Building your story, approaching investors and acing office hours: top tips from Richard Robinson, Founder of Robin AI.
How did you find out about Forward Partners?
Through Google, which is a bit embarrassing because I think there is a presumption that you should know people in the industry. I certainly found when I was looking at the VC landscape that cold introductions are dissuaded and you’re supposed to ‘hustle’ to find a connection.
Even though I’d worked in the city for a long time, I actually didn’t have any 2nd connections that were VCs and I was reluctant to ignore that advice. I did some research to see whether there were people that invest at this very early stage and if there are, what are their approaches and how do you get in front of them. I found Forward through that research.
I didn’t feel the same hesitation applying to Office Hours as it felt it had been structured as a way to process the vast amount of cold inbound leads that VCs see. It felt like the right approach.
What stage were you at when you applied to Office Hours?
I had an idea, built a prototype and received some initial thoughts - but I had no idea what to do next because the prototype was really quite distant from the technology we wanted to build. We didn’t get any traction that would be useful, it was really just testing a core hypothesis.
It was a difficult stage because I had no technical co-founder and what I ultimately wanted to achieve was far beyond my own technical knowledge. That left me in a quandary and I spent a few months with an MVP wondering how I can take it to the next level. I knew that I needed help and capital. I also knew that without the right technical person pretty much no one is going to back me. I paused and reflected on that before trying to make my next decision and it was in that moment of reflection that I found Forward Partners.
At that stage, I had never had any fundraising meetings, had never spoken to a VC or even emailed a VC. However, I knew about the process as I had read about it widely.
How did you approach the application?
I approached it a little bit like writing an essay. I’d done a lot of research prior to coming to the application. I went through it to work out what the questions were, paused and broke them down, trying to bolster my research in these areas.
It was really a sales pitch. Selling the things that I understood people are backing at these early stages, i.e the founder and what qualifies you to solve the problem. Independently I also needed to sell the idea and the potential market. My final insight would be that I tried to position it as something Forward had some experience with, drawing similarities with one of the portfolio companies.
The application forces you not to say too much and I found this really helpful. I tried to be succinct and I definitely didn’t spend more than a week thinking over the questions and writing the application (alongside a busy full-time job). I’d probably say it took me 3 hours in total.
My advice would be that you’ve got to think about every element and the evidence that you have to support. Start with some simple claims and then back it up with data - this is a big market, prove it, what are the figures? This is a product that will have market demand, prove it, do you have market research or adjacent experience that supports this theory?
In the early stage, it is hard as you don’t have a product and it is likely your idea isn’t widely acknowledged, otherwise, someone would have done it already. Therefore, you run the risk that if the investor is sceptical about your idea the only way to really prove them wrong is traction and you don’t have that at this early stage. So you have to do everything in your power to find evidence to support your intuition. That was really my approach to research, what can I find that supports my claim that this is a big market and this is a sensible idea.
Do you have any tips for founders?
I would say that you need to sell why you will be an effective founder. If you’ve got the equivalent of traction (which is experience being a founder), that’s one way of demonstrating it. There are other ways though, talking about your expertise, the amount of research you’ve done to get to this particular place and if you’ve got domain knowledge, it’s about teasing out the ways that could positively influence the idea that you have.
Approaching the application like an essay really helped me. I think there are core questions that investors are going to have that you need to answer in an organised way to make it easy for them to distil the business proposition. It can’t just be a stream of consciousness or a confusing narrative. It needs to be written in a way that is easy to digest for people that see lots of pitches and propositions. Framing your application around questions that you know an investor will need to be convinced about is a really helpful approach.
Each company needs to craft its own narrative and that will be different but there are some fundamental rules that will apply no matter what business you are in. For example, what do I need to prove for my business case to show that this is a sensible idea? Or, what objections am I likely to hear and how can I address them head-on. Being proactive about problems that you might face rather than trying to sweep them under the rug. It’s never a great strategy to ignore weaknesses or vulnerabilities. Be proactive and raise them yourself. It gives the person an answer they might not have come up with themselves. It also shows that you’re thinking thoughtfully about the issue. So even if they’re not initially convinced about your answer, it could lead them down a road towards an answer or make them inclined to talk to you deeper about the issue. I think you’ve got to anticipate the objections that are likely to be raised and address them.
You need to demonstrate the amount of research you have done because if you are applying to Office Hours you probably don’t have a product or have traction. That is an immediate disadvantage in terms of convincing someone that you have a sensible idea as you have very little proof. I think research is the way you counteract that. Do your research and pepper it throughout your application to prove that you take it seriously.
One more thing I would say on the application is to read it all the way through. I printed my answers, put my lamp on, got a ruler and went through sentence by sentence to make sure there were no typos in the application. But maybe this is my training as a solicitor! It also forces you to reflect, process and ask yourself if it hangs together. If it doesn’t, you have to rewrite it.
What did you do to prepare for the meeting itself?
I reread the application and planned answers to certain questions I was anticipating around certain objections.
I considered how to communicate the same information in the application but in the shortest possible way. You’re not going to have time and no ones going to want you to read out your application.
You also need to think about how you’re selling the idea. I definitely remember thinking and doing my research on how what I’m selling could be positioned similarly to an investment that you’d already made - I thought that could really help me sell the idea. Other than that, I was trying to communicate that I knew the space.
The problem also requires some domain knowledge and I knew that would be the biggest barrier. Others might not have the same knowledge in this space as you do, the investors might not see the same opportunity, so you need to communicate that information clearly.
How did the meeting go?
It was a bit weird I have to say. I was ready to give my elevator pitch and Nic said quickly that he gets all of that so we jumped straight into questions. It's really short as well. 15 minutes flies by and if you give a long answer to a low impact question you’ve just stolen time from yourself.
The questions that were asked were around competitors in the space, size of the market, use cases and how I came up with the idea.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have perhaps considered further what comes next after Office Hours. I thought carefully about Office Hours but I didn’t have a very clear idea about what comes next or a plan about where to go from this idea.
What was the process after Office Hours?
There were 3 further meetings and I had some more detailed takeaway tasks to complete.
There were things that Forward wanted to give confidence in me as a founder. Some examples were specific use cases, evidence that people will buy and more detail on what the solution looks like.
This deeper level of understanding is time-consuming. Information can be hard to find. It’s also important to start getting commitments from people to help. For us, this was speaking to in-house lawyers, getting access to data and early discussions on pilots. That was hard whilst working full time and I had to call in a lot of favours. I would say at this stage LinkedIn is your best friend. Be honest about the stage you’re at, people will be sympathetic and inclined to help you.
How did you approach the process after Office Hours?
Commit to responding to questions as quickly as possible but don’t chase too much. Remember to reflect on your level of detail, tone, and responses to feedback. These are all important parts of the process.
Finally, I would say good luck, think about it carefully, don’t build too much and do a lot of research. If you’ve done that you should know if you’ve got a good idea without Forward telling you.
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