The Incisive Deal Funnel

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From a firehose to a trickle

Over 8,000 companies received pre Series A funding in 2019. As I write, 2020 is on pace to surpass that. How does one separate the signal from the noise? Over 25 years of Angel Investing, I have made every mistake there is and built a process from all that learning. This is the process I use to select deals for the Incisive Ventures Angel List Syndicate. Here is how I do it.

The top of the funnel is not every possible deal, you must apply a filter. The first filter is my personal network built over decades as an LP in over a dozen Venture funds, Angel investor in over 100 companies, CEO having raised over $500M for my companies (and all those venture and banking relationships), Founder of the Angel network Element8, and all the management and investor relationships over that time. From that network, I see thousands of deals a year.

The second filter is the Meta Themes I have found deliver outsized returns when present. They are listed below. If you want to get into the weeds, there is a very detailed dive into it here.

  • Software eats everything
  • Great founders figure shit out
  • Disruptive innovation creates new markets
  • Platforms win
  • Americans are lazy
  • Invest only when I can be helpful
  • Invest along other very smart, committed people.

After screening hundreds of deals through the Meta Themes, less than a hundred get the concentrated diligence process and end up with a weighted score. With every check I write of any size, I want to have a greater than 80% confidence in a 10x return on my capital. If you want to get into the weeds on the ranking algorithm, head over to this blog post. There are 5 major risk areas for every startup. I assign a confidence level from low (weak, unprepared, or insufficient) to high (easy, will crush it). The five components are:

  • Management (50% weight)
  • Product (10% weight)
  • Market (10% weight)
  • Regulation (10% weight)
  • Terms (20% weight)

Less than a handful make it through to writing a check. My check size goes up along with my confidence interval. I usually write checks up to $50,000 between 80-90% confidence. Over 90% confidence, I will write checks up to $1M either alone or with friends and other smart investors. These are typically the deals that go through my Syndicate.

PS: Major Errors I have made.

While there is likely a whole post on errors I have made in the course of decades of Angel investing, the major ones that have cost me the most capital are listed here (in stack ranked order).

  1. Weak management. Management that can’t execute and pivot over time. Most management have nice looking resumes, but until you dig deeper and understand how they execute and the kind of culture they create, you won’t understand if they are up to the startup challenge. Everyone has an idea. The winers out execute everyone else.
  2. Underfunding. Most startups run out of money before they find a product/market fit. Many startups fundraise hand to mouth, never gaining enough capital to mitigate the big risks of the business. Underfunding can also be caused by overspending by management on the wrong problems at the wrong time (see above).
  3. Big Market, unclear entry strategy. I have fallen in love with large market size numbers, we all do. Without a clear product path to enter the market with some sustainable advantage, the market size doesn’t matter. Without product/market fit, the size is irrelevant. Also, if the “market” is already big, there are likely lots of competitors, a red ocean. There are better returns creating a new market niche and leading that niche with your product.
  4. Me to products. Never invest in a follower. Unless there is some geographic, language, or market reason. There has been a lot of money made copying innovation from the US in Europe for example. But copying a product in the same market tends to lead to low returns for investors. Invest in the leader, the category creator.
  5. Following investors without personal theme fit. I started out Angel investing with an “any good deal” strategy. How did I decide if it was a “good deal”? If other “smart” investors were in it. You will never know why other investors write checks, or even if they are “smart”. Plenty of “smart” people put money into Theranos. They all lost their money playing the momentum of others without doing their own thinking.

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