Neil Patel

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Tomer Kagan is now on his third startup. His latest venture has already raised tens of millions of dollars for a company that has helped us get through some of the deadliest disasters in recent years. The company, Merit has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Bossanova Investimentos, Quiet Capital, GovTech Fund, and Collier Fund.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to raise money in a crisis
  • How to throttle your fundraising and business growth
  • How Merit is growing

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    About Tomer Kagan:

    Tomer Kagan is the CEO and Co-founder of Merit.

    Merit’s verified identity platform brings visibility, liquidity, and trust to people-data, giving organizations the clarity to make better-informed decisions, engage with individuals effectively, and pursue their mission efficiently. Merit works with trusted private, state, and municipal organizations to solve critical real-world problems in sectors such as workforce development, emergency services, licensing, education, and defense readiness.

    Passionate about improving people’s lives using science and technology, Kagan has served on the board of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and worked with the National Science Foundation’s futurist project. He has also spoken at the World Economic Forum, Mobile World Congress, and other premier events, and has been named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30.” He holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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    Connect with Tomer Kagan:

    Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:

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    Alejandro: Hello alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a very interesting guest. You know we’re gonna be talking you know quite a bit about building and scaling companies. You know he has the roots coming from startup nation but they obviously grew up. You know in the us and I think that we’re gonna be learning. You know, quite a bit about the whole the whole cycle of being on a entrepreneur. So I guess without farther do let’s welcome our guests today toy Kagan welcome to the show.

    Tomer Kagan: Thanks, thanks for having me on the show.

    Alejandro: So originally born in Israel but you went you came here to the us you know, quite early so give us a little if I walk through memory lane. You know how were how was life growing up.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah, um, yeah, it was good. My my family moved here when I was 4 specifically to Silicon Valley my my dad got an engineering degree in Israel wanted to kind of move out here where everything was happening. Give us the best shot we had and you know it was ah it was really interesting because. Lot of Israelis are in Silicon Valley so you kind of have a bit of a community and then I would say you know beyond that is that just growing up with you know my my dad being in sort of the startup world and being around a lot of kids whose their parents were in startup world. You kind of have this this view that well you know the only job that you really can get is being a a coder. Being a programmer right? So you kind of grow with this notion that it’s all about computer science. It’s all about stem. That’s really the only way to go and and then that’s kind of what I always thought that you know I wasn’t I never wanted to actually really study computer science much specifically after you know meet my first sort of. Computer science courses really on c plus plus really made me not want to go back to it ever again. so so I kind of felt like I wasn’t really fitting in because you know in Silicon Valley everybody here wanted to be yeah, an engineer.

    Alejandro: And then why why biology you know out of all things. Why do you decide Biology was the path to to go.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah I don’t know I don’t know what why? any 18 year old decides what it is they decide really Um I think you know since I was a kid I was interested in medicine and I was interested in sort of you know the the role of medicine and doctors. Um and I found the the topics to be interesting I think I think I thought it was interesting therefore I need to study it. I think today I just find that there’s like a lot of really interesting topics doesn’t mean you have to work in the field and so while I’ve never really worked in the field more than a few months after college I do think that the the way of thinking has been really really useful. Just the really kind of logical way of thinking and breaking things down. Has kind of helped me in in other fields.

    Alejandro: Now Obviously you you got started you know early to the whole entrepreneurial thing I mean you had your your your Rodeos I mean you had a you had a t-shirt company and you know you tested a bunch of stuff. But what happened right out of college because you were you know testing the grounds you did your internships you know here and there but. But it was It was not working as you had hoped so walk us through what happened there? yeah.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah, well, it’s you know it’s not really that wasn’t working like I was I was working I was working um at a biotech company that was doing Dna sequencing and I was there and I was getting 6 figures out of college I thought wow 6 figures out of college. That’s amazing, right? But then you know the the weeks became months. And I realized I was working like None to 80 hour weeks and it was grueling work. Not even a lot of human interaction. It was basically lab work. Um, and then I kind of kind of took a step back and I said wow you know I could just blink and my life will pass me by and at that same time my old high school advisor. Um, this guy named Dan Appleelman he gave me like a check for $25000 before really had a business and said you know like do a business I believe in you and um, yeah, and you know yeah cash the check in a sense and. Ah, you know when someone believes in you like that. It’s hard to say no and that’s kind of all I needed to basically take the risk take the plunge I left the company I went and basically you know tried to start a business and and it was a basically t-shirt printing business again. But this time we tried to elevated more and try to bring a little more tech into the scene.

