Holistic Entrepreneurship – Interview with Samira Salman

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Episode Summary

Samira Salman is the CEO & Founder of Salman Solutions, a firm that advises executives, startup founders, and entrepreneurs on how to build better companies and raise capital. Samira had a very successful career as a tax lawyer. Now, she uses her expertise in both corporate and tax law to advise her clients, and she speaks heavily on topics such as entrepreneurship, brand building, negotiation, and more. Discover how you can build trust with an investor, on this week’s episode!

Holistic Entrepreneurship – Interview with Samira Salman

Hello and welcome to The Successful Pitch Podcast. Today’s guest is Samira Salman, who is a business advisor, a tax lawyer, and entrepreneur, and a speaker. She’s the founder and CEO of Salman Solutions, which is a strategic planning and business development firm. For the past 20 years, she’s been all about out of the box thinking, not only in corporate and tax law, but she’s advised over 75 executives in all kinds of businesses, built and sold over 30 companies and, get this, raised over $60 million in startup and growth capital. Clearly, she’s someone we want to have on the show. Welcome, Samira.

Thank you, John.

I’m always fascinated to see someone’s journey of how did you get to where you were, and most people have to have quite a bit of experience. I know you went to law school, obviously, and studied in a lot of other places. Can you talk about some of your experiences when you were in law school? Did you always know you wanted to get into the tech investment world? How did all of that come about?

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I wanted to buy and sell companies and I wanted to be a deal lawyer.

When I was in law school, I wanted to be Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. I wanted to buy and sell companies and I wanted to be a deal lawyer. When I started doing that type of work in the corporate section, I realized and learned very quickly that the tax lawyers were the ones who actually structured the nitty gritty of the deal. That’s what I chose to do as my legal profession and I practiced tax law for eight and a half years. I worked in a very exciting time. I worked at Arthur Andersen in Houston when the whole Enron scandal was happening. I also was in house at Shell Oil Company. I got to see some really interesting transactions throughout my career.

I’ll say.

One day, I woke up and I said, “It can’t just be these different deals and transactions.” I was like, “I really want to do more and I want to help companies with more than just the tax structure or the financial modeling.” I went on a year and a half personal development journey, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do next. The whole time, I was still employed at Shell Oil Company as a lawyer, but I was also exploring. I was doing a lot of informational interviewing, reading, speaking to people, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

I decided that I was going to open up a firm, and I called it Salman Solutions. My purpose was to help build and grow companies and brands, and to put deals together and raise funding. I wanted to help companies holistically, not just with tax law or a financial model. I wanted to be able to come in and be a trusted advisor to whoever was leading the company and really help them problem solve at a comprehensive level.

I love that because it’s not just one little piece of the pie. It’s the big picture from start to finish, it sounds like. Because if you’re an investor and a trusted advisor, that’s gold. Because you’ve got skin in the game, you care about the founder, you care about the company.

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Holistic Entrepreneurship: Do the hard work that’s necessary to take companies to the next level.

Right, absolutely. My clients become a part of my life, a part of my family, and I really enjoy rolling up my sleeves and getting in there and sitting next to them and helping do the hard work that’s necessary often to take companies to the next level or to turn them around if they’re not experiencing the type of growth that they’d like to.

When do startups typically start engaging with you? Is it at the very beginning before their revenue, or do you like to engage with more series A?

I work with companies in all different stages. I’ve worked with brand new startups that don’t even have a penny of funding. I’ve also worked with companies in the mature stage who are trying to figure out what their exit plan, succession planning is. The only criteria for me to work with a company is that the place where they want to accomplish what it is they say that they want to accomplish, and that they’re really engaged in the process and all hands are on deck.

I think a lot of our listeners are probably startups that are pre-revenue, but they’ve got a couple of people on their team, they might even have a little bit of traction. What do you look for when you hear a pitch from someone like that?

The first thing I always ask for is I ask to see what they have organized as their pitch materials and their financial model. That really speaks volumes about where they are in the, “We’re starting our company and we’re laying the platform and the foundation for real growth.” Too many times, companies are making these pitch decks to just look pretty and snazzy and help them with the pitch, but they’re not really, really understanding the components of what it takes to build a company and penetrate a market.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: A business is 100% based on the numbers.”]

