In 2020, venture capitalists unceremoniously broke up with D2C brands and product-based businesses.
Many watched as the consumer brands in their portfolios rushed to make hefty layoffs and eke out more runway and grew more concerned with their business models.
Some simply monitored the “lackluster” Casper IPO or skimmed articles about Brandless and others “imploding” and started pulling a slow fade on D2C brands — not taking pitches, not following up.
Many product-based brands, as it turns out, are no longer interested in chasing venture capital.
Last year, investors adopted a wait-and-see approach to all new investments and prayed portfolio brands could cut their burn significantly enough, stay relevant and ride things out.
Product-based businesses fell out of favor and venture capitalists, if they did invest last year, mainly focused on AI startups, or companies focused on data collaboration, data privacy and healthcare (mostly founded by men, might I add).
From a distance, it sounds like direct-to-consumer founders were left destitute and desperate for financing, wounded by every slow fade or hard pass, beholden as ever to the whims of Silicon Valley.
But as Hal Koss so eloquently shared in his “DTC playbook” post-mortem, this wasn’t a one-way breakup; this parting of ways is actually mutual. Many product-based brands, as it turns out, are no longer interested in chasing venture capital, playing the “grow-at-all-costs” game and relinquishing partial control to investors, despite the pandemic and the uncertain circumstances many founders find themselves facing.
Through my work running and scaling Bulletin, I’ve followed thousands of product-based businesses ranging from indie beauty brands selling clean serums and cleansers to sex tech companies making couples’ vibrators and foreplay accessories. I’ve followed them on Instagram, in the press and across various platforms, and in many cases, I’ve spoken to their founders directly.
Over the past two years, I interviewed executives at more than 30 women-owned businesses for my upcoming book, “How to Build a Goddamn Empire,” and had long phone calls with dozens of independent brands and makers as Bulletin got a handle on how the pandemic was impacting customers. And I noticed something new and remarkable about what founders want now, in 2021, compared to what they wanted in years past.
Back then, I’d get dozens of cold emails and DMs asking how I successfully raised VC and what the unspoken rules might be. I’d hear from business owners who were considering a raise or gearing up for one. Product-based entrepreneurs approached me at panels or Bulletin events and say they wanted to be the “Glossier for X” or the “Away for Y.” Many younger founders didn’t even know what venture capital really was, but they saw it as symbolic validation for the business, or the only way to get “big.”
Now, brands would rather scrape by than pursue an injection of funding on someone else’s terms; just ask the Gorjana founders or Scott Sternberg. Many brands that saw astronomical growth in 2020, like Rosen, Golde, Entireworld and others that spurred similar growth for Etsy and Shopify are fully bootstrapped businesses, and proudly so.
Some founders I’ve spoken to have even outright rejected offers for investment. A lot of D2C brands are interested in learning about alternative forms of financing like bank loans, lines of credit and crowdfunding, and ask about iFundWomen or Kickstarter, observing the success of other fully crowdfunded brands like Dame and Pepper.
Venture capital, from my vantage point, has lost its sheen for a lot of product-based brands. They’re not destitute and desperate for financing. They’re actually scoffing at the prospect and trusting they can succeed, scale and maintain long-term profitability without swapping equity for cash. They’re tripped up by what they’ve been reading in the media, or they’ve survived or even thrived during COVID, as a fully bootstrapped company, and feel more conviction than ever that the “grow slow” approach is the right move.
They’re reading the same stories about layoffs and tenuous unit economics at massive D2C companies and agreeing with Sam Kaplan that the old playbook — pricey customer acquisition practices, rapid scale, endless rounds of funding — is out of date. It’s 2021 and we’re midpandemic. These brands want to turn a profit.