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Why are revenue-based VCs investing in so many women and underrepresented founders?

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David Teten

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David Teten is founder of Versatile VC and writes periodically at teten.com and @dteten.

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This guest post was written by David Teten, Venture Partner, HOF Capital. You can follow him at teten.com and @dteten. This is part of an ongoing series on revenue-based investing VC that will hit on:

A new wave of revenue-based investors are emerging who are using creative investing structures with some of the upside of traditional VC, but some of the downside protection of debt.

I’ve been a traditional equity VC for 8 years, and I’m researching new business models in venture capital. As I’ve learned about this model, I’ve been impressed by how these venture capitalists are accomplishing a major social impact goal… without even trying to.

Many are reporting that they’re seeing a more diverse pool of applicants than traditional equity VCs — even though virtually none have a particular focus on women or underrepresented founders. In addition, their portfolios look far more diverse than VC industry norms.

For context, revenue-based investing (“RBI”) is a new form of VC financing, distinct from the preferred equity structure most VCs use. RBI normally requires founders to pay back their investors with a fixed percentage of revenue until they have finished providing the investor with a fixed return on capital, which they agree upon in advance. For more background, see “Revenue-based investing: A new option for founders who care about control“.

I contacted every RBI venture capital investor I could identify, and learned:

  • John Borchers, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Decathlon Capital, reports that “37% of our portfolio companies would be considered ‘impact’ qualified companies. This includes companies that would meet most institutional definitions for impact investing (women, minority, and veteran owned/run businesses, including LMI (“Low to Moderate Income”) and CRA (“Community Reinvestment Act”) qualified companies. While we do lots of work in these areas due to the attractive opportunity set, we are not an impact investor, and impact qualification is not a criterion that we use in evaluating or funding companies. On an organic basis, 13% of our portfolio companies are women-owned or run businesses, while 19% of the companies we work with are minority-owned or run. When you look at the composition of the entire founding or executive teams, the number of companies with either a woman or minority in management jumps even higher and is north of 50%.”
  • Indie.VC reports, “…50% of the teams we’ve funded are led by female founders and nearly 20% are led by black founders.”
  • Lighter Capital reports that they’ve funded companies in 30 states, including well established startup hubs and less mature ecosystems.
  • According to Derek Manuge, CEO of Corl, in the past 12 months, 500+ companies have applied to Corl for funding. Of the ones who received capital, “30% were led by women, and 40% were led by executives of non-Caucasian or of mixed ethnic origin.”
  • Feenix Partners reports that “35% of our portfolio companies have either a female or minority (non-Caucasian) CEO or Owner.”
  • Michelle Romanow, co-founder and CEO of Clearbanc, says that “We have funded eight times more women than the venture capital industry average – probably because we’re not doing meetings, which is an amazing accomplishment, and that’s not because we do different sourcing or anything else. It was just because we looked at data.” (Note that Clearbanc has a somewhat different business model than the RBI VCs I list here.)
  • Founders First Capital is the only RBI VC I’ve identified with a specific focus on underrepresented founders. Kim Folsom, Co-Founder, reports that as of August 2019, Founders First’s portfolio was 80% women and 55% women of color; 70% people of color; 20% military veterans; and 71% located in low/moderate income areas. 85% of their companies have under $1m in annual revenues. I can also announce exclusively that according to Kim Folsom, “Founders First Capital Partner (F1stcp) has just secured a $100M credit facility commitment from a major institutional impact investor. This positions F1stcp to be the largest revenue-based investor platform addressing the funding gap for service-based, small businesses led by underserved and underrepresented founders.”

By contrast, according to PitchBook Data, since the beginning of 2016, companies with women founders have received only 4.4% of venture capital deals. Those companies have garnered only about 2% of all capital invested. This is despite the fact that the data says that in fact you’re better off investing in women.

Paul Graham observes, “many suspect that venture capital firms are biased against female founders. This would be easy to detect: among their portfolio companies, do startups with female founders outperform those without?

A couple months ago, one VC firm (almost certainly unintentionally) published a study showing bias of this type. First Round Capital found that among its portfolio companies, startups with female founders outperformed those without by 63%.”

Image via Getty Images / runeer

Why are RBI investors investing disproportionately in women & underrepresented founders, and vice versa: why do these founders approach RBI investors? 

I’d argue it’s not that RBI is so unbiased and attractive; it’s that traditional equity VC is biased structurally against some women and underrepresented founders.

The Boston Consulting Group and MassChallenge, a US-based global network of accelerators, partnered to study why “women-owned startups are a better bet”. Through their analysis and interviews, BCG identified three primary reasons why female founders are less likely to receive VC funds.

The study used multivariate regression analysis to control for education levels and pitch quality to conclude that gender was a statistically significant factor. I argue that these 3 reasons are much less applicable for RBI investors than for conventional VCs.

  1. Less need for a belief in breakthrough technology. From the study: “More than men, women founders and their presentations are subject to challenges and pushback. For example, more women report being asked during their presentations to establish that they understand basic technical knowledge. And often, investors simply presume that the women founders don’t have that knowledge.” However, companies with a focus on early profitability are less likely to require an investor to believe in complex, hard-to-predict new technology which is hard to diligence. Instead, the company can pitch itself based on a credible financial projection.
  2. Realistic projections. “Male founders are more likely to make bold projections and assumptions in their pitches,” BCG observes, while, “Women, by contrast, are generally more conservative in their projections and may simply be asking for less than men.” However, to raise RBI a woman founder does not need to promise a valuation of $1 billion within 5 years. Rent the Runway co-founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman said in a recent interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin, “I haven’t been given the permission or privilege to lose a billion every quarter… I’ve had to bring my company towards profitability…”
  3. Concentration in consumer/branded products startups. BCG reports that, “Many male investors have little familiarity with the products and services that women-founded businesses market to other women”—especially in categories such as childcare or beauty. However, RBI investors report that they see a lot of proposals for ecommerce and consumer packaged goods geared to mothers. Meghan Cross Breeden, Cofounder of Amplifyher Ventures, observes, “Personal customer attachment shouldn’t be a factor in investing; the early investors in Snapchat and Facebook weren’t the Gen Z target demo. Rather, I would imagine that one explanation of women garnering rev-share modes of financing is the prevalence of women-led companies in the consumer/branded goods field, which systemically is more tangible and revenue driven. Therefore, there’s more revenue to share – as opposed to the typical venture business, which requires capital upfront before a J curve of growth.”

Traditional equity VCs are looking for high-risk, high-reward, “swing for the fences” models. The founders of such companies inherently are taking financial risk, reputational risk, and career risk.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, said, “few successful founders grew up desperately poor.” Ricky Yean, a serial founder, agrees: “building and sustaining a company that is “designed to grow fast” is especially hard if you grew up desperately poor”.

Most of the founders of the paradigmatic VC home runs were privileged: male, cisgender, well-educated, from affluent families, etc. Think Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

That privilege makes it easier for them to take very high risk. The average person, worried about students loans and long term employability, quite rationally is less likely to take the huge risk of founding a company. It’s far safer to just get a job.

Investors who back diverse teams can win much higher returns than the industry norm. Both RBI investors and the founders they back will hopefully benefit from this pattern.

For further reading

Note that none of the lawyers quoted or I are rendering legal advice in this article, and you should not rely on our counsel herein for your own decisions. I am not a lawyer. Thanks to the experts quoted for their thoughtful feedback.

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