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Friends, Family and Fools: the worst investors

"If you're struggling to raise investment from angel investors, the next fallback is FFF funding - Friends, Family and Fools. You can always raise a few tens of thousands of pounds from this source no matter how early you are."

The above is a fairly standard bit of startup wisdom, dished out to all and sundry. It seems pretty sensible on the surface. If your idea is any good, if you're a smart person who can convince others that you'll do well, it ought to be possible to convince someone, anyone, to invest a few tens of thousands of pounds to help get you started.

And since your idea is really good and you are a brilliant new entrepreneur, this may be the best investment decision that those people make in their life. It could be their chance to become rich, piggy-backing on your hard work - but you don't mind that, after all, they're friends and family. And fools, but we'll leave those to later.

Yonder dark clouds

Unfortunately, it's a huge understatement to say that when it comes to startups, things don't always go as planned. In fact, as a first-time entrepreneur, there's a very high chance that your business will go tits-up. Entrepreneurship is a career, you see, and you're just taking your first steps up that ladder. You have no idea what you're doing, even if you wake up every day filled with the confidence to take on the world.

There are ways to decrease that risk, of course. Seeking revenues right away… Keeping costs low… Getting advice from experienced mentors… All those things will help reduce the risk of your first business, but still, chances are against you.

That's alright, in a way, because as long as you don't do anything really stupid and, for example, triple-mortgage your family house to fund your first business, you'll survive the demise of your first venture, and be in a position to take another, better swing at the magical piñata of startup success.

This is where FFF funding screws you over, though.

When can I have that money back?

You see, if you take investment from professional investors, or even other entrepreneurs, they know that it's risky. They know that there's a fair chance you'll screw up and lose the money. Of course, they want to convince themselves that you're different, but professional investors only invest money they can afford to lose, so if they do lose it, they won't cry a river over it. They'll draw a line and move on to the next thing - perhaps even invest in your next venture, who knows. Investors are, largely, rational beings who understand risk.

Friends and Family? Not so much. Friends and Family will often get very upset when they find out you lost their money. You might find yourself highly embarrassed as the story of how you pissed away £20k of Uncle George's retirement funds makes the rounds over, and over, and over again for the next two decades. Not only that, but since they're your friends and your family, you may well feel somewhat obligated to repay the money somehow, sometime, once you've made some more money. It's like a lifelong debt that you can never truly shrug off, unless you're the sort of ungrateful git who probably wouldn't be invited to family reunions anyway.

Friends and Family investments are like the reverse of a convertible note. If everything goes well, they remain an expensive, low-valuation share investment. If things go badly, they turn into a loan securitised by that most valuable of assets: your personal relationships.

One would do well to stay away from such dangerously sharp-edged financial instruments.

Fools

Who's the greater fool? The fool who invests or the fool who takes the fool's money?

"Fool" investment basically means taking investment from people who are not friends or family, and who are also not professional investors or entrepreneurs of any sort. In short, they know nothing about startups, but they buy your sweet talk and decide to invest their hard-earned cash anyway.

The problem with this sort of investment is similar but different to the Friends and Family sort. Fools will not impose an eternal personal debt on you. However, experience shows that when the business turns south, they too will suddenly consider that the money invested should now be withdrawn from the business as soon as possible, and remain deaf and dumb to your declaration that the money has been spent and cannot be recovered.

Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour seems to be the rule rather than the exception. In the midst of a startup failure, which is a depressing enough event to begin with, Fools will drag you down and drag it all out endlessly, until you finally break all communications with them, under unpleasant circumstances.

Whilst a Friends & Family investment is likely to turn into a lifelong debt, a Fool investment will probably turn into a lifelong enemy, someone who will curse you under their breath every time they think of you and all the money you lost them.

Who should you take investment from, then?

There are only two categories of people that I'd consider taking investment from - and this is true at any stage of any business.

The first is professional investors, in which I include people who make regular angel investments, as well as wealthy people who have invested in things that lost them a big chunk of cash before, and who therefore will be fairly rational about the whole process.

The second category is other entrepreneurs, particularly those who have both failed and succeeded, as they know what it takes, they know it's very hard, and they know that if the business is going down the drain, the best thing to do is to let it.

Another key point about investments is you should only ever take money from someone who can afford to lose it. If my advice above falls on deaf ears, at least never take money from someone who simply can't afford the failure. Be very careful about that: you don't want someone's personal ruin on your conscience.

It's worth noting that with the recent advent of SEIS in the UK, investment by both professional investors and successful entrepreneurs is now much less risky than it used to be.

As I hope I've made the case above, taking investment from other types of investors, in particular FFF investors, will only result in trouble and pain further down the line, if the business doesn't succeed as easily as you might have expected.

If you can't raise the investment you need from proper investors, and you find yourself thinking of resorting to FFFs, I suggest you instead consider the idea to be out of your reach. It's better to work on another idea than to end up with the sort of nightmarish scenario that is all too common near the end of an FFF-funded startup.


More from the library:
Product vs Business vs Company
Focus on the power users
To raise or not to raise
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