TL;DR: The market for early-stage startup financing has reached a level of fragmentation and hyper-competition (among capitalists) never seen before. This competition has led to an increasingly atomized market, with a multitude of players offering different takes on the traditional “bundled” offering of smart venture capital. Startups and founders should understand the reasons behind the marketing narratives pushed by each of these players, so they don’t get too swept up in an overly simplistic strategy for how to raise capital. The best strategy is to diversify your capital sources, while still allowing room for smart leads writing large enough checks to provide real value add.
The world of early-stage startup financing looks extremely different today than it did even 5 years ago, and completely unrecognizable to the market of a decade ago. The reasons are fairly straightforward. Near-zero interest rates and slowing of international economic growth, together with government policies of quantitative easing (which inflate traditional asset prices and make further returns harder to achieve) have produced a surge in the amount of capital seeking any kind of “alpha” in the seemingly “final frontier” of early-stage startups. There is far more money chasing startups than perhaps any time in history.
This surge in early capital naturally produces a surge in competition among early capitalists. In order to navigate that competition, capitalists, just like any other service provider, seek ways to differentiate themselves in the market to avoid appearing too much like a commodity. It’s this need for early capitalists to differentiate themselves that has produced the “atomization” or unbundling of startup finance that is increasingly visible in the market. The point of this post is to help founders and early teams understand that unbundling in assessing their own financing strategies.
To speak of unbundling of course requires first understanding the original bundle. Historically, conventional venture capitalists “sold” the following bundle to startups:
- Green cash money (obvious)
- Signal – a brand that credibly signaled “eliteness” to the market (de-risking to an early startup), making it easier to further attract capital, employees, commercial partners, etc.
- Network – a deep rolodex/LinkedIn network of contacts to leverage in recruiting and expansion
- Advisory – active involvement on Boards and “coaching” to inexperienced executive teams.
In the very early days of conventional venture capital, VC was very scarce. In many markets there was quite literally one, maybe two funds, who served as gatekeepers to the market; and unhesitatingly used their market dominance to squeeze teams on valuation and corporate governance power. This “asshole” behavior inevitably produced demand for alternatives.
Enter the new “friendly” venture capitalists. Very large VC funds started to break up because the personal brands of high-profile VCs incentivized them to form their own funds with fewer mouths to feed. Growing interest in early-stage also brought in new market entrants. As the VC market evolved from a more oligopolistic structure to an increasingly fragmented and competitive market, the need for differentiation increased. “Friendliness” (or at least the well-calculated appearance of it) became a successful way to achieve that differentiation. You now had VCs actually competing with each other based on their reputation. But the general bundle offered by those VCs largely remained the same.
Another successful form of differentiation in this era involved going deep on “value add” services. Particularly in SV but now also in other markets, VC funds began to hire non-partner staff whose purpose was to, completely apart from providing money and Board service, help CEOs with recruiting, marketing, sales, etc. as a kind of external extension of their internal team. All that extra staff naturally costs money, and increases the overhead structure of the fund, which then increases their pressure to achieve highly outsized returns and avoid overly generous valuations.
So in the initial era of startup funding growth, VCs became “friendlier” (though caveats are worth emphasizing, see Trust, “Friendliness,” and Zero-Sum Startup Games) – and bulkier. But the flood of new capital kept on coming. VCs continued splintering off and forming micro-funds. More entrants arrived. Successful exits produced new, younger teams interested in trying their luck at the VC game. What to do with the VC market becoming even more competitive? Differentiate even further.
Enter accelerators and seed funds, and eventually pre-seed funds. As the true Series A market became increasingly crowded, continued competition among capitalists led many to conclude that the new way to avoid commoditization was to go earlier in the life cycle, closer to the territory once filled exclusively by angels (named as such because of their willingness to take risks once deemed off the table for professional investors). Rather than continuing the game of bulking up and emphasizing the “full package” bundle of traditional VCs, these new institutions sought differentiation by slimming down, and emphasizing their ability and willingness to move fast and early. Those old-school VCs are slow and over-bearing, the marketing content says. They don’t really provide any value-add. Take our cheaper, faster, “friendlier” money instead.
