Early Stage VC June 2022–No, The Sky Is Not Currently Falling

This post is by John Eng, RSCM’s Director of Funding Ecosystem. He stays in constant contact with other investors so that we can effectively advise our portfolio companies on their subsequent rounds.

How has the recent tech downturn affected early stage VCs investment? Undoubtedly, all startups are asking themselves this question. Should they go for the seed or Series A round now or should they buckle down and raise a smaller round from existing investors? Our poll of Seed and Series A VCs reveals that these stages remain relatively robust, though tempered by more historically realistic expectations.

As I’m writing this, VC Twitter is foreshadowing doom and gloom. Is a recession imminent? Does it feel more like the dotcom bubble of 2000 or the housing bubble of 2008? Some big high-flying growth stocks have dropped by 75% to 90%. Public SaaS multiples dropped from a high of 17x to a low of 5.6x. When will we see tech stocks bottom? What’s the right valuation to pay for growth?

Based on VC Twitter, it sure seems like the sky is falling. Many well-known later-stage and growth-stage VCs have published “crucible-moment memos” about operating during a downturn–extending runway, get to default alive, get to default investable, expect valuations to come down, etc.

But what about early-stage companies? At Right Side Capital Management, we invest at the earliest stages. Our portfolio companies are typically concerned more about the early-stage investment climate, rather than later-stages that feel a more direct impact from public market turmoil. 

Can startups still get Seed or Series A investments? Well, we tried to answer this question. We conducted an informal survey of Seed and Series A investors the week of May 21 2022. Roughly 70 responded. We asked questions like:

  • Are you still investing in new portfolio companies? If so, is your rate of investment higher, lower, or the same as it was prior to the recent tech downturn?
  • Have there been any changes in your investment themes / strategy that I should be aware of? For example, are there any new sectors you are focusing on or avoiding, or have there been any changes to the traction levels you are looking for at different stages (ie. Seed, Series A, etc.)?
  • Are there any other ways the recent downturn has affected your investing?

The results didn’t surprise us. The sky does not appear to be falling (at least yet) in early stage fundraising.

Key takeaways:

  • Early stage investors are still very active. Everyone responded that they are indeed still investing and busier than ever. Some (20%) are more cautious and are slowing down their pace of investment. And a few (6%) are opportunistically increasing their pace of investment.
  • Not many have changed their investment criteria. Those that have are just moving to earlier stages (i.e., to seed from Series A) and moving away from cyclical businesses.
  • The bar is higher now. Investors are being more selective–a higher bar in terms of both revenue and unit economics. Investors are taking more time for due diligence now that deals are less competitive, digging more into business fundamentals before committing. They are asking companies how their businesses will be impacted by an economic downturn–growing inflation, higher interest rates, slowing consumer demand.
  • Early stage investors are expecting lower valuations in Seed and Series A and are excited by it. They are already seeing a slow-down and lower valuations in Series A. They anticipate the same for seed-stage fundraising before long. Many investors who have been passing on high valuation deals are anticipating a faster pace of investment as valuations normalize. Some startups seeking Series A rounds may end up being disappointed in the valuations they receive (or don’t receive) and will need to raise bridge rounds to stay funded.
  • Reserving more capital for follow-ons. They expect bridge rounds to become more common and are therefore shifting their allocation to accommodate that need within their existing portfolio companies. That means less capital available for new investments, which has to mean either less Seed and Series A rounds get done or that round sizes are smaller (or both).
  • Spending more time advising their portcos. Startups that used to go 12 to 18 months between rounds are now expected to go 18 to 24 months before their next funding round.  As a result, investors are more engaged than normal with their portfolio companies helping them plan and adjust for this new reality. Survival, runway extension, and optimizing for unit economics is now the primary focus for most existing portfolio companies.

We understand that the changes at later stages should eventually trickle its way to earlier-stages. Some say it might happen in a month or two. Some say it might take longer.. However, the good news is that, for now, the early stage funding environment is still alive and open for business. VCs still want to meet founders. They still want to invest. The bar is higher. Valuations are lower. Due diligence is stricter. The Seed and Series A markets are not dead, they have just quickly reverted to what used to be considered normal conditions. This means early stage founders will need to adjust and become more realistic. 

