Joe Platnick: Have a Look Inside an Angel Investor’s Brain

As Angel investors, we like to see entrepreneurs with a laser-like focus on themselves, their venture, and fundraising. However, there are times when that single-mindedness can work to their disadvantage. With startups, fundraising is usually the most formidable challenge, whether the money comes from Angels, VCs, or other sources. Over the years I’ve seen many entrepreneurs make the process even more challenging by not putting themselves inside the head of an Angel and not looking at the situation from the investor’s vantage point. In order to do this, it’s important to understand some of the key traits of Angels.

Angels want and need returns

Although Angels invest their own personal funds and often have altruistic motives, they can’t continue investing without returns. Many entrepreneurs dismiss this idea and figure that if an Angel isn’t beholden to an outside institutional investor the way a VC is, then returns aren’t a high priority. Having been both an Angel and VC, and although both scenarios are pretty uncomfortable, I can tell you it’s a lot worse explaining a bad personal investment to your spouse, than explaining one gone awry to your fund’s Limited Partner.

Along with focusing on returns, Angels typically shy away from sectors of past failure. On numerous occasions I’ve been approached by entrepreneurs asking if we’d fund their company in a particular sector, right after closing down a similar company. Please do your homework (see below) before pitching, and in particular do some research on our portfolio companies—particularly noting where we’ve had successes and failures. The good entrepreneurs passionately believe they have lightening in a bottle and that their company is different. However, if your company’s in a market where we’ve had bad experiences, then the Angel you’re talking to will be subconsciously thinking about the prospect of your venture crashing and burning.

Angels are often accomplished individuals, but…

In pitches to the Pasadena Angels, we’ve had hundreds of entrepreneurs assume that because our group is comprised of very bright people that went to the top Universities, then our members must be very technically oriented. A lot of the recent press about Google, Facebook, or (you fill in the blank) developers becoming Angels and throwing checks around like Johnny Appleseed hasn’t helped matters. Although we do have a few of those technical types in the group, the vast majority are not overly technical, and will lose patience and interest fast if your pitch contains a lot of technical jargon and acronyms. Some of the best pitches we’ve seen have been from entrepreneurs that have taken a very complex technology and/or target market and described it in very simple language in 1-2 slides.

Angels can have short attention spans

If I only had 24 hours to live, I’d want to spend it with Mr./Ms. Entrepreneur, since it would feel like an eternity. This pretty much sums up what many Angels think when listening to a long, boring pitch. Most of the time, the problem stems from the entrepreneur not being succinct and their inability to get their point across in as few words as possible. If you look at the backgrounds of many of our members, these are individuals that have previously had hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people working for them and tend to be bottom-line oriented. Think about how well a long-winded pitch would resonate with a CEO or senior executive from a Fortune 500 company, which is where many of these people have come from. The net impression produced here is that if you can’t easily explain your business to us, how will you ever explain it to a customer or key partner. Lastly, if an investor asks “aren’t you like Google, Facebook, Tinder, etc.” or another relevant question, don’t be dismissive, as their attention span will get even shorter.

Some of the other pitch pitfalls that will invariably decrease Angel attention spans are story telling (e.g., talking for 30 minutes on the history of the Internet or solid state electronics) and stating the obvious. When I fist joined the Pasadena Angles in 2004, one of the pitches I heard was for a company that had developed a dashboard mounted mapping and traffic monitoring device. For most of the 40 minute presentation, the Founder did nothing but try to convince us that Los Angeles had a traffic problem (really?). Although this individual was a visionary, clearly saw where the market was going, and had a good product prior to Garmin, TomTom and current smartphone apps such as Waze, the company never got funded and eventually closed.