Once I first look at those materials and I first look at them, from there, I can tell, “Okay, here’s where we need to start.” It’s very important that I understand where the client is so I can move with them where they need to go, but I always like to start where they are. The other component is a financial model, and as you know, and I’m sure many of your listeners know, a business is 100% based on the numbers. If it’s not, then it’s just a hobby. I like to really understand what they built in their financial model, and really to understand what are the assumptions behind this. “Okay, so you’re projecting revenue of X in year one? How are you going to get those revenue projections, and have you modeled out the necessary expenses that you’re going to have to incur in order to meet those revenue projections?”

I can tell a lot about where a company is in position just from reviewing their initial materials. Then from there, we sit down and we work on a process to ensure that all components of the financial model and the business model have been thought through before we go and sit down with investors. We have our process and it lasts anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks, and it’s called capital raise consulting. It’s a straight-up process that only prepares you to go sit in the meetings. Because it’s not just about having a beautiful pitch deck and financial model, but it’s about having thought through all the necessary components to success of your business and being able to answer all those questions when an investors asks you, “Have you thought of this? What about that? How are you going to address this?”

We really do a very deep dive under the hood, especially with market positioning and understanding what are the pain points that this product or solution or service is solving, what is the value proposition, why is your company much better positioned to solve this problem, what are your unique qualities, characteristics, attributes. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done with companies before they sit with investors. That’s my favorite thing to do, because it’s really like a birthing process.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: Starting a company is like a birthing process.”]

You’re taking something and you’re planting a seed in the ground and then you’re watering and you’re allowing the sun to shine on it. Then later, the seeds sprouted, which means we’re able to raise funding. It’s a very rewarding process for my team and I, and it’s exciting to see a company go from having an idea and maybe a skeletal business plan and financial model, and then really to build those things up robustly and to get into the meat and the nitty gritty. When we sit with the investors, we’ve unturned every stone and we’ve answered every question, and we’re fully, fully prepared.

That’s really what makes investors say yes, is the credibility is there. They see how you think and that you’ve thought through something. Because, they’re going to say no, I have found, and I’d love your opinion on this. If two things happen, one, if you confuse them, if you don’t have a clear pitch on who you are and what problem you’re solving, and secondly, if your numbers don’t make sense. They’re either too aggressive or not big enough for them to see a big ROI. Are those the two things that you see is big challenges and mistakes people make?

I absolutely agree. I think the first one, if you confuse them, what that means is you don’t understand your company. You don’t understand the business, you don’t understand the marketplace, and you don’t understand the necessary critical components to get your company from point A to point B. The second component about the numbers. I see a lot of inflated pitch decks, and I’m okay with very large numbers. I worked at Shell Oil Company, so I saw huge numbers.

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Holistic Entrepreneurship: If you confuse your investors, that means you don’t understand your company.

But, you need to be able to explain exactly how you’re going to accomplish those numbers, and what are those numbers based on, what are the assumptions, and what are the marketplace steps that are going to lead you from point A to point B. Because, at the end of the day, we both know that investors invest in people, and what they’re looking for is a person who has done their homework, they’re organized, they’re thorough, they play in correctly, but yet, they’re nimble enough to make decisions on their feet and to move and to pivot when necessary.

I always teach my clients, “You’re negotiating from the first communication with the potential investor, whether it is a text message, an email, you bump into them in a cocktail party and you say hello.” You want to make sure that you have your A game on and you’re presenting excellence in communication. Even the way that you type your emails speaks volumes about, are you going to be thorough? Are you going to be organized? Are you going to make sure that things are written correctly and you’ve thought through what you’re actually saying? Your use of social media is another dictator to investors about do you have good judgment? Do you post things you shouldn’t be posting? These are all things that I try to bring to my clients and I educate them.

