What Does Venus Williams Look For In a Startup Investment Pitch? Above All, Honesty

Imagine you’re Venus Williams. (I know that’s a stretch; it’s tough to imagine myself as a hugely successful, multi-hyphenate athlete-entrepreneur-investor-producer, but let’s try.) 

You’re part of Patricof Co, a private investment platform designed to provide deal flow and meet the business needs of professional athletes; think combination investment platform/advisory practice.

You have the chance to invest in Virgin Voyages, the cruise line venture co-founded by Virgin Group and Bain Capital, an intriguing venture with meaningful differentiation. Smaller ships that feel more like super-yachts and can therefore dock in ports in cities like Barcelona. For adults only, turning what would otherwise be kids-focused spaces into spin and yoga studios, boxing gyms, saunas, and outdoor workout areas. An exclusive beach club in Bimini. 

And you have the opportunity to be a part of the Virgin Voyages Athlete Advisory Council and play an active role in designing experiences for passengers and work with the brand on sustainability initiatives.

“I enjoy working with Richard (Branson),” Venus says. “He contributed to my book, Come to Win. More than that, partnering with Virgin Voyages exposes me to different ways of thinking about leading and being a leader. About innovation. About creating experiences.

“Investing in a business is obviously analysis-driven,” she says, “but when I will get the opportunity to learn from the people involved, when I get to be a partner and contribute… that’s even more of a gift.”

Sounds good if you’re Richard Branson. Or if you’re Virgin Voyages. Attracting an investor like Venus — or other Patricof Co clients like Blake Griffin, Kemba Walker, Travis Kelce, and C.C. Sabathia — might seem easy.

But what if you’re a small startup hoping to attract investors? What does Venus look for?

“Please don’t send me a 50-page deck,” Venus laughs. “Graphs don’t tell the story. The idea matters: Changing something. Making something better. Solving real problems and meeting real needs in a creative way. That’s what matters.”

So does humility. “The idea is important, but the ability to execute is even more important,” Venus says. You don’t have to be an operator, but your partner should be.”

“Show that you’re actively seeking people to help you execute,” Venus says. “Say you would like help finding people to help you execute. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors have extensive networks.”

Honesty also matters. “Don’t try to ‘sell,'” Venus says. “Be passionate and believe in yourself. But also be curious. Ask questions. Be truthful.”

In short, don’t try to fake it till you make it. Be honest about the fact you need something — whether people, skills, partners, capital, etc. — to help you make it. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be looking for investors.)

And definitely understand your niche. While massive valuations may sound attractive, the reality is no matter how great the idea, an entrepreneur with limited experience, expertise, and capital is unlikely to achieve unicorn-level growth.

“Know your niche,” Venus says. “Maybe you can foresee multiple revenue streams. But which one will you focus on? Which one will you be good at? And how will you get to market? It’s challenging, if not impossible, to do everything at once. Pick a niche, and develop — or show how you will develop — that core competency.”

Last, always keep in mind the person you’re pitching.

As an athlete, Venus has naturally spent considerable time in the health and wellness space. But she has a broad range of business interests. Fashion. Design. Architecture. Clearly, as her investment in Virgin Voyages shows, travel. (Which makes sense for someone who has spent decades constantly crisscrossing the globe.)

For Venus, a person with multiple interests and therefore limited time, it all boils down to whether or not the opportunity is one she can get excited about.

“Sometimes it’s the vision,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the industry. Sometimes it’s the opportunity to advise or mentor or contribute. I like to be open, in that sense, to finding a passion on different levels.”

And that, ultimately, is true for any investor. Enthusiasm. Passion. Purpose. Meaning. For most investors — or at least the investors you want to attract — financial rewards matter, but so does fulfillment and gratification. 

But so does getting the opportunity to play a part, even if just financially, in something we enjoy.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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