Selecting the Top Angel Deals in the Northeast… on Google Sheets

I am told that the angel groups of the Northeast have one of the best systems for syndicating deals in the country. There are many parts to making that happen. I have the privilege of running the nomination, application, and selection processes.

The process is efficient and fair and might be helpful to other angel groups, or to other groups who see a lot of applications from people seeking money (accelerators, foundations, government agencies, etc). And… no coders or high-tech talent required, we do it all with free/cheap tools we can easily modify to meet our needs!

None of what I am sharing would be possible without the contributions of the staff of the Angel Capital Association (ACA) and the participation of so many angel investors.

Process Overview

  1. Set the timetable
    1. The ACA selects a date for the regional event.
    2. 7 days before the event we announce which teams are presenting.
    3. 14 days before the event applications from entrepreneurs are due.
  2. Call for nominations
    1. Keep a canonical list – If you don’t have a canonical list, you are going to miss people. The Angel Capital Association maintains a Google Groups mailing list containing the leaders of all angel groups in the region and anyone who has served as a deal lead for a previously-nominated deal.
    2. People forget, so remind them – We send out “call for nominations” emails (and reminders) to the mailing list and personalized versions to each member of that mailing list 1 day before the deadline, 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, and 30 days. To keep it from being annoying we use features of MixMax so that anyone that writes me back doesn’t get follow-on reminders.
    3. Make it easy – Most angel investors do this as a hobby, so you need to make it easy for them. We, therefore, pack all the info they really need into the “call for nominations” email. Furthermore, the only things they have to do are:
      1. Forward that same email to the CEO of the company they want to nominate.
      2. Email the CEO a short endorsement blurb.
    4. Put the work in the hands of the people motivated to get it done – You’ll note in the prior step almost all the work is done by the startup CEOs. They are very motivated to get things done, done right, and on time. Even the email is very short so the deal leads can read it quickly and pass it on. Then the entrepreneurs click the link embedded in the email to get a full page of detailed instructions.
    5. Here is what one of our “call for nomination” emails looks like
      1. Subject: Paul, nominate deals by 3/15 for next ACA NE Syndication Meeting

        Request:

        1. Nominate deals by 3/15 @ 11:59pm for the upcoming ACA NE Syndication Summit by
          1. Forwarding this link (http://goo.gl/d4wgm) to deal CEOs.
          2. Sending the CEO a < 5000 character summary of your investment thesis (CEOs include it when they fill in the application form).
        2. Help select presenters by reviewing the best companies in the region. Sign up via this form to join the selection committee.

         

        Background:

        1. Nomination Requirements:
          1. Your group will champion the deal and serve as the central coordinator for follow-on due diligence efforts.
          2. Deals in due diligence or in term-sheet negotiation are certainly welcome. That said, preference will be shown to deals that at least have a term sheet from the champion angel group.
        2. Deal leads are strongly encouraged to serve on the Selection Committee so we can learn more about the company you are nominating. Time commitment is about 2 hours to read deals and 45 minutes for a con call. Please note that we have a simple and effective ranking system that removes conflict-of-interest issues while allowing us access to the personal knowledge of the deal leads. Sign up to help select presenters via this form.

