Some thoughts on startup crowdfunding

Like a lot of people, I’m excited about crowdfunding, and specifically the crowdfunding of startups now that’s it’s legal in the US. Based on my own experience investing in startups, here are some thoughts and issues that come to mind regarding startup crowdfunding.

1. Startup financings tend toward the extremes of being very oversubscribed or very undersubscribed. If you graphed out investor interest, it would look like a “U”. This is primarily the result of signaling – once a few investors commit (especially high quality ones), other investors pile on. If investors don’t commit, other investors start to wonder what’s wrong. So when you consider startup crowdfunding, it’s important to distinguish the oversubscribed cases from the undersubscribed cases. (Although one counter to this is that the U is the result of an inefficient market – when the crowds get involved valuations will float to their market clearing prices).

2. Historically, startup investing returns have tended to obey power laws (Peter Thiel has a good discussion of this phenomenon here). The vast majority of the returns came from the breakout hits. And if you go back and look at the early financings of breakout hits, a lot of them were hotly contested and oversubscribed. If amateur investors had been trying to invest in those startups via crowdfunding sites, they probably would have been squeezed out. If those amateurs were part of a syndicate, the syndicate lead would have felt pressure to drop them, at least for those hot deals. (Counterargument: the power law is caused by the myopia of traditional investors looking for the next Google. The crowd will be able to find new investments that greatly expand the set of successful startups)

3. Crowdfunding works best when the backers have special knowledge about the project that leads them to fund things that otherwise would have been overlooked or undervalued by traditional investors. This happens, for example, in the Kickstarter video games category, where most of the backers are game enthusiasts. The most promising scenarios for startup crowdfunding are where the backers are potential customers of the product (e.g. HR managers backing new HR software). This could also solve the adverse selection problem, as the startup founders would probably favor these backers over traditional startups investors.

4. When you look at the biggest crowdfunding markets – publicly traded stocks on NYSE, NASDAQ, etc – you find that a) In general, non-professional investors lose money when they try to pick individual stocks. This suggests that something similar to mutual funds would be the best mechanism for amateur participation. b) There is a constant cat-and-mouse game between regulators and sketchy market participants. If this happens with private financings, and more and more rules and regulations get added, many of the advantages of being a private company could go away.

5. Most successful seed investors will say that it is mostly about investing in great people, and it is very hard to evaluate people even after multiple in-person meetings. If founders are going to be evaluated online without in-person meetings, great care has to be taken to make sure the evaluation mechanisms are sufficiently nuanced and reliable. (The counterargument is that this might be true when individual professional investors evaluate startups. In the aggregate, the crowd can outsmart individual professionals even with fewer direct interactions.)

6. One way to look at startup crowdfunding is as the first step in a process that includes additional steps that prevent adverse selection, sketchy behavior etc. For example, a startup I know raised money recently from a single lead investor and then found additional investors via a crowdfunding site. They ended up rejecting many of the interested investors but found a few useful investors that they otherwise wouldn’t have found. In this model crowdfunding looks more like LinkedIn for investors – extremely useful for connecting, but only the first step of a process that includes interviews, reference checks, etc.

The product lens

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the markets for startup financing. Many of the discussions use words like “valuations” “bubble” “crunch” etc. Words like that generally mean the writer is discussing the world through the lens of finance. This is a useful lens, but I’d like to suggest there is another lens that is also useful: the product lens. First, some background.

Two markets

Startups sit in the middle of two markets: one between VCs and startups, and one between startups and customers. These markets are correlated but only partially. When the financing supply is low but customer demand is high, entrepreneurs that are able to finagle funding generally do well. When financing and startup supply is high, customers do well, some startups do well, and VCs generally don’t. And so on.

When VCs get too excited, people talk about a bubble. When VCs get too fearful, people talk about a crash. Historically, downturns were great times for startups that were able to raise money because competition was low but customer demand for new technology remained fairly steady. Downturns also tended to coincide with big platform shifts, which usually meant opportunities for entrepreneurs.

These markets shift independently between different stages and sectors, although there are connections. The amount of financing available is relatively constant, because of the longevity of VC funds and the way most VCs are compensated (management fees). Less financing in one sector or stage usually leads to more financing in others.

