This interview features Kevin Wang, founder and CEO, FOSSA. FOSSA was founded in 2015 to make open source ubiquitous, risk-free, and exponentially more valuable. Learn more about FOSSA's technology.
Finding the first funding round
Kevin Wang feels lucky when it comes to investors.
Six years after raising his first round, the FOSSA CEO is fortunate enough to work with VCs who understand the delicate balance between autonomy and guidance. But as a young founder who dropped out of school to start his company, the journey to achieving this balance wasn’t always smooth.
“Fundraising for me in the early days was not easy,” Kevin says. “We’ve now raised nearly $40 million to date, but when raising the first round, I had no credibility. It was just me—and this was my first job, I didn’t have a college degree, and I was new to the tech industry and had no relationships. Fundraising was trial-by-fire, and I had to focus on really clarifying the thesis of the business to get someone to bet on the company.”
“when raising the first round, I had no credibility. It was just me—and this was my first job...”
With an intentional approach to fundraising that included large firms for capital and boutique firms for expertise, Kevin walked away from his first fundraising round with a ton of experiences to offer VCs interested in better supporting their portfolio companies. Keep reading to learn about how you can best support founders after the pitching stops and your partnership begins.
8 key takeaways: How VCs can support founders as partners
- Let founders operate with autonomy, but provide sound guidance when asked.
- Be honest with your founders—and expect honesty back—to set the tone for a transparent relationship.
- Commit to your role as company supporter versus an operator.
- Capital doesn’t need to be the only long-term value add. Focus on four or five different points of value, like niche expertise, network, intel, or potential customers.
- Share what you know about the difficulties of operating a startup—without asking founders to give up their autonomy.
- Ask difficult questions about the business and offer constructive feedback when transparency is offered.
- You can add a lot of value in ways that founders will prioritize over capital, especially if you’re a boutique firm without a ton of capital to offer.
- Focus on adding value over bells and whistles when pitching founders your firm.
How you can best help founders with the transition to partnership
Like a lot of founders, Kevin faced a string of no’s when he first started fundraising. And if someone wanted to hand over a $10,000 check? It was the most exciting thing to ever happen.
“Six years ago,” Kevin says, “angel seed rounds were a lot more challenging. I had to get really good at storytelling and managing impressions with VCs. You have to be really deliberate about how you're communicating to retain control of the narrative.”
But this training can come at a cost. When founders sharpen their pitch skills, it’s difficult to transition to partnership mode after funds are secured. “I think once you get really good at pitching,” Kevin says, “it can be a very vulnerable experience to tear down all that connective tissue and maximize transparency as you go from pitch-mode to operating-mode.”
New executive teams are tempted to manage investor perception and show off the strongest parts of their business. But to forge a good partnership, founders need to move toward honesty and transparency with their investors. The best investors know how to facilitate this by showing that they’re focused on solutions when confronted with company problems.
VCs can help founders transition to a more authentic partnership by:
- Demonstrating knowledge of startup difficulties to founders—so they know investors are in for the ups and downs
- Asking difficult questions about operations while honoring a founder’s autonomy to manage their company
- Focusing on solutions rather than problems when a founder is honest about where they need help growing the business
Areas of focus: adding value beyond capital
Kevin says one of the most common reasons he’ll give investors a call is for introductions.
“I lean heavily on investors during the hiring process,” he says, “to backchannel new candidates. Most great executives in Silicon Valley know everybody else, so investor knowledge is highly valuable, especially when it comes to executive hiring. They know a person’s story, their reputation, and more than just what’s on paper about them. My favorite call to make is to a CEO they formerly worked for, and I often don’t have a better way to have that call than to reach out to my investors.”
“My favorite call to make is to a CEO they formerly worked for, and I often don’t have a better way to have that call than to reach out to my investors.”
When he was raising his first round, Kevin prioritized investors who had worked with similar companies. “They had discrete ways of helping,” he says. More specifically, Kevin’s most valuable investors offered:
- Customers: A low-cost lifeline to an early customer segment
- Niche business insights: Two or three key pieces of market information about customers, analysts or competitors
- Recruitment strategies: Two or three key pieces of advice for attracting talent
To Kevin, these three supports were crucial ways his investors were able to add value and support his team beyond the capital they invested.
Nurturing a long-term VC-founder partnership
Kevin says he’s been lucky to work with investors who are respectful of roles in the “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
“When I was pitching,” Kevin says, “I was looking for investors who would give me a lot of autonomy; that didn’t necessarily mean I wanted them to be hands off. I wanted to work with investors who would work really hard on behalf of the company, but were emotionally committed to supporting the way the leadership team wanted to operate.”
“...the most successful [VCs] were straightforward about their expertise in my category, how they could help, and how they could add value. It’s not sexy, but credibility is what sold me.”
To accomplish this, Kevin went after larger firms with a lot of capital who could also lead later rounds while also pursuing boutique firms who could offer hands-on support and niche business insights. This partnership mix gave Kevin the security of a large amount of capital to grow along with support from smaller firms who were able to differentiate themselves through subject matter expertise.
How (not) to pitch your firm to founders
It’s vital that investors do their due diligence on VCs during the pitching process. “[They have to] make sure we’re the right partner. Because my assumption is, if an entrepreneur is good and the idea is good, they're talking to five or 10 [investors],’ said Entrepreneur and Forbes’ Midas List VC Navin Chaddha.
In cases like Kevin’s where the leadership was good and the idea was good, he had the ability to be selective in his investment partners. This also meant that he had to learn how to manage VCs pitching their firm after his initial funding round.
Here are just a few ways investors attempted to woo Kevin when FOSSA became a hot commodity:
- Calls from A-list celebrities or invites to private parties
- Offers to exotic locations by private jet
- Gifts and care packages to the office
But according to Kevin, the best investor pitches didn’t involve any bells and whistles. Instead, he chose pitches that demonstrated credibility.
“I've had investors take some aggressive approaches to getting involved,” Kevin says. “But honestly the most successful ones were straightforward about their expertise in my category, how they could help, and how they could add value. It’s not sexy, but credibility is what sold me.”
The bottom line: VCs who offer the most value aren’t always the ones who provide the most capital. If you’re looking to build real partnerships with your portfolio companies, you can do it by providing your founders with autonomy, expertise, and connections. The best founder partnerships are simple, transparent, and honest. No bells, whistles, or celebrity phone calls required.