Aaron Dinin, PhD
Aaron Dinin, PhD
4 days ago
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Having Investors Sign Your NDA
Startup entrepreneurs assume what risks when pitching?
Last week I signed four NDAs.
NDA stands for non-disclosure agreement. A legal document given to someone receiving confidential information. By signing, the person pledges not to share the information for a certain time. If they do, they may be in breach of contract and face legal action.
Companies use NDAs to protect trade secrets and confidential internal information from employees and contractors. Appropriate. If you manage a huge, successful firm, you don't want your employees selling their information to your competitors. To be true, business NDAs don't always prevent corporate espionage, but they usually make employees and contractors think twice before sharing.
I understand employee and contractor NDAs, but I wasn't asked to sign one. I counsel entrepreneurs, thus the NDAs I signed last week were from startups that wanted my feedback on their concepts.
I’m not a startup investor. I give startup guidance online. Despite that, four entrepreneurs thought their company ideas were so important they wanted me to sign a generically written legal form they probably acquired from a shady, spam-filled legal templates website before we could chat.
False. One company tried to get me to sign their NDA a few days after our conversation. I gently rejected, but their tenacity encouraged me. I considered sending retroactive NDAs to everyone I've ever talked to about one of my startups in case they establish a successful company based on something I said.
Two of the other three NDAs were from nearly identical companies. Good thing I didn't sign an NDA for the first one, else they may have sued me for talking to the second one as though I control the firms people pitch me.
I wasn't talking to the fourth NDA company. Instead, I received an unsolicited email from someone who wanted comments on their fundraising pitch deck but required me to sign an NDA before sending it.
That's right, before I could read a random Internet stranger's unsolicited pitch deck, I had to sign his NDA, potentially limiting my ability to discuss what was in it.
You should understand. Advisors, mentors, investors, etc. talk to hundreds of businesses each year. They cannot manage all the companies they deal with, thus they cannot risk legal trouble by talking to someone. Well, if I signed NDAs for all the startups I spoke with, half of the 300+ articles I've written on Medium over the past several years could get me sued into the next century because I've undoubtedly addressed topics in my articles that I discussed with them.
The four NDAs I received last week are part of a recent trend of entrepreneurs sending out NDAs before meetings, despite the practical and legal issues. They act like asking someone to sign away their right to talk about all they see and hear in a day is as straightforward as asking for a glass of water.
Given this inflow of NDAs, I wanted to briefly remind entrepreneurs reading this blog about the merits and cons of requesting investors (or others in the startup ecosystem) to sign your NDA.
Benefits of having investors sign your NDA include:
None. Zero. Nothing.
Disadvantages of requesting investor NDAs:
You'll come off as an amateur who has no idea what it takes to launch a successful firm.
Investors won't trust you with their money since you appear to be a complete amateur.
Printing NDAs will be a waste of paper because no genuine entrepreneur will ever sign one.
I apologize for missing any cons. Please leave your remarks.
Aaron Dinin, PhD
23 days ago
Are You Unintentionally Creating the Second Difficult Startup Type?
Most don't understand the issue until it's too late.
My first startup was what entrepreneurs call the hardest. A two-sided marketplace.
Two-sided marketplaces are the hardest startups because founders must solve the chicken or the egg conundrum.
A two-sided marketplace needs suppliers and buyers. Without suppliers, buyers won't come. Without buyers, suppliers won't come. An empty marketplace and a founder striving to gain momentum result.
My first venture made me a struggling founder seeking to achieve traction for a two-sided marketplace. The company failed, and I vowed never to start another like it.
I didn’t. Unfortunately, my second venture was almost as hard. It failed like the second-hardest startup.
What kind of startup is the second-hardest?
The second-hardest startup, which is almost as hard to develop, is rarely discussed in the startup community. Because of this, I predict more founders fail each year trying to develop the second-toughest startup than the hardest.
Fairly, I have no proof. I see many startups, so I have enough of firsthand experience. From what I've seen, for every entrepreneur developing a two-sided marketplace, I'll meet at least 10 building this other challenging startup.
I'll describe a startup I just met with its two co-founders to explain the second hardest sort of startup and why it's so hard. They created a financial literacy software for parents of high schoolers.