        If there are any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

    6. Provide clear instructions for entrepreneurs – This is obvious, but most of us goof it up anyway. We certainly did for years and are always striving to be clearer and more respectful of the entrepreneurs’ time. The “call for nominations” email features a link for the CEOs to click where they find all of their instructions.
  3. Collect applications – We collect applications via a google form. We configure the setting so that applicants get a receipt and have permission to edit their entry after submission. This turns out to be a gigantic time-saver, stress reducer and increases quality. Otherwise, you have panicking CEOs and/or deal leads calling and emailing you at all hours!
  4. Create packet – We have our google form dump its data into a google sheet (see a sample with dummy data here). Then by applying filters, some spiffy conditional formatting, and hiding some columns, we can have it display only applications that are for the current period.
  5. Send packet – This packet is sent to the mailing list so that the startups have maximum exposure to the investor community and to set the stage for voting.
  6. Selection – This is done in two rounds.
    1. Round 1
      1. Ask everyone – You want to leverage the wisdom of crowds by getting lots of smart people to independently assess the startups. So we ask all members of the mailing list, as well as all angels who nominated a deal this time around, to cast votes. The requirements are that they review all applicants and vote on all of them.
      2. Collect the votes – Angels are not asked to rate companies by how much they “like” the company. Instead, we ask them to predict how successful the company will be at raising money thanks to the event. The difference is subtle, but it is important. See the 1st round voting form (w/ dummy data). Angels have a set deadline to cast their votes.
      3. Normalize the data – Some people score generously. Some people score harshly. We adjust everyone’s scores so that each angel’s scores add up to 100 points.
      4. Adjust for conflicts of interest – We want people who are invested in one of the nominees to vote. But obviously, they are biased in favor of their nominees. To mitigate this we…
        1. Don’t let angels score companies they have a conflict of interest with (equating to an initial score of zero). As this would hurt their nominee, we then…
        2. Replace the 0 scores with the average score the other angels gave the company. In this way, an angel does not help or hurt their nominee.
        3. As each angel’s scores added up to 100 before, because of step 2 we’ve just increased their total contribution. So…
        4. We decrease the angel’s other scores proportionally to bring their total score back down to 100.
        5. You can see all the gory math here.
      5. Schedule the video conference for the 2nd round.
      6. Publish results of 1st round – The mailing list and everyone who signed up to be on the 2nd round video conference get an email that looks something like this…
        1. Subject: ACA NE selection, 1st round voting results [confidential]

          CONFIDENTIAL – DO NOT REDISTRIBUTE

          Okay, legal stuff out of the way, happy day all! Here are the results of the first round of voting. We’ll use this to inform our conversation later today <date/time/link info>

          1st round voting results DEMO DATA

          * Z Score: # standard deviations above or below the mean score. AKA how much better or worse is this company than the average company in the packet. Note that scores have been adjusted for conflict of interest.
          * Drop: # of standard deviations this company is below the next highest ranked company. AKA, how much “worse” is this company than the previous company.

          My initial recommendation is:
          * Accept the top 7 ranked companies.
          * We debate who the remaining 3 slots go to, accepting arguments from the next 5 highest-ranked teams. If there is a champion for any of the other companies, they will get a spot to advocate for the company.
          * I shoot everyone a poll to cast a 2nd round vote for who should get the remaining slots.

          Details:
          You can see the gory details on this google sheet. Most relevant tabs are: “Summary”, “Chart of Scores”, and “Chart of Dropoff in Score”

    2. 2nd round – Goal is to allocate 8-12 presentation slots
      1. Save Time – The purpose of the first round is to save time for the 2nd round. We’ve all been in deal selection meetings that go on forever and aren’t even all that effective. When you see a chart like the one above, it makes the argument faster. The top-rated companies just get in, no debate needed. The bottom companies don’t get in for much the same reason. You can then focus the time on giving away the final 1-3 slots to the much smaller set of companies in the middle.
      2. Debate – advocates for the companies in the middle get to speak for 1-2 minutes. Allow a few minutes for Q&A. Move on to the next company.
      3. Final Vote – Using this free tool I create a ranked-choice voting poll while everyone is debating. When the debate is over I publish the voting link to the chat in the video conf and give everyone 5 minutes to cast their votes. As it is ranked-choice voting, the final selections are ones that have majority support, which is awfully helpful. I present my screen and show people the poll results, I also email them to the participants so everyone has an audit trail of the voting.
  7. Wrap up
    1. Startups (and their nominating angels) that did not get in receive a polite note letting them know. They also get copies of the feedback provided in the 1st round voting form so we can help them learn from failed bid to present.
    2. Startups (and their nominating angels) that got spots receive an email with a link to a google doc with detailed instructions on everything they need to maximize their odds of success.
    3. The list of nominating companies is announced to the Google Group mailing list.

