#1 Mistake: Planning for Series A?

People sometimes ask us, “What’s the #1 mistake startup founders make?” Based on our 1100 pre-seed portfolio companies, one of the prime candidates is: “Planning for Series A.”

I don’t mean the way you plan for Series A. I mean the fact that you do it at all.

We see a lot of pre-seed pitch decks. A decent fraction have a “Comparables” section that list the Series A raises for companies with similar models in the same industry. In these cases,  Series A has become an explicit planning goal, despite the fact that these companies are at least two rounds, and probably three or four,  away from that milestone.

But the prevalence in pitch decks vastly understates the issue. From systematically interviewing 800+ founding teams in accelerators, it’s clear that Series A expectations play a substantial role in most founders’ planning.

While completely understandable, even considering Series A at the accelerator stage is usually a huge mistake. As I’ve written before, taking Series A at the point where it’s appropriate decreases your success rate (though increases your expected value). Unsurprisingly, actually working backward from a future Series A can create all sorts of planning pathology.

Yes, TechCrunch makes a big deal out of Series As. Yes, lot of cool VCs blog about Series A. Yes, VC investment leads to pretty fantastic story lines on “Silicon Valley”. But these sources of information inherently screen for outliers. It’s still the exception. Even among successful tech startups. Fundamentally, you’re trying to engineer an extreme outcome in a highly uncertain environment. On first principles, this is problematic, as Nassim Taleb so beautifully explains the The Black Swan.

But let’s work through the steps. Start with a modern Series A of roughly $10M as your goal. OK, those VCs will want evidence that you can quickly grow past the $100M valuation mark. That means you’ll probably need about a $3M Series Seed 12-24 months beforehand to build the necessary R&D, sales, and customer success scaffolding, as well as prove out a huge addressable market. This in turn implies a $1M angel round coming out of an accelerator to complete the  full featured version of the product and establish a firm beachhead market over the next 12-18 months.

Now, I can tell you from reading the investor updates for 1100+ pre-seed startups that such rounds are very hard to raise… unless you’re a strongly pedigreed founder, have obviously anti-gravity level technology, or have crazy traction in a hot space. We like to say rounds at this stage have a “geometric” difficulty curve. A round that is twice as large is four times as hard to raise.

Even if you manage to raise that round, the failure rate at each subsequent stage is high because you’re continually striving to achieve outlier levels of growth. There’s not much room for error or setbacks.  It’s like trying to run up a ridge that just keeps getting steeper and narrower, with a sharp drop into the abyss on either side.

So what’s the alternative? We recommend you ask yourself, “What’s the smallest early acquisition (but not just acqui-hire) that I’d be satisfied with?” Unless you have a significant previous exit, are already very wealthy, or have unusual risk preferences, this number is likely somewhere between a $10M and $35M acquisition where the founders still own about 1/3 to 1/2 the company. Then work backwards from that.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute! If I could get acquired for $10M to $35M, I could get a Series A. It’s the same thing.” Not exactly. $20M is a typical Series A pre-money these days, at least from a traditional name firm. But you would also need to be able to demonstrate that you could quickly grow to be worth $100M+. And you usually get a bit of a premium on acquisitions. So it’s only at the upper end of the range where a Series A would be a fit, and then only some of the time.

Importantly, acquirers mostly want to see a great business or great technology and Series A investors mostly want to see enormous growth potential, which often aren’t quite the same thing. Finally, Series A investors usually want to see extremely rapid past growth, as an indicator of rapid future growth. Acquirers care much less how much time it took you.

Also, the cost of being wrong is asymmetric. Say you aim for Series A from the outset. If at any point it doesn’t work out, you either fold or do a fire sale. In a fire sale, liquidation preference will kick in and founders will get zilch anyway. Conversely, say you go the smaller route and things go much better than expected. You can still “upgrade” to the Series A path. And if you go the smaller route and fail, there’s some chance you’d still make a modest amount in a fire sale or acqui’hire.

So now let’s work backwards from the acquisition. We’ll assume that revenues, rather than technology capability, is the relevant metric because it makes the reverse induction more clear cut.

  1. In most tech sectors, a $10M to $35M acquisition means $1M to $3M per year in margin (not gross revenues, though in some sectors, the margins are so high, it’s the same thing). That’s low $100Ks of margin per month.
  2. Next, we like to think in terms of the “straightforward scaling factor”. This is the multiple by which you can grow with straightforward scaling of your product development and sales machines. No major overhauls of the product, no completely new channels, and no huge breakthroughs. Basically keep doing what you’re doing, but with more resources. In most segments, this factor is 3-4X for a target in the $100K/month order of magnitude. Obviously, it’s not a sure thing. Bad things can still happen. It can turn out that you’ve made a mistake. But it’s the difference between needing circumstances not to go strongly against you and needing circumstance to go strongly for you. That works out to $20K to $80K per month, depending on scaling factor and target outcome. Thus, your near-term goal becomes, “Build a business doing $20K to $80K per month in margin.”
  3. If your minimum acceptable exit is on the higher end and your scaling factor is on the lower end, you might want to break this stage into two (though your might want to ask yourself why your minimum is higher given the lower scaling factor). In most cases, the first step therefore reduces to, “Build a business doing $20K to $40K per month in margin.”

This is often a very achievable goal with a very modest amount of capital. How do you go about raising a round to support achieving this goal? Well, we have a post for that.

It’s worth noting that, in terms of our expected returns, it doesn’t matter too much to us one way or another whether founders follow this plan. Our funds have many hundreds of companies, so we’re expected value decision makers. Though there is also some argument to be made for preserving option value by having companies survive longer. But it’s not a huge difference either way at our level of diversification.

However, for founders who can only do a handful of startups in their career, understanding the difference between success probability and expected value could be literally life altering. And don’t forget, once you have a modest exit under your belt, you’ve got the pedigree! So it’s much easier to command the resources and attention necessary to go big from the start on the next one.

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