As a mentor, I work exclusively with early stage companies. When these companies go out for funding they are looking at friends and family, angels and angel groups or VCs that fund seed rounds.
Unfortunately as the Wired article ‘Blitzscaling’ Is Choking Innovation—and Wasting Money, sub-titledVCs are making bigger bets on fewer startups. It’s this unconsidered, money-slinging strategy that led to Uber’s and Lyft’s dud IPOs seed funding is down even while total VC funding is way up.
VC investments last year set an all-time record in the US of $132 billion. This sounds like great news for founders. But deal size has been steadily growing. Do the math, bigger deal sizes equates to fewer deals. As the author, Leonard Sherman asks: why has the number of seed funding rounds—the entry point for most entrepreneurial journeys—declined so sharply over the past five years, despite the fact that the cost of launching new ventures has never been lower?
In 2000 Leonard Sherman’s company needed only one institutional funding round of $15 million to launch his company. But here’s the difference between almost 20 years ago and today. Then virtually all that capital was consumed by the need to buy and maintain servers and storage devices, to write highly customized code for every business process, and to build market awareness through expensive, inefficient mass marketing channels. Launching that same venture today would probably cost 90 percent less, thanks to modern enabling technologies: open source computing, rapid wireframe and product prototyping tools, contract manufacturing, fulfillment-as-a-service, web-store design, cost-effective social media customer targeting, and cloud-based services like Amazon’s AWS, Google’s Cloud Platform and Microsoft’s Azure.
So that sounds like great news for founders, and it was for the 15 years of the new millennium, as the number of angel and seed deal rose steadily. But:
over the past five years, entry-round investments have declined by more than 40 percent, while average deal sizes have risen. The primary reason is that early-stage VC funds generally have found it more lucrative to place fewer, bigger bets, rather than spreading investments more thinly. This practice delivers a big win when the bets pay off—particularly for seed VCs with higher ownership stakes. But now, more than ever, entrepreneurs find themselves folding for lack of seed funding.
This is the driving reason behind the decline in seed stage deals. That, as well as new sources of capital making huge bets, like Softbank’s Vision Fund’s $300 million investment in dog walking service Wag. But that’s peanuts compared to Softbank’s $10 billion funding for co-working office-space startup WeWork. (However, WeWork’s losses are accelerating even faster than its revenue growth.)
This flood of late stage capital into relatively few companies leaves less money for riskier bets on startups. But having vast sums of capital does not guarantee business success. Today’s VCs would do well to look back to the successes of companies based on the strength of their technology and business models, not venture capital: the total VC capital raised by Amazon ($108 million), Google ($36 million), and Salesforce ($64 million) prior to their IPOs and subsequent value creation would barely register as a single supergiant round in today’s blitzscale funding environment.
The poor IPO performance of companies like Uber and Lyft, which both raised billions of dollars in VC financing, might help turn the tide against late stage mega-financing and perhaps more VCs will look to spreading their risk by investing in more seed stage companies, which can ultimately provide enormous returns as have Amazon, Google and Salesforce. Until then founders would do well to look at various alternatives to VC funding such as angels, angel groups, crowdfunding, convertible debt, SAFEs, strategic investors, grants like SBIR, incubators, royalty-based funding, and such novel, nascent funding sources as digital tokens and the JOBs act.
For a bit more detail on alternatives to VC funding take a look at the attached presentation I gave last night to a sub-group of the MIT Post-Doctoral Association on different ways to raise capital: Financing a Startup