Questions we get all the time.
Sometimes you just want a straight answer about how things operate and why. Here’s a list of common questions, what we think and how we work.
Is it ever too early to approach First Round about investing?
It’s never too early to reach out, but it can be too late. We don’t see divisions between angel, seed and pre-seed — we’re interested across the board and find that founders’ needs are the same early on. In fact, most of our 300+ companies came to us when they were a couple of people and an idea, having raised no capital before they met us. So, even if you don’t think you’re ready, we’d still like to get to know you. Maybe we can even help in the meantime.
What if I’ve already raised some money from angels — is it too late to talk to you?
Of course not. While we’re usually the first money in, we’ve worked with a number of teams that raised a small friends and family round before coming to us. That said, if you’ve already raised more than a few million dollars, we’re probably not a fit.
I’m raising my Series B or Series C — should I contact you?
Unfortunately, we’re named First Round for a reason. If you’re raising your third or fourth round, consider a later-stage firm that might be a better fit.
How We Make Decisions
Does First Round only invest in particular areas or industries?
No. We don’t think VCs predict the future — founders do. And we look to founders to teach us what’s next. We were fortunate to invest in Uber before the rise of the on-demand economy. We invested in Blue Apron before everyone jumped into food tech. But all of our companies have one thing in common — we met the founders when they were just starting out.
Yes, our investments tend to cluster around enterprise, consumer, hardware, fintech and healthcare. We’ve also added a dedicated Healthcare investor and Infrastructure & AI/ML Investor to the team — based on the large and thriving healthcare community we’ve invested in and a focus on supporting founders who are building the latest data and dev tools.
But that’s not where our curiosity ends. If you’re building something different, we still want to hear from you and learn about the vision of the future you have in mind.
How do you weigh different criteria in your decision-making process?
The biggest factor in our decision-making is always the founding team. How innovative, resourceful and resilient are you? What’s your superpower? Why are you going to be the ones to prevail where others won’t? What moments in your history show that you thrive off the beaten path? Of course, we evaluate product and market too, but to be honest, we mostly look at that to evaluate the strength of founders too. Looking at what you’ve done already for this company — and before in your career — gives us a record of hundreds if not thousands of decisions you’ve made to get to where you are today. And that’s where success lives or dies in this industry: the ability for founders to make really quick, good decisions. We want to understand how you do it, and we give that a lot of weight.
What does First Round look for in an idea?
Above all, we look for compelling and contrarian insight into how the world works. What do you understand about a market or a need that no one else does or that other companies in the space get wrong? And why is your company the most likely to win at addressing this gap?
Second, if you have a product in market, a small group of passionate early customers is a strong indicator for us. Several years ago, we heard a handful of the founders in our community raving about a new business intelligence tool called Looker. We reached out to the company and invested. If there are people using your product or service who wouldn’t know what to do without you, we want to hear about it. That’s one of the strongest data points you can offer. As an extension of this, we want to see creative thinking around go-to-market strategy as well as product. The best startups take both seriously.
Third, we take a close look at the market you’re going after. Let’s say you win the whole thing — is the prize worth winning? The game is long and hard, and some markets are more rewarding than others. SaaS companies have a different range of opportunities than on-premise software makers. First-party retailers are valued very differently from third-party ecommerce sites. To mix our metaphors, before a founder starts building their castle, they have to make sure they’ve picked the right piece of land.
What do you look for in a founding team?
Building an enduring company is ridiculously hard. You have to overcome inertia, have an unbelievable amount of conviction, and be willing to drive through brick walls. You can’t wait for someone to hand you a roadmap. You have to be able to draw it yourself and execute at the same time. This is an exceedingly rare set of skills — and it’s what we seek to find in every founder conversation we have.
That’s number one. Then there’s all the typical stuff: integrity, credibility, market understanding, learning ability, etc. But there are a few other things we haven’t seen written about or discussed enough that end up mattering a lot:
- Delayed gratification. Being a founder is a constant, grueling exercise in deferring happiness and victory. The most successful entrepreneurs are willing to sacrifice in the short term for long-term impact. When we consider working with you as a founder, we look for your willingness to make these tradeoffs earlier in your life and career. Did you skip spring break to pursue a long-term project? Did you work while you were in school? Have you built anything that took months of heads-down crunch mode to make possible?
