Not Building a Unicorn

TL;DR: In a market that has historically idolized huge, splashy financings and exits, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are realizing that everyone else’s definition of success – particularly among certain large VCs – isn’t necessarily aligned with their own.

While I work with a few companies in Silicon Valley, the vast majority of my clients are either in Austin or ecosystems that look much more like Austin than SV; “second tier” tech communities. Over time it has become crystal clear to me, and has been confirmed by CEOs I work with who spend time in both places, that the SV community has a far more binary outlook on business success than “normals” do. There is very little time for, or interest in, companies that would legitimately call a $50MM or $100MM exit a true success.

This is most clearly highlighted in the “unicorn” boom we all saw over the past few years, where founders raised very large rounds, with terms very onerous to the underlying common stock, hoping they could eventually justify billion dollar valuations to skeptical acquirers or public market investors. The result of the binary philosophy is, in fact, truly binary outcomes for founders. The handful who truly succeed at justifying their valuation in an exit achieve “buy a yacht” level wealth. And those who in a different world may have built a business that made them “merely rich,” walk away with virtually nothing; their stock under water. 

A good portion of the newer generation of entrepreneurs has, in my opinion, wised up to this reality; certainly outside of SV, where I work. They’re thinking much harder about what kind of business they want to build, and what kinds of people and resources they want to use in building those businesses. And many are accepting, and even flaunting, the fact that, while they absolutely want to achieve success and wealth, they have zero interest in following the conventional “unicorn track.” The below is a list of issues that founders should keep in mind when deliberating on their own desired path to scaling their companies.

1. The binary “get yacht-level rich or die trying” mindset is driven, first and foremost, by large institutional investors. 

Success for institutional VCs is driven not by absolute dollars returned, but by % returns on capital. If I put in $2MM and get out $10MM in a $50MM exit, that’s a solid 5x return. But if I put in $10MM and get out $15MM in a 50% larger exit, that was still a waste of my time; only 1.5x. Large funds write larger checks because they lack the mental/resource bandwidth to actively manage a portfolio of smaller investments. Most individual VCs can only support about 7-10 companies at a time. And large checks require very large exits to achieve good returns.

Entrepreneurs sometimes assume that accepting money from a large fund is better than a smaller fund, because they have more “dry powder” to deploy for follow-in financings, but this is a dangerously simplistic way of assessing investors. A large fund is much more likely to get impatient with an executive team if the business is growing, but not growing fast enough for their needs. Align yourself with a fund whose exit expectations are not totally misaligned from your own.

2. Higher valuations almost always require larger rounds, which drive binary outcomes.

Some founders assume that a higher valuation is always better than a lower one, but they are wrong.

First, investors will sometimes be willing to take a higher valuation if it means getting a heavier liquidation preference. Should you accept a 3x liquidation preference with a $15MM valuation instead of a 1x preference at a $8MM valuation? If you’re confident you’ll get a huge exit, maybe. But for normals the answer is almost certainly no. That 3x preference has dramatically increased the hurdle you need to clear in an exit before the common stock (you and your team) get anything, and it will likely get duplicated in future rounds. Onerous liquidation preferences push the common stock further under water, and increase the likelihood that the common will get little or nothing in a “merely rich” exit.

Secondly, most institutional investors have a minimum post-closing % they need to own in order to justify an investment. By driving the valuation up, you’re usually not reducing your dilution in the round; you’re just increasing the size of the check they need to write in order to get to their desired %. That can be good if you truly believe every dollar will lead to more than an extra dollar in an exit, but keep in mind that liquidation preferences are tied to dollars in by investors. If the investors have a 1x preference, a $5MM round means the investors have to get $5MM back before founders get anything; and the same is true for a $15MM round. More money raised means more liquidation preference, which again means a larger hurdle to clear in an exit before the common gets anything. Large rounds, again, drive binary outcomes.

When an investor tells you that you should keep your Series A smaller, they truly are sometimes doing you a favor. And, sorry, but if you know you’re not building a unicorn, don’t talk to your investors about why you should get that lofty valuation just because X or Y company in SV got it too. Likely exit size ties directly to what seed or Series A valuation is appropriate.

3. Angels/Seed Funds v. Institutional VCs think very differently.

Put the above two points together, and it shouldn’t require very much explanation for why Angels and Seed Funds tend to be more amenable to “merely rich” exits than large VCs. They write smaller checks at earlier, lower valuations, and therefore an exit that wouldn’t move the needle for a large VC still looks great to them. Obviously they too prefer larger exits over smaller ones, but their definition of success is still much more aligned with “normal” entrepreneurs.

Angels and seed investors may want enormous exits, but large institutional VCs need them, and they behave accordingly.