We will continue to keep our eyes and ears open. I’d welcome your comments and news.

Survey Results

Are you still investing in new portfolio companies? If so, is your rate of investment higher, lower, or the same as it was prior to the recent tech downturn?
No changePace IncreasingPace decreasing
Have there been any changes in your investment themes / strategy that I should be aware of? For example, are there any new sectors you are focusing on or avoiding, or have there been any changes to the traction levels you are looking for at different stages (ie. Seed, Series A, etc.)?
No change to criteriaChanging criteria
Are there any other ways the recent downturn has affected your investing?
No changeHigher Bar DDSeeking lower valuations
Focusing on different stageMore follow-on dealsMore bridge rounds
Seeking longer runwaySupporting portcos moreFewer, bigger deals

Welcome to the RSCM Blog!

Over the years, we’ve tried to chronicle how our thinking about investing has evolved and capture insights into how startups can improve their chances of success.

Before October 2016, these chronicles lived on Kevin’s personal blog, Possible Insight. Going forward, we’ll be posting new startup related content on the RSCM blog. For convenience, we’ve also replicated the relevant Possible Insight posts here.

For founders, we recommend the following series of posts as an introduction:

For investors, we recommend this path:

#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.

Investor Updates: Dos and Don’ts

Since publishing Minimum Viable Investor Updates almost three years ago, I’ve processed thousands more updates. We finally hired someone to take over this task a few months ago and, as part of the knowledge transfer process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how startups could improve their updates.

I’ve come up with a list of Dos and Don’ts that you can apply to your current updates, whether you’re using our minimum viable format or not. Consider it the distilled wisdom of someone who has likely processed more startup updates than any other investment principal on the planet.

Getting It Done

  • Do Start Small. A lot of founders, riding a wave of initial enthusiasm, start off writing huge, detailed missives… for a couple of months. But few can keep up that pace while running a high growth business. Then, in their own minds, they’ve set the bar too high and struggle to meet those self-imposed expectations. Better to start with a small, core update. Build the habit. Add to it incrementally. Same advice as for starting an exercise program if you want to get long-term results.
  • Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of Adequate. Founders tend to be goal oriented, and those goals tend to be big. Many seem to have a vision of the perfect update in their minds–capturing all the excitement, possibility, and heartache they’re experiencing. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself every month while staring at a blank page. Especially with all the other demands on your time. Let yourself off the hook and and come up with a very basic template you can fill out in 10-20 minutes (see the Minimum Viable Investor Updates post for ideas).
  • Don’t Fall into a “Shame Spiral”. Often, it seems founders miss an update, then feel like the next one has to be even better. Which makes the chance of delivering it lower. Which means the next one has to make up for two missed updates. And so on. Again, let yourself off the hook. Offer a brief apology, go back to Step 1, and Start Small.

Getting It Read

  • Do Send as Email. Email is the least common denominator. All investors have it. Nearly all investors have evolved a system for organizing email that works for them. There are lots of tools for managing email lists. Don’t use Google Groups. Don’t use Slack. Don’t try completely new platforms like Telegram. Feel free to use other platforms in addition to email. But put your core updates in email. (Yes, I can provide detailed reasons why each alternative platform is inferior but they all essentially boil down to standard least common denominator platform arguments.)
  • Don’t Put the Content in an Attachment. Honestly, I don’t understand why founders attach updates as PDF, Word, and PowerPoint. Sure, supplementary material is fine in those formats. But we receive a lot of updates where the founder has clearly written a specific update document and attached it as a file. Forcing the opening of a file just introduces friction and attachments break/slow some forms of searching. One founder said he felt it was more secure. As a former security guy, “Uh, no.” Note: there is an exception here. If the choice is between not sending a useful update at all and sending a pre-existing file like a Board deck or pitch deck traction slides, go ahead and send the file.
  • Don’t Rely Solely an Online Service Like Reportedly. Anything that requires a logon introduces friction. But it also causes particular problems where partners in a firm jointly help portfolio companies and/or have a process for actively synthesizing a view of each portfolio company’s state. You don’t want a process that makes it hard for multiple people at a firm to look out for you. If you really want to use something like Reportedly, perhaps to manage discussions, copy the body of the update into the email as well. Note: if you want to centralize your detailed financial reporting as part of your accounting system, that’s fine. Just link to it from your update emails.