 

 

Angel Syndication: Best practices

  • Build relationships – Find reasons to check-in with regional angel group leaders regularly so you can form the relationships critical to making deals succeed.
  • Syndicate early – If you need other angels to get to critical mass of domain expertise or money, then get other angel groups involved when your own group is in the preliminary due diligence, or post-presentation due diligence stage.  Don’t wait until you’ve already got everything done.  Wait too long and they’ll feel like they have no ownership of the deal.
  • 1 DD team – Unite ALL interested investors from all groups onto one due diligence team, all sharing one set of tools (in our case we all used AngelSoft’s Co-invest feature to make sure everyone was on the same mailing lists and looking at the same documentation).
  • Go into the summit strong – Ensure you have your champions (from multiple angel groups) in place and ready to attend the summit. Ensure the entrepreneurs are fully informed on the process, what it will take, and the benefit to them.  Don’t have a regional summit?  Here is a template for one.
  • Clear roles – With a due diligence team composed of dozens of angels from a half-dozen groups – it is easy for the process to grind to a halt.  It is critical to have one person responsible for keeping communication lines open and the process moving forward.  This is distinct from negotiation or due diligence – those areas of expertise might lie in the same person or might now… but it is unwise to assume that just because someone is good at negotiation they can facilitate the syndicate, or vice versa.
  • Wrap it up in a bow – If all you need is money, be sure you’ve wrapped all the details of the deal into a nice package that is easy to share:  due diligence notes, negotiated term sheet (that follows industry norms), etc.  Invite everyone in to negotiate terms can be quite messy and should only be done with care.
  • Keep the momentum going – Meetings need to keep happening on a fairly regular and frequent timetable (every 2-3 weeks).  This means you’ll lose some people for any given call, but so long as all the KEY people are on the major calls, momentum can continue to build.
  • Include the Treaty – Include this doc in your legal documentation all investors sign.

Angel Syndication: Reasons for syndication

Sometimes you find a deal you like, you WANT to invest in, but no one in your group really understands the space.  Normally, that means the deal gets declined.  But if you have a network of contacts at other angel groups you have a chance of finding the expertise you need.  And when you do, you not only get that other group’s angel’s experience & money, he or she can bring in angels from THEIR group as well.

If your group has all the expertise and money needed to pull off a deal, there is little incentive (beyond diversification of risk) to syndicate.  However, every angel group I’ve spoken to is looking for more money and more domain expertise to help them get deals done.  Bringing in more angels and more GROUPS of angels gives your portfolio company a deeper bench of investors to tap when follow-on rounds, strategic challenges, and exit negotiations come around.

From the entrepreneur’s perspective: There is a *small* possibility of collusion to beat up on the entrepreneur – but not much of one.  If the groups each lack enough $$ and expertise to pull off a deal, then the options for the entrepreneur are “syndicate or no $$.”  If there is plenty of expertise and money to go around, then by syndicating the angels are diluting their own interest in the company – they could probably get a better deal by working the deal alone and keeping it all for themselves.

Angel Syndication: Regional summit template

A centerpiece of Greater New England’s success in syndication is our thrice-yearly Syndication Summits.  The events attract angels from most of the groups in the region and have a simple structure:

  1. Networking
  2. Kickoff speaker (20 min)
  3. Presentations (1o min each, with 1 min intros by sponsoring angel group) from 2-3 deals sponsored by at least one angel group and that ideally have negotiated term sheets in place.
  4. Breakout sessions (45 min ) – Each presenter gets a room.  Angels pick a room and Q&A with the company and its sponsoring  angel group(s).
  5. Lunch, w/ speaker (30 minutes)
  6. Presentations from 2-3 more deals (10 & 1 per deal)
  7. Breakout sessions (45 minutes)
  8. Adjourn main meeting
  9. Angel group leaders meet in person to do a quick postmortem, set priorities for next summit, and discuss matters of regional importance.
The presenters must go through a selection process similar what we all do within our groups.  Angel groups nominate deals for the summit.  A volunteer screening committee evaluates the nominees and selects the best to present.  We use AngelSoft to standardize the process.
Anyone interested in logistical specifics, let me know.

Angel Syndication: The “Treaty”

Problem: Imagine you shared your due diligence and then some years down the road the deal fails (half of them do after all).  You get a call from one of the newbie angels who was clearly relying heavily on your experience… and he wants to sue you for giving him bad advice!  Will you ever syndicate a deal again?