Angels run in packs

Cultivate a champion early within the Angel group, or better still cultivate champions. Although Angel groups have become institutionalized, these organizations are people, and not firms, and it is the individual member that makes each investment. Who you initially contact within an Angel group really matters. Let’s say there are two members in the group that might be potentially interested in your company—one who has 20 years of experience in your target market, and another that has no knowledge of your sector. Within an Angel group we all typically look for a member that has relevant sector experience to either get us excited about a company or tell us we should pass. And if you contact the wrong member, you may be starting with one foot already out the door. For fundraising, you really need to think through who you reach out to for that first conversation. To make that process easier, many members (myself included) have our bios on LinkedIn.

Angels like to co-invest with the smart money

Who you’ve had involved with the Company (e.g., investors, board members, advisers, etc.) is really important when seeking Angel investors. Having a prominent name and people that are well respected by Angels can be helpful with fundraising. Angels (and most VC) like to be involved with those they perceive to be the ‘smart money.’ For our investments it always comes down to people, and most importantly the founding team and those that do the day-to-day work. However, to Angels it also matters who’s behind the company, what they are willing to do in order to support the company, and most importantly how they are perceived.

It’s show time, folks

In the movie from years ago All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) looks in the mirror and utters “It’s show time, folks”, which is a good way to think about (minus the amphetamine popping) going into a pitch with Angels. As is the case with most people, Angels respond emotionally as well as to reason, and it’s critical to show both high energy and enthusiasm. As I mentioned years ago when I was on the Frank Peters show, you have the initial two minutes of a pitch to get maximum impact with prospective investors.

The SBEC Innovation Doctor: Meet Tim Brewer

SBEC: Ask the Innovation Doctor (Tim Brewer)

SBEC’s “Innovation Doctor” Tim Brewer is an industrial designer and idea development specialist. He’s an Adjunct Instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and somehow teaches interaction design at the Art Institute of Seattle too (frequent flyer…). Tim helps his students and clients design innovative solutions using a method he developed called ‘IDEAL design.’ IDEAL pragmatically inspires inventive ideas and intellectual property that can be developed into innovative products and solutions.

Somehow we managed to catch Tim between classes, flights and consultations to ask him a few questions about innovation.

Is innovation something that companies can learn how to do, or must it be part of their DNA?

Yes, companies, by nature, innovate to an extent.

Innovation, or the process of developing an idea or invention into a valued product or service, is accomplished by many if not most companies. Innovation starts with an idea and is ultimately validated by an offer of consideration for the value perceived by the customer.

I view ‘innovation’ as a trailing indicator of value best understood after the sale. Invention, on the other hand, consists of the upfront ideas and innovating is the process of developing value out of these ideas.

Companies can also be nurtured generate higher value initial ideas resulting in higher value innovations delivered. They can also be trained to evaluate and scale the magnitude of their innovations. Ranging from incremental improvements to radical ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’ (Raymond Lowey) innovations.

A radical innovation* is defined by the Rensselaer Polytecnic Institute as, and I paraphrase, a 500% to 1000% increase in benefits delivered and/or a 30% or greater reduction in costs required to deliver the benefits. (*’R&D Management 31, 4′, 2001. (c) Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001, p409-420)

Radical innovation is a trickier concept as it involves humans and company’s willingness to embrace change and risk. Once a company succeeds at delivering an innovation they to be pretty good at delivering incremental benefit increases and/or cost reductions on their own. They may even be good at pursuing radical reductions in costs as there is less risk in continuing to deliver a benefit customers already value but at much lower cost to the company.

Radical increases in innovation are frequently viewed as difficult and risky. However, with our IDEAL design method to understand and generate radical ideas and Lean Startup’s Validated Learnings method to validate customer acceptance, we can generate incremental to radical ideas quickly and then inexpensively validate them. It becomes relatively easy to create most advanced yet acceptable ideas and, ultimately, innovations.

What companies do you consider to be innovative today?