We’re increasingly seeing entrepreneurs who take on angel and seed fund investment, but are much more cautious when it comes to larger institutional checks. And as online tools and new ecosystem resources (i) allow angels and seed funds to syndicate larger early-stage rounds, and (ii) un-bundle the value-add resources once limited to larger funds, non-institutional Series As (or larger-than-usual seed rounds) are going to continue to be a thing.

It can often take a few years of being in the market to get a clearer picture of what kind of company, in terms of size, you’re likely building. It can be a good strategy to avoid making a hard commitment to an investor with hyper growth needs/expectations until you have that clarity. 

4. Understand the tension between “Portfolio” v. “One Shot” incentives.

Listen to enough VCs at large firms w/ broad portfolios talk about startup finance, and you will inevitably hear the term “power law” come up. In short, they’re referring to the fact that most of their investments either fail or merely return capital, and it’s the grand slams that make up for the other losses.

This is the distributed portfolio mindset; i’ve got stakes in a lot of companies, so it’s OK if most fail, as long as I get at least one unicorn. In fact, if I push them all to try to be a grand slam, I’m more likely to get at least one. On the others, at least I’ll get my money back before anyone else does.

The fact that (i) investors have a liquidation preference that prioritizes the return of their capital in an exit, and (ii) their money is distributed across a diverse portfolio, means that they are structurally far more inclined to favor fast growth paths that produce a handful of very large exits even if they also produce a larger number of companies for which the common stock get nothing. At its core, this is precisely why the idea that founders/employees (common) and institutional investors (preferred) are “fully aligned” economically is completely laughable. 

A strategy that maximizes returns over a diversified portfolio with significant downside protection can completely screw individual stockholders whose own stakes are limited to one company, and at the bottom of the preference stack.

Startup ecosystem “cheerleaders” who lament the lack of billion-dollar, headline-making companies in their city reflect part of this portfolio mindset as well. If I’m not toiling away for 10 years on one company, but stand to benefit from the broader ‘ecosystem,’ I may also favor a business philosophy that pushes entrepreneurs to build big, splashy unicorns (large rounds, very fast growth), or otherwise crash & burn.

Reality check: entrepreneurs don’t have portfolios, and don’t have liquidation preferences. They have one shot, and they’re slogging away 5-10 years for that one shot; not for your “ecosystem.” If I have 100x skin in a single game over everyone else, I’m going to have a fundamentally different outlook on how that game should be played.

When I hear someone complain that Texas hasn’t seen a lot of strong tech IPOs recently, my response is “so there’s no other way to be successful?” Why should we favor 1 billion dollar company over 10 $100MM companies, or 20 $50MM companies? I can think of a few arguments for why the latter is actually more robust long-term from an economic standpoint, even if it produces fewer NYT articles. It certainly provides more variety.

Obviously it’s great when any city sees a true breakout, international brand-building tech company emerge. And Silicon Valley produces, and likely will continue to produce, the lion share of those.  But those of us sitting on the sidelines, and not toiling away on one egg in one basket, need to be humbly mindful of how our discussions on success play out in the lives of entrepreneurs actually doing the work.

Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. “Change the world.” “Put a dent in the universe.” “Move fast and break things.” “Shoot for the moon; you’ll land…” yeah, ok, I think we all get it. Can we please let some entrepreneurs “just” build successful companies that make their stockholders “merely rich” – and skip the super hero cape, global domination, rocket ship, and mythological creatures? There is a big, lucrative world in the space between “small business” and “billions” that many smart, ambitious people are happy to fill. 

I think the greater awareness of this issue, and the overall shift in thinking among entrepreneurs, is an extremely healthy development for everyone. It will lead to more sustainable companies, and a healthier entrepreneurial culture. If you’re building the next Facebook, by all means go ahead, and align yourselves with people looking for a ride on that train. But the other 99.999% of the world doesn’t need to apologize, at all, for building companies that are “merely successful.”

Also published on Medium.

  • AngelSpan

    Always good insights from Jose’.

  • Michael L. Atkinson

    Excellent post, Jose! So true, the fantasy of the elusive Unicorn. It does drive speed and greed while refusing to see and feel the fear of failure. I just wish the US had an angel network as mature and organized and accessible as the U.K. My issue is with the current startup funding playbook, that requires that you be (1) young (2) go through and accelerator program for $50k and 6% (pretty dilutive) (3) win some pitching awards (lame) to be able to find some seed funds. The last time I attended a startup pitch session, the opening question wasn’t about team, technology or traction. Rather, the two questions were (1) what accelerator did you graduate from; and (2) what’s your exit strategy?. We need smarter angels too.