In 2014, it seemed like pretty much anyone with a pulse and pitch deck was capable of raising huge amounts of capital from prestigious venture capital firms at sky-high valuations. Here we are four years later and times have changed. VCs inked a little more than 3,100 deals in the last quarter of 2017, according to Crunchbase — about 500 fewer than the previous quarter.
For aspiring startup founders, it’s a “confusing time in the so-called Unicorn story,” as Erin Griffith put it in a column last May — an asset bubble that never really popped, but which at the very least is deflating. In the confirmation hearing for new SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, lawmakers lamented the dearth of initial public offerings as companies that thrived in private markets — from Snap to Blue Apron — have struggled to deliver meaningful returns to investors.
This all creates a number of dilemmas for founders looking to raise capital and scale businesses in 2018. VCs remain an integral part of the innovation ecosystem. But what happens when the changing dynamics of financial markets collide with VCs’ expectations regarding growth? VCs may not always be aligned with founders and companies in this new environment. A recent study commissioned by Eric Paley at Founder Collective found that by pressuring companies to scale prematurely, venture capitalists are indirectly responsible for more startup deaths than founder infighting, technical debt and slow customer adoption — combined.
The new landscape requires that founders in particular be judicious in the way they seek out new sources of capital, structure cap tables and ownership and the types of concessions made to their new backers in exchange for that much-needed cash. Here are three ways founders can ensure they’re looking out for what’s best for their companies — and themselves — in the long run.
Take time to backchannel
Venture capitalists are arguably in the business of due diligence. Before they sign the dotted line, they can be expected to call your competitors, your customers, your former employers, your business school classmates — they will ask everyone and their mother about you.
It goes without saying that differences of opinion regarding your business strategy can lead to big conflict down the road.
A first-time founder is also new to the pressures of entrepreneurship, of having employees rely on you for their livelihoods. Whether you are desperate for cash because you need to make payroll, or you’re anxious for the validation of a headline-worthy investment, few founders take the time to properly backchannel their investors. Until you can say you’ve done due diligence of your own, your opinion of your VCs is going to be based on the size of their fund, the deals they’ve done or the press they’ve gotten. In short, it will likely be based on what they’ve done right.
On the other hand, you likely don’t know anything about the actual partner that will join your board. Are they intelligent in your space? Do they have a meaningful network? Or do they just know a few headhunters? Are they value creators? What is their political standing in their firm? Before you sign a term sheet, you need to take the time to contextualize the profile of the person who is taking a board seat. It gives you foresight on the actions your investment partner will likely take down the road.
Think beyond your first raise
If you do decide to raise capital, make sure you are in alignment with your board regarding your business plan, the pursuit of profit at the expense of revenue growth, or vice versa, and how it will steer your decision making as the market changes. It goes without saying that differences of opinion regarding your business strategy can lead to big conflict down the road.
As you think about these trade-offs, remember that as an entrepreneur, your obligation is to the existing shareholders: the employees and you. As the pack of potential unicorns has thinned, VCs in particular have turned to unconventional deal structures, like the use of common and preferred shares. For the founder who needs to raise cash, a dual ownership structure seems like a fair compromise to make, but remember that it may be at the expense of your employees’ option pool. The interests of preferred and common shareholders are not perfectly aligned, particularly when it comes time to make difficult decisions in the future.
Is VC money right for you?
VCs frequently share information, board decks and investor presentations with members of the press and the tech community, sometimes in support of their own personal agendas or to get perspective on whether to invest or not. That’s why it’s particularly important to backchannel, and more importantly, that you have allies that you can call on and people who can ensure some measure of goodwill. A good company board cannot be made up of just the investors and you: You need advocates that are balanced and on your side.
Venture capital is far from the only way to finance an early-stage business.
These prescriptions can sound paranoid, particularly to the founder whose business is growing nicely. But anything can cause a sea change and put you at odds with the people funding your company — who now own a piece of the company that you’re trying to build. When disagreements arise, it can get tense. They might say that you are a first-time founder, and therefore a novice. They will make your weaknesses known and say you’ll never be able to raise again if you ignore their invaluable advice. It’s important that you don’t fall into the fear trap. If you create a product or service that solves an undeniable problem, the money will come — and you will get funded again.
The term founder-friendly VC was always perhaps a bit of a misnomer. The people building the business and the people planning on cashing in on your efforts are imperfect allies. As a founder and business owner, your primary responsibilities are to your clients, to the company you’re building and, most importantly, to the employees who are helping you do it. As founders we like to think that we have all the answers, especially in bad times. Making sure you have alignment with your investors in challenging and unpredictable situations is critical. It’s important to anticipate how your investors will problem-solve before you give up control.
Venture capital is far from the only way to finance an early-stage business. Founders looking to jump-start their business have a number of alternatives, from debt financing and bootstrapping to crowdfunding, angel investors and ICOs. There are indeed still many advantages to having experienced investors on your side, not simply the cash but also the access to hiring and industry knowledge. But the relationship can only benefit both parties when founders go in eyes wide open.