Money minds

Intuition or analysis: Here's what venture capital investors are looking for in startups

Are investors making decisions based on their gut feeling or by the numbers? Getty images

Conventional wisdom tells us people reside on a spectrum, having a natural tendency to process information in one of two ways. Those on one end of the spectrum process new information with their faculties of intuition, or gut feel; those on the other with their faculties of analysis, or logical reasoning. A fundamental understanding of this framework is valuable in the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital.

If you unravel the personal accounts of well-known entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg or some of the great venture capital investors like Ben Horowitz or John Doerr, you are likely to encounter the co-founder and long-time boss of Intel, Andy Grove. Many have gone so far as to say that Grove is the person most responsible for creating the Silicon Valley — and in effect the Silicon Valley ethos — that drives American startup culture today.

"The question of gut feeling versus analysis is framed wrong. These are not independent. Gut feel that does not rely on analysis as a sanity check…is likely to be very arbitrary and very likely to be wrong. Analysis that is not answering questions that are raised by somebody's intuitive judgment…is a sterile analysis. So, the best of these things is a synergy between intuition…and analysis, and that synergy is better than either intuition or analysis."

— Andy Grove, 1999

Instead of a spectrum, Grove proposes that intuition and analysis ought to work as a feedback loop, with one continually feeding and reinforcing the other. This framework is critically relevant in the context of entrepreneurship — and specifically in the context of approaching VCs — on two accounts.

The first is that VCs try to understand how these two systems work together in an entrepreneur's mind, and factor that understanding into their evaluation. VCs want to understand the entrepreneur's product vision, empathy with the customer base, personal principles, and prior experience, with the sum of these parts and others providing insight into the entrepreneur's intuitive nature. VCs also want to understand how an entrepreneur leverages data to, for example, develop go-to-market strategy, structure the organization, and improve the product, all of which inform the VC's perception of the entrepreneur's analytical capacity.

As business data becomes ever more available, asking the right questions using one's intuition and developing answers through sound analysis of the data becomes increasingly important. Entrepreneurs who demonstrate they have sufficiently integrated these two systems together will enter the fundraising arena at an advantage.

The second reason Grove's framework is helpful is that VCs also use both analytical and intuitive approaches when evaluating entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who have the most success in striking meaningful relationships with VCs appeal to the VC on both fronts.

VCs pride themselves on their ability to make intuitive judgment calls on an entrepreneur, often coming to a decision in less time than it would take to read to this point in the article. They listen to the gut feeling that tells them whether or not an entrepreneur listens intently to questions and responds well to feedback. Likewise, they also enjoy the process of walking through the entrepreneur's analysis of the market opportunity, financial projections, and other data-driven subject matter. In this case, the analysis is more geared towards the business opportunity than the entrepreneur's personal characteristics. Therefore, winning a VC's investment requires an appeal to both the VC's intuitive and analytical faculties.

Part of what kept so many great innovators of the 21st century looking to Andy Grove as a business sage was that he would help guide them through their own psyches as they sought to make business decisions. Today, VCs use the same framework to evaluate entrepreneurs for investment that Grove used to advise them in business. Entrepreneurs who understand the significance of and relationship between the intuitive and analytical faculties — both in the context of building their businesses, as well as in the context of appealing to the disposition of the VC — will approach investors from a position of relative strength.

------

Moody Heard is investment analyst at Mercury Fund, a venture capital company based in Houston.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

Trending News