The stages are related because the early stages depend on the later stages for exits and financings. The result is a bullwhip effect where changes in later stages (the latest stage being public markets) lead to magnified changes in early stages.

Smart VCs understand these dynamics and adjust their strategies accordingly. Smart entrepreneurs don’t need to think about these things very often. Fundraising is necessary (at least for companies that choose to go the VC route – many shouldn’t), but just one of the many things an entrepreneur needs to do. The best advice is simply to raise money when you can, and try to weather the vicissitudes of the financial markets.

The product lens

Good entrepreneurs spend most of their time focusing on the other market: the one between their company and their customers. This means looking at the world through the lens of products and not financing. This lens is particularly important when you are initially developing your idea or when you are thinking about product expansions.

The product lens suggests you should ask questions like: have the products in area X caught up to the best practices of the industry? Are they reaching their potential? Are they exciting? Are there big cultural/technological/economic changes happening that allow dramatically better products to be created? Sometimes the product lens guides you to the same conclusion as the finance lens and sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, there has been a lot of hand wringing about a financing crunch for consumer internet startups. One theme is that investors are pivoting from consumer to enterprise. The finance lens says: for the last five years or so, consumer was overfunded and enterprise was underfunded – let’s correct this. It also helps that enterprise IPOs have performed much better than consumer IPOs in the last year or so.

The product lens is tricky. My sense is that, at least for the non-mobile consumer internet, the product lens and financing lens agree. Anyone who has had the misfortune to use enterprise technology lately will tell you that the hardware and software they use at home (iPhone, Gmail, etc) is far and away more sophisticated and elegant than the software they use at work. It feels like the enterprise tech is way behind in the product upgrade cycle.

Mobile seems like a case where the lenses disagree. The finance lens says: billions of dollars have been invested in mobile apps. It has become hit driven and there have been very few “venture-scale” startups created.

The product lens says: the modern smartphone platform began about four years ago when the iOS app store launched. This is clearly a major new platform. Platforms and apps interact in a push-pull relationship that takes decades to play out. Innovative new apps, designs and technologies are created all the time. It would be surprising – and contrary to all the historical patterns – if the mobile product evolution were already played out.

That is not to dismiss the finance lens. It could be painful along the way:  financing markets might dry up, and profits might accrue to the platforms over the apps. But clearly mobile is just getting started.

Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as an angel investor stemmed from being beholden to the finance lens. The finance lens feels more scientific and therefore appeals to analytical types. It might sound unsophisticated to say “the products for X are crappy, and I have an idea for how to make them great.” But in many cases, it’s actually that simple.

The time to eat the hors d’oeuvres is when they’re being passed

The efficient market hypothesis is a widely taught financial theory that states, roughly, that under certain generally-held conditions, asset prices are an accurate reflection of the information available at the time. The arguments underlying it are mathematically elegant and have been widely popularized. Its hardcore proponents argue that financial bubbles do not (indeed cannot) exist and that government intervention in financial markets is unnecessary. While efficient market theory is dominant in academic circles, it is very hard to find active participants in financial markets who believe in it. In financial markets – like most complex human systems – the closer you get, the more nuance you discover.

Venture capital markets are perhaps the most inefficient of mainstream financial markets. Complicating factors include: heavy reliance on comparables for valuations, desire of VCs to be associated with “hot” companies, tendency to overreact to macro changes, illiquidity of startup financings, illiquidity of financings for VCs themselves, perverse financial incentives of VCs, inability to short stocks, extreme uncertainty of startup financial projections, vagaries of the M&A market, dependency on moods of downstream investors, concentration of capital among a small group of VCs, the difficulty of developing accurate financial models, rapid shifts of supply and demand across sectors and stages, and non-uniform distribution of accurate market data.

The title of this post is an old venture capital adage (via Bill Gurley) that reflects a hard-earned truth about financing and M&A markets. For social consumer startups, the hors d’oeurves were being passed in the build up to the Facebook IPO. They are being passed now for B2B and e-commerce companies. In the M&A markets, the most extreme example is probably in adtech, where there were waves of acquisitions in ad exchanges (DoubleClick, RightMedia, Avenue A), then mobile ads (AdMob, Quattro), and then social advertising (Buddy Media, Wildfire). If you didn’t sell during these M&A waves, you’re suddenly stuck with lots of powerful competitors and few potential acquirers/partners.

