In a world brimming with innovative ideas and groundbreaking startups, investors must navigate the terrain with a keen eye and a robust toolkit. Due diligence is the cornerstone of informed investment decisions, serving as your compass through the exciting yet unpredictable landscape of regulated investment crowdfunding.

Investment crowdfunding through Reg CF and Reg A presents unique opportunities and challenges. Unlike traditional investment avenues, it opens the doors for retail investors to play a pivotal role in the startup ecosystem, contributing to the growth of companies that could shape the future of technology, services, and societal norms. Perhaps more importantly for investors, it unlocks the startup asset class to retail investors, potentially democratizing access to venture-like returns by investing in startups. However, the risk associated with early-stage investing is considerable. The startups you invest in are often untested in the market, and their success hinges on a myriad of factors, from the vision and resilience of the founding team to the viability and scalability of the product.

In this guide, we will dig into the essence of due diligence, demystifying the process and arming you with the tools and frameworks that have steered seasoned investors toward success. We draw upon my 5 Ts framework—Team, Technology/Product, Total Addressable Market (TAM), Traction, and Terms—to provide a structured approach to evaluating potential investments.

Whether new to crowdfund investing or looking to level up your strategies, this guide will enhance your understanding, expand your capabilities, and elevate your investment approach on platforms like KingsCrowd.

In this complete guide to due diligence for crowdfunding investors, we’ll cover:

Section I: The Essentials of Due Diligence

Avoiding Landmines

In early-stage investing, due diligence is the systematic approach to assess a startup’s viability, risks, and growth potential. It is akin to a comprehensive health check-up of a company before committing your funds. By delving into the company’s business model, market potential, financial health, legal standing, and the team’s capability, due diligence equips investors with a clearer picture, reducing the likelihood of unpleasant surprises down the line.

This does not mean that due diligence is going to ensure that every startup investment you make is going to be a home run, or even a moderate success. Placing bets on an uncertain future has to be accepted by startup investors as part of the process. There are too many unknowns and moving parts to be able to predict anything in the future, which is unknowable, with certainty.

Startups are inherently risky and many will fail in the pursuit of their ultimate goals. However, due diligence in startup investing is more about avoiding the landmines – that is, those investments that have too much risk or are starting the race blindfolded and with both legs tied together – rather than investing in the startups that at least have a fighting chance, even if the odds of success might still be stacked against them (as is the case with most startups).

For that reason, I look at due diligence as helping to weed out the low-potential companies with too many red flags, and ensure that I’m at least betting on a horse that has a chance to make it to the starting line of the race.

Investing Skill and Investing Luck

One of my favorite investing books is “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke. Although the book is about poker, the lessons on making decisions based on an uncertain future and with limited information are as applicable to investing as they are to sports betting or gambling. Annie says:

Thinking in bets starts with recognizing that there are exactly two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck. Learning to recognize the difference between the two is what thinking in bets is all about.

-Annie Duke

While investors cannot control the luck side of the equation, we can focus on the quality of our decisions. Through developing a good due diligence process and striving to remain objective in our decision making, we can at least give our investing selves the best chances of succeeding from the quality side of the equation.

The Importance of Due Diligence

Due diligence is critical because it correlates directly with investment success (see below figure) – potentially because of the impact it has on the “decision quality” and investment process. The rest is up to luck.

Startups are complex entities where multiple dimensions must align for success. Each aspect of a startup must work reliably, from its product to its team culture. If any one link in the chain fails, it can compromise the entire venture. And often, in the early stage, one of the most important factors is the quality of the founders and founding team. Before we explore our framework for evaluating potential startup investments, let’s look at the data that shows us how important due diligence is in investing performance.

Time as an Investment in Itself

The time spent on due diligence is an investment that can dictate your potential returns in equity crowdfunding. Evidence suggests that investments backed by substantial due diligence have historically yielded higher returns. A 2007 study by Wiltbank and Boeker highlighted that angel investors who spent over 20 hours on due diligence realized nearly six times the returns compared to those who spent less than 20 hours​​.

