The most important question to ask before taking seed money

There is a certain well respected venture capital firm (VC) that has a program for fledgling entrepreneurs.   The teams that are selected get a desk, a small stipend, and advice for a few months from experienced VCs.  I could imagine back when I was starting my first company thinking this was a great opportunity – especially the advice part.

Here’s the problem.  A few years into the program, approximately 25 teams have gone through it.  The sponsoring VC funded one team and passed on the other 24.  None of those other 24 have gotten financing from anyone else.  Why?  Because once you go through the program and don’t get funded by the sponsoring VC, you are perceived by the rest of the investor community as damaged goods.

Most early stage investors are bombarded with new deals.  There is no way they could meet with all of them, or even spend time seriously reading their investor materials.  In order to filter through it all, they rely heavily on signals.  The person referring you to them is a very big signal.  Your team’s bios is a very big signal. And if you were in the seed program of a VC who has a multi-hundred million dollar fund and who decided to pass, that is a huge signal.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting entrepreneurs think: “I was at a prestigious VC this summer – this will look great on our bios and company deck.”  The truth is exactly the opposite:  the better the VC, the stronger the negative signal when they pass.

Thus, the most important question to ask before taking seed money is: How many companies that the sponsor passed on went on to raise money from other sources?

The best programs don’t have sponsors who are even capable of further funding the company.  Y Combinator simply doesn’t do follow ons, so there is no way they can positively or negatively signal by their follow on actions. (Although now that they have taken money from Sequoia people are worried that Sequoia passing could be seen as a negative signal.  I just invested in a Y Combinator company and was reassured to see Sequoia co-investing).  Other seed programs lie somewhere in between — they aren’t officially run by big VCs but they do have big VCs associated with them so there is some signaling effect.   (I would call this the “hidden sponsor” problem.  I didn’t realize the extent of it until I got emails responding to my earlier seed program posts from entrepreneurs who had been burned by it).

The most dangerous programs are the ones run by large VCs.  I would love for someone to prove me wrong, but from my (admittedly anecdotal) knowledge, no companies that have been in large VC seed programs where the VC then stopped supporting the company went on to raise more money from other sources.

As has been widely noted, startups – especially internet-related ones – require far less capital today than they did a decade ago.  The VC industry has responded by keeping their funds huge but trying to get options on startups via seed programs.  Ultimately the VC industry will be forced to adapt by shrinking their funds, so they can invest in seed deals with the intention of actually making money on those investments, instead of just looking for options on companies in which they can invest “real money.”  In the meantime, however, a lot of young entrepreneurs are getting an unpleasant introduction to the rough-and-tumble world of venture capital.

Disclosure:  I am biased because as an early stage investor I sometimes compete with these programs.

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