The issue appears plausible. Children struggle with money. Parents must teach financial responsibility. Problems?
Buyers and users are different.
The financial literacy app I described above targets parents. The parent doesn't utilize the app. Child is end-user. That may not seem like much, but it makes customer and user acquisition and onboarding difficult for founders.
The difficulty of a buyer-user imbalance
The company developing a product faces a substantial operational burden when the buyer and end customer are different. Consider classic firms where the buyer is the end user to appreciate that responsibility.
Entrepreneurs selling directly to end users must educate them about the product's benefits and use. Each demands a lot of time, effort, and resources.
Imagine selling a financial literacy app where the buyer and user are different. To make the first sale, the entrepreneur must establish all the items I mentioned above. After selling, the entrepreneur must supply a fresh set of resources to teach, educate, or train end-users.
Thus, a startup with a buyer-user mismatch must market, sell, and train two organizations at once, requiring twice the work with the same resources.
The second hardest startup is hard for reasons other than the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. It takes a lot of creativity and luck to solve the chicken-or-egg conundrum.
The buyer-user mismatch problem cannot be overcome by innovation or luck. Buyer-user mismatches must be solved by force. Simply said, when a product buyer is different from an end-user, founders have a lot more work. If they can't work extra, their companies fail.
Aaron Dinin, PhD
3 months ago
There Are Two Types of Entrepreneurs in the World Make sure you are aware of your type!
Know why it's important.
The entrepreneur I was meeting with said, "I should be doing crypto, or maybe AI? Aren't those the hot spots? I should look there for a startup idea.”
I shook my head. Yes, they're exciting, but that doesn't mean they're best for you and your business.
“There are different types of entrepreneurs?” he asked.
I said "obviously." Two types, actually. Knowing what type of entrepreneur you are helps you build the right startup.
The two types of businesspeople
The best way for me to describe the two types of entrepreneurs is to start by telling you exactly the kinds of entrepreneurial opportunities I never get excited about: future opportunities.
In the early 1990s, my older brother showed me the World Wide Web and urged me to use it. Unimpressed, I returned to my Super Nintendo.
My roommate tried to get me to join Facebook as a senior in college. I remember thinking, This is dumb. Who'll use it?
In 2011, my best friend tried to convince me to buy bitcoin and I laughed.
Heck, a couple of years ago I had to buy a new car, and I never even considered buying something that didn’t require fossilized dinosaur bones.
I'm no visionary. I don't anticipate the future. I focus on the present.
This tendency makes me a problem-solving entrepreneur. I identify entrepreneurial opportunities by spotting flaws and/or inefficiencies in the world and devising solutions.
There are other ways to find business opportunities. Visionary entrepreneurs also exist. I don't mean visionary in the hyperbolic sense that implies world-changing impact. I mean visionary as an entrepreneur who identifies future technological shifts that will change how people work and live and create new markets.
Problem-solving and visionary entrepreneurs are equally good. But the two approaches to building companies are very different. Knowing the type of entrepreneur you are will help you build a startup that fits your worldview.
What is the distinction?
Let's use some simple hypotheticals to compare problem-solving and visionary entrepreneurship.
Imagine a city office building without nearby restaurants. Those office workers love to eat. Sometimes they'd rather eat out than pack a lunch. As an entrepreneur, you can solve the lack of nearby restaurants. You'd open a restaurant near that office, say a pizza parlor, and get customers because you solved the lack of nearby restaurants. Problem-solving entrepreneurship.
Imagine a new office building in a developing area with no residents or workers. In this scenario, a large office building is coming. The workers will need to eat then. As a visionary entrepreneur, you're excited about the new market and decide to open a pizzeria near the construction to meet demand.
Both possibilities involve the same product. You opened a pizzeria. How you launched that pizza restaurant and what will affect its success are different.
Why is the distinction important?
Let's say you opened a pizzeria near an office. You'll probably get customers. Because people are nearby and demand isn't being met, someone from a nearby building will stop in within the first few days of your pizzeria's grand opening. This makes solving the problem relatively risk-free. You'll get customers unless you're a fool.
