Several months ago, Infinity Box, our company, and thus Wufoo were listed in a publication targeted at investors, angels and venture capital firms as a promising young startup. We have, unfortunately, not been able to track down the source of this recommendation (investors seem odd about keeping their sources mysterious), but what followed for us has been a series of emails and phone calls over the last few months that have come from associates of various VC firms.

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Now, our funding situation is that we took some initial seed money ($18,000) from Y Combinator and then followed that up with a small angel round ($100,000) to get us to launch. That’s all the money we’ve taken and that was all done within the first 4 months of 2006. Since then, we’ve been blessed to have Wufoo do very well out there and we’ve been able to grow our team, product, user base and profits solely off of the service’s revenues. We did not take VC money because 1) we like control and shares and 2) we just weren’t interested in getting big fast, which meant VC money seemed like overkill to us in regards to our plans for growth. So when these calls started coming in, our stance was (and still is) that we’re not interested in seeking additional funding, but we’d be happy to talk because, well, you never know.

Of course, before every one of these phone calls, we would look up the firm’s web site, we would read their history, we would look at their portfolio, we would look up the associate that we’re going to talk to (there’s always a photo and there’s always a bio) and we would even look up some of the companies their firm had invested in. If the associate we’re going to talk to had a Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin page, we would look at that too. We think of it as basic research and it’s just how we do things. It’s how we write the articles on this blog and it’s how we make all of the decisions in our company. We’re like boy scouts. We like being prepared.

Additionally, we think it’s a basic form of courtesy to show someone else a level of concerted interest, if they’re showing interest in us. This way, hopefully, time would not be wasted on posturing and excessive introductions. Unfortunately, it’s become very clear to us after every one of these exchanges (there are no exceptions I’m afraid) that these investors and associates do not do the same. All of the associates we talk to seem to have three goals in mind when they contact us:

  1. To put us into a database of companies their firm is aggregating. From what we understand, most VC firms send out an army of these associates to just gather basic research on companies, but for some reason, their flavor of choice for data collection is via a phone call rather than actually using the Internet to scrape most of the mundane stuff that they’re asking us. We’ve actually had conversations where we can hear them typing into a spreadsheet in the background as we talked to them.

  2. To regurgitate the firm’s history and mission statement from their web site. We noticed this early on and that’s why we started going over them ahead of time so we could skip it, but apparently this information must always be passed on orally to a potential company regardless of whether the company is able to finish their sentences.

  3. To let us know that they were different, that they give more than just money and that we should keep them in mind when we do decide to take on more funding. Needless to say, we find it very odd (if not funny) to hear every firm state how different they were in exactly the same way as everyone else.

Obviously, we are not against gathering research. We are not against unsolicited introductions. And we actually think the intention of the act—to start an earnest conversation or relationship with a company that appears promising is a great idea. We’d love that. But the execution of these exchanges completely baffle us. Every associate asks us the same surface questions that can easily be answered by reading a few short pages on our web site (specifically our FAQ and our About pages—they are definitely not hard to find). In fact, we’ve actually had people call us with promises of expertise and advice that’s never even created an account with Wufoo or know how we made money (that we have a freemium software-as-a-service subscription model).

Now, we understand that the typical relationship regarding a startup and a VC firm is to have the startup pitch to the VC. It is the startup’s job if they want money to convince the VC that they are worthy of investment. We also understand that the associate that’s calling us is making like a million of these calls a day. It’s probably just a job to them. We get that. We do.

However, if it’s the VC firm that initiated an unsolicited conversation and the company indicated ahead of time that it wasn’t interested in more money, and the VC firm insisted on talking anyway…well, then it’s sort of not cool to not do your homework and effectively make the company do the pitch anyway. Then we’re doing your job. Then, when you show the company how not different you are from everyone else following what is apparently the same lead, you’ve accomplished the exact opposite of what you intended: We do not think you’re different. We are not confident in your ability to establish strong relationships with companies. And we will probably not think of you when we need funding later on.

I know. That’s really harsh stuff. In fact, I’m unfortunately notorious for being rough on venture capitalists during meetings when we were based in Silicon Valley. Which is why 1) I’m not allowed to sit across from potential investors during lunch/dinner meetings so they can’t see the reactions on my face and 2) Chris, Ryan and I rotate returning these calls to VC inquiries. And so, thankfully, it’s not just me. We all feel surprised, which means these firms are probably giving the same impression to countless other companies.

What we find surprising is how every single one of these associates miss the opportunity to be a hero—to truly make an impression. Because, honestly, it’s so bad out there, that it would probably take very little to actually impress us even a little bit. All you would have to do is indicate to us that you’ve at least read the marketing materials on our web site (the thing that you want to pump money into) and tried out our service (the thing that’s potentially going to make you more money).