Another big mistake that I see, and this one’s a little bit funny, but I see clients interrupting potential investors in meetings. The potential investor will be speaking and the client will feel the need to jump in and share their viewpoint right then. We do a lot of that coaching, we do a lot of role playing. At the end of the day, nothing replaces having done your homework, and having done your homework 500 times. Especially in this day and age, I think investors are inundated with all kinds of interesting companies and projects. You really have to do the homework to clearly communicate why are you different and better, and going to be more successful and less risky than the 50 other really cool tech companies that that investor has probably seen that month.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: Do the homework.”]

Yes. You touched on so many great things there. I love this emphasis on doing your homework and being prepared because I keep telling people, “You cannot wing your pitch. It doesn’t have to sound robotic, but you better practice it enough that you can come across conversational and clear.” Because nobody has a great pitch without practice, and the same thing is true with their numbers. I love that you are all about the preparation from top to bottom.

You also really brought up a great point there, Samira, about branding. You brand yourself from the way you dress, the way you talk to somebody. Even what you put in an email, the subject line. Is it concise? Is it compelling? Or is it hard to follow? All that stuff is so important for people. It’s your A game. I say when you meet with investors, it’s the Super Bowl of the meetings, it’s your Olympic moment. That’s, to me, what you just described.

Absolutely, and one of the things that I think is most important is the speed of your communication also. If your investor is emailing with you, make sure you email him back in a very timely manner.

Yes. Don’t go, “I’ll get to that later,” because then they think it’s not important. Listen. They should be your number one person. If you’re trying to woo somebody in dating, you don’t wait four days to get back to them, do you? No, of course not. There’s two things more I want to talk about: use of social media and this all-important active listening. Let’s do a deep dive into social media for a minute. I have a lot of founders that say, “I don’t really have much on my LinkedIn profile because I’m an entrepreneur. I’m not trying to get a job.” I said to them, “You don’t think investors are looking at your LinkedIn profile?”

That should be a branding opportunity, that should be a place for references, a whole history of how you got to where you are, any successful exits. You need to have not just crazy pictures deleted from your Facebook, or Pinterest, or Instagram, or whatever, but a really professional LinkedIn profile for investments, don’t you think?

I absolutely agree with that. I teach classes called Building Your Personal Brand. I teach in the law school, Building Your Business and Your Brand. I teach a lot of personal branding seminars and I give a lot of how to build your brand keynote speeches to all different groups. I believe that there is no difference in your personal life or your business life now, especially with transparency and the internet. You are who you are, and how you put yourself out there and present yourself speaks volumes about how you’re going to do business.

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Holistic Entrepreneurship: There is no difference in your personal life or your business life

Do you pay attention to details? Is your LinkedIn profile organized? Is it clear? Have you listed your education? Have you listed your jobs sequentially? Are there major gaps in your work history? All these components, you’re exactly correct. Investors are looking at that. Before I even take on a client, I Google and I look at who they are. I look at their social media pages, because that tells me a lot about their judgment and their attention to detail. Especially if you’re the founder or CEO of a business, you have an obligation to be the face of the business and to be out there selling your business.

LinkedIn is a really great tool for doing that. If you don’t understand that, or you don’t believe that, or you haven’t invested the time to use it, what that’s going to tell the investor is you’re not going to use their resources wisely. Because here’s an amazing resource that’s free that you could use. You have to understand that it’s not just about, “You need to be active on social media,” but social media, in general, is an amazing, economical resource for building a business and building a brand. If you’re not using that and you’re not maximizing the free tools, why am I going to give you money? Because that tells me you’re not going to use my money in a really efficient, effective manner.

Let me just underline that for all the listeners. I’ve never heard anybody put it quite like that, Samira. I love the way you’ve connected the dots of how an investor thinks. If you’re not using a good, free tool like LinkedIn, professionally, to establish your brand, then you probably will not be a good person to use my resources and my money wisely. It all just points to authentic, who you are is how you perform in small details and big details. If you can’t be bothered to take care of branding yourself as the founder especially on social media, then you probably will not take care of the big details of managing all the way you could spend my money as an investor. That is so valuable. I love it. Thank you, thank you.

