How to attract VC funding like the best unicorns?

Q2 2016 VC funding results are in, and the unicorns took the lion share of funding.  Early stage startup funding experienced precipitous declines as the cash crunch continues. 

This post is the second in a series on the state of VC funding and startup performance in the United States. The inaugural post How we know the tech funding bubble has burst? was published in May 2016.

While most people are preparing for summer vacation, young entrepreneurs are preparing for a long winter.

UNICORN FAIRY TALES?

Last Thursday Pitchbook released the 1H 2016 U.S. Venture Industry Report. Second quarter VC investment reached a staggering $22.8B. Not surprisingly, the majority of investment went to mature, late stage startups (many of whom are unicorns valued over $1B).

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The stark reality is that startups falling in the Series D and Late Stage categories represent less than 1% of all U.S. startups (author’s estimate).

Even within this infinitesimal tranche of later stage startups, it is a ‘tale of two cities’ as mega-rounds from super unicorns like SnapChat, Slack and Uber significantly skewed totals. The less obvious point is that ‘almost’ or ‘fallen’ unicorns have had a tough time raising funds. Expect to see more layoffs and pivots among late stage non-unicorns given the frozen IPO market.

THE CREME OF THE CREME

The creme of the top 1% are mature companies that have reached hyper-growth mode. These darlings of the media and VC communities have produced solid results, gained traction and identified a path to profitability. VCs have separated the wheat from the chaff, and lack of funding will force the bottom 1% to pivot, sell or close.

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Mattermark took a closer look at May VC funding results in their report: Venture Capital Cooling Trend: “Wait And See” Mode Continues. When the dust settles and we get under the May/June numbers, we are likely to see continued precipitous declines in non-unicorn investments. Keep in mind, before May, the Series D and Late Stage funding totals were down 20-37% YTD.

And that’s the good news.

THE 99% PERCENT

Back in the real world of startups (2-3 million companies in the US), raising capital is just plain ugly.

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So early stage entrepreneurs, that headwind you feel against your raise is real!

My advisory firm spotted these trends real time while advising startups. The slowdown was particularly pronounced during investor meetings with the HBS Alumni Angels.

A NEW DAWN: REASON HAS RETURNED!

As outlined in our original piece, during the first half of 2016, investors pulled back investment in the overheated market. I mean, perhaps we don’t need the fifth on-demand dog grooming service? Just saying!

So what can entrepreneurs do to successfully raise funding?

Given increased volatility, low interest rates and inevitable surprises (like Brexit), we tell our startup clients the following:

  1. Adapt: The funding environment and investor sentiment have changed. Investors are more cautious and want assurance. This usually means tougher due diligence questions and bigger data rooms. Be prepared for a raise to take 8-9+ months and don’t take it personally.
  1. Spend Wisely: In this market, cash is king. Given the longer raise cycle, startups need 18-24 months of runway. The biggest wildcard is usually marketing spend. Unless a startup is a market leader, throwing cash at consumers with little return on investment will haunt the next raise.
  1. Build, Measure and Learn: Small bets are the best way to stretch capital. Fully embrace lean startup principles and double down where there is traction. Entrepreneurs should prioritize achieving proof points and milestones. The best startups will keep close to customers and actively monitor feedback.

The road ahead for startups won’t be easy. The true irony is VCs have raised humongous war chests; but investments will be made cautiously.

Personally, I’m happy to wave goodbye to growth for growth’s sake. I’ve long felt it odd that there was so little focus on profitability and sustainability. Granted, the “get big quick” model generally works for specific verticals: namely SaaS startups with favorable economics, or platforms that enjoy network effects. However in the consumer and media sectors where I focus, that approach rarely succeeds.

Whether good, or bad, or just long overdue- it’s back to the basics. Entrepreneurs are putting in the hard work to turn innovative ideas into products/services that change the world.

Venture forth and carry on!

 

Follow me on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/lockieandrews

Lockie Andrews is the CEO and Managing Director of Catalyst Consulting, a boutique advisory firm to retail and consumer brands, digital, media and technology companies, as well as venture capital and private equity funds. With 20+ years of general management experience, Lockie has assisted high growth companies (e.g. Nike, Lane Bryant, Limited Stores, and various startups) in diverse areas such as strategy, innovation, digital marketing, revenue enhancement, operational/financial improvement and M&A/capital raising. Lockie is also a sector lead for the HBS Alumni Angels of NYC.

Startups

The Slowdown in Tech Startup Funding

Published on Linkedin May 11, 2016

In this series, professionals at Shoptalk discuss the most pressing issues facing their industries today.

 

Waiting for fundamentals and reason to return to startup investing has been like waiting for daybreak – anticipation of the inevitable awakening. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long for the current market frenzy to subside.