At least then, you’d be in a decent position to have a conversation that has give and take—maybe even provide criticism that we might find valuable. And that would be the event that would have me write down your name. The moment someone tells me, a person that’s been thinking obsessively about how to improve my company 24/7 for the last 3 years, something insightful about my business, product or future that I haven’t thought of before would be awesome. Also, bonus points would probably be given to the investor that calls us with knowledge of any of the number of articles we’ve labored over for this blog.

Anyway, the take away from all this for venture capital firms is that we’re not really complaining. I mean, technically that’s all I’ve been doing, but I also want you to know that we are definitely honored to be in a position to have VCs that want our attention. We know that’s a rare position to be in and we don’t take it lightly. Which is why we’re actually rooting for you. For that hero associate out there to get a hold of us and maybe knock our socks off with a little insight or even just some good ol’ fashioned genuine enthusiasm. For good reasons, we don’t want our time wasted. And we really do want you to accomplish your goals, which is to be remembered. You don’t have to be our biggest fan. We don’t expect that at this point, but we do think that if you’re asking us to consider handing over a percentage of our soul (a soul that we’ve cultivated with our own blood, sweat and tears) in the hopes of capitalizing on our now apparent successful trajectory, then we’d hope that you’ll at least do us the honor of reading our words and learning our craft.

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Kevin Hale

How Not to Pitch to a Startup by Kevin Hale

This entry was posted 2 years ago and was filed under Features.
Comments are currently closed.


  1. Joe · 2 years ago

    Everyone I’ve met who worked for a VC firm, and this is over a hundred people, has been, without exception, a clueless douchebag. Probably the scariest thing you could hear from a potential investor is “we don’t just give money, we offer expertise”. Not only do they not have any actual expertise, the when you don’t take their bad advice, they’ll start trying to get one of their Yes Men in as your new CEO.

    Venture Capital is a good idea, unfortunately the industry never gives good terms anymore— both in the “Advice” and the cost of their money.

    Part of the reason that they are so uniformly bad is that startups put up with them. Startups think they need them alot more than they actually do.

  2. Max Niederhofer · 2 years ago

    Hearing you loud and clear. We should have a call. :)

  3. Dennis Eusebio · 2 years ago

    Great article. Love the insight into the process and congrats on making Wufoo self sustainable.

  4. ? · 2 years ago

    Everyone needs a hug.

  5. vc associate · 2 years ago

    useful to bear in mind. thanks.

    and yes, selling is hard, and yes most firms are complacent about it. good partners are much much better at selling (themselves and their firms). good associates are too. so they’re probably doing (a bit) less cold calling. or it doesn’t feel like cold calling when it happens.

    tho worth remembering that asking you to repeat dumb stuff that’s on your website isn’t unreasonable or a sign of laziness — at least, not necessarily. pitching (again and again and again) is kind of the most important thing you’ll need to do in busienss (to employees, partners, customers, etc. etc). can you do it, do you have the patience to do it (to people a lot dumber than most vc associates), are you good at it?

    that’s what they’re asking themselves.

    can you? do you have the patience for it?


    sounds like you may not.

  6. Heekyung Kim · 2 years ago

    Wow - this is a great post. So true on some points, but you could give us associates a little more credit on some other points. :-) It is definitely very helpful to get feedback like this. Thank you.

  7. Markus Klooth · 2 years ago

    I think how wufoo did it in terms of growing slowly is the best way to do it. You learn as your business grows. And i dont think most startup’s need many million dollars from venture firms right from the beginning.

    As always great article.

  8. Sean Murphy · 2 years ago

    There is another reason why some of these calls may be made: due diligence before investing in a competitor. This would explain why VC’s ask for an explanation of things that are obvious and available on your website: they are looking for any unreported changes, and trying to get some nuance by talking to a founder.

    I like you guys and have been impressed with your sense of humor and practical approach ever since I saw you at the first Office 2.0 conference, but one thing you may not appreciate is that your success is a beacon pointing at a large and profitable market, and your lack of desire to take funding means that some other team may be using you as a proof point. Naturally a VC firm will contact you before making an investment in a competitor. I am not suggesting that it’s every call, but it’s likely to be some of them.

    I have blogged about this at least tangentially in Lighting the Way for Your Competitors. Rich Skrenta’s Spice Girls VC post addresses a different aspect of the situation:

    “I formed a theory that the process of seeking VC ended up calling your own competitors into existence. You’ll meet with many more VCs than the 1-2 who end up funding you. But after seeing a company or two get funded in your space, the VCs who passed or weren’t able to get in decide they want to have a bet in the space too. Fortunately they have the benefit of having heard your pitch and the opportunity to personally grill you at length on your approach.”
  9. Joe · 2 years ago

    Yes, indeed a great position for you guys to be in and interesting post to read!

    For me Im a bit fed up with all the talk and interest that leads nowhere. Of course this just makes us work harder!

    I cant wait til we are at the point where these fools are climbing up our legs.

  10. Shawn · 2 years ago

    Great post. You should require that all VC associates read this before you talk to them.