    Alejandro: Now in this case I mean what was the um, what was the process because I mean obviously you you met you know your cofounder right? and you know that was a very special relationship that you guys you know have have had for for a long time now and you’ve gone through several you know Rodeos together. But I Guess what? what would you say that that make that relationship so unique and and and how do you guys meet that.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah, it’s a very very different relationship. Actually it’s um, so Jacob Bourn who’s also my cofounder and ah merit io met in we met in really 2005 and at the time he had just married out of the blue a good friend of mine. Um, and I and hadn’t even met him I mean they they were together for like nine months and then um and and so I heard about this person who was my good friend’s husband and then we went out. We had some you know, got to get know each other and everything and we realized we just had a you know lot of fun hanging out. We live our next to each other and quickly it became um. We started working on a project together and then then she became my friend’s wife and she did not appreciate that and and we you know we build this ah long kind of standing relationship. We worked on stuff together. We I think what it was really is that we you know we argue a lot a lot but in all the years we’ve never once had a fight. We’ve never once taken things. Personally we you know we kind of push each other we argue we open each other up I think what makes the relationship really really good is that you know we’re always we never believe the other person is doing anything else but trying to make you know both of us successful.

    Alejandro: I Love that now with this a company that you guys were running. You know what? what? what happened there because obviously obviously that they led to a bunch of events. You know that that really push you into what ended up becoming quixiy but but what happened there.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah I mean you know we we started doing that started doing sales. Um, you know it wasn’t even like a startup in traditional sensor I were doing like an escorp you know we we didn’t know any better coming from Santa Cruz and not kind of being in the scene. My dad really being just an engineer at a startup. I didn’t really know, kind of the startup scene and at the time it was kind of like really for people from Stanford and Harvard or people whose parents were really vcs and so we we kind of you know, raised friends and family. We kind of figure it out business as we were going and I’ll tell you everybody says like yup this is where I where I am today I actually tell people all the time. If I was much smarter back then I would have probably taken a job working for an early you know, startup and learned in maybe a year. What took me four or five years to learn it was kind of grueling and we did and we learned and by 2008 it was it was kind of humming and then 2008 ah came and basically all our orders disappeared you know customers disappeared. Ah, we were doing basically marketing and marketing kind of went away especially goods and so we we kind of wrapped it down realizing we didn’t want to suffer through you know, basically layoff everybody. So it’s just us None and and build it back up. It was just you know too hard to get. We were originally and too too much to kind of take it back. And also the time we were really sure this is really really what we wanted to do I think you know we were kind of a little confused I think anybody in their twenty s who goes through. Basically what we’re going to go through now a recession and layoffs starts asking themselves am I really doing the right thing how many more years can I really push this so that was. That was kind of how we got together and I think that the trial and tribulation you know I’ll tell you one really quick story which is None time this is the whole thing with t-shirt printing industry. We had some some printer in Las Vegas who are holding our shipment hostage not to ship a massive shipment worth the you know tens of thousands of dollars which for us at the time you know, massive and. Um, holding it hostage unless we paid him basically double and it was due as a rush ship in the next day and we would you know we would go out of business. This is the amount of money we would have lost because we fronted so much money was terrible and we didn’t know what to do we were in our office till like None in the morning and we were just going crazy. Um. And we eventually solved it by the way by hiring someone off Craigslist to come and check on this person because the person was taking our calls. The guy who responded was like a bouncer for Mgm who on our be behalf came and basically we can hear on the phone him saying hey listen I’m representing these people wonder what’s going on and I think because it’s vegas you know and there’s always implications of what everything means we got the shipment out. And we paid what we were supposed to pay. We got the ship now and everything was good, but it’s those moments in time where you think it’s like the end it’s existential. It’s going to close and you overcome those and you realize that the next time it happens at least to that level. It doesn’t scare you anymore. Okay I’ve been here before so you know Jake and I went through a lot of these level ups a lot of these sort of trial and tribulations.

