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How to Pitch a VC: 5 Tips from 'Shark Tank'

What does it take to not only get the attention of VCs, but actually get them to invest in your business? This, of course, is a question that vexes many an entrepreneur. Sure, you can read books and articles and watch videos, but let me suggest a different path:

Watch TV.

Specifically, turn on the show "Shark Tank" on Friday nights. If you have never seen it, here's a quick recap: Entrepreneurs and inventors come before a panel of multi-millionaires and billionaires (like Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran) and pitch their businesses. If the sharks (the investors) like the idea and think it is a market-worthy product, they will offer the entrepreneur some or all of the money the person is seeking in exchange for an equity stake in the business. If they strike a deal, the shark and the entrepreneur are in business together.

It's fascinating to watch, from both perspectives. Sometimes you see entrepreneurs go up there with a dynamite idea but no clue how to execute on it. Or they have no sales or no team. Sometimes the sharks battle each other for a piece of the pie when an idea seems too big to miss such as Toygaroo, a company that rents toys to parents of young kids for a monthly fee -- sort of like Netflix for toys. Brilliant.

But for us entrepreneurs in the audience there are a lot of lessons on how, and how not, to approach and get money from a VC. Here are five:

1. Know your numbers cold and be able to back them up: How many times have I seen someone on the show come in and say they need, say, "$100,000 for a 10% stake in my company"? The sharks immediately note that that means the entrepreneur values the company at $1 million. They ask:

  • What sales do you have to back that up?
  • What assets do you have?
  • What is your profit margin?
If the entrepreneur has no proof that the business is really worth what he says it is, then it's over. Know your numbers.

2. Have some sort of secret sauce: There is no shortage of great ideas out there. What distinguishes yours? Why should a VC invest in your idea over the hundreds of others he or she sees every year? You have to offer something different and special and unique.

As one of the sharks, billionaire Kevin Harrington says, "A good business idea is a product or service that solves a problem that is not already being solved in the marketplace. The product or service should be unique enough that it's not something already readily available."

3. Have a great team: VCs love to see that you have surrounded yourself with people who can execute on the plan, and who have experience and a can-do attitude. That said, Barbara Corcoran notes, "Always choose attitude over experience. When I hire people I make a habit of never looking at their resume because most people spend most of their life in the wrong job. I never hire complainers or excuse-makers because they'll find a way within my company to do more of the same. People with a can-do attitude are a pleasure to work with."

4. Put your best foot forward: Not a few times on the show have the sharks said that they are investing in the person more than the idea. You have to come to the meeting with the VC and be impressive -- a leader, a visionary, articulate, confident, and bold, all rolled into one.

Again, Barbara Corcoran is instructive, "My most important criteria when making the decision to invest are: 1) Do I trust the individual? and 2) Do they have the fire in their belly to bring the business to the finish line?"

5. Show them the money. Investors invest to make a profit. Be able to prove that you will make them a big one.

In the end, whether you get the money or not, depends on all of these things. Harrington puts it this way: "Your presentation needs to convince potential investors and business partners that you know what you are doing, have a background in your business, and have put together a good team. It's important that you show them as little risk as possible, and convince them that they will not only get their money back, but also a high return on investment."

Flickr photo courtesy of Blyzz, CC 2.0

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