Determining whether a company is innovative is a bit complicated. Determining whether a product system and its subsystems is innovative is simpler. Systems (products or services) develop unevenly (‘TRIZ for Engineers: Enabling Inventive Problem Solving’, 2011. (c) John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Gadd, Karen, chapter 9). That is, the parts or subsystems of the system develop on their own timeline and any improvements are inherited by the system. This means incremental and radical improvements can occur throughout the system and when the system development is complete we can qualitatively assess whether the completed system and its subsystems improved incrementally (iPhone 6s) or radically (original iPhone as compared to the best competing phone at the time).

Apple, lead by Steve Jobs, created numerous radically innovative systems like the original iPhone along with well executed incremental innovations like subsequent iPhones, the iPad, iWatch, iPod, the MacBook line of laptops, Mac computers and operating systems. As of fall 2015, Apple regularly delivers very well executed incrementally innovative product systems. These include any number of incremental and radically innovative subsystems (cpu speeds, camera resolutions, storage memory, etc.) and they may radically reduce costs as well. But, what new radical system level innovations are they developing? Time will tell…

The Uber ride sharing service recognizing the innovation potential of mass smartphone connectivity radically improved the coordination of people needing rides and people willing to share their cars and provide rides. They also reduced the undesirable human involvement in being transported locally (smartphone ride hailing, estimated wait time, automatic ride payment, elimination of tips, etc.). And they are doing this on a global scale. Airbnb did a similar radical innovation with home sharing.

Want to identify radically innovative companies? Here’s how.

Identify radically innovative companies by comparing their products to the best of what came before. Use your intuition. If your gut tells you a product seems to deliver 500%-1000% more benefits and/or costs 30% or less in resources or time to use then you probably have a radical innovation and company.

Can you tell us about the most innovative project you have worked on?

One of the projects with the most innovation potential I worked on was a laptop concept that emitted a ‘spotlight’ of sound for half-private Skype communications. If you were in front of the laptop and the sound spotlight it emitted you could hear the sound but if not then you could hear little or nothing. Think of hands-free speakerphone convenience with the half-privacy of a headset or handset. I built a prototype using a commercial ultrasonic speaker commonly mounted to ceilings in Museums. When you walked beneath the speaker spotlight you privately heard information about the exhibit, when you walked away you could hear nothing keeping the museum quiet for everyone. I demonstrated the concept to Bill Gates during a Microsoft ‘Science Fair’ and it captured his curiosity. He had never seen (or heard) anything like it and invited me to demonstrate it privately for him and other interested parties at Microsoft. As with many early prototypes, there were minor implementation issues. The prototype speaker was a little larger than a human head so some spotlight sound would pass by the user’s head, hit the wall and become somewhat audible to everyone. This would likely have been solved by engineering and design. Unfortunately, I had neither the experience or training I have today to more effectively illustrate and communicate the radical innovation potential of the concept relative to the best available laptop audio systems. This is one innovation that ‘got away’ but also helped stoked my desire to understand and develop more effective ideation and innovation methods. I knew there had to be a better way.

I also program managed development teams for numerous Microsoft’s mouse products including the invention of the mouse scroll-wheel system. These too were arguably incremental innovations. The wheel-scroll eliminated the undesirable human involvement needed to control scrollbars while simultaneously trying to view content. With the scroll-wheel all you had to do was have the mouse pointer over the general area you wanted to scroll through and simply rotate the wheel. This seems easily like at least a 30% (radical) reduction in time and concentration required to view content BUT when evaluating the entire scroll-mouse product, the improvement seems like just a significant incremental innovation. Albeit quite a profitable improvement.

You’re an innovation consultant – what is your typical scenario with a new client?

I work as an Innovation Consultant but I am really an Idea Development Specialist.