    Tomer Kagan: And when you do them. It doesn’t shock you. You just kind of go like okay I’ve been here I know what to do? Let’s roll up our sleeves and especially you’ve done it with somebody. You know? Okay, we know what we need to do and we became kind of really you know reliant on each other to keep us at that level and keep us kind of moving forward and so that that kind of formed our bonds I Think if it wasn’t for those early years. It wouldn’t have. Allowed us to kind of make it through you know the other project or you know make it through Covid even.

    Alejandro: So then with quicksy. How do you guys get started with Quicksie then.

    Tomer Kagan: Well quisy I um I got started of quisy. He actually ended up going to work real estate and then I hired him on as the none employee originally to run business development. Um, you know with quisy it was kind of a a silly story. It was really um. You know I don’t even know if I give it at the time really, but but really what it was is I wasn’t sure what to do what I wanted to work on I had this idea at the time. Um, because the the notion of software and you know apps on the web was becoming big. It wasn’t just pages of content Google at the time really didn’t have a concept of searching it. In fact, when we started was before the iphone it was the idea that like all these platforms you know at the time pass platform as a service all these startups creating all these hooks for for apps to exist and how can you search that and I and I started this with ah with a different guy Leron Shapiro who I knew from high school and and we we got that started at that time and but that was really started because. I kind of realized that I would much rather be working on something that doesn’t succeed but I’m passionate and I believe in it than getting paid well to work on something and the days continue passing and once you have the realization and you know I move back home with my parents I was like this is going to be tough I moved back my parents when heads down threw all my money and all myself into it. There were times in those early years where it was like how many quarters do I have so I can actually check on gas right? So it was ah it was pretty intense but I wouldn’t trade it I guess is the thing I wouldn’t have gone back and gone a nice stable job either I think the amount of learnings and and personal growth wouldn’t have been able to be matched.

    Alejandro: Yeah now I hear you and now with Quicksy. You know like you guys also went through the through the trial and error and the turbulence and you had the the period of reset you know too that that really got you thinking and. And and basically know from then you know like it’s when you decided you know to turn page but but I guess it’s like they said you know what? what you either succeed or you learn. So so what do you think that that you you that you got out of the experience with quixy.

    Tomer Kagan: Um, absolute. Yeah I mean I I learned a lot of what not to do right? Um, you know I not just from stuff I did obviously but from people around me investors executives you know make mistakes we. You know and I also got to meet a lot of incredible people. Absolutely incredible people people I still think of today and look up to as as sort of people who have helped inspire me so things that were different were you know, um, understanding better of that notion of hiring and firing understanding how to build healthier culture understanding kind of how to build you know business in the right way. Ah, you know, no one really teaches you these things and Mba programs definitely don’t and it’s you know it’s all about kind of the mentors you have I think the big thing in the startup world is really about mentorship I was I was recently talking to somebody who’s just finished an Mba over in Berkeley. And this guy you know has worked at some of the biggest companies at uber and instacart and all these places and and he just started at a company and started fundraising and he goes absolutely nothing I learned up to now or was told matches the reality and that’s really the truth right? there is. There’s not a lot of incentives out there for people to really tell it as it is but they kind of gloss over. I launched it and then people started using it. Well, that’s not really true our fundraising right? fundraising is a whole weird game right? So you’re dealing with a lot of egos and a lot of individuals. So I think I think I learned a lot about sort of um how you know how to build much healthier culture. How to fire people early. How to really focus. None of things we did very differently. We weren’t trying to raise big money at merit. We. We never have. We’ve always tried to raise based on accomplishment I’ve even I even broke my seed round into 3 rounds and my a into two upfront knowing it’s going to take a few of those rounds saying let us just prove x then prove y then prove z and having these single. Motivations for the company early on really helps you know I always say you know, ah fundraising is terrible but the fundraising process is necessary right? because what? what are you really doing is like okay, let’s tighten everything up. Let’s make everything look good because you’re selling right? It’s like you’re. And if you’re going to sell a house. You’re going to check everything out. In fact, you might even find issues in the House. You didn’t even know existed because you’re getting it ready to sell with a company when you’re fundraising you have to go through that exercise. So the process for fundraising is kind of a good way of making sure and if you actually line up those goals with the round.

