How to Raise Capital: A Guide to Seed Fundraising

What startup founders must know about raising seed funds to get their startups off the ground.

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Introduction

Startup companies need to purchase equipment, rent offices, and hire staff. More importantly, they need to grow. In almost every case they will require outside capital to do these things.

The initial capital raised by a company is typically called “seed” capital. This brief guide is a summary of what startup founders need to know about raising the seed funds critical to getting their company off the ground.

This is not intended to be a complete guide to fundraising. It includes only the basic knowledge most founders will need. The information comes from my experiences working at startups, investing in startups, and advising startups at Y Combinator and Imagine K12. YC partners naturally gain a lot of fundraising experience and YC founder Paul Graham (PG) has written extensively on the topic 1, 2, 3, 4. 

His essays cover in more detail much of what is contained in this guide and are highly recommended reading.

  • Step n°1 |

    Why Raise Money?

    Without startup funding the vast majority of startups will die.

    The amount of money needed to take a startup to profitability is usually well beyond the ability of founders and their friends and family to finance. A startup here means a company that is built to grow fast. High growth companies almost always need to burn capital to sustain their growth prior to achieving profitability. A few startup companies do successfully bootstrap (self-fund) themselves, but they are the exception. Of course, there are lots of great companies that aren’t startups. Managing capital needs for such companies is not covered herein.

    Cash not only allows startups to live and grow, a war chest is also almost always a competitive advantage in all ways that matter: hiring key staff, public relations, marketing, and sales. Thus, most startups will almost certainly want to raise money. The good news is that there are lots of investors hoping to give the right startup money.


    The bad news is, “Fundraising is brutal”. The process of raising that money is often long, arduous, complex, and ego deflating. Nevertheless, it is a path almost all companies and founders must walk, but when is the time right to raise?

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  • Step n°2 |

    When to Raise Money

    Investors write checks when the idea they hear is compelling, when they are persuaded that the team of founders can realize its vision, and that the opportunity described is real and sufficiently large. When founders are ready to tell this story, they can raise money. And usually when you can raise money, you should.

    For some founders it is enough to have a story and a reputation. However, for most it will require an idea, a product, and some amount of customer adoption, a.k.a. traction. Luckily, the software development ecosystem today is such that a sophisticated web or mobile product can be built and delivered in a remarkably short period of time at very low cost. Even hardware can be rapidly prototyped and tested.

    But investors also need persuading. Usually a product they can see, use, or touch will not be enough. They will want to know that there is product market fit and that the product is experiencing actual growth.

    Therefore, founders should raise money when they have figured out what the market opportunity is and who the customer is, and when they have delivered a product that matches their needs and is being adopted at an interestingly rapid rate.

    How rapid is interesting? This depends, but a rate of 10% per week for several weeks is impressive. And to raise money founders need to impress. For founders who can convince investors without these things, congratulations. For everyone else, work on your product and talk to your users.

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  • Step n°3 |

    How Much to Raise?

    Ideally, you should raise as much money as you need to reach profitability, so that you’ll never have to raise money again. If you succeed in this, not only will you find it easier to raise money in the future, you’ll be able to survive without new funding if the funding environment gets tight. That said, certain kinds of startups will need a follow-on round, such as those building hardware. Their goal should be to raise as much money as needed to get to their next “fundable” milestone, which will usually be 12 to 18 months later.

    In choosing how much to raise you are trading off several variables, including how much progress that amount of money will purchase, credibility with investors, and dilution. If you can manage to give up as little as 10% of your company in your seed round, that is wonderful, but most rounds will require up to 20% dilution and you should try to avoid more than 25%. In any event, the amount you are asking for must be tied to a believable plan. That plan will buy you the credibility necessary to persuade investors that their money will have a chance to grow. It is usually a good idea to create multiple plans assuming different amounts raised and to carefully articulate your belief that the company will be successful whether you raise the full or some lesser amount. The difference will be how fast you can grow.

    One way to look at the optimal amount to raise in your first round is to decide how many months of operation you want to fund. A rule of thumb is that an engineer (the most common early employee for Silicon Valley startups) costs all-in about $15k per month. So, if you would like to be funded for 18 months of operations with an average of five engineers, then you will need about 15k x 5 x 18 = $1.35mm. What if you are planning to hire for other positions as well? Don’t worry about it! This is just an estimate and will be accurate enough for whatever mix you hire. And here you have a great answer to the question: “How much are you raising?” Simply answer that you are raising for N months (usually 12-18) and will thus need $X, where X will usually be between $500k and $1.5 million. As noted above, you should give multiple versions of N and a range for X, giving different possible growth scenarios based on how much you successfully raise.

    There is enormous variation in the amount of money raised by companies. Here we are concerned with early raises, which usually range from a few hundreds of thousands of dollars up to two million dollars. Most first rounds seem to cluster around six hundred thousand dollars, but largely thanks to increased interest from investors in seed, these rounds have been increasing in size over the last several years.

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  • Step n°4 |

    Financing Options

    Startup founders must understand the basic concepts behind venture financing. It would be nice if this was all very simple and could be explained in a single paragraph. Unfortunately, as with most legal matters, that’s not possible.

    Here is a very high level summary, but it is worth your time to read more about the details and pros and cons of various types of financing and, importantly, the key terms of such deals that you need to be aware of, from preferences to option pools. 

    Venture financing usually takes place in “rounds,” which have traditionally had names and a specific order. First comes a seed round, then a Series A, then a Series B, then a Series C, and so on to acquisition or IPO. None of these rounds are required and, for example, sometimes companies will start with a Series A financing (almost always an “equity round” as defined below). Recall that we are focusing here exclusively on seed, that very first venture round.

    Most seed rounds, at least in Silicon Valley, are now structured as either convertible debt or simple agreements for future equity (safes). Some early rounds are still done with equity, but in Silicon Valley they are now the exception.

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