- Admit unknowns. We’re always meeting the same two types of entrepreneurs. The first thinks they’re expected to know the answer to every question. So they’ll make sure they have a definitive response always, even if they shouldn’t. They’ll tell us their pricing model. Why they’ll be competitive with Google. What will cause customer churn in three years. Whenever we try to address potential risks, they tell us they don’t exist. This is not our ideal type of founder. The second type of entrepreneur will answer questions when they can, but when they don’t know, they say so. When asked the same question about pricing, they might say, “Well, we’re considering a few different options depending on the outcome of some tests we’re running.” When asked about the cost of customer acquisition, their response could be, “We don’t know what our numbers will be, but here’s our model based on comparable companies.” When asked about the risks, they identify several — and engage us in a vibrant discussion about how to handle them. The founder who volunteers their ignorance has far more credibility. No one expects a pre-launch company to have all the answers. In fact, it’s a red flag if you think you do. Don’t sell us on being 100% correct. We’d much rather understand how you’re attacking the market, evaluating the risks, and taking on unknowns.
- Good storytelling. All successful founders can deliver a compelling narrative. They have to be able to sell against the status quo. They have to convince investors and employees that this incredibly unlikely thing they’re doing is about to take the world by storm. They have to capture media attention, keep their board aligned and energized, and consistently bring new customers into the fold. If a founder can’t tell an amazing story, it’ll be hard for them to do any of this. If you’re interested in developing these skills, be sure to read The Seven Deadly Sins of Startup Storytelling, Transform the Way You Give Presentations and How to Tell a Story When Raising Capital.
- Founder-market fit. We’ve made some big bets on seasoned enterprise founders pursuing consumer ideas (and vice versa). Our decision doesn’t completely hinge on domain expertise — but a key part of our process will be determining whether a founder is capable of succeeding in the field they’re headed into.
- Rate of execution. It doesn’t matter if the company has been around for 90 days or 6 months, great founding teams are consistently executing. If we meet with an entrepreneur over the course of six weeks, we’re going to be watching closely what they’re accomplishing in that timeframe. We want to work with companies and founders that make speed a habit.
Do you invest in companies located outside of San Francisco and New York?
Yes! While we have large concentrations of investments in those metro areas, we’re interested in companies nationwide. We are proud to fund companies like Crossbeam in Philadelphia, Kandji in San Diego, as well as fully distributed companies like Kubecost and Maven (just to name a few).
What is your investment process and how long does it take?
These answers vary from company to company, but there are some general steps every founding team goes through. While we often try to move at the pace of the founder, an important rule applies: the less time we have to make a decision, the more conviction we have to feel about a company. Sometimes we spend months developing a relationship. Sometimes we move from intro to close in under a week. Generally speaking, here’s what you can expect:
- Initial meeting: Before an initial meeting, we’ll look at any materials sent by the founder, determine whether the business fits our basic investment criteria, and try to ensure it’s not directly competitive with any of our existing investments. Your first meeting (or phone call) with a member of the investment team will typically be between 45 minutes and an hour. We let the founder do most of the talking, and hope they use the opportunity to dig into the specifics of their team and business.
- Follow-up: Most of our “passes” occur after the initial meeting. If you’ve made it past that meeting, you’ll spend more time with your First Round point partner as we both continue to learn more about each other. At the same time, our partnership makes all decisions as a team. We sometimes introduce promising founders to another First Round partner for an additional conversation, typically the partner with the most “domain expertise” in that company’s area.
- Partner meeting: If these conversations go well for both of us, we’ll typically make some reference/diligence calls and invite you to meet with the rest of the partners at our twice-weekly investment meeting. Here, you’ll have about an hour to tell your story to the entire partnership and answer questions.
- Final Decision: After your presentation, our partnership will discuss your company in great detail with the goal to give you a final answer usually within 24 hours of the meeting. Typically, we fund about half of the companies that make it to our partner meeting.
How should I get in touch with First Round?
Ideas are easy to describe on paper. People are not. That’s why we’ve historically valued referrals from people we know and trust. This includes people leading and employed by First Round companies, angel investors, other entrepreneurs, etc. It gives us more data to work with.
A direct referral will get a quicker response, but don’t be afraid to email us yourself. We know good ideas can come from anywhere, so our partners review every single investment opportunity we receive, whether it’s through a warm intro or cold outreach.
Do you invest outside of the United States?
We tend to focus exclusively on companies based in the U.S. because that is where we have the most experience and can be the most valuable partners. We’ve made a few exceptions for companies headquartered in Canada (like Unblocked in Vancouver) and companies whose management is located in the U.S. but has overseas development teams. But in general, if you’re located outside of North America, we’re probably not the right investors for you.
How do I know which partner is the best fit for my company?
