Startup Due Diligence for Investors – Best Practices & Checklists

What is Due Diligence?

‘Due diligence’ sounds awfully serious.

When it came into use in the mid-fifteenth century, it simply meant ‘reasonable care’. It became a specialised legal/business term in the 1930s when the US government passed a law to ensure that securities brokers disclosed sufficient information when selling to investors.

It is now used as a general term for the process of verifying information.

The level of due diligence required and the level of due diligence possible varies depending on the information being checked. Naturally, a high-level corporate merger would require extensive due diligence.

When it comes to investor due diligence on early-stage companies and startups, the due diligence need not be overly laborious. It is necessary but should not be daunting, even if it’s your first investment of this kind.

So, for the remainder of the post, I shall refer to it as DD. It’s less daunting that way. (And easier to type!)

Why is due diligence different for early stage companies?

Any sort of institutional or corporate investment requires sophisticated and extensive DD.

Investment institutions tend to invest in companies who are well past the proof-of-concept and early growth stages. As such, they can examine substantive data in their assessment and check its validity. They also need to check it so that they can justify the investment to their own shareholders.

It’s only when a company has achieved a certain level of tangible traction that you can reasonably run analytics on it in the hope of predicting the eventual outcome and the risks involved. The later stage the company, the more data, the more due diligence, the more predictable the outcome.

Early-stage companies accepting investment from private investors tend to have less tangible evidence available for checking because the company simply hasn’t been operating long enough. This means that the checks an angel investor carries out are mostly formulaic.

Due diligence at the level of early-stage investments is predominantly about checking the claims of the company in their documents.

This does not mean you should carry out minimal DD. Evidence suggests that investors who spend longer on DD get higher returns (UKBAA research has shown that at least 20 hours due diligence has a positive impact on the likelihood of a multiple investment return (Siding with Angels; Robert Wiltbank, Nesta-UKBAA)).

Correlation or causation, it doesn’t really matter. You should carry out thorough due diligence.

But the point is that it is not a complicated process. People making their first skirmishes into angel investments are sometimes put off by the idea of DD. They think that they don’t have sufficient experience to do it properly and as a result, they’ll be throwing away money.

They think like this because they have the expectation that their DD ought to be as rigorous and detailed as that carried out by a private equity firm, for example.

But this is an unfortunate belief. It’s naïve to think that the same level of DD should be carried out – there is not enough information on early-stage companies. Because they are early-stage!

If there was more information to check, then the investment would probably not be open to private investors. Nor would the opportunity for the huge returns possible for early-stage investors be available because the risk quotient would be so much reduced.

It’s important to remember the reasons why we choose to invest in early-stage companies:

  • We want to bring our experience and network to bear so that we have an active role in helping the company grow and succeed.
  • We want to take a calculated risk to help a team of founders we believe in to achieve something cool.
  • And in so doing, we want to make a good return on our investment.

The early stage means that we have the opportunity for all those things but, naturally, the risk is larger. Proper due diligence is your armour against this risk.

due diligence

Is there an optimum way to carry out due diligence?

DD research can be divided into six principal sections as set out in the following section.

But how should you approach them?

It’s simple enough to work systematically through each, but this can be time-consuming and, human as we are, we are all prone to mistakes and oversights.

It can make the process less burdensome and pressured if undertaken with one or more investment partners. You can divide the labour, check each other’s research and discuss to form an opinion.

If you then all decide to invest, it can make the process even more enjoyable and less pressured.

What DD should you carry out on early-stage companies?

Your DD should cover six main areas (I have written a downloadable checklist for each):

1. Team & Management

Early stage investment is often said to be in people rather businesses. This is because it’s the execution that counts…

This checklist will help you form an impression of whether you think the team has what it takes to execute.

Download checklist

2. The Business

Do you believe in the idea?

This checklist will help you work that out.

Download checklist

3. The Market

Market research is the process of finding out information about demand, trends, size and competition in the target market. It’s an important process for gauging sales volume, pricing and ultimately whether there is sufficient opportunity to develop an idea into a lucrative business. Entrepreneurs will present you with certain claims about their market – your DD should aim to verify their claims.

This checklist will help you decide whether the company has identified a viable market opportunity.

Download checklist

4. The Technology/Product (if applicable)

The team is often considered more important than the starting product. But it’s still essential to check the product is a great solution. A great team with a great product ticks a lot of boxes!

This checklist will help you assess the tech.

Download checklist

5. Finance & Tax

When entering into an investment agreement, you need to be aware of any information that may increase or decrease the risks involved. Financial DD ensures that you are aware of all the existing assets and liabilities.

This checklist will help you assess the company’s position.

Download checklist

6. Legal

It’s a good idea to send a legal enquiries check sheet to any company you are interested in. Use this template drawn up by Tony Littner at Harbottle & Lewis LLP, Jon Gill at Eversheds LLP and Sandy Finlayson at MBM Commercial LLP for the UK Business Angels Association. (If you’re looking at a company based outside the UK, it should work for you too.)

Download legal letter checklist template

Summary

These checklists are in no way exhaustive. Your DD questions will vary according to the type of business you are evaluating. But these should serve as a useful starting point. And they should indicate the level of due diligence required for these types of investments.

*Thanks to the UKBAA whose own due diligence checklists were the inspiration for this article.

How to Update Your Investors for best results

Investor Updates: Why? How? When?

What you’ll get from this post:

  • 1. Why you should update your investors
  • 2. A template for great updates
  • 3. Example updates from fast-growth companies like Sweatcoin and ScreenCloud

“We connect entrepreneurs and angel investors.”

