Entrepreneurs and investors gathered at the Halifax Convention Centre last week for the Atlantic Venture Forum, in what organizers at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency described as a bid to foster bridge-building between the East Coast startup ecosystem and key players from outside the region.

The innovators that gathered on Argyle Street last week did so amidst a regional funding landscape that has been turbulent and sometimes difficult to read. Startups last year closed a respectable $265.8 million of equity funding, according to Entrevestor data. But the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association recently said the first quarter of 2024 saw the weakest venture capital total since the depths of the pandemic at $35 million. While market conditions themselves were not a major talking point among attendees, several panelists offered startups advice on how to first raise capital and then manage it.

“I joined the venture world in 2021, and at that time, deals were getting done in a week,” said Sarah Willson of Montreal-based Panache Ventures. “There was this grow-at-all-costs mentality. I feel like I was getting whiplash from all the deals we were looking at. We were seeing deals getting done at $1 million with a $50 million post (post-money valuation), with an idea on a napkin.

“Then we saw a dramatic shift to, ‘Do not grow at all costs, be very capital efficient, focus on extending your runway.’ Now, I think we’re seeing a bit of a stabilization.”

Here’s a look at four key takeaways from AVF for founders eyeing VC funding:

When VCs Evaluate Founders, Expertise Beats Dynamism

On Thursday morning, a panel of investors that included representatives from groups such as Montreal-based Luge Capital and Toronto’s Whitecap Venture Partners was asked whether they would prefer to back an excellent business idea or an excellent founding team. The response was unanimous: every investor who spoke said they would prefer top-shelf founders.

The deeper insight came in how the investors defined that excellence in a founding team. With the occasional exception of young entrepreneurs who can identify an unusual business insight and then prove it out with evidence, the investors generally said they favour founders with deep expertise. Not just in building companies — though that was also a recurring theme — but domain expertise, cultivated either through formal training or their own fascination with a problem.

“In terms of what an A-team is for us, the easiest one obviously is repeat founders coming back for a much larger swing,” said Matthew He of Brightspark Ventures. “Short of that, we often look for a few different profiles. In deeptech, for us a lot of times it is deep academia with industry-leading papers. You have asked questions, you have gone down the rabbit hole. You’ve actually transferred your IP out of whatever university you’ve been working with, and now you’re doing this horrific thing called founding a startup.

“The other side, and this is typically younger founders … it might be domain expertise combined with somebody who has asked a question very few people have asked before, and then pulled on that thread until they get to a logical conclusion and executed every step of the way.”

Data Rooms are Not Just Mandatory, They’re a Powerful Tool

Data rooms, the shared drives or digital storage spaces where startups provide financial documents and other information to prospective investors, are absolutely non-negotiable for founders raising capital. And several investors warned they are often surprised by how weak many startups’ efforts are.

“If you’re getting the same request for information through the diligence process form investors, that’s probably a good sign that it needs to go into the data room,” said Louis Delorme of Amplify Capital. “It could be as simple as a sample unit economics or a sample customer agreement.”

Beyond the mere necessity of having a data room, though, they can also be a tool for showcasing a company’s operating philosophy and key strengths.

“In my time, I’ve seen, let’s say conservatively 1,500-plus data rooms,” added He. “Out of those, there was one founder that really stood out as someone that weaponized their data room and really figured out what they could do with it.

“In a potential investment, we spend what, maybe 30 minutes on the first call? We get to know you, maybe look at your deck. We spend a bit more time with the team call … But all of that active time adds up to maybe three, four, five hours if we’re generous. The time we spend looking through your data room … that is way more than five hours. That’s a lot of what my job is. So when we see a data room that is treated as a folder, it’s a bit of a shame. It’s a missed opportunity.”

Strong Investor Relations Pay Long-Term Dividends

Building relationships with investors is a process that should begin long before a founder actually raises capital, the VCs advised. And once those financial backers join the company as shareholders, building a frank and trusting relationship with them can yield benefits far beyond just their money.

Panache’s Willson, for example, highlighted attending office hours with her and other VCs as a useful way to build relationships and gain more detailed insight into how to prepare for a process that can sometimes be opaque to first-time founders. And even investors who eventually pass on a given deal can still evolve into enthusiastic advocates for the company.

“I think a lot of times those conversations just end up going to waste,” said He. “I have met some entrepreneurs who have been incredibly effective at converting all the "no’s" into champions, just based on the strength of their character. And this generates a lot of what we call ‘the buzz,’ right? It’s like, ‘Okay, maybe I didn’t invest in XYZ Company, but I’ve had such a strong conversation with them I want to bring it to Laviva (Mazhar, of Luge Capital)'.”

Once prospective backers have officially become shareholders, every member of the Thursday morning VC panel emphasized the need for complete honesty and transparency. One reason is so investors can have confidence in a business's leadership and eventually consider re-upping their stakes, but another is to ensure they can most effectively help where needed. For example, Brightspark's He advised ensuring that board members are thoroughly briefed in advance of meetings so the time can be more productively used to collaborate on finding solutions.

“These are very long-term relationships, and absolutely in the final strokes of a closing, it gets a little heated sometimes, and that can maybe throw some people off," said Malcom Fraser, managing partner of Natural Products Canada-backed Nàdarra Ventures. "But we need to remember to come back from that to a strong relationship. Quick, consistent check-ins with an investor on a regular basis are what keeps that relationship strong.

“And you need it to be strong, because it’s a relationship that serves you into the next round and helps you find resources and tools that you need. That’s what our value-add is supposed to be as investors.”

“Optionality is Critical”

Asked how founders should manage the trade-off between rapid growth and managing runway during an unstable period in the VC market, Shoelace Learning CEO Julia Rivard Dexter said founders should focus less on meticulously managing cashflow than on ensuring the business is flexible enough to change course if needed.

“Always having optionality is so critical, especially in these markets today,” she said. “Understanding the parts of your business you really can control, and what you can do to manage through a longer period if you need to, and being ready to take advantage of opportunity.”

Shoelace itself is an example of this philosophy. Dreamscape, the company’s flagship reading game product, was built out with capital raised by selling a previous game for very young readers, Squiggle Park, to DreamBox Learning. Rivard Dexter said the game had virtually no customers at the time of the sale in 2020 and was bought by DreamBox because the Bellevue, Wash.-based company was looking to enter the reading game market.

“It’s hard to run your business and strategically plan if you’re trying to map to what the market is going to be and how VCs are going to behave, because so much of it is momentum … and there’s this domino effect when it comes to markets heating up and slowing down," said Willson.

“So I think somewhere in the middle is probably where it's important to focus in terms of growth, but sustainably, rather than at all costs.”