We’ve been here before…?

It’s only been 7 years since the end of the Great Recession and 13 years since the carnage of the dot-com bust. Despite the short timing, investors seem to have forgotten the lessons from prior downturns.

Anytime technology startups are likened to mythical creatures – thus the aptly named Unicorns; privately held startups with ZERO dollars in profits, but implied valuations of $1+ billion – that should serve as a wake-up call for sophisticated investors/advisors of an impending bubble:

An economic bubble exists whenever the price of an asset that may be freely exchanged in a well-established market first soars then plummets over a sustained period of time at rates that are decoupled from the rate of growth of the income that might reasonably be expected to be realized from owning or holding the asset.

Watching the Unicorn proliferation felt like reading a textbook.  Hopefully, the coming market correction won’t be as bad at the dot-com bust.

Dot-Com Era Revisited

In the early 2000s, the initial public offering (IPO) market was the “well-established market” that foolishly priced immature companies at astronomical levels. The dot-com startups’ growth prospects did not justify the valuation forward multiples, causing a severe market pullback.

Once investor funding dried up, dot-com management teams sealed their own fate by spending irresponsibly and prioritizing growth over profits. The rest is history.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Despite the striking similarities between the dot-com and tech startup eras, some people are questioning the current slowdown in VC investment.

So what happened in Q1 2016?

Well, I believe the first rays of enlightenment are starting to illuminate the landscape.  I am hopeful that this wake-up call is a return to reason.

Depending on which venture capital authority you trust, the market seems to be signaling that something is afoot. According to Thomson Reuters, Q1 2016 was the strongest quarter for VC dollars raised since 2006!

  •  U.S. venture capital (VC) firms raised $12 billion during Q1 2016
  • a 59% increase in dollar commitments over the same period in 2015

Now despite healthy coffers, VC investment in startups during the same period was mostly flat.  So why the disconnect?

Perhaps it’s due to the realization among investors, academics and journalists that Unicorn valuations and growth prospects are unreasonable.  Only time will tell.

Here’s the good news.  Unlike prior bubbles, Unicorns are still privately held, so VC firms and institutional investors will bear the brunt of falling valuations.  Yes, startups will suffer more closures, layoffs and belt-tightening, but the fallout will mostly be contained.

Reason vs. Unicorn Fantasies

The return to reason has already begun.  Since Q4 2015, we’ve seen signals of investor caution.  The decrease in the number of Unicorns, the down rounds and the well-publicized write-downs offer additional clues.  I am encouraged by my recent retail/consumer angel investor due diligence meetings, where the focus has shifted to questions around profitability, business model and sustainability.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that investors took a less analytical approach when evaluating pioneers like Facebook, Google or Amazon.  However, let’s not confuse ourselves, or be convinced by the founders of the tenth “me too” startup that their primary focus should be on growth, not profits.

Yes, now that dollars and sense are a guiding force, I’m excited to meet the last startups standing.  The winners will be startups with viable business models and loyal paying consumers.  The losers will be startups with limited addressable markets and no path to profitability.

Much like the NCAA during March Madness, what is emerging is a new breed of Cinderella startups.  Founding teams that glorify grit and avoid chasing fads and vanity metrics will come out on top.

A New Day Dawns

Of course, plenty of transformational opportunities remain.  We are still just scratching the surface in the consumer industry on artificial intelligence; virtual reality; big data; and leveraging the power of technology to automate retail.  Evaluating investments in the aforementioned sectors will take time and will likely breed a new class of Unicorns who blaze a path.

For the vast majority of tech startups in more mature sectors, nightfall lasted too long.

I’m looking forward to being a conduit for those deserving entrepreneurs with good ideas, amazing work ethic and the humility to learn from mistakes. Likewise, I’m relieved to see an end to the entitled mindsets looking for a quick exit.

Thank goodness that no matter what happens in the dark of night, dawn always comes in the morning.

@LockieAndrews is the CEO and Founder of Catalyst Consulting www.catalystconsult.com, a boutique consulting firm to retail and consumer brands, digital and technology firms, and venture capital and private equity firms.  With 20+ years of general management experience, Lockie has assisted high growth companies (e.g. Nike, Lane Bryant, Limited Stores, Concrete Platform) in diverse areas such as strategy, innovation, revenue enhancement, operational/financial improvement and fundraising.  Lockie is also a sector lead for the HBS Alumni Angels of NYC.  She will be moderating the “Beyond Venture Capital Investment” panel at @ShopTalk in Las Vegas in May 2016.

 

Sources: Dealogic, Wikipedia, CB Insights, Thomson Reuters

Startups