That’s our tagline at Angel Investment Network. We’ve been doing it for 14 years so it makes sense! We help make the initial connection that results in feedback, meetings and often investment. Startups get the funding they require. Investors get access to great and diverse deal flow.

But as a result of this, most of our advice and guidance focuses on the early part of the fundraising journey: how to meet investors, how to value your idea, how to find great deal flow, how to invest etc…

This is useful (we hope!). But only as far as it goes. There’s a danger this gives the impression that the relationship between entrepreneur and investor only needs to be fostered at the very start.

This is not true, of course.

Why?

Investor = Evangelist

Any investor in your company can be an evangelist. And an important one. The best investors are not those who sit silently hoping their portfolio grows. They are the people who bring to bear all their resources to help their companies grow. But there is no guarantee they will always do this just because they invested.

It’s down to you to keep them engaged. Your updates will give them the inclination and the material to shout about you to their network.

Investor = Wise

Sure, you wanted investors for their cash. But if that was all you wanted from them, it was short-sighted. It’s a truism about angel investors that they bring more to the table than money. A good angel will have a wealth of experience in business and hopefully your sector.

But they are busy people with active interests all over the place. You’ll only get their attention if you engage them enough to deserve it.

So, let them be a light for you when all other lights go out.

Investor = Capital Mine

Some businesses only need one funding round. Some businesses go through many as part of their growth strategy. It’s not always clear which business yours will be. But it would be naive to think that you’ll never do another round.

And who are likely to be your hottest leads for later rounds?

Your existing investors of course!

They will want to avoid dilution and help the company in which they’ve invested grow. Additionally, they will want to bring on more people to invest. It’s in their interest, after all, to support the company in its growth.

That said, there’s no guarantee they will want to invest more or bring their friends on board. If you haven’t fostered the relationship and kept the excitement burning, they may want to cut their losses.

But, if you’ve kept them sweet with exciting updates, they’ll be champing at the bit to buy in and involve their network.

Finally…

It’s good business practice to update your shareholders regularly. (Once a month is optimal and what the companies in my examples below go for). Good habits breed good habits. The more you force yourself to go through the motions of running a business properly, the more ably you will run the business, until it’s second nature. And, all of a sudden, you’re a business leader.

investor update

So, how then should you update investors?

It’s quite easy really. There’s a formula you can follow each time. Just have the relevant info ready for each section and input when your update is due:

Intro:

Open with some positive statement about the exciting times the company has been going through since the last update. This should set the tone of the email.

Overview/Highlights:

Investors are almost always busy people. There is no guarantee that they will read your whole email. In this overview, give the main points you want to put across. This should give them enough info to feel enthused about you and their investment without having to read more. It also serves a secondary purpose – it should entice them to read the rest of the email!

e.g.
– Revenue is up XX%
– New Product ABC is in the final testing phases. Watch this space.
– We closed two new major partnerships with Huge Brand X & Huge Brand Y.
– Big Deal XY joined the team/board. He/she will….

Key Metrics:

Your key metrics are the figures that show your concept works. They are the essential validation on which investor confidence hangs.
These figures will differ from company to company, but your presentation of them is the same.

e.g.
We’ve seen impressive momentum across our key metrics. KPI 1 has grown XX% month-to-month. KPI 2 has grown XX% month-to-month. We are on course for a huge {insert current month}.

This information can be displayed in a graph. Hopefully, one that looks like this:

update graph

Fundraising:

If you’re raising money, give details. You may want to indicate the impressive people/funds you are in talks with; and how far advanced the talks are.

You can also include your latest deck as an attachment. And invite them to take a look. Don’t forget to engage them directly by asking for feedback or to share with any contact who may be interested.

Learnings:

Investors may also be interested in your personal growth as a management team. So, details of any findings from tests, campaigns and product launches will make interesting reading. They may also encourage investors to give advice.

Team:

If someone on the team has had a big impact, you could shout about it here. The employee will thank you for it! It also adds to the general impression of accomplishment and progress you should be conveying throughout the whole email.

a-team_logo update

Future:

What are the plans, challenges and targets for the next period? Keeping the goals of the company in front of your investors is a great way to keep them aligned with your interests. And it will demonstrate that their investment is in competent hands.

Don’t hold back from requesting advice on any of the challenges ahead. Delve into the acumen of your investors and all the while keep them engaged.

There you have it. An important task fulfilled with minimal hassle.

It’s important to note that this formula is not prescriptive. Only mention sections that are relevant. There may be sections specific to you that you want to add too.

These emails do not have to be long (more on this in the examples below). Short and sweet will suit investors. But make sure you cover the essential details so investors don’t feel shortchanged.

There is no excuse. And, as we’ve seen, the upsides are huge.

Some Real-world Example Updates

This update from Sweatcoin is a masterclass in keeping it ‘short and sweet’. No bluster. No fluff. Just hard traction. It’s easy for them because they are growing so fast (they’ve added another million users in the last month!).

(Make sure you zoom to 90% or so to read it clearly).

Click to view Sweatcoin investor update

ScreenCloud’s is a longer piece which follows our update template more closely, making good use of HTML to give clear structure. Note how they give that important overview section for those who don’t read long emails!

Click to view ScreenCloud Investor Update

It’s worth saying that both companies do a good job of creating a sense of excitement and progress. They go about it in different ways, perhaps due to time constraints and what they find manageable. The point is that the info and the impression put across in both is excellent.

N.B. All this advice works as a template for keeping prospective investors interested; and investors you never closed too – make them feel like they missed out!

That’s all for now. Hope you found this useful!