Tl;dr: 25startups that raised without a product (Some without a pitch deck!). Yes, it is possible. It’s just not likely.
I’m a top writer on Quora. That means I see a lot of questions. One that keeps getting asked is “how can I start or raise investment without a product?”
Now, I hate this question. The simple answer is YOU can’t (if you are asking it). That doesn’t mean others can’t.
Raising without a product is really hard, but it does happen.
Typically the people who can pull this off are the ones who have had exits or are high profile.
Think about it this way, if you had a million in the bank, would you want to invest in an idea or something that is already working? Simple.
But if some huge profile person comes around, say Mark Z with just a solid business model idea, you might take it seriously, right? He’s a big deal, so why not.
As I said though, it does happen, it is just not common. So I’m not going to simply shizzle on your hopes and dreams, I’m going to tell you who has done it.
25 companies raised money without a product
A stealth Bitcoin startup raised $5 million in funding in 2013. Eighteen months later, it raised $116 million round, which was a record in the Bitcoin space. They raised from big names such as Andreessen Horowitz and RRE Ventures, the Chinese Yuan Capital, a manufacturer of mobile processors, Qualcomm Inc., Khosla Ventures, Data Collective, co-founders of PayPal, Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, the founder of eBay, Jeff Skoll. 21 Inc said it plans to sell a line of chips, embedded in smartphones and other Internet-connected devices, that mine for the digital currency. In 2017 they rebranded to Earn.com to focus on allowing users to monetize social media channels, accounts, and email addresses. Who knows if it is legit, but anyway.
They raised a whopping $43 million before launching in January 2011. AdKeeper is an online advertising platform that allowed consumers to keep online ads for future use. A button is inserted into advertising creative elements and is visible to users as a small button in the ad with the letter “k” inside the button. Consumers can click on the k button to keep the ads, and then return to the cloud-based Adkeeper at a future time, to review the ads they have kept. The users can also share ads with others, via email or social networks. Small problem was that no one wanted this feature.
PayPal founder Max Levchin’s online lending startup. Affirm is a financial technology services company that offers installment loans to consumers at the point of sale. They have raised $720m to date. Example of a big name doing another startup.
Former Napster partners Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning launched with the significant press coverage in June 2012 and $33 million in funding. The videochat service was compared to ChatRoulette and never took off. They raised a lot of money though.
Airware is an enterprise drone analytics company enabling enterprises to harness aerial data and turn it into valuable business insights that can be shared and acted on. They raised $118m from top investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Google’s GV, and Kleiner Perkins. The startup ran out of money after trying to manufacture its own hardware that couldn’t compete with drone giants like China’s DJI.
Asana provides an application that helps productivity and collaboration tracking of the team easier with greater clarity, accountability, and efficiency. Founded by big-name Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, they did an Angel round of $1.2 from 14 investors without a product. They have raised $213m to date.
Beepi, the online car buying marketplace raised a seed round with just a pitch deck. They raised $149m before blowing it all. It had been valued as high as $560 million in previous rounds of funding, after raising money from 35 investors, including Yuri Milner, Comerica, Redpoint, Foundation Capital, Sherpa Capital, and Fabrice Grinda. I heard they executed rubbish and blew money on pointless things, spending money on things like a $10,000 sofa for the executives’ private conference room, and covering phone and car expenses for the founders’ significant others.
Brisk.io built tools for sales organizations to minimize reporting effort and maximize data quality and efficiency. They raised SEK1.2M ($130k) from DN Capital, Creandum, Eden Ventures, and firestartr.
I emailed Hampus Jakobsson who was a founder to see if I could get his pitch deck. He responded:
Didn’t really do a pitch deck. As I have built companies before I didn’t really need to. Sorry 🙁
block.one provides end-to-end solutions to bring businesses onto the blockchain from strategic planning to product deployment. $4b. That’s how much these guys raised without a product. I mean wtf.
Bumbl is a complete platform that offers an omnichannel retail experience including mobile shopping, in-store analytics, and digital shopping. Without launching they raised $500,000 over 3 rounds of investment.
“The goal is to enhance and redefine customer experience and provide customers with personalized content through our growing eco-system while making data lead decisions for smarter business management.” Lee Hardham, founder of Bumbl Shopping.
Here’s a video of the founder talking about raising without a product.
Color is advancing the post-PC revolution by inventing new applications that bring people together through proximity, social, and visual presentation. which took $41 million (including $25 million from Sequoia Capital) before launching in March of the same year. Understand that? No, neither do I. I have no idea what they do. Apparently, no one else did either. I think they were a photo-sharing app. They raised $41m without a product. Despite turning down a reported $200 million acquisition offer from Google, the app never gained traction while Instagram took off. The startup shut down in 2012 and what remained was acqui-hired by Apple for less than $10 million.
Clapit is the united community that provides a fun way for people to connect and build their own network by clapping what they love. They managed to raise A$2.6M without a product
The team raised from entrepreneurs: “The investors were really impressed with our concept and had a belief in the team. I knew if we pitched it to people who had businesses they would understand what the concept is, and the risk. I think we were looking for other entrepreneurs.”
This company was hilarious. They were constantly in the news. Lucas Duplan, Clinkle’s 24-year-old CEO, raised $30 million with ideas of disrupting the financial services industry with mobile payments. Those plans failed as the startup couldn’t get a working prototype and was eventually passed on by Venmo, Square, and Apple Pay.
A search engine that set its sights on Google, raised $33 million before launching in July 2008. It shuttered two years later.