While our partners have different and diverse interest areas, we’re extremely collegial in how we work. We often evaluate investment opportunities as a group and frequently hand off companies to the partner who has the most experience in the space (or is located in the right geography). The investment team constantly talks about everything they’re seeing and what they find interesting. So don’t hesitate to get in touch with your closest connection to get the ball rolling.
How much do you usually invest in a new company?
Typically, our initial investment in a startup ranges from $1 million to $5 million, but we’ve gone higher and lower in some cases. Currently, our average initial investment is right around $3 million. As the largest seed-stage venture fund in the country, we’re very serious about supporting our companies with follow-on investing. In fact, we reserve equal amounts of capital for our follow-on investment as our initial investment.
Do you have a strict ownership requirements?
No. Unlike some traditional venture funds that need 20 to 25% ownership requirements, we don’t. We like to own enough of the company to make sure that we can dedicate meaningful time and resources to helping you build. Our ideal ownership is roughly 15% after your seed round.
What size rounds does First Round participate in?
No round is too small for us to invest. The average size might be $3.5 million, but we’ve invested in rounds as small as $100,000 and as large as $12 million. Regardless of check size, you get the same First Round experience.
Will First Round only invest if it can lead the round?
While we tend to lead most of the time, we’re not the lead investor about ⅓ of the time. We have a long track record of partnering with outstanding seed-stage VCs and angels. The most important thing (to us), is that we’re aligned with founders and have a meaningful stake in every company (so we can spend meaningful time trying to help the company win).
We’ve found it’s in a startup’s best interest to have an active lead investor. We’re allergic to party rounds. In our experience, it’s in a founder’s worst interest to have a group of investors without a leader. When we lead an investment, we’re there for the founder, and ready to roll up our sleeves to help them get the job done.
Will you sign my confidentiality agreement / NDA?
No. We’d explain why in detail here, but we think Brad Feld does a great job in his blog post, Why Most VC’s Don’t Sign NDAs.
What It's Like to Work With Us
What makes First Round different?
We’re focused on being the world’s best partner for founders at the very first stages of company creation — so we’ve designed the firm to do just that. When you work with First Round, you get super active partners (most of whom are former founders themselves) working side-by-side with you on your biggest and smallest challenges. Whether it’s setting the strategy for a fundraise or thinking through your organizational design, we’re in your corner through the thick and thin of company building over those first few critical years.
On top of that, you get access to our 20+ person Platform Team, working to help you fast forward through the tough nitty-gritty of building a company so you can focus on what makes yours special. Whether it’s our Go-To-Market team mapping out your initial sales strategy, or our Talent Team connecting you with top-tier candidates for your critical early hires, we’re here to help across all your needs.
Most importantly, we pioneered the concept of transforming a portfolio into a community. When our partners were entrepreneurs themselves, the most valuable advice and support they ever received came from other founders. That’s why we provide the tools and forums you need for folks throughout your company to learn from and help their peers. If you’re a PM, a CFO or a junior marketer, you can benefit from the collective wisdom of many others. For more on how we do this and the services we offer, check out our Philosophy page.
How do you help your companies raise money?
First Round companies have raised over $30 billion in follow-on capital after our initial investment across 1,500 rounds — and we’ve watched them all closely. Leveraging our expert knowledge and years of combined fundraising experience, we do everything we can to help our companies get to Series A and beyond. In fact, 76% of our companies make it to Series A.
These learnings are an integral part of our Pitch Assist program, developed to help companies get through what’s undoubtedly the toughest part of starting something new. Every engagement starts with a strategy meeting with our partnership. We figure out which VCs founding teams should pitch and in what order based on our experience with almost every tier-one investor in the country.
Once a coherent strategy is set, we pair entrepreneurs with a dedicated designer and content expert for a 4-6 week boot camp. They come out the other side with a finalized fundraising plan, a compelling narrative, a gorgeous presentation (built in-house here at First Round) and a bulletproof story that showcases their unique value prop. First Round founders also get tons of rehearsal time with our entire partnership to make sure they nail their presentations right out of the gate.
Since launching in 2014, Pitch Assist has helped over 100 companies raise more than $2 billion. As market conditions are continually shifting, we’ve seen this kind of resource become a serious advantage.
How will First Round support me in future financings?
As an early-stage founder, the future is always hard to predict. You’re assessing the potential for big product bets, impactful new hires, shifts in go-to-market strategy and hundreds of other decisions large and small. But we believe that founders shouldn’t have to try to predict how (and whether) their existing investors will support them in the next round. We think that consistency and transparency are paramount — particularly when things get tough.
As one of the largest “pure play” seed-stage funds, First Round has been able to support our companies financially by participating in their second round. In fact, when we’ve led a first round in the last five years, we’ve offered to take our pro rata (or more) in the second round over 96% of the time.
