- Why Startup Accelerators Compete with Smart Money
- How Angels & Seed Funds Compete with VCs
- Why Startups Need Signals
Once upon a time, the startup and VC ecosystem was a very opaque and fragmented place. Each non-SV market had at best a handful of meaningful check writers who were very geography-centric (local) in their funding. Even Silicon Valley had only a few dozen VCs, who very much expected you to move closer to them if they were going to fund you. Seed funds and accelerators were not a thing. The idea of a “pre-seed” round would be considered comical.
In that earlier, simpler time, much discussion revolved around the importance of the “warm intro.” So much so that I had to write posts like: “Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros.” Venture capitalists used the way that you were introduced to them as an important signal for a founding team’s chops. Candidly, this is not entirely unreasonable. A whole lot of what a founding CEO does is build relationships with key people in the market, and “sell” the vision so that other players will make an incentives-aligned contribution to the cause: join the team, buy the product, write a check, etc. There is some logic to the idea that if a CEO can’t convince anyone credible to introduce them to a VC, well, can they convince key employees, or key customers, or key commercial partners?
Times change. Now the image of elite VCs sitting in their gilded towers waiting for founders to jump through X or Y hoop just to be given 15 minutes to sit in a conference room chair seems… a bit dated. Sure, the go-go years of 2020-2021 have ended and we’re now in a bit of a reset of power dynamics between founders and funders, but nevertheless the whole process of how top founders get connected with VCs today looks very different from 10-15 years ago. In fact, at the high end of the market, it’s flipped. Rather than founders scrambling to get intro’d to VCs, it’s now VCs scrambling to get intro’d to founders. Multiple articles were written about “VC burnout” as VC partners and associates were, in some cases, under extreme stress trying to get access to good deal flow.
What changed? The Disney-fied story you’ll hear is something like “VCs have become more enlightened.” Relying on intro’s was too “good ol’ boys” chummy. It excluded talented people without connections. It reinforced biases and prejudice. Now our far more modern funding ecosystem is “open,” transparent, meritocratic, with a more level playing field.
Okay, perhaps. I won’t say that narrative is entirely false, but it’s most definitely incomplete. The bigger-picture reason is: competition, and a proliferation of alternative signals for team quality.
In How Angels & Seed Funds compete with VCs I wrote about how changes in the structure and timing of funding rounds produced an entire industry of check writers who preceded VCs in a company’s funding pipeline. Angel investors have been around for a long time, but as the SaaS revolution started dramatically dropping the cost of starting a startup, resulting in an explosion of people trying their hand at entrepreneurship, angels started professionalizing. You now had angel networks and syndicates that could collectively fund an entire round of millions of dollars. They were soon followed by “seed funds,” leaner, faster VCs who led rounds much earlier in a company’s life-cycle relative to more traditional VCs who typically dove in around Series A.
Parallel to the professionalization of angel networks and seed funds came startup accelerators, which were a result of the then-newly emerging seed ecosystem, but also a catalyst for its further evolution. The explosion of young startups who weren’t yet looking for millions of dollars, but for whom a few hundred thousand would make a meaningful impact, begged for a university-like talent sorting service provider that could apply a branded signal onto credibly vetted teams, thus helping them get later funding.
For a period of a few years, there was an elegant symbiosis between the “seed ecosystem” of accelerators, angel networks, and seed funds, on the one hand, and larger VC funds who showed up around Series A, on the other; much like how elite universities sort and credential students, for a price, and funnel them into top-tier employers.
We can pause for a moment here to recognize that this development alone significantly eroded the importance of the “warm intro.” Accelerators and angel networks rarely required warm intros. They had “open application” style ways of connecting with founders, which rarely required references or other connections. This meant a higher volume of applicants of more varied quality, but because the checks were smaller (less concentrated risk), and these orgs staffed themselves with people trained (in a way) to separate wheat from chaff, this significantly expanded the top of the funnel for startups entering the funding market.
At the tail-end of the seed pipeline, once you were accepted/funded by a top accelerator or angel network/seed fund, this served as a credible alternative to the less institutionalized “warm intros” of yesteryear. Someone had already put in effort to get to know you and filter you from the volume of B and C-players in the market, and so VCs grew more comfortable taking those meetings even if a classic introduction wasn’t part of the package.
But unlike centuries-old non-profit universities, the seed ecosystem was made up of dynamic businesses and service providers eager to claim more market share. And so they did.
Elite accelerators and other seed players started forming their own later-stage funds, or investing in VC funds much more tightly aligned with their own interests. If there was money to be made in later-stage rounds, why let some other fund make it? Seed players also started leveraging their control over the top of the funnel to exert pressure on later-stage VCs, requiring them to accept higher valuations, weaker governance rights, and other forms of limits on VCs freedom to operate. See: Startup Accelerators and Ecosystem Gatekeeping. What had started as a nice complement to the business needs of VCs had now evolved into a direct competitor and gatekeeper.
VCs, being who they are (hardly tender souls afraid of competing), were not simply going to accept these seed-stage upstarts taking control of the ecosystem. The stakes are too high. VCs started evolving and competing, in many cases very successfully. See: Why Startup Accelerators Compete with Smart Money. The significant weakening of the “warm intro,” with many 7-figure check-writers openly inviting founders to send cold e-mails, is a result of this competition. If VCs didn’t want accelerators and seed investors choking them off from the entire pipeline of top startups, they had to get comfortable stepping out of their gilded towers a bit and spending more time filtering through the masses themselves.
Thus the erosion of the VC warm intro is less the result of a newly enlightened VC industry, and more a response to changing market dynamics requiring VCs to loosen up if they want meaningful deal flow. Making the warm intro merely optional is just one way VC is evolving. VC “scouts” – often very young people aligned with a VC fund and incentivized to identify early talent – are a kind of VC-aligned white-label of angel investors. See First Round Angel Track. Some VC funds are going further and creating their own accelerators. See Sequoia Arc.
My personal impression is that elite VC funds identifying and responding to competition from seed players, and themselves creating seed-stage arms of their funds, has been the nail in the coffin of the “golden era” of startup accelerators. It’s very true that some meaningful accelerators still exist, most notably Y Combinator, but it’s quite obvious now that accelerators no longer serve the central role in the seed ecosystem that they once did. It’s hard to imagine accelerators regaining their prominence among the very top tier of entrepreneurs without a significant revamp of their business models, including their pricing.
Ironically, elite startup accelerators once branded themselves as an alternative to a stodgy and antiquated university system, and yet now they themselves are seen, in some circles at least, as unnecessary and overpriced. The truth is accelerators are a service provider, with a relatively high price. It should surprise no one that the market responded by offering similar services (sorting, signals) at other price points. In the golden era of accelerators, a hustler would flaunt dropping out of Stanford or Harvard and joining YC or Techstars. I see a lot more elite founders today skipping accelerators entirely and just getting funded by a seed fund or nimble VC, accumulating a less centralized portfolio of signals, while saving significant dilution in the process.
This is not at all to suggest that the most elite startup accelerators are going away anytime soon. They absolutely have their place, particularly for founders in contexts where they struggle to acquire credible early signals; one key example being international founders in smaller markets. But all accelerators are facing credible competition and erosion of their pricing and brand power, as entrepreneurs at all levels, including those at the very top, realize that the value proposition of accelerators (signals for follow-on funding, a network, advisory) is often replicable at substantially lower levels of dilution.
At one level, the big picture story here is competition between different kinds of funders: angels, seed funds, accelerators, and VCs, all competing for each other’s turf, with different business models and price points. The number and variety of check writers grew significantly, changing power dynamics between founders and funders, and forcing the latter to become more flexible in order to access deal flow.
At a higher level, we see competition between signals. This post is ultimately about warm intros, which are one of many possible signals for the quality of a founder team. The “open application” style of accelerators and seed funds demonstrated that there were other ways to vet the quality of founder teams, and VCs eventually started integrating those other signals into their filtering repertoire.
We may be moving away from the warm intro as a central signal for startup quality, but we will never move away from the need for signals themselves. When people criticize the university system, they’re often criticizing its price, or its effectiveness, but they’re not criticizing the fundamental underlying “service” that elite universities and even standardized tests provide: talent sorting and signals. That service still needs to be provided somehow. The emerging theses are that there are ways of doing it better, cheaper, faster, etc. This is most definitely true, even if it’s also true that the older systems still have their place.
Developing alternative signals that produce results is legitimate improvement and market evolution. Competition between signals is not zero-sum. There’s room for more. But complaining about how existing signals are unfair or exclusionary without offering viable alternatives is (candidly) just whining. Not helpful. What we want to work and what actually works are two separate things.
Similarly, celebrating the weakening of the warm intro, much like celebrating the weakening of institutionalized education and testing, is not the same thing as pretending (delusionally) that we don’t still need effective + efficient talent sorting and signaling. Universities letting go of the SAT as a hard requirement does not mean some highly talented students won’t still use it as their preferred talent signal.
It’s the same with the warm intro. Sure we can talk about how it’s unfair and exclusionary, and that it’s a good thing that there’s a broader menu of signals available, but the fact is for many teams it still works. In fact, given how much bigger the market has become, with a larger diversity of credible intro sources (respected founders, senior executives, and angels being the best options), the warm intro today is arguably much less “chummy” than it was in the tighter, narrower networks of a decade ago. If you can get a strong warm intro (note: lawyers are not strong warm intros), I highly recommend you use it. In a crowded market, anything that can credibly differentiate you is worth using.
The wheat will somehow get separated from the chaff. That’s a fact. More ways of doing that (a wider variety of effective signals) is a good thing. But I would caution anyone from turning this story into some kind of “you can be whatever you want, if you try” warm-and-fuzzy narrative. Startup entrepreneurship is still brutally competitive and meritocratic (albeit imperfectly); exclusionary by design, just like any high-stakes industry or sport. Some barriers, like the warm intro requirement, have been loosened. But that’s meant the number of entrants has multiplied 10-fold.
The competition among funders has gotten much more intense, but so has the competition among entrepreneurs. The strongest teams will always use credible, unambiguous signals to differentiate themselves from weaker players in an increasingly crowded and noisy market. Some of those signals will be elitist, because the entire point is to identify the elite.
End-note: The topic of intros and signals often gets understandably lumped into discussions of “diversity” in the startup ecosystem. If you’re interested in my candid thoughts (as a latino from a low-income background) on that topic, see: Diversity in Startups: Whining, Warring, Winning.