Chart showing correlation of time spent doing due diligence vs. investment returns

From 2007 study, “Returns to Angel Investors in Groups”. Wiltbank and Boeker.

However, smaller crowdfunding investors may not be able to spend 20-40+ hours per deal, especially considering that the average Reg CF investment size is under $1000 per investment.

How can crowdfunding investors leverage their time so that they don’t have to spend 20-40+ hours per deal but can still make informed investment decisions? That is where platforms like KingsCrowd can offer ratings, analyst reports, interviews with founders, and more resources to help crowdfunding investors make the most efficient use of their time.

In the next section, we’ll dive into one simple framework for analyzing startups—the 5 Ts of crowdfund investing—providing you with a structured way to screen your potential investments.

Section II: Framework for Analyzing Startups

Introducing the 5 Ts of Crowdfund Investing

The 5Ts framework for assessing crowdfunding deals

A structured approach is indispensable when navigating the complexities of startup investments. My 5 Ts framework—Team, Technology/Product, Total Addressable Market (TAM), Traction, and Terms—provides a comprehensive lens through which to examine each investment opportunity.

  • Team: The driving force behind any startup is its founding team. Their expertise, adaptability, and vision are paramount as they conceive and bring the product to market. It’s crucial to assess whether the team possesses the necessary skills, experience, and determination to overcome obstacles.
  • Technology/Product: A startup’s product or service should offer a novel solution to a significant problem. It’s essential to evaluate the product’s uniqueness, development stage, and capacity to satisfy the market’s needs.
  • Total Addressable Market (TAM): The best product is only as good as the market it serves. Assessing TAM involves understanding the market size, growth potential, and the startup’s strategy to capture a share of this market.
  • Traction and Financial Viability: Traction demonstrates a startup’s progress and potential for success. Indicators such as sales figures, user growth, and strategic partnerships are tangible evidence of market demand and operational execution.
  • Terms: The investment terms should align with your goals as an investor. This includes the valuation, equity offered, the founder’s ultimate vision, and exit strategies.

While KingsCrowd’s five areas of ratings may go by slightly different names, you can see how each of my “5 Ts” maps to a KingsCrowd rating:

  • Team –> Team
  • Tech –> Differentiators
  • TAM –> Market
  • Traction –> Performance
  • Terms –> Price

Critical Questions for Each Area

Each ‘T’ of the framework invites specific questions that guide the due diligence process, ensuring no stone is left unturned.

  • Team: Does the team have a track record of success, or do they possess unique insights into the industry they’re disrupting? Do they want to win against all odds?
  • Technology/Product: Is the technology at least 10X better than anything available on the market, and is it solving a real problem (that customers are willing to pay for)?
  • Total Addressable Market (TAM): Is the market large enough to support substantial growth, and is it accessible?
  • Traction and Financial Viability: What milestones has the company achieved, and what is the growth trajectory?
  • Terms: Are the investment terms fair, and do they provide the potential for a satisfactory return on investment?

A sixth “T” in due diligence could be taxes. That is – do you understand the potential tax implications of your startup investment, which we cover in more detail in our article on Navigating Taxes in Startup Investments.

Having dissected the 5 Ts framework, our next segment will delve into practical steps investors can take to apply it in their due diligence process, utilizing available resources to make informed decisions.

The Difference Between a Good Company and a Good Investment

One of the most important lessons I have learned so far in investing is that a good company and a good investment are not necessarily the same thing. However, many investors see a company that has a great team, great growth, and otherwise good business fundamentals and sometimes blindly invest based solely on those factors.

That is making a critical error.

You must deeply consider the price — that is, the deal terms and the value of the asset you are buying. This brings me back to one of my favorite Howard Marks (the one from Oaktree Capital Management, not the StartEngine Founder & CEO) quotes:

Good investing is not a matter of buying good things but buying things well. And if you don’t know the difference, then you shouldn’t be doing much investing.