Given the uncertainty in today’s market, we’ve decided to explicitly state how we will participate in the second round going forward. That’s why we have the “Second Round Guarantee.”
Here’s how it works: When we lead your first round (whether it’s a pre-seed, mango seed, small Series A or anything in between), we’ll be there for you in your second. More specifically, we guarantee that we will always take our pro rata in your next outside-led venture round, with a commitment of up to $3M. If the Series A round is over $20M, we may not take our full pro rata, but will invest at least $3M.
What is First Round’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy?
We are committed to a safe work environment in which no member of our startup community is discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, race, religion, age, nationality, gender identity or any other characteristic protected by applicable law. We will promptly take appropriate remedial action to address any form of harassment or discrimination that is brought to our attention. We will also address any reported claims of retaliation to ensure a comfortable and productive work environment for all those who work with our team. To confidentially report any incident involving a First Round employee, please contact legal [at] firstround [dot] com.
What is First Round’s stance on diversity and inclusion?
At First Round, our mission is to build and serve the strongest community of entrepreneurs. Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are core to the strongest communities around the world and thus, are core to the First Round community.
We recognize that we play an important role in expanding access to the resources and opportunities needed to build innovative companies. There’s more work to be done to increase the presence of women and folks from diverse backgrounds in First Round’s cohort of founders, in our own team, in the teams recruited by our portfolio companies, as well as within the broader startup ecosystem. We’re committed to taking steps across all aspects of our day-to-day work to reduce implicit and overt bias, and increase inclusion. Here’s what our efforts look like thus far:
- Community events and programming: At all First Round events and cohort-based programming, such as our Technical Founder Track and Founding Designer Track, we seek to bring together as diverse a group as possible. With Angel Track, for example, we’re proud that we’ve built one of the most diverse angel investing groups. Across 352 members and 11 cohorts, 39% of participants identified as women and 21% identified as Black, Latinx or Indigenous. We’ve also made concerted efforts to create space for individuals in underrepresented groups to come together and connect, including private, internal groups for women, LGBTQIA+, and Black & Latinx folks to come together on Network, our online community platform.
- Mentorship: In 2020, we expanded access to our Fast Track mentorship program beyond founders and employees at First Round-backed companies to open up slots to Black, Latinx and Indigenous founders and employees working at a startup. Mentorship is an incredibly powerful career accelerator and we believe there is so much value in bringing in as many viewpoints as possible. Because we saw so much enthusiasm after opening up the program to a wider community, we were encouraged to expand the program even further. Our Mentee spots are now available to anyone in the startup community. In our last five mentorship cohorts, 22% of our Mentees identified as Black, Latinx or Indigenous.
- Working with our companies: During onboarding with all new First Round companies, we discuss the importance of DEI and offer instructional experiences we’ve created specifically for First Round-backed companies. We also include a Diversity Rider in all of our new term sheets, with the goal to create inroads between underrepresented check writers and established firms in venture.
- Producing valuable content. First Round Review and the In Depth podcast bring in hundreds of thousands of readers and listeners every week. It’s a powerful communication platform that we don’t take lightly. We commit to showcasing diverse voices, perspectives and ideas on these highly-visible channels, as well as in our more intimate forums like founder dinners and retreats.
- Internal hiring: Every time a role opens on our team, we work hard to source a diverse pipeline of candidates and check bias at the door of every interview. We invest the majority of our time sourcing candidates outside of our existing networks to find incredible underrepresented candidates. More tactically, to limit bias in our interview process, we run structured interviews with a pre-set list of competencies and questions and have introduced research-backed techniques like blind grading exercises to continue removing bias. For every open role on our team, we ensure at least one underrepresented candidate is included in the final interview round before extending an offer. Our full-time team across First Round identifies as 42% male and 58% female, and 33% Black, Latinx, Indigenous, People Of Color. We’ve also invested in and partnered with Diversio, an AI-based DEI platform, to gather specific data and recommendations on how we can create a measurably more inclusive workplace (and have endorsed the tool to other companies in the First Round portfolio).
- The partnership: The evolution of our partnership is an effort that has and will continue to play out in the coming years and decades, as it has ever since Howard and Josh started First Round back in 2004. We are proud of how the partnership has grown since First Round’s founding to now include a more diverse and representative team. One key tactical shift included opening up about our partner hiring process. Prior to 2020, we didn’t run a formal recruiting search. But we were inspired by this post from Brian Dixon at Kapor Capital to change that moving forward. When it came time to add new investing partners, we decided to announce the news publicly — which isn’t very common in venture. As we look to add to the partnership in the future, we will continue to make improvements so we can run a better, more fair hiring process that introduces us to all kinds of stellar candidates.