Here is how I typically engage clients:

  1. Introduce the IDEAL design method. (30-60 minutes)
    IDEAL design is a vision-driven method for fostering incremental to radical innovations by looking beyond current ‘boxes’ or limits.
  2. Seek a clear understanding of the client’s business, wants and needs, products/services, and available resources
    Include obvious resources like employees, buildings, location, etc. and non-obvious resources like anything in the environment (sun, gravity, temperature, pressure, etc.), problems and harms in current systems (Can we transform harms into benefits?), etc.
  3. Define the outcome users ideally desire
    I recently worked with an aftermarket auto parts distributor with an impressive knowledge base of do-it-yourself information they provide customers for free along with their parts. Ideally, their products and services deliver feelings of accomplishment and pride for their customers. Understanding this outcome can help frame and inspire new ideas for delivering ‘accomplishment and pride’ filled outcomes.
  4. Gain an understanding of the opportunity space and any problems
  5. Is the client looking for incremental, radical or a mix of ideas?
  6. Using the Patterns of Evolution, Effects Databases, and Existing Resources as inspiration
    Brainstorm radical (500%-1000%) improvements and/or 30% or greater cost reductions to their (or their best competitors) products/services.
  7. Form Minimum Viable Prototypes (MVP) of the most promising ideas and validate them with real customers.
  8. With these Validated Learnings, Pivot and either iterate the concept, the user or both.
    Note: MVP, Validated Learnings, and Pivot are Lean Startup terms. (
  9. Repeat steps 6-8 until the concept is comfortably validated.

You’re a proponent of TRIZ – are innovation frameworks like TRIZ worth exploring for small businesses, or is this the domain of larger companies?

TRIZ, a Russian acronym meaning the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, is a large set of tools and knowledge and can take considerable dedication to learn and effectively apply. Larger companies can afford to hire TRIZ consultants for specific projects and/or to train staff. While, companies with fewer resources will still benefit over time by learning TRIZ on their own.

IDEAL design is based on a useful and powerful subset of TRIZ including Patterns of Evolution; use of Existing Resources; library of Scientific Effects; and more.

Bottom line: IDEAL design is an easy expedited method to learn and apply compared to the entire TRIZ toolset.

What are some books you would recommend for someone wanting to learn more about innovation?

The following TRIZ books are comprehensive and relatively easy to consume.

Also, see my LinkedIn profile for more information.


Joe Platnick: The Angel Funding Process – What Every Entrepreneur Should Know

SBEC: Ask the Angel Investors

[This article originally appeared in 2013 – Mr. Platnick has updated to reflect recent marketplace changes.]

Recently a company founder asked me about what kinds of things entrepreneurs have done (and should do) to increase the odds of getting funded. A few years ago John Isaacson, past Chairman of the Pasadena Angels, did a presentation on “How to impress an Angel and get your company funded.” This presentation provided a comprehensive overview of the common denominators (both good and bad) we’ve seen from companies pitching the Pasadena Angels over the past 14 years. For John’s talk, he divided the presentation into the following topics:

  • What Every Entrepreneur Should Know
  • What We Look For
  • Investment Criteria and Cheat Sheet
  • Getting Inside the Mind of the Angel
  • Top Deal Killers

For this post I’ll talk about what every entrepreneur should know and provide some additional granularity to John’s main points on this topic:

1. Having a good idea is not enough

Every so often we come across an entrepreneur who believes they’re investment worthy based on how bright they are or because they came up with a good idea that was well articulated in a 2-page summary. Along with the funding criteria on the Pasadena Angels website, there are two other things we look for in companies: (1) a prototype or proof-of-concept that validates the company really can deliver on its idea; (2) ‘real’ market validation to confirm that a viable market exists; (3) the “plan” behind the plan, which I’ll address in a later post and covers how you’ll execute once you’re funded.

2. Raising capital requires both time and money

Periodically we’re impressed by an entrepreneur that has left a well paying job so they could devote all of their time to their startup. To financially support their new venture, they will often take a second mortgage on their house and max out all their credit cards. The net impression when we see this is that he/she really believes in themselves and their business, are completely committed and has some serious skin in the game. At the other extreme we’ve seen people who keep their day jobs, devote a few hours per week to their fledgling business and have invested only a few hundred dollars of their own money. Although you don’t have to follow the first scenario to secure funding, you should make sure that at a minimum you’re at least half-way between the two.