-Howard Marks

There is always a price low enough that even an underperforming business may be of good value. And vice versa, a price high enough that makes even the most amazing company overvalued.

The tricky part — especially in early stage investing, when there isn’t a lot of historical performance to base your decision on — is figuring out whether the asset is over-valued, fairly valued, or under-valued.

Section III: Practical Steps for Investors

Conducting Due Diligence

Once familiar with the 5 Ts framework, investors need a clear path to apply it effectively. Here’s a step-by-step approach to due diligence:

  1. Initiate Contact: Begin by engaging with the startup through available channels—webinars, Q&A threads on funding platforms, and on company’s websites or communities.
  2. Gather Information: Use funding portals, investor networks, tools like KingsCrowd, and public databases to collect data. Review SEC filings for legal and financial insights.
  3. Analyze the Data: Compare the startup against industry benchmarks and competitors. Validate claims and projections against market research.
  4. Consult the Checklist: Reference our free crowdfunding investor due diligence checklist to ensure no critical element is overlooked​​​​.
  5. Seek Peer Insights: Participate in investor forums and discussions to gauge collective sentiment and gather diverse perspectives.

Leveraging Due Diligence Resources

Equity crowdfunding investors have access to a wealth of resources:

  • Investor Education: Platforms like KingsCrowd offer educational materials and insights specific to crowdfund investing.
  • Funding Platform Data: Utilize the analytical tools and data provided by platforms like Wefunder, StartEngine, and Republic to assess startups.
  • Reg CF Platforms: These platforms must legally perform initial (albeit limited) due diligence checks on companies before listing them, including background checks on company directors, bad actor checks on the issuer and promoters, and reviewing company claims for obvious red flags and potential fraud. They serve as a first filter for investors and provide a structured format for company disclosures. Check out our list of the top Reg CF platforms of 2023.
  • Professional Networks: Engage with industry experts and seasoned investors for mentorship and advice.
  • Online Resources: Research more online on sites such as LinkedIn (team), the company’s website and social accounts, and Crunchbase or Statista for additional insights.

In the next section, we’ll focus on the critical role of the startup’s founder and team, whose dedication and vision can often be the deciding factor between a startup’s success and failure.

Section IV: The Founder’s Role and Startup Team

Assessing Leadership and Team Dynamics

The founder and the team are the heart of a startup. Investors must evaluate the founder’s credentials and their passion, resilience, and commitment to the venture. The ‘never give up’ mindset is a key indicator of potential success, as many startups face numerous challenges and pivot points on their journey​.

Key Considerations for Team Evaluation

  • Experience and Expertise: Does the team have relevant industry experience and a clear understanding of the market they are entering?
  • Adaptability: How has the team responded to setbacks or pivots? Can they navigate the uncertainties inherent in the startup world?
  • Chemistry and Commitment: Is there a strong dynamic within the team? Do they exhibit a unified vision and a relentless drive to succeed?

The “Employee Question” to Assess a Founder or Team

There is one question I ask myself when assessing a team, which helps to boil down all the key components of whether a startup founder or team will be successful and effective leaders. The question is:

Would I want to work for this founder and with this team?

Granted, not every successful startup will be perfect from the start. However, many famous angel investors and venture capitalists believe that especially the first few hires are crucial to establishing the culture that the company will embody. And it’s no secret that hustlers and top talent will attract other top performers. So having A-players on the founding team is crucial.

Conclusion: Harnessing Due Diligence for Investment Success

In crowdfund investing, due diligence is not a mere formality—it’s an essential discipline that can significantly impact the success of your investment portfolio. By thoroughly understanding the importance of due diligence, applying the 5 Ts framework, taking practical steps, and evaluating the startup team, you equip yourself with a powerful approach to selecting promising startups.

Embrace due diligence as a continuous learning process that evolves with each investment. Utilize the tools and resources, and never underestimate the power of a committed founder and a cohesive team. Here at KingsCrowd, we stand ready to assist you in this exciting journey of discovery and investment.

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