- Investing: From 2020 to 2022, 34% of new investments went to companies that had at least one female or underrepresented minority founder (up from 30% in 2019 to 2021). We are committed to making greater strides to increase this metric moving forward, and there’s ample room for improvement.
All of the efforts above are ongoing — and while we have a ton to learn, we hope they’re part of a broader industry positive ripple effect to diversify an industry that clearly needs to do better.
Last updated: 3/20/23
How do you help your companies hire?
It’s said that successful founders should spend over 50% of their time on hiring during growth periods. We actually think this is an understatement. But we also know devoting this many hours to hiring while also running a company can seem impossible.
That’s why we have a small, focused team to help share the load. And our partners will always pick up the phone to help close candidates (they have a pretty astonishing batting average).
Our Talent Team works side-by-side with our earliest-stage companies to help them jumpstart their hiring process. Their work sourcing candidates and making introductions is complemented by our rich, proprietary dataset on compensation so that you can make the smartest offers. And, since we’ve now worked with over 500 startups, we’ve been able to put together best practice guides — essentially manuals written by veteran entrepreneurs — all in service of giving founders a head start on hiring.
How do you help your companies acquire customers? How do you help companies grow?
Many early-stage founders don’t come in with an innate sense of how they’ll acquire customers. They might know the usual levers to pull and experiments to run, but every company is different — especially if they’re working in a new industry or domain. Whether you’re a consumer company trying to nail early paid marketing or an enterprise company crafting its go-to-market strategy, the best way to get up to speed fast is the same: learn from folks who have been there before.
We have a VP of GTM who works side-by-side with you in different programs like Sales Assist, an 8-week program to supercharge your sales efforts. Along with ride-alongs and deep customer discovery work on behalf of our companies, we’ve also embedded a First Rounder to serve as your first SDR in a dedicated sales sprint.
If we don’t have the answer, we know someone else who will. It’s our job to make it easy to find. The First Round Network platform allows our entire community (everyone at all of our companies) to candidly air their worries and problems, ask questions, and help others with what they’ve learned. Most questions asked on Network are answered within 24 hours, giving people a nearly real-time resource whenever they hit a wall. Many of the questions focus on customer acquisition and growth, how to evaluate the costs involved in GTM, what has already worked for others, and pathways to scaling.
Lastly, we have a real-world database of hundreds of experts across functional areas who we can connect to our companies to provide custom, focused advice based on the exact situation. Hailing from incredible careers at companies inside and outside the First Round portfolio, these folks have told us what they know in granular detail so we can match them very specifically to the right problem-solving opportunities — all on demand. So whether a startup needs to know how to restructure its sales team, which A/B test to run on its landing page, or how to calculate its CAC and LTV, we can set them up for a call, coffee or meeting that will neutralize the problem and slingshot them forward, fast.
Growth isn’t something that just happens. It’s a slog. It’s hacking through the jungle and traversing the frontier without a map. Every single time. When that’s the reality in front of you, all you can ask for are the best guides — and we’ve got you covered.
Do First Round partners take board seats?
Yes, we do in some cases. What’s consistent is that we’ll be extremely active in helping you build your company in the first two years of its life. Often, we’ll take a board seat at first and give it up to a new investor after later rounds. (We’ve found that entrepreneurs like this – as it helps them manage the size of their boards as they grow).
Outside of board meetings, we prefer what we call “working sessions.” Every 4 to 6 weeks, we go deep with a founder on a big challenge. We’ll spend the entire meeting working through the problem, and we’ve found this type of collaboration far more valuable than traditional reporting and governance. That said, we know how to operate and make an impact in more formal meetings too. (And if you’re looking for board meeting best practices, check out this piece from one of the best board wranglers we know.)
Is First Round hiring for any internal roles?
Who are First Round’s limited partners/investors?
We pick our investors very carefully. It’s important to us that we generate returns for shareholders we can be proud of and who share our values. The vast majority of the capital we invest comes from non-profit organizations such as:
– Universities that educate students of all backgrounds
– Hospitals working on groundbreaking treatments
– A wide variety of charities tackling today’s biggest problems
We want to specifically highlight that we do not have sovereign wealth funds or governments of any kind as investors in First Round.
Where are your offices?
San Francisco (595 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133)
New York City (37 E. 28th Street, Suite 900, New York, NY 10016)
Philadelphia (2400 Market St, Suite 237, Philadelphia PA 19103)