  11. J.T. · 2 years ago

    Coming into this as a beginner in the startup world — but one with a background in journalism — I’m frankly shocked that this is the state of the VC market out there. The basic concept, it would seem to be, is simple: if you’re going to sink a bunch of money into something, then it pays to be well-informed about it beforehand. Clearly (as you said) they just want you to do the legwork for them.

    My guess is that the average startup is so eager to get any attention at all — hey, dollar signs! Sign me up! — that they’re more than happy to do even more legwork to make that happen. Never mind that the people from whom they’re accepting said cash don’t really seem to understand or care about their product. Lip service is still around because often, it still works.

  12. Vijay · 2 years ago

    I loved the last 4 lines of the post. Sometime we should take a step back and think that how desperate the startups are that they are ready to give away part of their soul for some money (and advise), which at the end of the day may not even help.

    THANK GOD that the cost of the startups has gone down and if you are good in generating some revenue on your own then its a buyer’s market (I mean startups’s market)… and due to this situational change it should be startup who should rigorously interview VCs with no shame what-so-ever… if you want part of my soul then you better be exceptionally GOOD. period.

  13. Sanz · 2 years ago

    Just don’t talk to associates. If a partner wants to chat, that’s great. The best an associate can usually do is give your company a thumbs down. (Not to knock the associates, there are some great ones out there, it’s just the way most VC firms are structured doesn’t give them a lot of power).

  14. Mark Panay · 2 years ago

    This is a great post. I think Wufoo should be showered in respect for their approach and their handling of things.

    What a great position to be in, I was going to say “lucky”, but there’s no luck involved here just shrewd decisions and hard work.

    Our startup follows a similar principle from a business point of view - I look forward to getting Wufoo integrated into our application soon. ;)

  15. Janie Peterson · 2 years ago

    Great read, passive aggressive spur to provide insight into the laziness of most VCs. No wonder the “get” is slow and start ups are moving on.

  16. Jonathan · 2 years ago

    Just out of curiosity, how would you like someone offering marketing/writing services to pitch you? I’m not going to link to my site or anything, so I don’t seem like a spammer, but it’d be great to know what kind of pitch startups see as valuable in that area.


  17. Led Zeppelin · 2 years ago

    With little money you’ve made a big service. The best thing I love about the forms, which I use for 2 years now, is the notification to SMS and RSS.

  18. Scott · 2 years ago

    The monetization window for innovation is short on the web… how long can Wufoo make money as more free form building sites come online? Google forms, etc…

  19. SPC · 2 years ago

    Solid comments. In our company, we have been surprised by the (poor) quality of the investment analyses we have been exposed to, although from what we hear, that may be because VCs are as frozen by the conditions in the market as private equity generally has been. Moreover, their general sense is that they can get better products for lower valuations than they could have in previous years, because the need for cash is greater than ever. That only compounds their anxiety about making a poor investment, and as all start-up people know, it’s tough to be creative and helpful when you are so anxious. Another comments is that VC’s essential value-add is superior negotiating skills, not relationships - after all, they have not been thinking 24/7 about your space or business - and since the general rule is that only one investment in ten generates the returns they seek, they use that to justify the intense negotiating efforts they engage in with companies seeking their capital. Finally, VCs, like everyone else, have their own agendas, and while I admire your diligence in researching them when there is an opportunity to interact, the real question that might save you even more time is: why are they doing this? It is almost always more complicated than simply ‘looking for great companies to invest in’. Thanks for the perspective

  20. Lian Pheng · 2 years ago

    Thanks for the perspective. If you are perceiving the VC to be an elixir of life, entrepreneurs might be disappointed. Research by E&Y showed that • Late-stage venture capitalist, also termed private equity houses, recognise the importance of identifying and solving problems with portfolio companies but acknowledge that their reaction to issues is often too little too late. Intervention tends not to involve a heavy commitment on the part of the Private Equity house and predominantly involves the replacement of under performing management teams. • Private Equity houses don’t have the people with the right skills or resources to regularly respond more proactively. • The ability to supplement deal skills with appropriate management expertise will allow proactive assistance to be given to portfolio companies to add or protect value. This is likely to be a key differentiator in a challenging market place over the next decade and will give private equity houses the best opportunity to attract both capital and deal flow.

    Lian Pheng, Managing Partner, Gingko Capital ( has widely published on top-tier journals and publications on insider secrets to fund-raising from venture capitalists, entrepreneurial finance and startup valuations. See 99 Insider Secrets to Startup Financing (

  21. Timm · 2 years ago

    Everyone needs a hug.

  22. Rob Holmes · 2 years ago

    Superb post. Just started looking at wufoo and the closer I look, the more I like. It’s as much about those who run the place having their head screwed on right as the application itself in my experience. Don’t worry, I’m a customer, not a VC.

  23. vishal · 2 years ago

    Everyone needs a hug. Seems like i need to visit wufoo.

  24. 1 · 2 years ago

    Everyone needs a hug.

  25. pzg · 2 years ago

    It so cool

  26. tony · 2 years ago


  27. tony · 2 years ago