maybe, you're not super familiar with it or where do you spend most of the time? And how much time Jesus usually for you.

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Take for you to know from the 1st, meeting to the actual check writing process.

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Yeah, great question. So for us we're very thesis driven. Meaning we.

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Do a lot of work on the front end to understand understand these markets and and themes that I spoke about. Um, meaning oftentimes we'll try and walk into a meeting with some sense of of what the market and and problem spaces.

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In a sense how our internal research process works is we're almost, uh.

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W, we're basically trying to write the job description for a company before we go out to a higher the candidate, if you will. So, we do a lot of research internally.

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We publish some of this stuff on our on our website, for example, just in terms of our thoughts and views on on various industries so be sure to check that out.

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But, we really do try and do our own research to, to understand the market and the industry that way. When we go into these conversations, it ends up being a pretty informed conversation. We hope and value add for the company as well.

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Certainly thinks that. We try and understand our of what's a competitive advantage or positioning of of the approach that the founder has versus others.

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Um, you know, why, if it's a new technology, why why why is this new technology better than say the incumbent from a cost or advocacy perspective? And also, how will adoption work in an industry?

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And we really try and look for a tale when said that the drive adoption, or forcing function really?

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For, for adoption, meaning if the company can actually build the product, it's so compelling that the industry is sort of forced to adopt that. They have to adopt it.

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Um, so, we think a lot about what we call the forcing function for technology adoption, certainly, we look at team and trying to understand that the team dynamic.

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Um, you know, we look for, as I mentioned, the deep knowledge of the market oftentimes coming in with a technology expertise that people might have and trying to understand the dynamic among a team.

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We think that teams do tend to be stronger when there are multiple Co. founders versus a single Co founder we've, we've funded and worked with both of those types of teams.

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Um, but, you know, we, we really try and understand sort of how how the team works together and how people.

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And others, uh, skill sets among the team and what the gaps are.

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Nice I love that process. So let's talk a little bit more further.

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On really subject I would say cobit specifically. Where do you find the people that you invest in? Right now you uncover it. Of course I assume you are find them all over the country, but the code is slowly getting into and then everyone's getting their vaccine.

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So, I assume a lot of these are going to go back to the old model where a lot of the deals that they source coming from the, where they are based. So.

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A lot of the 1st time founders from what I know are not really in the Silicon Valley quite yet and they move there when they're raising their seed. Maybe Series A round. Where do you find most of those founders?

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You know, core at the preceded stages who are at the seed stages or not why the Silicon Valley yet.

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Yeah, great question. So, despite the fact that we are based in Silicon Valley, we think there is a lot of opportunity outside of Silicon Valley to build compelling companies.

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I will also say that as a firm,

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we feel that we were a bit ahead of the learning curve in terms of being comfortable making investments and doing diligence remotely just due to the sort of nature of folks who have offices

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and other geographies.

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So, we already had an internal process to be able to find and vet and work with companies who are based in a non Silicon Valley geography.

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So, 80, plus percent of our investments are are in the US we have some in Canada. Uh, we're actually doing our 1st deal in the U. K. right now. Um, other geographies as well.

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Um, so we're, we're able to deploy capital globally and very open to chatting with folks from any geography as to the 2nd, part of the question, which is, you know, maybe how do you find these founders?

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Um, you know, certainly, we're very open to cold and bounce.

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So,

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please reach out to us if you're interested in having a conversation,

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we also pay attention and work with a number of accelerator programs,

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particularly those that tend to be a topic specific and the hard sciences for example.

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So, I can actually call out a few and there's many more, but ones that come to mind are activate, which has notes and Berkeley and Boston.

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Nd bio really good for biotech and restaurants here Labs, based out in New York, a creative destruction Labs. And, um.

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Canada, there's a new program actually starting in New Mexico, um, that partners people with a a national lab called the lab embedded entrepreneur program.

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And so,

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so there are a number of of programs and accelerators propping up,

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um,

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really around the country and around the world that,

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I think,

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um,

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you know,

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provide an opportunity to,

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to the company is to sort of do a little bit of of matchmaking or meeting investors that they might not otherwise.

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Um, so I, I can probably send out.

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You know, a link to, to some of these accelerators in the follow up.

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Perfect that would be great. And the people, if you are listening to this end, you are thinking about accelerators to join, and if you're in deep tech, definitely check out those groups and right now they're going to be a bunch of links in there.

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Some of them, Alex is going to send me after this episode is over, so definitely check them out right now. Alright. Moving on to the next question. It's going to be backed out to the major topic of this episode, which is 1st time entrepreneurs.

