Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

Of the Inc. 5000 companies, only 6.5% raised money from VCs and 7.7% raised from angels. Where else can fast-growing companies get funding?

More and more startups are pursuing revenue-based VCs, but it’s not a good fit for everyone. A new category of investors has emerged offering a hybrid between VC and revenue-based investment (RBI), which we call “flexible VC.”

From RBI, flexible VCs borrow the ability to reap meaningful returns without demanding founders build for an exit. From traditional equity VC, flexible VC borrows the option to pursue and reap the rewards of an outsized exit. Every flexible VC structure allows founders to access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.

Before raising capital, we encourage founders to dig into the nuances between different flexible VC structures.

Our categorization is not a technical one. Rather, we want to accommodate the wide variety of instruments currently offered by flexible VC investors, detailed below. As two fund managers employing flexible VC, we think it is a healthy addition to the ecosystem and will yield more predictable and stable healthy returns for investors.

Flexible VC 101: Equity meets revenue share

This is currently the most common investment structure: The flexible VC investor purchases either equity ownership, or a convertible right to equity, and a right to regularly scheduled payments based on a percentage of revenues.

By tying payments to actual revenues, founders and investors remain aligned around the company’s real-time performance, good or bad.

“Too often, investment structures force the management team to make decisions between misaligned growth and investment (return) objectives. This structure allows for alignment on the front end, and real-time flexibility for performance metrics,” says Samira Salman, a family office investor and advisor.

Payments are commonly delayed for a grace period of 12-36 months. John Berger, director of Operations and Impact Solutions at Toniic, observed that this has clear investor benefits: “The grace period became a feature because it benefits investors in regions like the U.S. where there can be tax differences between short- and long-term gains. It has moved from its origins as a tax benefit and can be viewed as a feature that benefits founders.” After the grace period, the return payments begin, often lasting until a return cap is hit, such as 2-5 times the original investment.

To account for these revenue share payments, the investor’s ownership (or convertible right to ownership) is simultaneously reduced. Once the return cap is reached, the investor is typically left with a residual stake — a fraction of the pre-revenue share ownership. At any point, should the founder wish to pursue a traditional equity VC round, or get bought, the revenue share is paused, and the investor’s then-current ownership converts to equate to a traditional equity VC investor.

Flexible VC 102: Variations

Flexible VCs have created structures based on other company performance metrics than revenues, such as profits or founder salaries. These different company performance metrics provide a slight variation in how the investor and founder relationship is defined. For example, profit-sharing structures ensure payments do not begin until the company is profitable, though likely delaying returns to the investor and complicating payment calculations.

Similarly, when flexible VC structures are based off of the founder’s own compensation (often via salary or dividends), investors are specifically tying their returns to the financial success of the founder. This translates less directly to company performance compared to a revenue or profit share, but offers uniquely personal alignment. These variations in founder alignment allow flexible VCs to specialize in the types of companies they work with.

The state of flexible VC

In all these cases, capital is provided to fuel forecasted growth without creating a commitment to a particular vision for future funding rounds, exit goals and associated blitzscaling. The founder retains full control over whether they want to optimize for hypergrowth (usually at the expense of profitability) or for organic, profitable growth. Flexible VC opens up a new risk capital option for bootstrappers, minorities, family-owned and countless other founder segments left out by the traditional funding landscape.

A range of small VCs are deploying with flexible VC structures, but we believe the total amount of AUM deployed with this strategy is well under $50 million. Similar to the explosion of seed funds in the past decade, we (and some limited partners too) believe these Flexible VCs are on the forefront of what will become a major segment of the venture ecosystem.

We detail below the major categories of VC:

Funder category Equity ownership Returns primarily based on  Composition of returns Example VC
Equity VC Yes, typically preferred equity.

15%-20% sold per round. On average, founders own just 43% of equity by Series B, declining thereafter.

The value ascribed by subsequent investors (in a secondary); buyers (acquisition); or the public markets (IPO). Volatile, uncapped. Andressen Horowitz, ff Venture Capital, HOF Capital, Sequoia.
Flexible VC: Revenue-based Yes, nonvoting common shares (if converted).

