"If one exists, I would love to see the "secret" checklist of criteria VCs use to decide if they even want to pursue talks with companies, or is every business / idea always evaluated with a fresh set of eyes? In other words how do you get in the door and make your company stand out among the hundreds of proposals?"
There are two ways to answer this. First, is the obvious answer: All things coming in the door are evaluated on their own merits. The second is really an expanded answer to the first one so here goes.
Tons of VCs will tell you that getting a referral is the fastest/easiest way to get into a VC's office to make that first pitch. I suspect with the massively large players, this is probably true. They see 1000s of deals every day, field 100s of calls, 100s of emails, etc, so getting to the top of that list will not be a cake walk.
For me and the spooky place called my mind/space/time, there is somewhat of an unofficial process that I use.
First, I try really really hard to talk to everybody at least once. I'm just not that important/famous/arrogant/successful/egotistical that I can afford to be any other way. I believe I have the greatest gig in the world and I love talking to smart people. So, my no harm/no foul meetings usually cover most people trying to get in the door of a VC.
Getting to the top of my pile is another matter entirely.
Generally, I'll work on nine active files at any one time. Active is defined as a deal that has a)passed the sniff test and b) has a possibility of being funded. I probably have 20 'deals' on my desk at any one time. So, I'm constantly rolling through deals, process, etc. Yes, I'll get to it, as they say, but it might take time.
If you are a Microsoft Alumni, you go to the top of the pile/head of the line. To the Microsoft haters out there, sorry, the company was very very good to me and an Alumni calling card gets you in first available slot. If you a Veteran, same thing, top of the pile/head of the line. I know, corny, but I was in the U.S. Air Force for 9 years and, well, there you go.
If you are a Canadian investment opportunity, you are up there. I am first and foremost a Canadian Venture Capitalist who truly believes this country has some amazing people and brilliant ideas. Canada is an excellent country to do business in and I want to be as active as I can in promoting and helping the Canadian entrepreneurial environment prosper.
Get to know what we invest in.
You have to be in our general sweet spot of what our firm does in order the most out of NHNF meeting. While I'm happy to spend 30 minutes with a Photon Torpedo inventor, weapons are not something we would ever invest in. Ever. A great new medical widget? Excellent for you, never for me. Drug trials? I might take em but I will never fund you.
Solve a problem.
I know it sounds corny, but it is really true. Show me the problem, show me the pain, show me the solution and let's talk about the money. Now, you might think the problem has to be something I experience. Not necessarily. Sure, in the case of Tungle, it goes after a major pain for me and I'll pay 3x what Marc will charge but there are other problems we are looking at where the problem isn't mine but it is a big problem.
There is an article on yours truly which talks a bit about what I mean. No ego plug intended. The link is here.
Play to my strengths.
I'm a geek, wonk, tech guy. I barely can dress myself (I hang out with Mark McQueen when I need to be seen with better dressed money people). So, it will be harder for you to get me excited about things that are outside my world. For example: I had a brilliant women spend a NHNF meeting on business venture that centered around technology/systems within the dry cleaning business. I've never been in a dry cleaning business and have only heard rumors about what they do. More seriously, retail was outside my space plus I'm jeans and polo shirts. So it was a brilliant women who probably didn't get as much as she would have liked, certainly not a source of funding, but nevertheless, we talked. If you want general social talk with some feedback on an idea or some sanity check on what you've heard, excellent; but for that first step toward being funded by my firm, solve a problem in our space. For bonus points, get to know me a bit so you can tune to my strengths.
Understand the odds.
At one deal a quarter, some people would tell you we are insane. Others would tell you we are slow. Regardless, it is not one deal a day which means your odds of getting a check are not great on paper to start with. This applies to any VC firm. Just understand this and the rejection pain is a bit less. Just a bit.
Ask for the No.
One of my portfolio companies was courted by a west coast (northwest) firm which played games for months and months. To this day, they are still doing the "Let's continue the dialog" nonsense. I hate that and you should as well. Feel free to come in here, give me an elevator pitch and ask me right on the spot if would be something you have a shot at getting through the JLA process. I'll try to get you the no within the first 10 minutes, so the next 20 minutes can be spent talking about your business, ideas, etc, and me getting to know you. I LinkedIn is a great (check that; amazing) tool. I think a face to face dialog is even better. So let's get the no out of the way and see if we can find some other things to talk about that will have value to you.
I hope this rather weird list of things helps answer Keith's general question as well as giving a bit of some insight in to what goes on over here at JLA. It really is like the making of sausage; now that you know, being a VEGAN looks pretty good.