September 26th, 2018
How to Raise Money by Paul Graham
Most startups that raise money do it more than once. A typical trajectory might be (1) to get started with a few tens of thousands from something like Y Combinator or individual angels, then (2) raise a few hundred thousand to a few million to build the company, and then (3) once the company is clearly succeeding, raise one or more later rounds to accelerate growth.
Reality can be messier. Some companies raise money twice in phase 2. Others skip phase 1 and go straight to phase 2. And at Y Combinator we get an increasing number of companies that have already raised amounts in the hundreds of thousands. But the three phase path is at least the one about which individual startups' paths oscillate.
This essay focuses on phase 2 fundraising. That's the type the startups we fund are doing on Demo Day, and this essay is the advice we give them.
Fundraising is hard in both senses: hard like lifting a heavy weight, and hard like solving a puzzle. It's hard like lifting a weight because it's intrinsically hard to convince people to part with large sums of money. That problem is irreducible; it should be hard. But much of the other kind of difficulty can be eliminated. Fundraising only seems a puzzle because it's an alien world to most founders, and I hope to fix that by supplying a map through it.
To founders, the behavior of investors is often opaque—partly because their motivations are obscure, but partly because they deliberately mislead you. And the misleading ways of investors combine horribly with the wishful thinking of inexperienced founders. At YC we're always warning founders about this danger, and investors are probably more circumspect with YC startups than with other companies they talk to, and even so we witness a constant series of explosions as these two volatile components combine. 
If you're an inexperienced founder, the only way to survive is by imposing external constraints on yourself. You can't trust your intuitions. I'm going to give you a set of rules here that will get you through this process if anything will. At certain moments you'll be tempted to ignore them. So rule number zero is: these rules exist for a reason. You wouldn't need a rule to keep you going in one direction if there weren't powerful forces pushing you in another.
The ultimate source of the forces acting on you are the forces acting on investors. Investors are pinched between two kinds of fear: fear of investing in startups that fizzle, and fear of missing out on startups that take off. The cause of all this fear is the very thing that makes startups such attractive investments: the successful ones grow very fast. But that fast growth means investors can't wait around. If you wait till a startup is obviously a success, it's too late. To get the really high returns, you have to invest in startups when it's still unclear how they'll do. But that in turn makes investors nervous they're about to invest in a flop. As indeed they often are.
What investors would like to do, if they could, is wait. When a startup is only a few months old, every week that passes gives you significantly more information about them. But if you wait too long, other investors might take the deal away from you. And of course the other investors are all subject to the same forces. So what tends to happen is that they all wait as long as they can, then when some act the rest have to.
Don't raise money unless you want it and it wants you.
Such a high proportion of successful startups raise money that it might seem fundraising is one of the defining qualities of a startup. Actually it isn't. Rapid growth is what makes a company a startup. Most companies in a position to grow rapidly find that (a) taking outside money helps them grow faster, and (b) their growth potential makes it easy to attract such money. It's so common for both (a) and (b) to be true of a successful startup that practically all do raise outside money. But there may be cases where a startup either wouldn't want to grow faster, or outside money wouldn't help them to, and if you're one of them, don't raise money.
The other time not to raise money is when you won't be able to. If you try to raise money before you can convince investors, you'll not only waste your time, but also burn your reputation with those investors.