How taking the wrong funding will kill your business

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Small businesses, as the saying goes, need all of the help they can get these days. Clate Mask, CEO and cofounder at Infusionsoft, is one who helps small businesses and lends a hand. Mask is a visionary leader who took Infusionsoft from a struggling startup to an eight-time Inc. 500/5000 winner. Clate has helped this company land four rounds of venture capital, including a $55 million Series D led by Bain Capital Ventures with contributions from prior investors that included Signal Peak Ventures and Goldman Sachs.

Clate Mask has been named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, a Top 100 Small Business Influencer by Small Business Trends, one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2013 by Goldman Sachs, and Business Leader of the Year by the Arizona Technology Council. Mask also co-authored the New York Times bestseller, Conquer the Chaos: How to Grow a Successful Small Business Without Going Crazy.

But what Mask does exceedingly well is help other entrepreneurs understand how to determine and accept the right funding for their businesses as well as how to assess what type of funding may not be right for them. I was able to catch up with Mask and learn more about his continued success and how his transition to Infusionsoft has progressed:

Why did you start Infusionsoft?

Scott Martineau, the Co-Founder, and I started Infusionsoft to create a team of innovators, industry experts, tech geeks and small business zealots that were focused on our mission to help other small businesses succeed. As entrepreneurs ourselves, we understood the struggle of turning an idea into a viable business and getting the funding needed to do so.

What had to change about the product in order to get investors interested?

We knew we had a powerful piece of software that did a lot for automating sales and marketing. However, we quickly realized that we needed to streamline the implementation experience so customers could tap into that great power much more easily and shorten the time it took to start enjoying the benefits of the software. Once we really got the automation process in place, it changed interest and we knew we had something special.

What can an entrepreneur do to ensure they have something investors may want to fund?

Have a big problem to solve that involves a large segment of the market. Be prepared to go the distance with passion and tenacity to get through the barriers, especially one of the big barriers – rejection. Creating a big vision keeps you focused on what you are trying to accomplish.

What types of problems did you experience when trying to accomplish what you were creating with Infusionsoft?

The first three years essentially involved not being sure we were going to make it as a business or be able to get enough funds to even begin to have an income. We then ended up with considerable funding, raising approximately $19 million, but we still had some problems in terms of adjusting our business model. This led to our churn going sky high and that caused our business model to get screwed up. An unstable business model nearly cost us the company because we were close to using up all those funds in the process.

Did this funding nearly kill the business or was it a particular situation?

Its really a combination of things that can make you succeed, but its critical to get the right investor and right funding in the first place. Having the right funding and investor can prevent making the mistakes we did – that nearly killed our company. When we received the $19 million, it just seemed like those funds would last forever and we would be able to do whatever we wanted to with it. However, if we were to do it all again, I would say that it would help to have investors that participated more in the strategy and build-out so we could learn from their experience and be guided a bit more through the decision-making process on how the funds should be spent. We needed someone with experience with funds who would be willing to help us with the knowledge of what were essentials for purchase in a business and which items can wait. Having investors who doubled as mentors and who filled in the skills gaps really helped us to ensure we didnt waste funding.

Youve received even bigger amounts than $19 million so how did you stay grounded and use those funds wisely?

Its important never to focus on the size of the funding. Instead, only look at what you want to accomplish and then thoughtfully determine how you can get those processes done, talent hired, or company expanded on as lean a budget as possible. Stay scrappy and tell yourself you have to survive on scraps rather than assuming you are utterly successful and can spend like theres no tomorrow just because the funding is there.

Do you have other suggestions about what else is important for an entrepreneur to know about raising money?

You arent raising the money in the first place to completely change your strategy. You are looking for funding to fuel the strategy you already crafted and help accelerate the transition from idea into full-blown business. Stay focused on what you need the money for as your marker for going out and finding investors who share that same vision of what your company is intended to become.

Maintain that reality check for yourself as founders and for the talent that comes on board and hears how much money has been raised. Communicate how the funding will be spent on enacting your existing strategy and how those who join you can help achieve the company goals.

Do you have any advice on how to spot a bad investor for your company?

We learned that having common interests doesnt mean the investor is necessarily right for you. Sure, they are in your industry as well as understand and believe in what you are developing. Maybe they even have great connections to help you. However, if they dont share your common vision, its never going to be successful. This vision is about where the company is headed, how it will get there, how big your company will become, how the business plan for the company will evolve, and what will happen to plans in the future. If there are conflicting opinions on this vision, this could be the death knell, or the last tolling of the bell for the company. Make sure you know what each investors vision is for the company before taking their money.

What else can an entrepreneur look for to determine if its a good or bad investor for their company?

Do your research and study the investors that are out there and especially any investors which have shown interest in providing you with funds. You can find out what these investors or companies have invested in before and why and how they have helped other ventures, as well as how the investment operations ended up. Also consider how experienced a company is at investing in general in your industry, and in your particular solution. The company which wants to become a part of your business experience and reputation will also tell you what you can expect from the relationship. How has this investor handled previous challenges? You can even check in with other startups where your investor has supplied funds to learn more about how the experiences were for that founder. This due diligence can then provide the answer as to whether this investor is right or wrong for your company.

Entrepreneurs are taking a risk just like the investors they are pitching to because the entrepreneur is inviting someone else into their company to share in its development in exchange for a significant chunk of money that they will have to return at some point. Mask noted that, the more time you can spend doing your investor homework, the better chance you will have for finding the perfect match that takes your startup to the next level.

Peter Daisyme is the co-founder of Palo Alto, California-based Hostt, specializing in helping businesses with hosting their website for free, for life. Previously he was the co-founder of Pixloo, a company that helped people sell their homes online, which was acquired in 2012.

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