The two key points on this topic are you’ll need to invest sufficient time and money into your business to get to the point where a prospective investor will be interested. Secondly, the process of raising money will invariably be the hardest part in a startup—which also translates into time and $$$$$.

3. You can save time and money if you understand the investment process

Although this is stating the obvious, you’d be amazed at how many companies don’t take the time to do this.

4. Identify and contact prospective investors whose investment criteria match your situation

Once again, it’s pretty intuitive. One added benefit of doing this is that this research may also help you discover things about the investor that you can use to get your company noticed.

5. It’s like college…you’ll be graded on a curve

Back when I was in college I was surrounded by a lot of very bright people. As if the situation wasn’t challenging enough, my class grades were often determined by how I did relative to them and the class average, and not on an absolute scale. Raising money is somewhat like that, because investors make only a limited number of investments. For the Pasadena Angels, it’s typically 12-15 per year. Although your company may be great on an absolute scale, the chances of getting funded will go down if an investor is simultaneously considering more investment worthy (i.e., stage, market, team, exit opportunity, etc.) companies. Historically, there have been many good, potentially fundable companies we’ve had to forego because of this.

6. Don’t stop till it’s done

At times we’ve watched entrepreneurs reduce the amount of time and energy they invest in the fundraising process after hitting a milestone along the way—but before actually having the money in the bank. The most common time that we’ve seen them ease up has been after receiving the term sheet and investment agreements. The amount of time and enthusiasm that you expend during the latter stages should be the same as when you’re first pitching. Remember, don’t stop until all of the money has closed and it’s in the bank.

Meet SBEC Mentor Allan Colman

We sat with SBEC lead mentor Allan Colman to ask a few questions about his experiences while working with SBEC…

You’ve been an active mentor at SBEC since its early days. What would you say has been your favorite part of being a mentor?

Actually, the best part has been the most recent part – being on the cohort selection committee. Meeting the people starting or looking to grow their ideas into reality, and giving them the opportunity to become mentored by SBEC is quite rewarding. And it further builds the SBEC.

SBEC emphasizes teaching companies to find better ways to grow. From the companies you have worked with, either as a consultant or as a mentor, what do you think are the most common reasons for slow or plateaued growth?

Lack of realistic objectives. It’s fine to say you will grow your company to 2 million dollars next year, with only $70,000 in sales this year. But if they really want to grow, they need a combination of a dose of reality and then active direction and support.

What is your prescription for overcoming slow or plateaued growth?

They need us and the skills, experience and abilities our mentors bring to determine if they can grow, and then help with the process.

What are your must-have tools for marketing your own products and services?

Someone who can play “devil’s advocate.”

What’s something you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?

How to scale the business, taking a longer term look at the services and how to watch out for new competitors who say they can do what we do [and of course cheaper].

What is your goal as a Lead Mentor with SBEC? What do you want to see happening in the community?

It’s already happening. When you look at the number of attendees at all of the SBEC events, and the interest in joining us, our impact is only beginning to be felt. And with Torrance a great place to grow new businesses, keep looking upward.

Be sure to check out Dr. Colman’s latest book Crazy Impact, which we wrote about earlier. And if you see him at an SBEC event, be sure to meet him – you’ll glean a sales, marketing or business tip every time…

SBEC Book Club: Crazy Impact written by Allan Colman

Crazy Impact by Allan ColmanThis month’s recommended book features contributions from SBEC Lead Mentor Allan Colman. Dr. Colman relates the components of exceptional leadership and how to make a Crazy Impact.

Through his work as a chief executive and as an adviser to managing partners, he has identified 6 skills that are crucially linked
in order to make an impact:

  1. Leaders Listen
  2. Leaders Make Decisions
  3. Leaders Communicate Decisions
  4. Leaders Hold People Accountable for Results
  5. Leaders Take Risks
  6. Leaders Leave a Legacy

If you see yourself as a leader, don’t settle for simply making an impact, be a leader who makes a Crazy Impact.