Jet operates a smart shopping platform that allows its member to shop online from various retailers. It enables users to shop products in various categories, such as household products, health and beauty, grocery, baby, pet supplies, electronics, home and furniture, appliances, patio and garden, toys and video games, books, music and movies, office products, automotive, sports and fitness, clothing, shoes and accessories, jewelry and watches, arts, and crafts and hobbies.
Mark Lore, Mike Hanrahan, and Nate Faust founded Jet in April 2014, and raised $140 million in a series A round in order to build their MVP to take on their giant rival, Amazon.
Lore said they were able to raise funding by proving, through a detailed financial model, that Jet would be able to guarantee the lowest prices online.
Lore was the founder of Quidsi (e.g. Diapers.com), which was acquired by Amazon so he had the credibility to build a large eCommerce site.
Jet was acquired by Wal-Mart Stores in 2016.
Lore is an online learning platform where learners and instructors can share educational content in a simple and social online environment.
They raised $13.1m from Social Capital and IA Ventures. They were acquired by Noodle.
Magic Leap – $1.9B – 2011
Magic Leap is an Augmented Reality US-based startup that is innovating in the AR space to create new hardware and software that will give its users a never-before-seen AR experience and redefine how we access screens and visualize data. The headset combines a user’s inherent visual ability with mobile computing – giving visual output equivalent to real-world experience but powered by mobile tech. Using their Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal, they generate images indistinguishable from real objects and place those images seamlessly into the real world.
They got their first round of funding six months after Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, so they had VR hype as a trend going for them. If you missed out on the big VR startup, backing the big AR one was made sense.
Like Oculus, they had an eccentric and idealistic founder, they also were showing off a futuristic product in its early stages, though the videos were actually fake. Well, I should be careful about that, I got a cease and desist from their lawyers for posting some tech specs I found, lol 😉
However, unlike Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, the founder Rony Abovitz also had credibility as a founder having founded and sold Mako Surgical, a medical hardware company in 2013. Founded in 2011, they have raised a whopping $1.9b to date and still have not launched a product.
Olook is a women’s fast-fashion eCommerce brand that delivers top design at prices everyone can afford. Olook combines its own monthly collections of clothes, shoes, handbags and accessories with the curation of selected brands to provide customized offers that are supported by content and personalized product recommendations. Olook also offers a gifting service that leverages the recommendation algorithm used for the customized monthly collection. First online fast-fashion brand in Brazil, Olook creates its own fashion content following the hottest trends.
The raised money from Valar Capital and monashees. The amount was not disclosed. The founders were ex-Rocket Internet folks. They were acquired by Infracommerce.
Oppa is an e-commerce company in Brazil focused on making smart design furniture. Founded in 2011, they have raised $18.9m to date from Thrive Capital, Valar Ventures and monashees.
The founder Max Reichel was a first-time founder.
Oscar is a health insurance company that employs technology, design, and data to humanize health care. Whatever that means. They were founded by Josh Kushner (Yes, douch bag Trump link) in 2013 and managed to raise $40 million pre-launch.
Oscar is a great example of the huge significance timing can have when raising investment. Oscar has raised $1.3b to date.
Printi is a B2B e-commerce company that aims on breaking the lack of transparency and efficiency in printed products. Printi is disrupting the inefficient US & Latin American printing market. Utilizing sophisticated technology and the scale of the internet, Printi offers lowest prices, high quality, and a broad product portfolio to corporations of all sizes. Printi was founded on 2012 and is headquartered in São Paulo, Brazil.
They raised $56.2m before exiting to Vistaprint. They were founded by Florian Hagenbuch and Mate Pencz. I was introd to these guys just after they exited actually.
RefreshHQ is a social enterprise software solution that turns companies’ Facebook pages into interactive video experiences. They raised $350,000 in funding from a handful of Australian investors 5 months after the founder thought of the idea and without a product.
Robinhood is a commission-free stock trading app. Vlad Tenev, co-founder and co-CEO of Robinhood, said his app could not get regulatory approval without having a sizeable amount of funding from venture capitalists. But most venture capitalists didn’t want to give him money, because he had no product.
“So there are capital requirements, which also make it more difficult than launching a typical startup, because there’s a little bit of a catch-22 situation. Investors want to be sure that you’re going to get that regulatory approval before entrusting you with the capital, but you need that capital to get the regulatory approval.”
To close Tenev and his cofounder did a lot pitching, estimating nos from 75 VCs turned them down before they were able to raise their first $3 million.
Secret offered an online platform that enables users to share their personal secrets with other users anonymously. They raised $35m from investors including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, S-Cubed Capital, Index Ventures, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Fuel Capital, and Ceyuan Ventures.
Unfortunately, people are dicks. Used by a lot of kids, the platform became a way to cyberbully. Secret’s CEO David Byttow announced they shut down with the following statement “With a heavy heart, I’ve decided to shut down Secret, wind-down the company, and return the remaining money.”
I emailed David to see if I could get his pitch deck. He responded:
We never had a pitch deck 🙂
They didn’t even need a pitch deck to raise money. This is an exception in my blog on whether investors will fund your idea.
Zillow is a real-estate database website that raised $32 million in funding before launching a beta product. They went live in February 2006 and subsequently went public in 2011, growing to a market capitalization of over $5 billion.
What made Zillow fundable was the huge industry they were targeting, but with a product that was completely unique to their competitors’. While other real estate sites at the time were simply a search engine to show searchers what homes were up for sale, Zillow was a complete platform for everything home and home-related.
It’s a great example of the fact that competitors don’t matter. Build something unique and valuable, and you’ll stand out.
This is every example I can find. I am sure there are more, but when you put this into the context of the hundreds of thousands of companies that start and look for funding, it is not a significant n. Better to build a product first. But, sure try without. Maybe you will be an exception.
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