Henry is the Co-Founder & CEO of Verisoul, which helps companies prevent fake users. Henry participated in 500 Global’s flagship program in September 2022 and presented at the March 2023 Demo Day. I talked with Henry about negotiating the 500 Global standard deal, details about the program which aren’t well advertised, and what happens on Demo Day.
- 500 Global is best for first-time founders looking to understand the startup ecosystem and fundraising landscape better.
- The strongest component of 500 Global’s programming is its fundraising preparation.
- 500 Global charges companies $37,500 to participate in the startup accelerator from the $150,000 investment (the amount they advertise), so startups receive $112,500 after the fee deduction.
- Founders can negotiate 500 Global’s standard deal if they have other investors at the table.
- 500 Global’s flagship program has a strong international presence.
KR: Hey Henry, can you take a minute to introduce yourself?
HL: Hey Kieran, thanks for having me on. I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Verisoul. We’re a B2B software platform that helps companies stop fake users like bots, multi-accounting, and bad actors. We do that by combining all of the signals you need into a super easy-to-integrate and use platform. We were a 500 Startups accelerator program company and were excited to talk about that today.
KR: You participated in the program earlier this year? Was it the flagship program?
HL: Yeah, exactly. So, we were in the flagship program about a year ago. We joined last September 2022 – very early in our startup career. We were actually founded in June 2022. So, a couple of months in. We participated in the Demo Day back in March 2023.
KR: Why did you want to participate in a startup accelerator in the first place?
HL: First and foremost, it’s important to note that we’re all first-time founders. There are a couple of things that initially attracted us (to the program). One was kind of the mentorship and advisorship that’s promised as part of these accelerator programs. This was the most important thing. We thought, “Hey, as first-time founders, it makes sense to join a community of existing founders, people who have seen other companies do it before, etc.” That was one of the ideas we had going in. Two, was getting access to a potential network of other founders that have been there and done that we could chat with. Third was understanding the financial and fundraising landscape, which we thought would be helpful as we were looking to raise a pre-seed round that year.
KR: Can you talk about how 500 Global stood out in those areas?
HL: We were debating whether we wanted to do an accelerator or not and 500 reached out directly to us to apply. So, we didn’t apply to any other accelerators. It was a bit different than the typical journey – one of the investors at 500 reached out, and we had a pretty quick and bespoke application and interview process and were in quickly. So we never considered other accelerators, but when we were looking at whether to join, we chatted with a bunch of founders who had been in the portfolio and had been through the experience. The three areas I discussed a second ago resonated with those founders as core value props of 500.
KR: You had a slightly different admission process than the standard one. Can you talk about those conversations? What was discussed during those calls, and what questions did they ask you about your company?
HL: I remember it being two conversations in total. The first was an intro call with one of the investors who became our deal lead. That was a typical investor intro call where you do a quick pitch; they ask mostly about the team, idea, and go-to-market strategy. The thing that stood out, one of the things that we prepped for, we just tried to be clear in what we were saying. I think as a company that’s only three months old, you’re only going to get a few things right, and you’re probably going to have to change everything. So, our concept going in was, let’s highlight the team, the market, and be super clear about what we know, what we don’t, and where we are going. I think that approach played well. Following that, we had a larger investor call with 5-7 of their team members. This is akin to during a fundraising process, the kind of partner call, if you will, that founders will see when they raise funding. Some of the questions that stood out as interesting that I remember was one of the GPs asked about what kept me up at night, and it was less kind of getting the business and a little bit more about the team, how we ticked, how we were thinking about growth in the business. So, it ended up being a bit of a behavioral style interview and obviously understanding the business. But you know, at a three-month-old company, there’s only so much you can dive into with respect to numbers and data.
KR: Did they give you feedback immediately after that call about things they were excited about or to work on with your company? What happened after that?
HL: I don’t remember perfectly. I think we basically went from that meeting to an immediate offer, which we also tried to negotiate a little. There wasn’t a ton of direct feedback coming out of the call.
KR: Did you try to negotiate the terms part of the agreement or another aspect of the deal?
HL: Yeah, a little-known fact about 500 Startups is that you can negotiate the standard deal. If you have other investors at the table, you can potentially get them to match those other terms. That’s a tip we learned from another founder who did the program. That was something that we chatted with them about. I don’t know if that’s similar in other accelerator programs, but it’s a nice facet, but definitely an unadvertised one for 500 Startups.
KR: How were the negotiations? Did they push back pretty hard, and were you successful in your negotiation?
HL: I would prefer not to share all the details, but it wasn’t one of those things where we asked, and they immediately said yes.
KR: What actually happens during 500 Startups? What’s a typical week look like?
HL: Each company has a unique path, although some programming is consistent across the board. It generally starts with what they call a founder retreat. That was the first thing we did, an inaugural kickoff to the program. We flew out to SF, met with several of their team members and other founders from the portfolio, went up to Napa Valley, etc. What was fantastic about that was meeting other founders in the portfolio in person. It was a remote program at the time – I’m not sure whether it is still – but a good opportunity to meet other founders. What struck me was the international representation. We had founders from Korea, Africa, and Canada, a truly global set of companies that showed up in San Francisco. From there, the program lasted ~3 months with regular Tuesday/Thursday programming. I would almost separate the programming into two halves. The first is general programming for any startup, so your typical accounting, product-market fit, growth strategies, etc. Then, they have another half of the program, which is purely devoted to Demo Day and fundraising prep. So, we split those two halves. We did the core program last year, and because we demoed in March 2023, we spent the first two months of this year going through that fundraising and Demo Day style prep. In that half of the programming, I think it was really well structured to help you get to that two-minute pitch in a digestible way over several weeks with a lot of great feedback from their team, some professional speech writers, and people who have raised millions in capital before. I think the program’s strongest component was the fundraising and Demo Day prep.
