I've been in more pitching sessions - raising money myself but more often as a potential investor - than I can remember. And the question that so often goes unanswered is this: Why on Earth is it that most of the entrepreneurs who are pitching just don't have their heads around finance?
Why are they asking other people for money when clearly they have little idea how to think about it, talk about it and - as experience keeps demonstrating - use it properly? It's indefensible, really. But more than that, what amazes me that they don't see what an easy and really powerful advantage it is.
I have a 30-year background in finance, but I also have an academic and professional interest in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, philosophy of mind and psychology. And I think about about this question a lot from that point of view as well. I keep coming back to the view that psychology has multiple parts to play in this.
A lot of people had poor experiences learning maths at school, and this gets entrenched in their psyche: "I'm just no good at maths". I think sometimes it even suits them to believe that finance involves very complicated maths because by doing so they feel that they’re avoiding further embarrassment. (Are you feeling it now, as you read this? Don’t worry! You really shouldn’t. I’ll show you why in a minute!
And some financiers and accountants also dress it up as being mathematically more complicated than it is (the “Wizard Syndrome”) which isn’t helped by some really dreadful - often even contradictory - language.
Finance also goes through cycles of attracting some poor cultural and social associations, most commonly with the negative attitudes towards – occasionally rightly – the less attractive aspects of capitalism, which can fuel (or be used to justify) all of those psychological quirks I’ve referred to above above.
But I’ll come back to that.
In the meantime, there are some ideas about finance you really should know if you are an entrepreneur and you're thinking about a start-up or raising money. The first is that finance just isn't that hard to understand. It's made difficult by a lot of confusing language, but behind that veil all there is is some simple arithmetic and about twelve core ideas, and those ideas - on their own or in combinations - explain everything about finance. That's it.
But there’s another. It’s subtler but probably even more powerful: to think of finance as simply being all about accounting is to make a huge error. Accounting is one small part of finance. I'm not an accountant. I don't have the disposition for it. But I do know finance, and to me and others like me, finance is up there with great marketing, engineering and product design. It's inventive.
Creative. It's future oriented. It's about building value for yourself and for your business. And it's about not destroying value - something the financially bewildered do over and over again.
So I'm going to argue that one of the most powerful things you can do is to take some time to learn about finance, to understand the principles, the language, the rules of thumb and the short-cuts, how it works, how venture capital works, how accounts work, how debt and equity work, how cash works, how to think about clever financial structures in the way that the great entrepreneurs think about and discuss in every serious entrepreneurial environment around the world, all day long.
Let’s reframe finance with just these 6 lines of thinking about entrepreneurs and finance:
1. Finance is easy to understand. Just 12 core ideas. Risk, return, time, leverage, debt, equity, gearing/leverage, optionality, ranking and subordination, the relationship between risk and return, the effects of time on risk and return, and portfolios. That's it. Everything is derived from just those ideas.
Everything is explicable in those terms. And each one of them is simple and based on plain common-sense. But be clear, when financiers talk about Risk it’s a whole different ballgame to what lay-people think of as risk (a fuzzy nervous feeling). They unpack it, break it down into dozens of possible sources of risk, then they prioritise it, then they quantify it, then they map strategies for managing it. But none of it is rocket science. It’s just familiarity with the ideas.
2. Look past the veil: don't be intimidated by complex language and the idea that there's lots of really difficult maths. The language is something you get familiar with. Once you spend a few hours, the mud clears pretty fast. And what about the maths? I run a programme that deals with ALL the finance an entrepreneur needs to know, and it gets into things most people would regard as very advanced. And throughout it all, we only ever use plus, minus, multiply, and divide, a few ratios and some percentages.
That's really just junior level school arithmetic! And if you see yourself as someone who finds maths difficult then I guarantee that after a few hours of giving it a go, you'll soon forget what all the fuss was about.
3. Finance is exciting, inventive and creative. It’s up there with great engineering, design and marketing. Bad financial thinking means making terrible deals, bringing on the wrong investors, building in unnecessary risks, misunderstanding cash flow, misunderstanding value, not spotting financial trade-offs.
Whereas inventive, creative thinking about finance finesses deals, comes up with novel solutions, keeps as much equity in the founders hands, leverages opportunities, and makes thing happen many times faster. It’s about the future and it’s about building a great business.
4. You're just not going to be taken seriously if you don't understand finance. Investors know it's tough to commit to being an entrepreneur. They also know it takes a lot of courage up to pitch. And they recognise that it takes a huge amount of work to plan and pull together a start-up. So they’ll be polite and charming.
But they need to know you speak their language, that you understand how they think, and they have to believe that you'll make smart choices about THEIR money. Otherwise it’s almost certainly going to be a “No”.
5. Most people won't learn finance and so if you do, you put yourself in the smart minority. For all the psychological barriers I've outlined above, if you turn around and run towards finance - while everyone else is running away from it - you will have made one of the easiest wins of your life.
The way you look when someone asks you a relatively tough question, your body language, the confidence you exude when you hit people with accurate Year Three numbers, with a gearing ratio, interest cover, when you follow what a VC is proposing to you and ask smart questions right back at them. It’s a powerful position to be in. You’ll almost hear the ‘clang’ when an investor’s guard drops!
6. You are statistically much more likely to raise money and much more likely to make a success of your business if you understand finance. It usually comes out between 45% and 65% more probable that a financially literate entrepreneur will raise money. And It usually comes out between 45% and 65% more probable that a financially illiterate entrepreneur will drive their business into the ground after raising money.
Raising money is hard. But you wait until things start getting difficult afterwards, or going really well, or when you need to think smartly and quickly about some clever solution to a financing problem once you’re up and running. That’s when you’ll also really need to have finance at your fingertips.
Think about each of those and what they mean for you. But get past the negative psychology. It’s based on misplaced fears. Then internalise the six points above. Then take action. Buy a book. Enrol on a course, whatever it takes. When you emerge you’ll have the secret weapon, the unfair advantage, that few others in the room do. You'll see and you'll feel the difference immediately.