We are now entering a new era where “solo capitalists” are the hot topic. New in some ways, but the same dynamics of market competition and necessary differentiation are quite old. Why take money from a fund at all, when you can just raise from a set of successful solo founders? They’re super friendly, don’t care about a board seat, and will move lightning fast without pestering you with “negotiation” or other trivialities. Their ultra-low overhead also means they can pay higher valuations. And of course they’re enabled by new tech platforms for raising and distributing capital that are very much invested in the increasing atomization of startup capital, which increases demand for technology to coordinate and facilitate that atomization.
In 2020, the market of very early-stage funding for startups now looks like this:
- Solo angel investors
- Angel networks
- Angel “syndicates”
- Accelerators of various flavors
- Scout money from “bulky” traditional VCs
- Pre-seed funds
- Seed funds
- Series A funds that invest in seed rounds
- Solo VCs
- “Lean” startup lenders
Throw in the reality that geography is hardly a barrier to capital flows now – especially in the COVID era – and the early-stage funding market has reached a level of hyper-fragmentation and competition that was unimaginable a decade ago. Within a particular market, the number of players has shot up dramatically, and now those players are increasingly happy to cross state lines.
This is undeniably a fantastic environment for top-tier teams looking to raise early funding. It’s also undeniably a far more stressful environment to be a startup investor. Ten years ago being a VC meant everyone came to you, very warm intro required, and you called the shots. Now VCs hustle so hard for visibility some are even engaging production studios to help them create polished youtube channels. Others don’t even require intros anymore and have opened their DMs on twitter. There are even jokes about VCs trying to create viral memes to get eyeballs. Life comes at you fast.
The important message for startup teams is to understand why the landscape now looks the way it does, and the incentives behind why any particular type of investor markets itself the way it does. Accelerators, for example, now face far more competition than they did in their golden era, particularly from seed funds with legitimate “value add” offerings. See: Why Accelerators Compete with Smart Money. Because the “bundle” of an accelerator is heavily weighted toward its network and signaling value, accelerators have for some time been incentivized to promote a narrative of “dumbing down” early capital that doesn’t have its own competing network, thus keeping the accelerator’s value proposition somewhat relevant.
Similarly, ultra-lean funds and Solo VCs lack by design the resources of larger funds, and thus they are incentivized to push a narrative that traditional “hands on” VCs don’t really add value. The new lean players don’t have the time or the resources to add value themselves, so best to talk as if that particular part of the traditional bundle isn’t that meaningful anyway. This all, of course, is easily disproven by the number of founders in the market who credibly testify to the value (in advisory, network, deep long-term pockets) in having a large fund with full skin-in-the-game on your Board and cap table. Some (not all) large funds really do provide significant added value.
And of course, traditional VC funds talk their own books with the exact opposite story. The fragmented lean investors are all spray-and-pray “dumb money” looking for party rounds. Teams need value add from seasoned, steady hands willing to roll up their sleeves on Boards. You need more than atomized money. You need a trusted “partner” to shepherd you toward success.
There is absolutely no need to take sides in all of these narratives. Why should you? Every player in the market offers a grain of truth, but also exaggeration and over-simplification, in what they’re saying. The most important thing is not to get too swept up in moralizing or marketing. Understand what each player is selling, and understand what your particular needs are.
Often times the smartest teams do a bit of “shopping” across various aisles in the new VC supermarket. Team up with a reputable seed fund, but use your optionality to ensure the terms are reasonable. Let them write a large enough check to be emotionally invested, but fill the rest of the round with smaller high-signal checks that will also be motivated to connect you with their networks. For good measure, if you have interest from a traditional Series A VC fund, let them write a small check in your seed round to keep the connection warm when Series A discussions start. The fact that they know how well networked you are (thanks to the other players on your cap table) will ensure good behavior at the Series A term sheet stage.
Contexts will vary and team needs will vary, so the particular mix of early capital any particular startup takes will naturally vary as well. Stay flexible and avoid rigid theories about the (air quotes) “right” way to raise funding. But in all cases, make an effort to diversify your network and capital sources. Nothing ensures good behavior from the money better than making it crystal clear that you are well-networked and happy to take someone else’s check if your current investors don’t play ball. You can do so while still building strong connections with your investors, demonstrating that you value their relationship. This is a great time to be an entrepreneur, whether in or outside of Silicon Valley. In navigating the new early-stage funding market, don’t drink too much of anyone’s kool-aid, and shop wisely.