    Tomer Kagan: And you’re not fundraising for the sake of it. You’re using fundraising as a sort of forcing function for the company and I think that’s 1 thing we did really really well here.

    Alejandro: Yeah, now, let’s talk about then about merit. So um, so how do you? How do you guys come up with the idea and how do you go about bringing it to life. What was that process like oh.

    Tomer Kagan:  Yeah, well like like all ideas. Um, you know it’s a little bit unusual process. Um back in 2014 it was like the winter of 2014 um me and a few friends went to Belize and a bunch of us were kind of in beize ah, one of the people didn’t have their patty card and they couldn’t go scuba diving. And so we’re we’re kind of hiking in the jungle and we’re kind of saying well you say you’re a scuba diver. But if you are told you can’t scuba divve anywhere. Are you a scuba div like if I say I’m a surgeon but no hospital lets me perform surgery have no credential is it like am my surgeon right? So they would kind of let this whole philosophical conversation. Um, and realize that there’s this. You know to kind of bring it down there. There’s an operating system. The world has an operating system. It’s like these licenses of credentials. We call them ah statements of truth right? from organizations to people that others can rely on but like it’s broken. It’s like paper and plastic and like notes places and inefficient that a man imagine if the world could be efficient. Imagine if we actually could make verify it any digital so it was inspiring and I left and I couldn’t get the thought out I mean you know I would be hanging out I would like be talking to people the time people would come over my house all the time and pitch me ideas and I would say yeah and I would like here are their whole idea good feedback then I’d say well, what do you think of this thing and I would just kind of keep talking about it which of course reinforces it. And eventually Jake who had worked with me. You know all these years had just also left quisy and goes you know I want to do this and I go great because somebody needs to do this? Um, and so I fund it I literally ah put all the original money into it ah to ah None other people jump in who are with us in Belize. Um. And 1 more these were people you know for the most part I’ve known um Omar and Jason I knew back when they were None and 14 when I was a youth group advisor Omar at the time was working at Foursquare. Um, you know Jason at the time was was working at quisy before you know was Jake and then there was Dylan Dylan who I met in the quisie days and and he dylan’s incredible. And what he does when he none came in. You know we had him doing events at quicksie and then he ran bd into they runs all operations over at amerit.

    Alejandro: So what’s the business model of of merit for people that are listening to really get it. How do you guys make money.