5%-20% initial stake, with 50%-90% of this redeemable.

Gross revenues (generally 2%-8%). 2x-5x return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Capacity Capital, Greater Colorado Venture Fund, Indie.VC, Reformation Partners, UP Fund, Versatile VC.
Flexible VC: Compensation-based Yes, via conversion rights at a valuation cap. “Founder earnings” (Founder salaries + dividends + retained earnings). 2x-5x return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Chisos.
Flexible VC: Blended Return Yes, via conversion rights at a valuation cap. Profits, founder salaries, and/or dividends declared. Typically ~3x+ return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Discretionary dividends and salary share built in. Collab Capital, Earnest Capital, TinySeed.
Revenue-share investing No. Gross revenues (generally 2%-8%). 1.35x-2.2x return cap. Novel Growth Partners, Lighter Capital, Rev Up, Corl.

Flexible VC versus other venture capital models

Flexible VC investors offer founders some of the same advantages as equity VCs:

  • Aligned incentives. Whether it is a breakout success or complete failure and loss of capital, investors are along for the ride. When the company hits potholes, flexible VC investors usually don’t have the nuclear options of firing management and/or doing a recapitalization. Their only option is to work with management to try to fix the problems.
  • Few strings attached. Founders have autonomy to spend the funds in whatever way they like.
  • Long-term alignment. Many flexible VCs retain a small residual stake in the company after the return cap is reached, driving alignment well beyond the horizon of the revenue share, similar to the long-term orientation of equity VC.
  • Seed-stage compatible. Like traditional equity VC investors, flexible VCs accommodate early-stage investment risk within their portfolios better than a traditional RBI funder.
  • Eligible for favorable treatment under qualified small business stock exemption, if structured as equity. This applies if the investment converts into common stock; details are beyond this essay’s scope.

Flexible VCs also offer investors some of the same advantages as RBI:

  • Clear return expectations. The return cap is a stated multiple of the investment, typically 2x-5x.
  • Early liquidity. Equity VC is a “get rich slow” business. Flexible VC creates early liquidity that can be either reinvested or distributed to LPs.
  • Improved financial management. All parties want the company to be able to afford the payment obligations and, ideally, deliver a quick return. As a result, unfounded hockey-stick graphs and unicorn promises give way to financial fluency, realistic expectations, frank conversations about what a business can credibly achieve and transparency.
  • Profitability is prioritized. The revenue that is going to grow the company immediately is the same revenue that is going to get investors to their return cap. If the company is profitable, the revenue share becomes increasingly affordable. This drives an earlier focus on profitability than is typical for a company backed by traditional equity VC.
  • Founder retains control. Flexible VCs typically purchase nonvoting common stock, if they purchase stock (one even assigns their voting rights to the founders). This keeps the founder in the driver’s seat of the company.
  • Attractive to women and underrepresented founders. See Why Are Revenue-Based Investors Investing in Women & Diverse Entrepreneurs?

Flexible VC also offers some unique advantages:

  • Straightforward equity interface. If an equity round is needed to fund breakout growth beyond what the flexible VC funds, the mechanics of including a flexible VC in an equity VC round are predetermined and simple.
  • Prepared for blitzscaling, but neither required nor expected. Blitzscaling typically means prioritizing user growth over revenue growth and revenue growth over profitability. Tim O’Reilly, CEO, O’Reilly Media, argues, “Blitzscaling isn’t really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy.” With flexible VC, not every company is expected to achieve breakout growth, but that possibility is accounted for up front.
  • Particular application in impact capital. Our research has found that impact investors appear to be particularly interested in flexible VC. An impact investor typically needs some economic return to function, but doesn’t necessarily want the company as a whole to exit, given exits often have a negative impact on the company’s founding mission. Flexible VC allows impact VCs to thread this needle.

That said, nothing is cost-free. The unique disadvantages of flexible VC include: