Amid record amounts of capital raised by VCs worldwide, and a sharp rise in the number of private “unicorns” valued at $1 billion-plus, there has been a quiet, barely noticed implosion in early-stage VC activity worldwide.
The chart below is dramatic, and accurate. Since 2014, the number of VC rounds in technology companies worldwide has nearly halved, from 19,000 to 10,000, according to PitchBook. During that time, the drop in VC funding amount has been nowhere near as dramatic, highlighting that VCs are concentrating investment into fewer later-stage companies.
This is now a three-year trend, so cannot be “blamed” on macro or short-term factors. More worryingly, it comes at a time of unprecedented stock market valuations worldwide.
This amounts to a crash in number of financings, and is the most extreme since 2001.
The crash has occurred in early-stage funding
The data shows by far the sharpest fall in activity has been in early- and seed-stage rounds. In fact, later rounds have remained fairly flat the last three years, and A and B rounds have fallen, but not nearly by as much.
The early-stage implosion is global
The fall in financings has happened literally everywhere:
What caused this quiet implosion?
- The era of funding apps is over – VC funding rounds grew dramatically after 2010 partly because of rebounding economic activity, but mainly in order to back a raft of B2C apps taking advantage of consumers’ emerging mobile-first behavior. With Android and iOS ecosystems well established, nearly every commercial segment saw a raft of new digital challengers, in everything from lifestyle to health, finance and a raft of special interest categories. Since 2014, early-stage funding for businesses with “mobile” in their description has fallen off a cliff.
- SaaS funding has dropped sharply – In 2014, nearly 5,000 rounds backed companies describing themselves as “SaaS.” This year, that figure is down nearly 40 percent, to about 3,000. With so many SaaS companies having been created in the past 10 years, it’s hard to justify, let alone back, new SaaS startups, which are by now competing against established SaaS players, not legacy perpetual license vendors.
- Even fintech has seen a quiet fall in activity – While nowhere near as dramatic as the fall-off in SaaS and mobile funding, fintech funding activity has dropped nearly 10 percent since 2014. Again, we believe this marks a natural maturation of many fintech segments, where winners have already emerged well-capitalized and new entrants in many fintech categories are fighting a costly uphill battle to grow quickly.
- In general, VCs are doubling down on “winner take all” leaders – Since 2014, aggregate funding into late-stage rounds has hovered around $55 billion a year, though it will be somewhat lower this year. Today’s $1 billion private financing round was unheard of a decade ago. Recent $1 billion raisers Airbnb, Spotify, WeWork and Lyft have joined previous billionaire raisers, including Uber, Facebook, SpaceX and Flipkart, and point to a strong trend to concentrate “winner take all” funding into companies that have real potential to lead or dominate their segment.
Overall we believe 2012-16 was a bubble in early-stage funding driven by the fundamental platform shift to mobile. In easy hindsight, too many companies raised “concept” money, and an unprecedented number failed early and “failed fast.” The VC market for seed and early-stage failed with them, falling to half its size in three short years.
Arguably, post implosion, early-stage VCs have become more “rational” and we are unlikely to see the “spray and pray” approach that dominated a few short years ago. However, in absolute numbers, it also means there is far less capital available to early-stage companies today than a few years ago, and inevitably there will be a continued drop in the number of new startups, which cannot now rely on getting the first round raised easily in the current environment.
Whether the early-stage VC implosion is healthy or disastrous for the tech ecosystem remains to be seen.
Likely it will be a bit of both.