    Tomer Kagan: Well, we make money because we mostly sell the government and private organizations working with government and what we do is we basically sell the full deployment of an entire kind of identity system. So give you an example we were. We were the system used at surf site in Florida for the managing of. Individual so all these vendors sending people about None people. They need to come in. They get our system automatically a merit which also references their you know their vendor that’s brought them in their skillset and every place they check in and check out in every zone gives a police and fire a notion of who’s where and when I don’t want to move people around. And then the receipts from their location so they can actually then submit with more information from the different areas to get reimbursed for their company. So what we did is we basically ran the logistics on the ground and identity and access and then all the receipts so that all the payments can be seamless. And we were very proud of the work we did there and since then we’ve done work in places like ah recently just launched a large deal in ah Ohio managing their education savings account system very proud of the success there we do in the south a lot of workforce development a lot of emergency management. So hurricane comes to Florida we help. Basically all vendors check in and help kind of the notion of who is there with what skillets and where and how can we use them so you know we we built a ah pretty generic platform that can handle all notions of identity issued by None organization that has to be verified from another and we were basically selling the end-to-end implementation. None thing that we do. It’s a little different as well is um, we don’t just sell software. Actually we actually don’t technically sell access to the platform. In fact, any organization in person can use it freely and any organization can issue as many merits as they’d like and all verification is free on the system. We think that’s a fundamental right in society. We actually help is the implementation so we call it software with a service well help of everything like setting up the kiosk doing the training doing staffing even marketing for you the release because what we care about isn’t like did you use our software what we care about is did you hit the goals of your program. Are you successful because of us. And so what we did a merit is I think a lot of investors weren’t happy with this which is we took it slow even though we got a lot of interest. We’re like no, we need to make sure this implementation works and the customer is beyond happy. You know, um I’m proud. We’ve never had a failed implementation. We’ve never had an unhappy customer. Why is that’s important is now we’re scaling. We’re scaling fast but I feel like we can right? I feel comfortable because I know everybody is happy with us.

    Alejandro: And and talking know scaling how how much capital have you guys raised today.

    Tomer Kagan: I’d say don’t quote me on it because ah but you’re quoting on me. Um, you know I mean I mean less than $100000000 or so and you know in the range of probably in the you know 60 to 80 or so over over the last six years

    Alejandro: And what and what has been the um the experience I mean going from 1 financing cycle to the next because obviously this is your your biggest company to date that you’ve been operating so what has been that the progression from going from one cycle to the next.

    Tomer Kagan: Well I’ll tell you mostly pretty good originally I mean pretty good originally like I thought I’m going to raise my seed rounds was pretty was pretty fast was pretty quick. There’s a lot of people who believed in me, you know you know whether ah I don’t know why but they did and backed me and supported me. It was good but was actually you know. Was actually covid when things actually messed up our plan because I was I was planning things in advance I had investors way in advance and talking them. But what we’re doing letting know we’re gonna have nine months we’re gonna around based on this goal if we hit this goal. Are you interested? Okay, and kind of line them up. Um, we did our a one. Um I say well we did our none part of our series None um. six months or so before covid hit before lockdown and we were talking to the same investors we had told them in advance ah instead of raising 20000000. We’re going to raise 10 and none for the a and then ten for the a one which is a None series a round. Um, you know. Ah, without shaming any investor. We had a major major tier one investor who basically didn’t just you know us just cancel with us the term sheet discussion and everything but just stop responding on lockdown to the communication. The conversation completely.

    Alejandro: Wow.

    Tomer Kagan: Um, because hey it’s lockdown. We’re pulling all you know all funding. Um, which was tough right because I mean we basically had to turn around the day after lockdown and start a formal fundraising process and explain to somebody why? Ah, you know a tier one Vc is no longer in it as it supposed to be. And that was tough that was about a 2 year process where we raised $17000000 in convertible notes. Um in the average check size of 50 to None k about None times we got down to about a week of money. Um and a few times me and Jake leveraged our personal credit.

    Alejandro: Wow.