If we can’t find a way to get past the threat of litigation, then no one in their right minds will share their due diligence.  Without shared due diligence, deal syndication becomes nearly impossible.

Solution WITHIN angel groups: Within an angel group there are usually strong interpersonal bonds between members.  Members often live in the same geography and belong to the same social networks.  Suing a fellow group member because a deal goes bad is a great way to become an outcast in one’s own social networks.  Not surprisingly, this isn’t really an issue within angel groups.  Likewise in regions where strong bonds form between angel groups, this issue is less relevant.

Solution BETWEEN angel groups: Ensure the deal documentation that all investors sign includes a copy of The Treaty.  The Treaty basically boils down to  “I won’t sue you for sharing your due diligence.”  That simple.  Yet it is amazing how it changes the atmosphere.

I personally know angel group managers who regretted syndicating deals WITHOUT The Treaty.  They always include it now.  Your group may want to adopt the practice.

Angel Syndication: Building relationships, it’s all about karma!

Each angel group has its own unique processes, personalities, and traditions.  So at first blush you would think getting two or more angel groups to collaborate on a deal is nearly impossible!  Luckily the problems, and solutions, are  the same for syndicating individual angels and groups of angels.

In Greater New England we have created a series of events that build the excellent syndication environment we now enjoy.

  1. Short monthly conference calls (45 minutes) of angel group leaders.  A few important things happen on these calls.
    • We use organizing regional in-person syndication meetings as the excuse to get together.  Having a common, recurring task gives us something to work on together.  Doing so builds us group-leader to group-leader relationships.
    • We discuss 1-2 topics of mutual interest, usually sharing of best practices.
    • We also share quick “pitches” of deals we are trying to get help with.  “I have a medical device startup with a spinal implant.  We’re impressed with the team but need to chat with someone with domain expertise.”  If a manager on the call can help they “raise their hand.”  The Asker follows up with the Hand Raiser offline. The Asker appreciates the help and the Hand Raiser gains social capital.  If the Asker treats the Hand Raiser’s contact with respect, and especially if they return the favor, social capital is earned in return.
  2. Thrice-yearly in-person syndication meetings.  These meetings are fairly short, 1/2-3/4 of a day.
    • The agenda is dominated by entrepreneur presentations and breakout sessions.  The presenters are all deals backed by at least one angel group, almost always walking in th door with a signed term sheet.
    • A minority of time is allocated to 1-2 guest speakers.  These speakers help communicate best practices so as to help get angels from many different groups to start using similar processes and norms on terms.
The calls build relationships primarily between leaders and percolate best practices from the top down.  The in-person meetings use exciting deals as the draw to bring leaders AND angels from our groups together.  Now we start self organizing based on which DEALS we like instead of which GROUP we are from.  And so inter-group, angel-to-angel relationships start to form, allowing bottom-up change.  The relatively high frequency of these meetings is key to allowing enough interactions for the relationships to gain momentum.
Do that over and over, and the magic starts to happen :).

Angel Syndication: Avoid the “angel death march”

Securing investment from one herd of cats (AKA an angel group) is hard enough. Trying to get herds of herds of cats (a syndicate) to all meow on key can be… exponentially tougher.  Five years ago entrepreneurs in Greater New England often found themselves on something James Geshwiler of Common Angels called the “Angel Death March.”  Pitch to group A in January, start due diligence, pitch to group B in March, group C in April, Group D in may… the CEO has to support SEPARATE due diligence process for EACH angel group… and then we start to notice “Gee, this deal has been around for a long time… I wonder what is wrong with it?”

This does not add value for the entrepreneur, nor for the angels.

In fact, this would be as silly as having a company pitch to Member A in your group, then Member B, then Member C… and support separate due diligence efforts with each person.  That is obviously foolish.  We form angel networks precisely to solve these problems of coordination and collaboration.  Syndicating multiple angel groups has the same dynamic.  The solution we created for individual angels serves as a useful template for the larger scale problem as well.

So be a good angel, don’t send your hopeful, cash-strapped entrepreneurs on an Angel Death March.