We know the world of startup funding is competitive. In fact, I’m speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt on this very topic alongside pre-seed investor Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures, early-stage investor Annie Kadavy of Redpoint Ventures. I’ve also written extensively for TechCrunch and ExtraCrunch about how founders can optimize their pitch decks to make the most of the 3 minutes and 44 seconds the average VC will spend looking at their deck. We’ve also analyzed the best time of year founders can fundraise to get the most attention from potential investors.
But what can VCs do to make sure they’re getting the biggest piece of the most promising looking companies? We dug into how founders choose their lead investor to gain some insight into how a VC can become more competitive in a rapidly growing market.
Before we dig into the numbers
The data included in this research came from companies that explicitly opted in to participate by responding to an automated email sent to them. We are incredibly appreciative to these founders for making this research possible. You can read more about our startup opt-in process and other aspects of our methodology here.
In this article, I’ll talk about how founders choose their VCs, both in oversubscribed rounds and non-oversubscribed rounds, and how investors can use that information to beat out their competitors.
For VCs, competition is getting harder
Getting a startup funded is a massive hurdle. The good news is there’s actually far more money available now than just a few years ago. In fact, in the first half of 2019 there was $20.6 billion in new capital introduced into the startup market.
Larger funds typically known for investing in later stages have introduced seed funds so they can invest with promising businesses earlier. Kleiner Perkins announced a $600 million early-stage fund in January, GGV raised a second $460 million “Discovery Fund” last year, even Sequoia Capital operates a scout program with a $180 million fund.
This means smaller funds or those who only invest in earlier rounds might get overlooked when founders are looking for investors.
Investor meetings are a two-way street
In addition to having to compete for the best deals, VCs don’t get it right every time. For every Uber, there are hundreds of Juiceros. The reason they only spend a few minutes looking at a pitch deck is because they’re constantly looking at pitches in hopes they’ll come across another unicorn.
But while it seems like the investors are holding all the cards, if founders optimize their pitch deck and book their meetings in a short window, they can actually create a sense of urgency for the VCs. We’ve seen this recently with the amount of founders reporting oversubscribed rounds.
When looking at how founders chose their lead investors, we discovered that there was a massive difference between those that raised oversubscribed rounds and those that didn’t.
Being the first to move means a lot, until it doesn’t
What was the number one factor in founders deciding on who to choose as their lead investor? We found that nearly 48% of founders chose their lead investor because they were the first one to make the offer.
Anecdotally this makes sense. When DocSend was raising we received a lot of “maybes” during our first few meetings. However, once we had a term sheet most of those “maybes” flipped to a firm “yes.” In fact, many investors that had originally promised a $25k or $50k investment if we found other backers were suddenly asking for $300k or $500k.
We had so many investors interested that our round was oversubscribed and we had to make some choices about who we wanted as an investor. That could have been avoided if any of those VCs had simply acted first.
But when you look at the data a different way, we found that moving first was significantly more important in oversubscribed rounds than those that weren’t. And the more oversubscribed they were, the more valuable moving first becomes.
For founders whose rounds were more than 20 percent oversubscribed, 60 percent of them chose their VC because they came in first with a term sheet. But that dropped to 50 percent for founders that were only slightly oversubscribed and all the way to 38 percent for those founders that weren’t oversubscribed at all.
While we would have thought name-brand VCs might move first, and that top tier interest may cause an oversubscribed round, we found that not to be the case. In both oversubscribed and non-oversubscribed rounds 28 percent of founders reported that a name brand factored into their decision. And for those who chose a name brand investor, only 33 percent of those founders reported that their lead VC moved first.
The more oversubscribed a round is, the more likely it is that some VCs aren’t going to make the cut. To avoid being the firm that didn’t get the deal it’s best to move quickly when you see a company you like.
A fast round isn’t always an oversubscribed one
Another surprising thing that came up in our research was the amount of time founders spent raising and how that affected their decision making. While we assumed oversubscribed rounds happened significantly faster than the average of 11-15 weeks, we found that oversubscribed rounds only came in slightly under, at 8.6 weeks. However, there was a lot of variability in that number.
We saw some oversubscribed rounds close in as little as 3 weeks and some take as long as 20. So there’s no way to tell whether a round will be oversubscribed based on the time spent fundraising. This means that even if you meet a founder who’s been raising for 10 weeks, it’s still smart to move quickly if you want to be the lead investor.
We would have also thought longer rounds would have benefited the first term sheet more, but there was virtually no difference in the impact of the first acting VC when looking at time. When looking at founders that spent less than 12 weeks raising and those that spent more than 12 weeks, there was virtually no difference in the percent that chose their lead investor based on the first term sheet (at 47 percent and 48 percent respectively).
Terms only matter in oversubscribed rounds
When choosing your lead investor, you would think the terms would be a significant reason to choose one VC over another. But we found that it was barely a factor for most people. In fact, only 4 percent of founders who weren’t oversubscribed cited terms as a major factor.
They instead focused on VCs that had experience in their industry (at 42 percent). But for oversubscribed rounds the percentage of founders who chose their lead investor based on terms shot up to 38. Meaning when the round gets competitive, so do the terms. But they still gave an edge to that first term sheet they received.
Interestingly, a potential deciding factor in oversubscribed rounds could be how well the VC and the founder get along. In those rounds that were significantly oversubscribed, over 46% of respondents said how well they got along with their VC was a factor in choosing them to be the lead. Compare that to only 19% of founders in non-oversubscribed rounds who cited rapport as a key factor in choosing a lead investor.
For many smaller firms getting edged out by bigger players boasting multi-stage funds, it may be as simple as being decisive and personable when it comes to landing the most competitive investments.