The market you're targeting existed before you entered it, so you're not guaranteed success. This means people in that market solved the lack of nearby restaurants. Those office workers are used to bringing their own lunches. Why should your restaurant change their habits? Even when they eat out, they're used to traveling far. They've likely developed pizza preferences.
To be successful with your problem-solving startup, you must convince consumers to change their behavior, which is difficult.
Unlike opening a pizza restaurant near a construction site. Once the building opens, workers won't have many preferences or standardized food-getting practices. Your pizza restaurant can become the incumbent quickly. You'll be the first restaurant in the area, so you'll gain a devoted following that makes your food a routine.
Great, right? It's easier than changing people's behavior. The benefit comes with a risk. Opening a pizza restaurant near a construction site increases future risk. What if builders run out of money? No one moves in? What if the building's occupants are the National Association of Pizza Haters? Then you've opened a pizza restaurant next to pizza haters.
Which kind of businessperson are you?
This isn't to say one type of entrepreneur is better than another. Each type of entrepreneurship requires different skills.
As my simple examples show, a problem-solving entrepreneur must operate in markets with established behaviors and habits. To be successful, you must be able to teach a market a new way of doing things.
Conversely, the challenge of being a visionary entrepreneur is that you have to be good at predicting the future and getting in front of that future before other people.
Both are difficult in different ways. So, smart entrepreneurs don't just chase opportunities. Smart entrepreneurs pursue opportunities that match their skill sets.
Aaron Dinin, PhD
5 months ago
I'll Never Forget the Day a Venture Capitalist Made Me Feel Like a Dunce
Are you an idiot at fundraising?
Humans undervalue what they don't grasp. Consider NASCAR. How is that a sport? ask uneducated observers. Circular traffic. Driving near a car's physical limits is different from daily driving. When driving at 200 mph, seemingly simple things like changing gas weight or asphalt temperature might be life-or-death.
Venture investors do something similar in entrepreneurship. Most entrepreneurs don't realize how complex venture finance is.
In my early startup days, I didn't comprehend venture capital's intricacy. I thought VCs were rich folks looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg. I was meant to be a sleek, enthusiastic young entrepreneur who could razzle-dazzle investors.
Finally, one of the VCs I was trying to woo set me straight. He insulted me.
How I learned that I was approaching the wrong investor
I was constructing a consumer-facing, pre-revenue marketplace firm. I looked for investors in my old university's alumni database. My city had one. After some research, I learned he was a partner at a growth-stage, energy-focused VC company with billions under management.
Billions? I thought. Surely he can write a million-dollar cheque. He'd hardly notice.
I emailed the VC about our shared alumni status, explaining that I was building a startup in the area and wanted advice. When he agreed to meet the next week, I prepared my pitch deck.
The meeting seemed like a funding request. Imagine the awkwardness.
His assistant walked me to the firm's conference room and told me her boss was running late. While waiting, I prepared my pitch. I connected my computer to the projector, queued up my PowerPoint slides, and waited for the VC.
He didn't say hello or apologize when he entered a few minutes later. What are you doing?
Hi! I said, Confused but confident. Dinin Aaron. My startup's pitch.
Who? Suspicious, he replied. Your email says otherwise. You wanted help.
I said, "Isn't that a euphemism for contacting investors?" Fundraising I figured I should pitch you.
As he sat down, he smiled and said, "Put away your computer." You need to study venture capital.
Recognizing the business aspects of venture capital
The VC taught me venture capital in an hour. Young entrepreneur me needed this lesson. I assume you need it, so I'm sharing it.
Most people view venture money from an entrepreneur's perspective, he said. They envision a world where venture capital serves entrepreneurs and startups.
As my VC indicated, VCs perceive their work differently. Venture investors don't serve entrepreneurs. Instead, they run businesses. Their product doesn't look like most products. Instead, the VCs you're proposing have recognized an undervalued market segment. By investing in undervalued companies, they hope to profit. It's their investment thesis.
Your company doesn't fit my investment thesis, the venture capitalist told me. Your pitch won't beat my investing theory. I invest in multimillion-dollar clean energy companies. Asking me to invest in you is like ordering a breakfast burrito at a fancy steakhouse. They could, but why? They don't do that.
