A Q&A with Raju Rishi, venture partner at Sigma Prime, one of the country’s leading venture capital firms on growing start-ups. With more than 20 years of experience as a technology entrepreneur and executive, Raju Rishi knows what it takes to develop an idea, create an early-stage company and grow it into industry-leading company. PAN Communications EVP, Mark Nardone, recently sat down with Raju to discuss all things related to the VC market. In a three-part series, Raju will address the critical steps for entrepreneurs. In part one, he discusses areas to focus or avoid.
When you evaluate a start-up for funding, what are the top 4 criteria you look for?
- People – I look first for a great team. Having subject matter expertise and/or prior startup experience is incredibly helpful. Having an undeniable passion for solving the problem is mandatory. Chemistry is so important; once we finance a company, we’re 100 percent on board. That means a good deal of time spent together, through the ups & downs. Personal chemistry is so essential; I can’t stress that enough. Life’s too short to work in the trenches with people you can’t get along with.
- Industry – I want to make sure it’s a big enough space that can benefit from the solution being developed. Big markets aren’t just important because of the amount of money being spent in the space. They also give startups the room to navigate, in case their first area of focus isn’t a perfect fit. Small markets, on the other hand, oftentimes don’t allow for even minor pivots.
- Customers/Prospects – I want to talk to the company’s customers and/or prospects and hear about the pain and the solution from their perspective. This information is invaluable to me as a venture capitalist and provides me with a gauge on the potential value of the start-up and it’s market-fit. That’s where you find out how important the product is (or could be) to them and its priority across their business. If it’s the tenth priority on the list, then it’s probably just exploratory & there’s no commitment behind it (financial or otherwise).
- Focus – One other element I examine closely is the sector the company will “live” in. Being an early stage technology investor, we’re focused on most tech sectors. We do have particular love for startups that are SaaS/cloud, mobile, B2B focused, and/or have unique disruptive technology. However, as a general rule we typically stay away from businesses requiring FDA approval because they tend to have long incubation cycles and binary outcomes.
What drives entrepreneurs to innovate and succeed?
Absolutely nothing is more invigorating than being an entrepreneur. You wake up every day on a mission to lay claim to a space, market or need. In some cases it’s a vacant space, and the rest of the market either doesn’t know how to get there or doesn’t yet realize it’s worth getting to or targeting. In other cases it’s a well occupied space, but you can re-invent it, turn it into something holistically different. Whatever the mission, if it’s meaningful, it won’t be easy.
What would be your key advice for first-time entrepreneurs?
Well, first off, an army of one rarely wins. Startups are hard. There’s way more to do in any given day than actually can be done & new obstacles/challenges seemingly appear out of nowhere. It is absolutely an exercise in triage and you need to be smart enough to get good help, advice and guidance. The more doctors (founders) you have, the more patients survive. Plus sometimes the doctors need to treat each other and keep each other motivated on the mission.
Why do so many start-ups fail early in their development?
More startups die from indigestion than starvation. It’s great to have a big vision, but growth happens in stages. Biting off too much at once can stretch a small company’s resources way too thin. Focus. Finish. Expand. That was an important lesson I learned throughout my career.
What are some critical questions entrepreneurs should ask before starting a new venture?
I’d ask myself, is the pain worth curing before starting a new company? Are you truly solving a real issue in the marketplace? If no one else is working on the problem, why? Why aren’t other companies chasing it? If there are other entrepreneurs working on this the problem, why will your idea win? Is there a lesson to be learned from other entrepreneur’s attempt to solve it? Or why did they fail? And most importantly, talk to as many people as you can and obtain knowledge: customers, subject matter experts, other entrepreneurs, and of course the VC community.
Over the course of his career, Raju has founded two companies, held executive leadership positions at both early stage and Fortune 50 companies, and served as a strategic advisor to numerous startups, two of which he helped to successfully exit. Raju held senior positions with Rave Mobile Safety, SwiftReach Networks and Vettro. He also held numerous executive roles at AT&T, and Lucent. Raju is passionate about technology, his wife & children, and helping entrepreneurs to create great businesses.