You’re welcome, and I want to add, if you don’t mind.

Yes, please.

Let me add one more component to this that’s super important that adds onto that. We also look at how have you used your money to date. If I’m seeing that you have all these company cars and a really fancy office with fancy furniture and you’re still in startup mode, that tells me you’re not going to be a good steward of my cash. Another thing that I look at, and I think this is a little, this one’s funny, but it’s really true. When you’re in a super startup mode and I see pitch deck materials that look like they’ve had $50,000 spent on them and they’re all beautiful and on thick paper and in fancy customized folders, what that tells me is you’re wasting my money.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: It’s not about materials, it’s about the content.”]

Most of the money that I’ve raised, I’ve used really it was like Word documents or very simple PowerPoints printed on regular paper with a staple. Because it’s not about the quality of the materials, it’s about the content of them. It’s that funny thing. You can’t really put lipstick on a pig. If you have really, really good stuff there and there is substance in there, you don’t have to dress it up with too much fancy school supplies. The numbers and the words will speak for themselves.

At the same token, don’t ignore details. God forbid, if you have a typo on your pitch deck or if you have really ugly slides that are not pleasant to look at. It doesn’t have to be $50,000, but it should be, in my opinion, at least somewhat professionally designed, because everyone now has the skills to do that, or hire a graphic designer for a nominal amount of money to make it look professional. There’s a minimum standard of what’s acceptable, I think, especially when you’re asking for money.

Absolutely, and there’s really creative ways to be able to execute that. You don’t have to spend a ton of money. You can figure out, “How do I get a professional, great looking product without spending a ton of money?”

One of the other things you talked about, which I just love, is not interrupting investors, or in my case, what I talk to people about is active listening to make sure that they ask you a question. First, don’t interrupt them. Second, if they ask you a question, make sure you heard the question properly before you answer it. Because what I hear time and again, and I love your insight on this, is you get asked a question or you as an investor ask somebody a question and they don’t answer the question, maybe because they didn’t hear you properly. They thought you asked something else, and you feel like, “They’re trying to avoid answering my question. I’m so frustrated.” What are your thoughts on active listening going along with not interrupting people when they’re talking?

I agree with both of those points. What I would say is this. You’re in that meeting to have a conversation with the potential investor. Your job is to be extra 500,000% prepared, but then put all your notes and pitches aside and walk into that ring with a blank slate, prepared to have a conversation. Don’t feel like, “I’m not going to get my funding if I don’t put these certain things out there into the conversation.” Sit there and really listen to what they’re asking. Pause to make sure you understood it, and then answer. If you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification. A common technique that’s useful is after you’ve answered them, “Did I answer your question? Do you have any follow-ups?”

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Holistic Entrepreneurship: You’re in that meeting to have a conversation with the potential investor.

Additionally, the other thing that I see is you have to really read body language. If you’re so intent on getting out your statements and your phrases, and things that you feel you must tell them and you’re not watching them, they may have questions throughout your presentation. It’s a really good idea to pause and say, “Do you have a question? Is there something I can answer for you?” Because, what does that do? That keeps the listener, and in this case, your potential investor, interested and it keeps them in line with the conversation so you’re not going to lose them.

If you keep talking and talking and you have to get everything you say out and he or she has questions that are not getting answered, by the time you get to the end, they’re not going to be with you through the end of your story. I always encourage individuals to understand, this needs to be a conversation. You need to be able to talk to this person the same way as you would be talking to anybody else in a give and take, pause, ask for clarification, make sure you’re understanding. It’s not just a fire hose of information.

Right. Nobody wants to drown in information. I really like this technique of not only after you answer the question saying, “Did I answer your question?” Let’s just, again, have some empathy for the investor. If you were the investor and someone said that to you, think how you would feel. You would feel great. You would feel listened to. “Wow, that guy or that women really cares that they’ve answered my question. I’m going to like working with them.” You could either say yes or, “No, I have a follow-up.”

