When you’re running your own venture — especially if it’s your first — it’s unlikely you will find the time to deep dive into how venture capital firms work. Fundraising is distracting for founders and can even hurt their company in the early days. But if you only start learning about VCs when you’re already down the fundraising path, you’ll already be too late.
Founders tend to make a series of classic mistakes when raising funding. Error number one (and two) is to raise the wrong amount of money and to do it at the wrong time. This double whammy results in founders being very diluted too early or not raising enough money to reach the next funding stage.
They can also put all their eggs in one basket too early. I made that mistake. I had signed a term-sheet (a nonbinding agreement) for a €2.5 million Series A round, passed the due diligence process, and the investment committee had approved the deal. But at the very last minute, a claim from one of the angels on my cap table made the prospect investor change his mind. In a Point Nine Capital survey, founders said that the two most stressful elements of raising venture capital are not knowing where in the fundraising process they are and not understanding why VCs have rejected their proposal.
On the other hand, if you know what VCs all about, you’ll be geared up for the ride, know the kind of investor personality you’re aiming for, and crucially — you’ll optimize the value of your equity in the long run. Founders who manage to raise more VC funds end up having a greater value stake in their company when the time comes to IPO, according to statistical research. The learning curve is steep; you’re not just studying VC as an industry, but the individual investors themselves. So, I’ve decided to share the main lessons about VC that I wish I’d known when I was a startup founder chasing venture capital.
1. It’s not about raising, it’s about raising the right amount at the right time
Startups are all about reaching two milestones: (a) product/market fit and (b) a profitable, repeatable and scalable growth model. Once those two corners are turned, the risk of a startup decreases enormously, which is normally reflected in the valuation. As an early-stage founder, if you want to protect your ownership, make sure you’re raising small amounts of money while your valuations are low.
Save your cash until you de-risk your early-stage startup. Then, raise aggressively when you finally have hard evidence that you have a strong product/market fit and a clear growth model. Be sure you understand when your company reaches that stage and becomes a scaleup. You don’t want to be a founder that has successfully raised a Series A round but has very little ownership and a very long road ahead.
Sometimes, the timing is out of your hands. The price of equity in startups is governed by the supply and demand of capital. Investors themselves have to raise money from another type of investor called Limited Partners (LPs), who may hold stakes in a variety of assets. If LPs have a strong interest in VC assets, there is more supply of capital and the price of startup equity will rise. But the opposite is also true. If you take a look at the last two recessions in the United States (2000 and 2008), you will see that the stock market crash coincided with corrections to valuations in the VC market.
So, be strategic and raise when “the market” has a strong appetite for your equity; otherwise, stretch your runway and wait for the right time. Right now, it’s common to see startups postponing their next raise to 2021, looking for stronger winds.
2. Location: Tell me where you are and I’ll tell you how much you’ll raise
I see two conditions for startups to raise a large round: (a) a large market that can justify a sizable exit, and (b) a large VC fund (small funds don’t need super sizable exits to be successful).
Assuming the first condition is met, where can we find those large VC funds? Typically, they’ll be in locations close to large markets, with a track record of sizable exits.