6 min read

Choosing Investors For Services Businesses

Choosing Investors For Services Businesses
Photo by Joshua Mayo / Unsplash

Services businesses are easy to start without significant capital and can grow successfully using their own profitability. Many services businesses hit a point of growth where the founder(s) believe they can grow faster and/or capture more market share with outside investment. These businesses are often too small or too young to be able to secure debt on favorable terms, so founders often look to outside investment by selling equity.

Does The Business Need Outside Investment?

Before being too eager to take on outside investment, founders need to consider whether it's really needed. If the business is already operating profitably, has shown some ability to grow organically, and has proven its ability to deliver for multiple clients, outside investment - used correctly - can help grow faster.

If the business hasn't yet figured out how to be profitable, hasn't been able to grow organically (finding new customers as well as growing revenue with existing customers), or has only had success with one or two customers (typically due to founder relationships), outside investment may not help. The danger of raising capital by selling equity in this scenario is that it can mask foundational problems in the business by artificially extending your runway while being dilutive to founders. Taking an investment in a business in such conditions means the founders have to focus on becoming profitable and proving they can sell to new customers and be very conscious of expenses.

Does The Business Want More Than Cash From An Investor?

Sometimes all the business needs is cash and raising money from a passive investor without any experience or interest in the operations of the business is sufficient. If you are looking for some experienced outside help from your a potential investor, it's important to be deliberate in your selection process. Founders need to make sure expectations are clear for the investor and the business and think about what they want from an investor.

Characteristics to Consider

It's unlikely that every business - or every investor - would be interested in every possible area of the business. While complete alignment is almost impossible, founders should make sure they're aligned with an investor on the aspects that are most important to the business' growth.

Ultimately it's the founder(s) and whoever is involved in the day-to-day management of the business who is responsible for decision-making, so both the management and investors need to be comfortable with one another. Some characteristics to consider for importance and alignment:

Experience scaling similar types of services business

It can be very helpful to have someone who has experience growing a similar type of services business. Some questions to consider asking a prospective investor:

  • What was their role in their previous business(es)?
  • How hands-on were they in the scaling process?
  • If they were "hands-on", ask detailed questions, like: What areas of the business were they involved in specifically? What are some specific examples of problems you had to solve? What did you do in those specific cases? Who else was involved? What did your team look like and what roles did other key contributors play?
  • What were some key inflection points in the growth of their business? What went well and what would you do differently?
  • What are the areas you think you can be most helpful with in scaling a business you're invested in? More importantly, what areas are you not interested in or able to help with?

Expectations of return (exit vs cash flow)

Make sure the expectations of the founder are aligned with the objectives of the business. Good questions to test alignment are:

  • Are you expecting to get a return from this business from an exit by the business selling, or from distributions from profit?
  • What's a great outcome look like for you? A good outcome? The least successful outcome you'd be happy with?
  • How long are you expecting your capital to be deployed?

How hands-on do they want to be vs what the business needs

Sometimes founders and investors are misaligned around how much they want an investor to be involved, or if there are specific boundaries around areas where the investor is (or is not) involved in the business. Founders can try to avoiding this by asking questions like:

  • If we want / need your help, how much time are you able to spend with us in a week (or month, or quarter)?
  • How do you want to engage? By phone / video or in person? One on one or with a broader portion of the company leadership?
  • Are you able to be involved periodically only when the business has a specific need or ¬†involved continuously (e.g. keeping a pulse on the business even if it's not needed)?
  • Are you willing / able to "roll up your sleeves" to work on specific, details problems with us, or are you more focused on big picture, strategic ideas?

Expectations of where they can and want to help vs the business needs

Founders may want investors to only focus on specific areas where they want help, or may want a more open-ended type of relationship. Similarly, some investors are  interested only helping in specific areas of the business while others may be looking for the intellectual stimulation of being involved in all areas of the business. You can test for alignment by asking questions like:

  • Are you willing / interested in focusing on specific areas of the business or do you want to be broadly involved in multiple aspects of the business? (e.g. finance, sales, delivery, operations, culture, etc)
  • Are you comfortable being "hands off" except in the areas / during the times when we need help?

Investors may have expectations related to the governance of the company. Founders should make sure they are aligned with a potential investor in areas like:

  • Expectations around reviews and changes needed to operating agreements or corporate bylaws
  • The frequency and detail expected in updates about the business' performance from founders / management
  • Expectations around whether there is a formal board and if the investor expects to have some formal role on the board
  • The level of control an investor or parties outside the management team can exert on the company

Some aspects of governance may be mandated by the legal structure of the business, while other structures (like LLCs) give management a lot of flexibility.

Business connections that may be helpful

Founders often want investors to help with business connections that can help in different areas of the business. Often this can be to help with sales, but it could also be to help with banking relationships, partnerships, government or regulatory agencies, or for future fundraising needs. Founders should make sure an investor is willing to leverage their connections and explore what that looks like (e.g. warm introductions, facilitating meetings, taking a meeting together, etc).

Things To Beware Of

Expectations of a salary / compensation

Occasionally investors will be looking for a formal part- or full-time role accompanied by compensation. Founders should tread very carefully in agreeing to this as it can be a difficult arrangement to reverse, it's often a significant labor expense, and it doesn't always generate the value expected.

If a founder or the business' management is considering agreeing to this, it's important to set expectations up front around:

  • Job role expectations, the same way the business would with any other hire
  • Employment is not guaranteed due to involvement as an investor - the business may need to find a different person for the role
  • Performance will be evaluated the same way for the investor as it is for any other person involved in the business in a similar role - there is no preferential treatment

Mismatched expectations in areas like growth and profitability

Investors will have an expectation of the business achieving certain performance metrics, particularly around revenue growth and/or profitability. It's important that founders are aligned and prepared to meet these expectations or else there will be significant friction in the relationship with an investor. This should be an on-going conversation with investors, not just part of the "pitch" when raising money.

Investor's abilities to generate sales

Sometimes founders are interested in bringing on an investor because of the belief they will be able to generate sales. This is often a mistake. Selling services is hard and while relationships help, it's not a given that strong professional or personal relationships between an investor and a prospect will lead to a sale.

Even a well-connected investor doing everything they can to introduce a services business to a strong connection may lead to wasted time in meetings that don't result in closing a deal. Investors are sometimes connected to people too senior in a prospect organization to actually align the services business to a commercial need. Other times, a large organization may just be too bureaucratic such that the company can't make it through the vendor management process. Founders should evaluate terms with a potential investor as if the relationship will not produce any benefit to sales.