The other thing you said, Samira, that is so valuable is watch the body language. Sometimes, people can just show you slight, the brows go like, “I’m confused.” People will wrinkle their brows when they don’t understand something. That’s your cue to pause and say, “Do you have a question?” Invite them to ask a question. If you have 10 minutes or 15 minutes and you want to cover, let’s just say, three points, it’s more important, if I’ve heard you properly, to cover two that’s a dialogue where the person has all those questions answered and not get to everything that you have prepared. Because, if they’re interested and don’t have any questions and feel like they have a connection with you, they’ll set up another meeting.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: People do business with people.”]

You are extremely 120% correct. The other component that I want to add to that is people do business with people. They do business with people they like and people they trust. They always have and they always will. That’s a Samira Salman phrase and you can take that phrase and extrapolate it to, investors invest in people. People they like and people they trust. They always have, they always will. There are countless examples of times that a person went in to pitch a certain company or a certain business concept to an investor, and the investor says, “I really like you but I’m not into this business. Go back to the drawing board, tweak these seven things, reposition a bit, and come back and visit me.”

That’s how you start building a relationship and you’re able to go back to the same investor for multiple projects because they like you, they want to work with you, they like the way you work, they like the way you communicate, and they want to work with your team. I think that’s the most important message to get across, is your job is not to sell your company, but it’s to sell yourself, as a founder, as a leader, as the CEO, and as a person that this investor can work with on a long-term basis, build a relationship, and you guys can be nimble and make good decisions and be good stewards of the investor’s money together.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: Don’t sell your company. Sell yourself.”]

I think that that’s a big gaping hole that I’ve seen in the pitch world, is that the people pitching forget that. They skip that part of building rapport, finding common ground and especially making assumptions about what the investor is looking for. Unless it’s a fund that has very strict details and we know what the criteria is, it’s always a good idea to have some rapport building, stakeholder analysis questions at the beginning to make sure you understand who this person is, what makes them tick and how they make investment decisions, especially if they’re raising from a private individual, or a family office or some other type of entity that doesn’t have a strict scripted mandate for how they invest. It’s important to ask questions and make sure that you understand what they are looking for and who they are, because that’s what you need to speak to.

Do you have any stories that you can share with us about someone that either was introduced to you or somehow you guys connected and you said, “This is my person, and I’m going to help this person go from, basically, just an idea to getting funded”?

I do. I have several stories where clients came to me and they had very infancy projects and businesses. Some of them were product-based, some of them were service-based. What I pride myself on is I say that I have a unicorn picker, which means when I choose a company or a project to work with, most of the time, it ends up being successful. The reason why is because I have this innate gift for knowing, will this product and service, coupled with this leader and this team, be able to make it? What we do is we provide the funding and we provide the strategy and the know-how and the secret sauce that sticks everything together. But is that leader, that company founder, do they have what it’s going to take to make it to the next level?

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Holistic Entrepreneurship: I say that I have a unicorn picker, which means when I choose a company or a project, most of the time it ends up being successful.

I do come across a lot of projects that I pass on, but every now and then, when I come across one, I’m like, “I’m going to go work with this person because I see a future there.” I’ve worked in different consumer goods industries, but I’m pretty good at calling it. It’s just the way that the person has what it takes to move through each day of being entrepreneur, because as you know, entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. It’s a pretty brutal, grueling profession. I really look for the people, because I can teach anybody any aspect of the business.

One of my most proud accomplishments is we have somebody who’s the right hand person of one of our founders and they graduated from college not too long ago with a Liberal Arts degree. We were able to teach them how to build financial models. They keep all the books, they do all our monthly reporting. We basically turned him into a CFO overnight. My point in that illustration is when you have really great team members who are open and willing to learn, anybody can learn anything.

The most important part is the demeanor and the disposition of the team. You have to find people that work the way you do and the team has to work together in a cohesive mechanism. Even if components of the team have these really stellar resumes, if the people can’t work together, it doesn’t matter because it’s not going to work. That’s what I look for, is a leader who has the right leadership skills and they know how to properly and lovingly motivate their teams and I look for team members who are willing to learn, and who are comfortable working in the very nimble startup entrepreneurial environment.

