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Startup investments that may be too good to be true


coworkers sitting around deskMany startup companies require access to large sums of investment capital to take on well-established competitors. The need to raise such funding may encourage a startup’s founder to paint an overly optimistic picture of the business and exaggerate its ability to succeed. In some extreme circumstances, founders may resort to deception to convince investors to back their ventures. That’s fraud.

Silicon Valley warning

A medical testing startup provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when an aggressive entrepreneur plays fast and loose with the truth. Based on the extravagant claims of the Silicon Valley company’s founder, the startup raised more than $700 million and secured a $10 billion valuation. When evidence emerged that it couldn’t conduct extensive medical tests on tiny amounts of blood as it had claimed, the company collapsed.

Its founder has denied allegations that she made false claims. She and the startup’s former president currently are defending themselves against criminal charges leveled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office (a trial is scheduled for this spring). The founder has already settled a lawsuit alleging fraud filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Getting adequate information

So how can you avoid fraudulent investments? The simple answer is that you must investigate any claims that sound too good to be true and closely scrutinize new investment opportunities — and the entrepreneurs behind them.

The founder of the medical testing company deflected requests for information about its inner workings. She often cited the need to protect intellectual property. Protecting proprietary information is a valid concern. But before investors inject capital into a project, they need to have an intimate understanding of the company and its products and services. If a startup refuses to provide adequate information, you’re better off walking away.

The startup also lacked an audited set of financial statements. This is another glaring red flag that investors should have heeded. According to MarketWatch, none of its investors requested access to the company’s financial statements.

In addition to developing a detailed understanding of a company’s operations, set aside time to conduct background checks on its founders and key executives. A founder’s so-called stellar business track record may not jive with public records that show a history of failed ventures. Or you may find that a programming “prodigy” enjoys little respect or confidence in the tech community. Ask direct questions of the business’s owner to resolve issues.

Reduce your risk 

Startups have a strong incentive to provide potential investors with overly optimistic financials and hyperbolic growth claims. Most startup founders aren’t involved in promulgating fraud. Nevertheless, you should work with experienced financial advisors when investing in a new company.

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