KR: Can you talk a little bit about the Demo Day? You presented for a few minutes in front of a large room of investors in-person. Yours was the first in-person one since the pandemic. What else happens on Demo Day?
HL: Yeah, all of that’s right. A little bit of fun, you get to choose a walk-out song like a baseball player. I chose Happy by Pharrell, which got the crowd going. That song is irresistible. So, you pitch in front of a room of 400-500 investors. Following that and the rest of the pitches, there’s a networking hour with drinks downstairs. It was in the same venue. It was a really good opportunity to meet folks; we had a lot of people approach us, and we sought out investors who we knew were going to be there that were a good fit for our company. I would say it is a pretty standard networking-style event. One of the other components that was not immediately visible was that all of it was broadcasted on Stonks, a kind of Demo Day investor platform. So a lot of investors watched on Stonks and reached out on that platform – where we’re able to curate what our company does, here’s the pitch deck, meet with us here, and stuff like that. So, I think they did a good job of orchestrating both an in-person and a remote-enabled component to capture the full audience of investors.
KR: What are your thoughts on that format? Do you think that’s a good format to help companies raise money, and were most of the companies in your batch successful in raising money?
HL: For a Demo Day, the format they ran was probably the best it could be. This hybrid in person, which creates an energy, and the vertical to enable anyone to view was good. I think Demo Days are maybe a little overvalued in the grand scheme of raising capital to be honest. I actually do think a lot of investors want to build longer-term relationships. So, companies that rely on the Demo Day purely will generally not be that successful, I don’t think. It’s a good way to get an introductory conversation, but I really do think that building relationships over a longer-term period is kind of the only way to be successful.
KR: What types of startups are a good fit for 500 Global?
HL: I would say mostly companies with first-time founders who may not know much about the startup ecosystem or the fundraising landscape. I think that’s probably where it’s most helpful. I think it’s a totally different set of companies then would be a right fit for a YC, for instance. Whereas YC I think kind of all of the value is in the ability to get early customers if you’re a B2B company. I think a lot of the advisorship and mentorship value has waned from that program. But, I think with 500, that aspect of finding your early customers in your batch is not present. Just smaller batches, more 1:1 time with mentors and advisors, but very few opportunities to get your early customers in that batch. So I think a totally different set of companies that it’s the right fit for.
KR: You mentioned early on in this call that you were looking for good advice as a first-time founder, and you said that the fundraising portion of the programming was most valuable to you. Was there a specific piece of advice that you received during that fundraising portion that you thought was very valuable? Can share one or two examples?
HL: One thing sticks out a particularly good piece of advice. I think a lot of people, when they’re on an investor call, sales call, a 30-second pitch to someone, etc. – the misconception is that you need to make the sale or get the investment in that conversation. I think the piece of advice we received that was really good is that all you’re trying to do with any given conversation is drive enough interest to get to the next conversation. That’s a bit of unlock, not only for fundraising but for sales. If you get into a conversation thinking that you’re going to sell them on everything in the first 30 minutes, you’ll probably be handling the call more poorly. So, really thinking, how do you drive interest just to get to the next step. That was a good piece of advice that we got during the program.
KR: Can you talk about the team that you worked with at 500 Global? Who were some of the people you worked with, and how did they help you?
HL: We had a deal lead who is an investor at 500. He provided fundraising investor advice throughout the program. You meet with him every couple of weeks. Super helpful just to bounce ideas off like “Hey here’s how I’m thinking about positioning this”, “Do you think an investor would receive that well”, and you can even ask logistical questions like “Am I able to give different investors different pitch decks tailored to their needs” and stuff like that. They also have a programming team specifically focused on building the core programming for the startup batch companies. Three people run that for the flagship program. All great. They bring experts on specific topics, mentors, and other founders from the batches. You also have a network of 500 founders or mentors to reach out to on a super easy-to-use platform-hub type. So that was like the three categories of people we interacted with during the program.
KR: You also mentioned earlier that you negotiated when you got into the program. Are there other things that are not well advertised about 500 startups that you’re willing to share?
HL: I think you have this in one of your blogs, but they have a program fee that they charge. So, you really end up getting less money than is expected. I think it’s a kind of roundabout mental accounting way to get more equity for lower cash but make it seem like you’re at a higher valuation, if that makes sense. I think that’s a little bit not hidden but not advertised.
KR: Yeah, I was looking at their page yesterday. It’s in the FAQ, but it should probably be the top-of-fold number – it doesn’t make much sense.
KR: What advice would you give to someone to increase their chances of getting into the program?
HL: Most importantly, I think to focus on team, market, and just be clear and easy to understand. Especially with accelerators, they see so many companies across a huge range of industries and verticals that if your concept takes more than 10 seconds to understand, it’s really hard even to consider their company. With such a large remit of companies that they could consider, it just has to be easy to understand. So, I would focus on making your pitch clear and simple.
KR: Yeah, I like that (advice). I’ve looked at so many applications; if you don’t understand what they’re doing in 30 seconds it’s probably a pass.
HL: Right, exactly. One of the things that I think about is that after I get off this conversation, this investor has to go tell someone else who they talked to and why they matter. If they can’t explain it in 10 seconds, it will be really hard to do that. So, you want to make it easy on the people you’re working with to explain your company’s value.