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So, let's talk about building long term relationships. When do you think founders should start reaching out to investors and telling them? Hey, we might be raising the year. We might be racing 5 years. When is it too early? Basically, to reach out to investor?

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When does it make sense to reach out to investors?

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Great question, I would say, start early talk to we talk all the time to people who are still in grad school. For example, I'm working on on something exciting.

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A get coffee virtual or I guess now hopefully soon physical again. So, I would say it's, you know, it's not it's not too early. That the thing I'll stress though, is investors often have limited time and attention spans.

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So really try and get get tight on on what the, what the goal of the interaction is right? Is it to get advice on on fundraising? You know, if it is.

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To do your research ahead of time. There's a lot of advice out there that I'm sure on your show and I'm on the Internet and can talk to other companies. Um, you know, is it to present and get feedback on the idea set to understand the profile of the investor?

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Um, you know, I, I think having a pretty specific focus for engagement, um, you know, it's it is great. Um, you know, also have something unique.

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So, you know, we love seeing when founders have a new technology, or they've just written a science paper.

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Um, and it's still very early, but they're looking for a little bit of input or feedback. Um, and, you know, the other thing I'll say is, um, you know, keep keep investors updated.

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So, you know, after you've had that 1st conversation, you know, your goal is to.

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Generate lots of data points over time and draw trend line. Right? So, you know, do do quarterly updates, you know, send out an email newsletter. Every so often.

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Um, I think think things like that are just a great way to, uh, keep people, um.

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Up to speed on how that company or project is is doing and growing, because, you know, these things don't happen overnight. Right? It takes a long time to build a company.

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100% that's definitely the major advice that normally give to. 1st, time founders just keep your investors update, keep in touch with them. Show off. How much progress you're making in 1 day they're like okay. That's actually somebody goal that you've done here. Let's let's talk once again.

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And see, maybe now is the time for us to invest. So, yeah, definitely. Great advice. Anything else that you want, especially 1st time founders to know about fundraising specifically maybe maybe specifically in deep dive by the way.

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You know, I will say there's a lot of advice out there, so I'm good and some bad. So you get, you know, do you.

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Do your own research get lots of data points don't just take 11 person's word for it. Don't just take my word for it. For example, you know, don't talk to a lot of people draw your own conclusions. Right? So, yeah, I would say, um, you know, just be be be thorough.

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100% yeah, that's very correct. A lot of people just.

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Me included by the way whenever I'm reading the book by 1 author, I'm like, oh, I assume that's correct. And then I read another book that country is the previous book kind of like toy. Now, hold up a 2nd now, very standard mistake that a lot of people neutral you and yeah.

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Try to just try to avoid moving onto the next question. The question about what should founders do, who might be not working on a start right now, but still want to have the start in the future.

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That's again going back to the question about building relationships early on. Doesn't make sense for those people for people who have.

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Pretty neat idea in mind may be they know that once they leave this current position in here, they're going to start that company. Should they start reaching out to investors early on? Or is that.

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Just weird the way too early on.

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Great a great question. I, I think I, I, I think you.

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You do want to engage with investors you also want engage with customers and sort of really do the sort of that market research piece that I mentioned then. I think oftentimes we see people neglect that.

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But, you know, a lot of the focus is on, reaching out to investors. That's important but they're only a small part of the equation. Right? So, definitely focus on on, on, on the customer side. I think often with a 1st, time founders.

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We don't tend to see as much emphasis or worked on there yet, you know, when when you're engaging with investors, I think it's much more compelling and leads to an informed conversation.

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If you've already had 2 dozen conversations in the industry, and you've learned something that's really interesting that you can share and it starts to paint a picture of, like, oh, there's, there's something.

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Compelling care to to discuss, so yeah. Spend spend the time talking to customers as well. Absolutely. Again lose my works here. All right well, let's let's talk just 1 more question about networking specifically.

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Any advice on networking right now with this, we're kind of transition from being fully online to being somewhat in person. So I see some events actually popping up and at least planning to pop up during the summer. What's your advice to 1st time?

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Founders, in terms of networking, where should they look at? Maybe there are some particular conferences. Maybe there are some particular meet ups that are really good advice. There.

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Yeah, I mean, great question I think we're, we're sort of a little bit stop and go and in terms of, uh, things getting back to, in person conferences.

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Uh, you know, I, I think I'm, I'm very optimistic about things presuming to normal. I think timeline is still a little uncertain. We know it's gonna happen at some point.