Maximizing Usefulness

  • Do Put Metrics Up Front. Most founders seem to think the metrics are the punchline, but they should be the preamble. First, for the same psychological reasons that you want to put your traction up front in a pitch deck, as I explained in Your Pitch Deck is Wrong. Second, purely from a practical standpoint, if an investor is short on time, the metrics give the most information. Third, the metrics provide useful context for absorbing all the other information. Traffic shot up? I’m looking forward to finding out why. Burn spiked? I’ll expect an explanation. CAC and LTV both went up? This should be interesting.
  • Do Include Financial Metrics. Financial metrics are your startup’s basic vital signs, like pulse and blood pressure. It’s really hard to maintain situational awareness of how things are going without them. Always provide Net Burn and Ending Cash. If you’re generating revenues, provide revenues. Better yet, break it down as applicable: recurring vs one time; COGs vs margin, inbound vs outbound, etc. Whatever is most relevant to your current situation. But please don’t use non-standard or ambiguous terms without defining them. If you’re not generating revenues, provide some indication of what the timeline is, whether it’s a target shipping date for revenue generating product, details of where prospective customers are in the pipeline, etc.Note: some founders think that financial metrics should be confidential. Not from people who gave you money! If there are people on your update list who are not investors and you don’t want them to know, split the distributions. If this sounds like a hassle, go to Step 1 and Start Small.
  • Never Just Provide a Percentage Change. Perhaps even more frustrating than no financial metrics at all is seeing just a percentage change. Again, the motivation here seems to be confidentiality, but my same response applies. Statements like, “User acquisition costs dropped by 30% last month,” or, “Revenue rose 30% last month” are not only useless to your investors, they are extremely frustrating. The goal of your update is probably not to frustrate your investors.
  • Do Provide Values as Well as Graphs. Graphs are great! But often the graphs will have weird scales or multiple scales or be generally hard to read. So if you graph a quantity, be sure that each point is either clearly labeled with the corresponding value or also put the values for the most recent period in text below the graph.
  • Do Provide Fundraising Details. Investors can often help with fundraising. If not this round, then maybe the next one. We also like to get validation that our previous investment is appreciating! So knowing exactly where you are in a raise or where you ended up at close is important. If you’re raising, report the target amount, the target/hoped for valuation (range is fine), how much you have committed, how much closed, and from whom. If you’ve completed a raise, report final total, final terms, and final participants. And again, don’t use non-standard or ambiguous terms like, “We secured $500K from [firm].”  What does that mean? A verbal promise, a written commitment, signed investment documents, a check?
  • Do Organize Content into Digestible Chunks. Paragraphs of unbroken prose or lists of unbroken bullet points are hard to digest. Use descriptive and logical headings to group related information together. Never have more than three consecutive paragraphs of prose–and only then if the paraphs are reasonably short. Never have more than seven consecutive bullet points. Only have more than three consecutive graphs if they’re all closely related and seeing them together is necessary to provide a coherent picture.For reference, here are the sections we use in our internal app for summarizing company updates:
    – Metrics
    – Fundraising
    – Team
    – Business Model
    – Product/Engineering
    – Customers/Sales/Channel
    – Miscellaneous

Of course, you may have specific circumstances not addressed by this list. In general, it helps to have a model of what you’re investors are looking to get out of the updates. First, remember that they are looking at your company mostly from the outside and can’t possibly have all the context you have. And there’s no way you can load it into their heads in a reasonable period of time.

Second, investors want to be helpful if possible. But you don’t necessarily know if you need help or the best way each investor could help. Experienced investors actually have more context than you on how startups in general develop and the challenges they encounter. They obviously have more context about their own capabilities. So the best path is to give them a high level and reasonably transparent view that both maintains consistency over time but also notes “inflection points” when you think you hit them.

And you should always feel free to ask investors what they’re looking for.

