Fundraising: Customer References

This week, I connected with an early-stage founder who’s fundraising. A few funds that are deep in the process want to do customer diligence calls—they want to talk to the handful of early-adopter customers that are larger companies. The customers don’t understand venture capital or start-ups. The thought of talking with “investors” looking to invest in a provider of a service they deem critical makes them queasy. They’re not sure if this is a sign that the company is in trouble financially and they should rethink the relationship.

If a company has a product with paying customers and it wants to raise venture capital, the investment firms are going to want to talk to the customers. They could construe not being allowed to do so negatively. “If your product is so great, why can’t we hear that directly from your customers?” goes the thinking.

 One way around this is to pitch your most important customers on your big vision. They know the product you’re offering and how it solves their current pain point, but they may not know more than that. Once you share your big vision with them, they’ll likely be more excited to be part of that journey and help turn the vision into reality. They’re also more likely to understand that going on that journey will require growth capital. When they’re asked to do reference calls with venture capital investors, the investors can be described as “partners to help provide the capital that will allow us to execute on our vision” (which is true for VC), not a financial lifeline.