[Tweet “Holistic Entrepreneurship: Demeanor and disposition of the team is vital.”]

Sometimes I see teams that they have really great resumes but all the folks came from corporate America, and those teams sometimes have problems gelling and learning how to work in the nimble startup environment, especially when there’s funding gaps and it’s very stressful. Sometimes we bring in professionals to help us work through that team building and we do all kinds of different interesting things. My role as the trusted advisor is to keep my eye on all these components and make sure that everything is moving in the right direction.

One of the most successful characteristics I see of founders and CEOs, leaders of companies, is that they cut off the dead tree limbs when they need to. If an employee’s not working out or a team member’s not working out, they make really quick, nimble decisions. That always ends up being the better answer than the long run. When you keep folks around that aren’t really an asset to the team, it tends to affect the entire team and moral, etc.

Great advice. You sound like you’re an air traffic controller as this trusted advisor, making sure there’s no problems. I love this cut off the dead tree limbs when you need to because that whole analogy, one bad apple causes the whole group to go bad.

My best friend says that phrase.

Is there a book you’d recommend for people to read either about entrepreneurship or life, in general?

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The 50th Law – written collaboratively by rapper 50 Cent and author Robert Greene.

My favorite business book is called The 50th Law. It’s written by 50 Cent, the rapper, and Robert Greene. He’s a motivational speaker. He had some financial challenges, bankruptcy, and financial fluctuation I think is a rite of passage for entrepreneurship. The book has 10 different rules to get basically from the streets to becoming a multi-hundred-million dollar businessman. The thing that I like about the book is it’s really different from most other books out there on business. It’s more on the scrappy human side of business and not necessarily the metrics and the spreadsheets and the numbers. Even though I’m a former tax lawyer, at the end of the day, people do business with people.

What his rules help you understand is how to move within this web or network of people more nimbly and more strategically and more successfully. Because really, when you break it all down, business is just a bunch of people running around. Some of us are investors, some of us are CEOs, some of us are secretaries, but we’re all human beings trying to figure out how to work together. That’s what a lot of my career has been, at this point. I do a lot of coaching and a lot of consulting on how to work more effectively with clients, with team members, with investors. At the end of the day, the communication is what makes or breaks a company. If the environment and tone is set for open and honest communication and subordinates feel comfortable going to leadership and voicing problems, we can solve those problems sooner. I really enjoy that book.

The Alchemist; Novel by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist; Novel by Paulo Coelho

One of my all-time favorites is The Alchemist by, the famous alchemist, Paulo Coelho. I just love that because it really helps you understand you have to go through some of the same lessons in life over and over. I think many of the lessons in that book are very applicable to the entrepreneurial journey. I think you can take some of those phrases and paste them. One of my favorite quotes is from that book and it says, “The soul of the world tests you about lessons while you’re on the journey not because it’s cruel, but it wants to make sure you’ve mastered the lessons.”

It’s basically saying you may run into some of the same challenges over and over not because it just wants you to learn from it, but master the lesson. I think a lot of times when you see entrepreneurs in the entrepreneurial world, they may have had some of the same challenges, whether it came to funding, or selecting partnerships, or strategic collaborations, or whatever their Achilles heel is. They’ll continue to have some of those same lessons until they master them. I just love that because I think it speaks volumes to how we are on this journey and you’re just collecting skills and experiences as you go.

I can’t thank you enough for all your words of wisdom about what it takes to be successful as a founder, as a team member and what investors are looking for. Samira, how can people follow you? What’s your Twitter handle and all that good stuff?

My Twitter is @samira_salman. My Instagram is SamiraSalman. I’m on Facebook. Salman Solutions is my company. I have a professional Facebook. It’s just Samira Salman Professional Page. I also have a YouTube. If you go to my website, it’s SalmanSolutions.com, you can click, all my social media links are on there.

Perfect, and we’ll put those in the show notes as well. Thank you so much. You’ve been a great guest. We look forward to watching and tracking all your posts. Thanks again.

Thanks so much, John. I appreciate it.

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