However, the absolutely most important thing is to send out an update regularly. Your investors and their extended networks are a valuable asset–but only if they are up-to-date on your company. If you have 6 investors, and they each give you just a single strategic introduction every other year, that’s 3 extra opportunities per year for good things to happen. You could be missing out on introductions to acquirers, channel partners, next round funders, experienced potential hires, relevant advice, and much more. All because your investors don’t know what’s going on with your business. Can you really afford not to put this free upside in play?

Moneyball for Tech Startups: Kevin’s Remix

Several people have pointed me to Dan Frommer’s post on Moneyball for Tech Startups, noting that “Moneyball” is actually a pretty good summary of our approach to seed-stage investing at RSCM.  Steve Bennet, one of our advisors and investors, went so far as to kindly make this point publicly on his blog.

Regular readers already know that I’ve done a fair bit of Moneyball-type analysis using the available evidence for technology startups (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).  But I thought I’d take this opportunity to make the analogy explicit.

I’d like to start by pointing out two specific elements of Moneyball, one that relates directly to technology startups and one that relates only indirectly:

  • Don’t trust your gut feel, directly related.  There’s a quote in the movie where Beane says, “Your gut makes mistakes and makes them all the time.”  This is as true of tech startups as it is of baseball prospects.  In fact, there’s been a lot of research on gut feel (known in academic circles as “expert clinical judgement”).  I gave a fairly detailed account of the research in this post, but here’s the summary.  Expert judgement never beats a statistical model built on a substantial data set.  It rarely even beats a simple checklist, and then only in cases where the expert sees thousands of examples and gets feedback on most of the outcomes.  Even when it comes to evaluating people, gut feel just doesn’t work.  Unstructured interviews are the worst predictor of job performance.
  • Use a “player” rating algorithm, indirectly related.  In Moneyball, Beane advocates basing personnel decisions on statistical analyses of player performance.  Of course, the typical baseball player has hundreds to thousands of plate appearances, each recorded in minute detail.  A typical tech startup founder has 0-3 plate appearances, recorded at only the highest level.  Moreover, with startups, the top 10% of the startups account for about 80% of the all the returns.  I’m not a baseball stats guy, but I highly doubt the top 10% of players account for 80% of the offense in the Major Leagues.  So you’ve got much less data and much more variance with startups.  Any “player” rating system will therefore be much worse.

Despite the difficulty of constructing a founder rating algorithm, we can follow the general prescription of trying to find bargains.  Don’t invest in “pedigreed” founders, with startups in hot sectors, that have lots of “social proof”, located in the Bay Area.  Everyone wants to invest in those companies.  So, as we saw in Angel Gate, valuations in these deals go way up.  Instead, invest in a wide range of founders, in a wide range of sectors, before their startups have much social proof, across the entire US. Undoubtedly, these startups have a lower chance of succeeding. But the difference is more than made up for by lower valuations.  Therefore, achieving better returns is simply a matter of adequate diversification, as I’ve demonstrated before.

Now, to balance out the disadvantage in rating “players”, startup investors have an advantage over baseball managers.  The average return of pure seed stage angel deals is already plenty high, perhaps over 40% IRR in the US according to my calculation.  You don’t need to beat the market.  In fact, contrary to popular belief, you don’t even need to try and predict “homerun” startups.  I’ve shown you’d still crush top quartile VC returns even if you don’t get anything approaching a homerun.  Systematic base hits win the game.

But how do you pick seed stage startups?  Well, the good news from the research on gut feel is that experts are actually pretty good at identifying important variables and predicting whether they positively or negatively affect the outcome.  They just suck at combining lots of variables into an overall judgement.  So we went out and talked to angels and VCs.  Then, based on the the most commonly cited desirable characteristics, we built a simple checklist model for how to value seed-stage startups.

We’ve made the software that implements our model publicly available so anybody can try it out [Edit 3/16/2013: we took down the Web app in Jan 2013 because it wasn’t getting enough hits anymore to justify maintaining it.  We continue to use the algorithm internally as a spreadsheet app].  We’ve calibrated it against a modest number of deals.  I’ll be the first to admit that this model is currently fairly crude.  But the great thing about an explicit model is that you can systematically measure results and refine it over time.  The even better thing about an explicit model is you can automate it, so you can construct a big enough portfolio.

That’s how we’re doing Moneyball for tech startups.