Three years ago, I met with a founder who had raised a massive seed round at a valuation that was at least five times the market rate. I asked what firm made the investment.
She said it was not a traditional venture firm, but rather a strategic investor that not only had no ties to her space but also had no prior investment experience. The strategic investor, she said, was looking to “get their hands dirty” and “get in on the ground floor.”
Over the next 2 years, I kept a close eye on the founder. Although she had enough capital to pivot her business focus multiple times, she seemed to be at odds, serving the needs of her strategic investor and her customer base.
Ultimately, when the business needed more capital to survive, the strategic investor didn’t agree with the founder’s focus, opted not to prop it up, and the business had to shut down.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon story as examples abound of strategic investors influencing startup direction and management decisions to the point of harm for the startup. Corporate strategics, not to be confused with dedicated funds focused on financial returns like a traditional venture investor like Google Ventures, often care less about return on investment, and more about a startup’s focus, and sector specificity. If corporate imperatives change, the strategic may cease to be the right partner or could push the startup in a challenging direction.
And yet, fortunately, as the disruptive power of technology is being unleashed on nearly every major industry, strategic investors are now getting smarter, both in terms of how they invest and how they partner with entrepreneurs.
From making strong acquisitive plays (i.e. GM’s purchase of Cruise Automation or Toyota’s early-stage investment in Uber) to building dedicated funds, to executing commercial agreements in tandem with capital investment, strategics are getting savvier, and by extension, becoming better partners. In some instances, they may be the best partner.
Negotiating a term sheet with a strategic investor necessitates a different set of considerations. Namely: the preference for a strategic to facilitate commercial milestones for the startup, a cautious approach to avoid the “over-valuation” trap, an acute focus on information rights, and the limitation of non-compete provisions.