    Tomer Kagan: And loans to make sure that no one in the company ever in this time felt even a a blip on payroll now at the same time this is happening. We’re raising. We. Also you’re like why we scaled down. Well we were getting deals for the none time. In fact, our first go to market and revenue was supposed to happen during covid. And some of these deals were really important. For example, we were helping Florida disseminate the vaccine and actually get places up and running really quickly so nurses can be validated with their credentials and then the tracks or the vaccine could be taken out that required us to front a lot more money because it takes the state months to pay back. But it was worth it and actually those decisions led to the success and us hitting those numbers and then getting paid so we just need to get through it that was tough that was really really tough I will say we have some insiders I’m going to call it bo capital turned around that next day and say here’s None no questions asked I believe in you guys I know this is shitty do what you can you know and they’re like tapped out. They went above and beyond. You know we had people same thing with ah Jan Talllin and his team over there did amazing work and so we had some you know that were really great. We also learned about who wasn’t I think people really should look at covid and keep track of you know all the vcs who said yeah when times will be tough. We’ll be there times were tough who was there. That’s the first year right? then things were were explosive but um, yeah I mean we we basically raised some checks or a none or so but we also raised rounds of you know, additional friends and family pitch on people pitching for 5200 k so I spent the last ah two years until we basically you know got the b together with Roas Parr coming in and then we. Then we got kind of oversubscribed of course you know and once you know when you don’t need the money anymore. Everyone wants to give you money that ah you know when you actually need it as tough I will say angel list as well. We were able to raise a few million dollars from angel list and that was a lifesaver.

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing now for the um, you know for for the people that are listening to get an idea of the scope and size of the operation. How big are you guys today anything that you can share in terms number of employees or anything else that you feel comfortable with.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah, yeah, we we’re about 90 people and hiring you know we we are not slowing down. We are actually you know currently None thing I’m proud of is we’re we’re beating our numbers for the year what we expected. We’re growing. We’re doing great. Um, we’re getting you know a lot of deals moving much faster than we even anticipated. So so things are are fantastic today by the numbers. Um, you know we’ve done deployments in in you know over a dozen states or meaningful large deployments. You know, paid accounts and I’ve also now entered the private sector too. So yeah, you know it’s It’s one of those crazy things that covid I would never be on tell where we are here because of covid we were just we were literally just rolling out. We were just starting the revenue model. In fact, we we were going to be doing stuff in workforce development originally but because of covid we switched to emergency management right? Follow where the dollars are and also a lot of state programs literally were halted. During covid like people just didn’t know how to act and respond so we moved on a dime right? same platform different use case put all our effort there. Um, and we always knew like we knew it was working the thing was this I always asked. My team are our customers happy yes are engagement good. Yes, great. Then we’ll raise money. Because we know it’s just a matter of like figuring out some of the other pieces. But if your product works and people are happy and you’re making real change then it’s just other things that have to come together and luckily there’s enough people out there of money that will believe in it and those people are fortunate because ah, those convertible notes had some much lower caps than our original round and. Today I think we’re we’re doing much better than we anticipated.

    Alejandro: Good stuff now imagine you have the opportunity of having a chat with that younger ah tumer that is coming out of a college out of a studying biology you know and you have the opportunity of giving that younger Tomer one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why you and what you know now.

    Tomer Kagan: Yeah I would say go find a startup um pass series a and try to get a job there working close to the founders and learn from that because you can learn all that on your own but it takes 4 times as long or so. Right? And I think I think having that experience at none would have shot me up faster maybe better connections. You know I think at the time there was a where I was doing this. There was this whole push to young entrepreneurship. You know, even dropping out of college. You don’t see it as much anymore these days but there’s this giant push that like yeah, the best entrepreneurs are from there. The numbers. Don’t even support that though like I think. Learning is important especially in a field that there isn’t a lot of information readily available. It’s really on the job training and so I would have told that tomer save six years of your life. Go ah and go learn from the best I think that would have been the advice.

    Alejandro:  Yeah, absolutely I love that I love that now for the people that are listening Tomer what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi.

    Tomer Kagan: Well, um, you know always email I ah tomer at http://merits.com I’m also on Linkedin I ah you know I can say other social media. But honestly I I check those so infrequently these days. Um, but yeah, I’ll say something which is. Most people never reach out ever and it’s always interesting because of that the few that do you can always follow up with and I always found that the few that do you always find the most interesting people that way.

    Alejandro: I love that well tor. Thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been I don’ to have you with us.

    Tomer Kagan: All right? Thank you so much. Bye.

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