It is common to hear entrepreneurs say things like “I am waiting 6 months to raise money/sell the company, when we’ve hit new milestones.” Of course milestones matter, and companies are ultimately valued based on fundamentals. But along the way you’ll likely need capital and sometimes need to exit, and for that you are dependent on highly inefficient markets.

Shoehorning startups into the VC model

Tech startups go in an out of fashion. When they’re in fashion, as they are now, entrepreneurs and VCs get lots of attention. Most of this attention focuses on things that involve money, like financings and acquisitions. For some entrepreneurs, raising venture capital becomes a goal unto itself, instead of what it should be: a heavy burden that only makes sense in certain cases.

A startup should raise venture capital (or “venture-style” angel/seed funding) only if: 1) the goal is to build a billion-dollar (valuation) company, and 2) raising millions of dollars is absolutely necessary or will significantly accelerate growth.

There are lots of tech companies that are very successful but don’t fit the VC model. If they don’t raise VC, the founders can make money, create jobs, and work on something they love. If they raise VC, a wide range of outcomes that would otherwise be good become bad.

Unfortunately, many of these startups graft VC-friendly narratives onto their plans and raise too much money. Short term it might seem like a good idea but long term it won’t.

The best source of capital is customers. The next best is the founders (cash or forgone salaries), or investors who are less aggressive about returns than VCs. Every startup has its natural source of financing. Venture capital is the natural source of financing for only a small fraction of startups, despite what the press might lead you to believe.

Some thoughts on when to raise money, and the current financing environment

A key question for founders is when they should try to raise money. More specifically, they often wonder whether to raise money now or wait, say, 6 months when their startup has made more progress. Here are some thoughts on this question generally along with some thoughts on today’s venture financing market.

– In the private markets, macro tends to dominate micro. Venture valuations have swung by roughly a factor of 4 over the last decade. In finance speak, venture tends to be high beta, moving as a multiple of the public markets, which themselves tend to move more dramatically than economic fundamentals. Hence, it is easy to imagine scenarios where the same private company will command 1/2 the valuation in 6 months due to macro events, but it’s rare for a company to increase their valuation 2x through operations alone in 6 months.

– Therefore, when it seems to be the top of a venture cycle, it’s almost always better to raise money sooner rather than later, unless you have a plausible story about how waiting will dramatically improve your company’s fundamentals.

– Prior to the Facebook IPO, the consensus seemed to be that private valuations were near the top of the cycle. Today, FB is valued at up to 50% below what private investors expected. Moreover, the financial crisis in Europe seems to have worsened, and unemployment numbers in the US suggest the possibility of a double dip recession.

– It takes many months to understand how macroeconomic and public market shifts affect private company valuations since (with the exception of secondary markets) private transactions happen slowly. So we don’t know yet what these recent events mean for private markets. According to a basic rule of finance, however, it is safe to assume that companies “comparable” to Facebook are worth up to 50% less than private investors thought they were worth a few weeks ago.

– The question then is what companies are comparable to Facebook. Clearly, other social media companies with business models that rely on display or feed based advertising are comparables. Internet companies that have other business models (freemium, marketplaces, commerce, hardware, enterprise software, direct response advertising, etc) are probably not comparables. The public markets seems to agree with this. Defensible companies with non-display-ad business models have maintained healthy public market valuations.

– One counterargument to the “all social media companies are now worth less” argument is the discrepency between how the smart Wall Street money and smart internet money views Facebook and social media companies generally. The smart Wall Street money thinks like Mary Meeker’s charts. They draw lines through dots and extrapoloate. This method would have worked very poorly in the past for trying to value tech companies at key inflection points (and tech investors know that what matters are exactly those inflection points). In Facebook’s case, Wall Street types look at revenue and margin growth and the trend toward mobile where monetization is considerably worse (for now). Smart internet investors, by contrast, look at Facebook in terms of its power and capabilities. They see a company that is rivaled only by Google and Apple in terms of their control of where users go and what they do on the internet. Smart internet investors are far more bullish than smart Wall Street investors on Facebook. Thus if you believe the internet perspective over the Wall Street perspective, you’d likely believe that Facebook and social media in general is undervalued by the public markets.