Crossing The Support Gap For Early-Stage Founders: Founders Programme 2020

COVID-19 Update: Founders Programme will still be kicking off on April 6th, however we are currently putting in place a plan for all of the workshops to be run virtually. Keep the applications coming in, and we’ll be in touch with all applicants shortly to share full details of the virtual schedule!


Founders are often advised that there’s “never been an easier time to raise money” and that there is "plenty of capital" floating around. Hot-takes such as “Raising money isn’t the hard part - execution is” float around the startup ecosystem in abundance. And yes, make no mistake that the pool of venture capital dollars available to founders has rapidly increased, however, if you are an idea-stage founder, your fundraising journey might not be any easier as a result.

The funding gap for pre-seed founders

Today, there are a lot more venture dollars up for the taking. According to Atomico’s 2019 ‘State Of European Tech Industry’ report the amount of venture capital invested in Europe has increased 5-fold from $34BN between 2010 and 2014 to $188BN between 2015 and 2019. However, most of this capital is going into later-stage companies raising larger and larger rounds. According to dealroom data in 2019, 73% of funding went to deals that were $20m or larger, and 40% went to deals larger than $100m.

Also, as Maren Bannon highlights in her tweetstorm, many funds who used to do first checks, have been successful, raised bigger funds, and now focus on slightly later stage rounds - ‘seed’ and beyond.

In other words, if you’re at the earliest stages of building your company - now standardly described as ‘pre-seed’ - the pool of venture dollars available to you is drastically lower. Founders who have successfully crossed this institutional funding gap may have done so through the following 5 means:

  • Wealthy friends and family
  • Personal savings that they’re able to use
  • Strong existing relationships to angel investors and high net-worth individuals
  • A pedigree professional background, and therefore personal networks, at top-tier tech companies (FAANG and the like)
  • Industry-specific grants

And whilst many founders do successfully raise their pre-seed rounds without any of these, it is a lot less common. There are a number of accelerators and incubators designed for pre-seed founders, but more often than not they take a significant amount of equity.

Furthermore, despite what startup folklore may tell you, for most founders to effectively compete for the limited institutional pre-seed capital that is available, they need more than an idea written on the back of a napkin.

A support gap

In order to get from an idea to the beginnings of a real business, you’ll need to have a clear hypothesis for what unique value your product will provide, what markets you will be selling to, why customers and investors should choose you over your competitors, and how you will scale to provide venture-level returns. Moving from an idea that you’ve been toying with to a fully validated proposition requires you to have the answer to questions like:

  • Technologically, is your idea feasible? Do you have access to the skills needed to get to an MVP?
  • How big is your market? How much of this will you realistically be able to capture? Is it a venture-scale business?
  • Who is your customer? Can you prove that they want what you’re planning to sell?
  • What is the competitive landscape? And what is your competitive advantage?

Elizabeth Yin of Hustle VC, furthers this, writing:

“There’s a lot of work to do to prepare to raise money at pre-seed stage. It could be building an early version of the product, or getting your first set of customers, or even doing pre-sales or lead generation well before having a product. In fintech or health, it could be in dealing with regulations or getting particular approvals even if you’re not able to launch.”

When it comes to equipping aspiring entrepreneurs to think through their business ideas in a defensible way and get into a position where they are ready to pitch pre-seed funds, there are very few quality services. At this stage, founders have to rely on informal networks of angels and advisors who can support them through their early-thinking with no judgement. Without this, founders are left to their own devices, often with only blog posts to support them.

So, to parallel the institutional funding gap at pre-seed, there is what you could call a support gap, in that the quality resources available to help founders get venture-ready are few and far between.

Plugging the support gap: Founders Programme

In a bid to close the support gap, we launched our ambitious Founders Programme. Founders Programme is an initiative that brings venture-level services and access to top-tier startup operators to founders at a stage where such resources are typically less accessible. The programme puts the earliest-stage founders through a 5-week course and equips them with the tools and frameworks that help them turn their back-of-a-napkin concepts into venture-ready propositions. At the end of the programme, we’re prepared to make a pre-seed investment of £300k-£500k into the best of the bunch.

Previous cohorts have said that the programme is "totally invaluable", that the FP team felt like "co-founders" in their business, and had "everything you need to work towards and find product-market fit".

And if you're pitch-ready and ready to raise your first round, Forward Partners is proud to be one of the few pre-seed funds in Europe- we invest capital, craft and capability from day zero onwards. Meet our team by applying to ourmonthly office hours.

Applications are currently open for April's cohort, and we’re looking for 8 builders and operators that are passionate, skilled, and willing to put the work in. Startups are hard work and we need people who are up for the challenge. Whilst we don’t expect you to be venture-ready, we are looking for rigorous thinkers and individuals who are onto something special.

Applications close on April 1st, and the programme kicks off on April 6th. Click here to apply.

Katie is an Investor with Forward Partners. She came from Vanedge Capital, a VC investing in Series A companies globally. Their sector focuses include machine learning & AI, cloud computing, SaaS, digital media and cyber security. At Vanedge, Katie was responsible for deal sourcing, due diligence and portfolio company management.

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