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Can't put lipstick on a pig

The Starbucks at Capital Towers brings back memories of how I was helping a company look for investors some years back.

I was sitting with a client to debrief him on the feedback from a week long investor roadshow. It was the year that Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first ever gold medal. The nation celebrated. It wasn't only a victory in the local sports scene but also a symbolic inspiration to everyone that: Dreams and ideas, no matter how small they were, could come true.

But none of the investors said ‘yes’ to those dreams in that funding round.

We had successfully assembled a string of eleven meetings within a span of 4 days, with each meeting lasting around an hour or so. It was a decent conversation on every occasion. Both sides introduced themselves, talked a bit about each other and then about the company. It was professional and well-staged, but no one would put any money in.

At Starbucks, the client stared at me point blank and said,

“Why did Joseph Schooling win?”

Erm...cos he trained hard? "No!! It was because he believed in himself!".

And he went on to talk about how a young boy born and bred in the little city unknown to most parts of the world became a global champion, likening it to his company, a champion in the making, but no one had been willing to believe in what they were doing.

“It is a no brainer! People should be lining up for this! Why aren’t investors buying our business??”

As he raised his voice and slammed the table, I stood there, wide-eyed and dumbfounded with the fact that this guy was putting the blame on me for the “lousiness” of his company. A couple of weeks later, the company put together a product demo on my suggestion and as part of a follow-up from the roadshow.

We sent memos out to the folks that had graciously sat in our meetings to inform them about the 2-hour session held in the company’s office. It was not only an opportunity to see it first hand how it worked in real life, but more importantly, a second chance for the company to prove itself. Of the 10 emails that were sent out, only two replied and eventually one showed up - largely because his office was located around the vicinity.

The session went ahead as planned anyway but the demo was unimpressive. It was almost equivalent to selling a 2000 version of Windows Professional today --- archaic, full of bugs and over-priced. Fortunately we had at least one investor on scene to watch the demo. After that, I’d stopped doing any roadshows.

That day, I learned a few things:

  • You can't put lipstick on a pig. The product is the heart of any business. A company should not go out there to raise institutional capital without being able to produce a working prototype.

  • Self-bias is a real thing. Business owners tend to be oblivious to the shortcomings of their own business. To make matters worse, most of them aren’t also open to candid feedback.

  • Most CEOs are employees i.e. they aren’t equipped / positioned to raise capital. This applies especially to start-ups. The founder of a start-up that delegates his CEO to fundraise for the company can be a huge red flag.



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