Yeah, I’m not a fine steak yet, I laughed, feeling like a fool for pitching a growth-stage VC used to looking at energy businesses with millions in revenues on my pre-revenue, consumer startup.
He stressed that it's not necessary. There are investors targeting your company. Not me. Find investors and pitch them.
Remember this when fundraising. Your investors aren't philanthropists who want to help entrepreneurs realize their company goals. Venture capital is a sophisticated investment strategy, and VC firm managers are industry experts. They're looking for companies that meet their investment criteria. As a young entrepreneur, I didn't grasp this, which is why I struggled to raise money. In retrospect, I probably seemed like an idiot. Hopefully, you won't after reading this.
Aaron Dinin, PhD
5 months ago
I put my faith in a billionaire, and he destroyed my business.
How did his money blind me?
Like most fledgling entrepreneurs, I wanted a mentor. I met as many nearby folks with "entrepreneur" in their LinkedIn biographies for coffee.
These meetings taught me a lot, and I'd suggest them to any new creator. Attention! Meeting with many experienced entrepreneurs means getting contradictory advice. One entrepreneur will tell you to do X, then the next one you talk to may tell you to do Y, which are sometimes opposites. You'll have to chose which suggestion to take after the chats.
I experienced this. Same afternoon, I had two coffee meetings with experienced entrepreneurs. The first meeting was with a billionaire entrepreneur who took his company public.
I met him in a swanky hotel lobby and ordered a drink I didn't pay for. As a fledgling entrepreneur, money was scarce.
During the meeting, I demoed the software I'd built, he liked it, and we spent the hour discussing what features would make it a success. By the end of the meeting, he requested I include a killer feature we both agreed would attract buyers. The feature was complex and would require some time. The billionaire I was sipping coffee with in a beautiful hotel lobby insisted people would love it, and that got me enthusiastic.
The second meeting was with a young entrepreneur who had recently raised a small amount of investment and looked as eager to pitch me as I was to pitch him. I forgot his name. I mostly recall meeting him in a filthy coffee shop in a bad section of town and buying his pricey cappuccino. Water for me.
After his pitch, I demoed my app. When I was done, he barely noticed. He questioned my customer acquisition plan. Who was my client? What did they offer? What was my plan? Etc. No decent answers.
After our meeting, he insisted I spend more time learning my market and selling. He ignored my questions about features. Don't worry about features, he said. Customers will request features. First, find them.
Putting your faith in results over relevance
Problems plagued my afternoon. I met with two entrepreneurs who gave me differing advice about how to proceed, and I had to decide which to pursue. I couldn't decide.
Ultimately, I followed the advice of the billionaire.
Who wouldn’t? That was the guy who clearly knew more.
A few months later, I constructed the feature the billionaire said people would line up for.
The new feature was unpopular. I couldn't even get the billionaire to answer an email showing him what I'd done. He disappeared.
Within a few months, I shut down the company, wasting all the time and effort I'd invested into constructing the killer feature the billionaire said I required.
Would follow the struggling entrepreneur's advice have saved my company? It would have saved me time in retrospect. Potential consumers would have told me they didn't want what I was producing, and I could have shut down the company sooner or built something they did want. Both outcomes would have been better.
Now I know, but not then. I favored achievement above relevance.
Success vs. relevance
The millionaire gave me advice on building a large, successful public firm. A successful public firm is different from a startup. Priorities change in the last phase of business building, which few entrepreneurs reach. He gave wonderful advice to founders trying to double their stock values in two years, but it wasn't beneficial for me.
The other failing entrepreneur had relevant, recent experience. He'd recently been in my shoes. We still had lots of problems. He may not have achieved huge success, but he had valuable advice on how to pass the closest hurdle.
The money blinded me at the moment. Not alone So much of company success is defined by money valuations, fundraising, exits, etc., so entrepreneurs easily fall into this trap. Money chatter obscures the value of knowledge.
Don't base startup advice on a person's income. Focus on what and when the person has learned. Relevance to you and your goals is more important than a person's accomplishments when considering advice.