Investor Relations for Private Companies

One of the questions I am asked by first-time startup CEOs: what is an appropriate level of communication with my investors?

This is both a difficult and profound question. It is simple to say that more is better than less. It is also simple to say that any good investor would rather have you spend your time executing your plan than spend your time chatting with investors.

So.. my simple rule of thumb is that you should treat your investors (and the money that they have invested in your company) with respect. And you should recognize that their support, encouragement, and trust that came with that money are incredibly valuable commodities that will continue to pay dividends over time. Let me give rules of thumb for great investor relations by private companies and some issues that need to be considered.

Ten Simple rules for great IR for private companies:

  1. Get the bad news out fast and first. Even if the news in embarrassing (like we are running out of cash sooner than we anticipated, or our customers found a flaw in our product), share it first and fast. Be very candid about the failings as well as the successes.
  2. Don’t bury bad news at the end of a report.
  3. Don’t wait to issue the report until you have good news to share.
  4. Don’t forget to share your passion for your business – that’s generally what made your investors invest!
  5. But don’t allow your passion to obscure the operational facts, like the numbers are not what we anticipated.
  6. Communicate frequently, but not too frequently. These communications should never be less than once a quarter. But remember that your investors are not your employees, so you don’t need to send daily/weekly updates with operational trivia. This just defeats the purpose of making sure that your investors know the state of the business by burying them in the minutia.
  7. Communications can written or in person or a combination. Face-to-face quarterly meetings are a great idea for a company that is growing and needs support and help from its investors. They are especially good for a company that needs to show its product. But they take some time to prepare.
  8. Communications can be short, but never skipped. For example, a simple note to all of your investors that “we have had to revamp our product plans and details will follow within 30 days” is an OK message. As is, “we have received an acquisition offer, but the terms require us to keep the details confidential, so we will let you know as soon as the deal is consummated.” Don’t surprise them!
  9. Your investors are smart, so treat them accordingly. Be very realistic and forthright about the impact of any misses/changes. Early stage investors know the risks. Tell them if the board insisted you take a salary cut or that you have had to lay off key people. These things happen. Sometimes the impact will be that their investment will never realize the potential you had hoped for, but that you will work for the best possible outcome.
  10. And, lastly, NEVER have the communication of the change of your company status come via a package of documents from your lawyers! Even in the case of good news (which is rare), you owe it to your investors to be the one who communicates FIRST. Even if it’s an email (or cover letter in the legal package) that says, “we have had to do X, because of Y, and the result is that your shares have to be changed in the following way. You will be receiving a package by FedEx to implement that change. I will be holding an emergency investor meeting tomorrow at 9am to explain these changes. Those who can’t be there can phone in.”

Even with these simple rules in hand, there are a number of issues that you need to consider.

  • Can I share proprietary information with my investors? This is a tough question. Seek counsel from your lawyer. In general, most startups do share proprietary information, but make sure your investors know it is proprietary. Make sure that they know they can’t redistribute or share it further. Only give info in writing that is less sensitive.
  • Know your investors. Ask them if they have investments in competitive companies. If they do, it doesn’t disqualify them from investing in your company, but make sure that they know they can’t share the info you give them.

Simply put.. if you treat your investors well, they will be there to support you when you need them. Not just in this company but in future ones.

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