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Um, so, you know, hard to say in this, in this transitory period that we're in now, I think it is a mix of both, uh, you know, in person and sort of virtual or remote interactions.

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Um, you know, people are still in front of their computers and screens quite a bit receptive to email Twitter, sort of, other other.

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Platforms, um, for for engagement and stuff. Um, so, yeah, I mean, I would say, you know, use use, sort of all the tools, um, at the disposal here.

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I think 1 thing that the that has happened, as a result of the pandemic is, um, you know, it's a lot easier to get a meeting.

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For example, if you were in the Bay area, use to, sort of have to drive to an office, spend half a day in transit just to have coffee with someone.

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Right now it's easy to pop on a phone call or zoom and talk for 20 minutes. Half an hour.

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Absolutely, that's very true. So, yeah, people take.

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Good use of that time. By the way I have to note that this kind of zoom calls there don't have very specific purpose like catching up for me. Those are extremely weird so not a higher percentage here. It doesn't work out for everyone, but yeah, I mean, it's still a good time.

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There are definitely much faster way to catch up with people right now than when everything is in person. So, take a good use of that remaining time. Alright. Moving on to the last 2 questions 1, being any advice specifically to.

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Early stage founders who are currently college students so, a lot of our listeners. Okay. I would not say a lot was 20% of our listeners are actually in college. Right now you yourself got a from Berkeley.

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So any advice to people who are currently attending a university and playing to build their company, or maybe are actually in the process of building our company right now, what's your advice? Those people specifically.

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Yeah, definitely.

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And I totally get that when I got my 1st,

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taste of entrepreneurship,

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when I was an undergrad,

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I worked for a very entrepreneurial professor,

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and sort of my senior research ended up becoming an sbr grant,

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which he then spun out to to start a company in the biomedical space,

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so I,

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you know,

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I,

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I totally get that.

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I would say in terms of advice,

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um,

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you know,

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spend if you can try and spend time with some other startups,

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meaning,

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can you,

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can you intern during during the summer during the school year just to get.

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Get a sense of how a startup operates, but it's like, you know, get get some actual experience there even if it's not directly related to your own.

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Um,

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you know,

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certainly,

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if you're at a university to get to know some of the students and other disciplines and departments so if you're if you're on the technical side,

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maybe you get to know some students who have similar interests that are coming from a business or economics background and vice versa for students who may be more on on the business side of thing Hangout,

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maybe on the engineering campus a little bit try and meet some folks who are a little more versed on the technology side.

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Definitely. Great advice. Having that scale. Eventually to get Co founder with a different focus, a 100% take the advice, put some time into networking. I know. Sometimes it might be boring. Sometimes might be extremely unfruitful, but eventually is going to lead to something. Cool.

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So yeah, definitely. Take that advice. And on this point, we're moving on to the last question of today's up is always use a call to action. So, Alex, would you want to do? As soon as that episode is over.

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Well, if you're interested in engaging with creative Ventures, you know, check out our, our website, we put lots of articles up every week a partner just had 1 published in tech crunch just the other week.

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So, we really try and publish some of some of the things we're working on and and what our views are. And if you disagree, feel free to challenge us and let us know what we'd love to have discussions and learn things, follow us on on Twitter.

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And LinkedIn, certainly, if you're in the East Bay in California, and you wake up early, I'm a fan of running or walking meetings to sort of not be in front of the screen all the time.

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So, yeah, that's a good way to find me, you know, the other call to action would be, you know, if you're if you're in a lab and you're interested in entrepreneurship.

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Um, I think there has never been a better time to be a scientifically minded founder. There are so many more resources available now, or even 5 or 10 years ago.

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So lots of lots of opportunity there definitely make sure you get outside the lab, though, talk to other folks talk to customers talk to interesting people who might be potential Co founders.

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I'm definitely get a multitude of of opinions and have many different types of people in your network.

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100% great vice college is for networking. I would say 90%. Okay. Maybe not 90% per se, but a lot of the value that college or especially a good college brings is networking so yeah, definitely. Invest some of your time into that.

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Stuff eventually is going to pay some decent David. That's right there. Great call to action. Michael's reaction is actually we can check out the description that this episode, as I said earlier, they're going to be a bunch of useful links in the description.

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I'm also going to follow up with Alex, and he will send me a few links to different accelerators or accelerators that you recommend, maybe some other articles on deep tech that Kareem Ventures is releasing.

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And, of course, I'm center information directly in every single description of this episode, which is holding off the speaker and the link to the fund where the speaker works in this particular case willington Alex, and linked to crave Ventures.

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So, go check it out as usually have good.