Size markets using narratives, not numbers

Anyone who has pitched VCs knows they are obsessed with market size.  If you can’t make the case that you’re addressing a possible billion dollar market, you’ll have difficulty getting VCs to invest. (Smaller, venture-style investors like angels and seed funds also prioritize market size but are usually more flexible – they’ll often invest when the market is “only” ~$100M).  This is perfectly rational since VC returns tend to be driven by a few big hits in big markets.

For early-stage companies, you should never rely on quantitative analysis to estimate market size. Venture-style startups are bets on broad, secular trends. Good VCs understand this. Bad VCs don’t, and waste time on things like interviewing potential customers and building spreadsheets that estimate market size from the bottom-up.

The only way to understand and predict large new markets is through narratives. Some popular current narratives include: people are spending more and more time online and somehow brand advertisers will find a way to effectively influence them; social link sharing is becoming an increasingly significant source of website traffic and somehow will be monetized; mobile devices are becoming powerful enough to replace laptops for most tasks and will unleash a flood of new applications and business models.

As an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t raise VC unless you truly believe a narrative where your company is a billion dollar business. But deploying narratives is also an important tactic. VCs are financiers — quantitative analysis is their home turf. If you are arguing market size with a VC using a spreadsheet, you’ve already lost the debate.

The importance of investor signaling in venture pricing

Suppose there is a pre-profitable company that is raising venture financing. Simple, classical economic models would predict that although there might be multiple VCs interested in investing, at the end of the financing process the valuation will rise to the clearing price where the demand for the company’s stock equals the supply (amount being issued).

Actual venture financings work nothing like this simple model would predict.  In practice, the equilibrium states for venture financings are: 1) significantly oversubscribed at too low a valuation, or 2) significantly undersubscribed at too high a valuation.

Why do venture markets function this way?  Pricing in any market is a function of the information available to investors. In the public stock markets, for example, the primary information inputs are “hard metrics” like company financials, industry dynamics, and general economic conditions. What makes venture pricing special is that there are so few hard metrics to rely on, hence one of the primary valuation inputs is what other investors think about the company.

This investor signaling has a huge effect on venture financing dynamics. If Sequoia wants to invest, so will every other investor.  If Sequoia gave you seed money before but now doesn’t want to follow on, you’re probably dead.

Part of this is the so-called herd mentality for which VC’s often get ridiculed. But a lot of it is very rational. When you invest in early-stage companies you are forced to rely on very little information. Maybe you’ve used the product and spent a dozen hours with management, but that’s often about it. The signals from other investors who have access to information you don’t is an extremely valuable input.

Smart entrepreneurs manage the investor signaling effect by following rules like:

Don’t take seed money from big VCs – It doesn’t matter if the big VC invests under a different name or merely provides space and mentoring.  If a big VC has any involvement with your company at the seed stage, their posture toward the next round has such strong signaling power that they can kill you and/or control the pricing of the round.

– Don’t try to be clever and get an auction going (and don’t shop your term sheet). If you do, once the price gets to the point where only one investor remains, that investor will look left and right and see no one there and might get cold feet and leave you with no deal at all. Save the auction for when you get acquired or IPO.

– Don’t be perceived as being “on the market” too long.  Once you’ve pitched your first investor, the clock starts ticking. Word gets around quickly that you are out raising money. After a month or two, if you don’t have strong interest, you risk being perceived as damaged goods.

– If you get a great investor to lead a follow-on round, expect your existing investors to want to invest pro-rata or more, even if they previously indicated otherwise.  This often creates complicated situations because the new investor usually has minimum ownership thresholds (15-20%) and combining this with pro-rata for existing investors usually means raising far more money than the company needs.

Lastly, be very careful not to try to stimulate investor interest by overstating the interest of other investors. It’s a very small community and seed investors talk to each other all the time. If you are perceived to be overstating interest, you can lose credibility very quickly.

Backing out of a term sheet

Venture capital term sheets are not legally binding (except certain subclauses like confidentiality and no-shop provisions). That said, there is a well-established norm that VC’s don’t back out of signed term sheets unless they discover something really, really bad – fraud, criminal backgrounds of founders etc. The best VC in the world, Sequoia Capital, whose companies account for an astounding 10% of NASDAQ’s market cap, has (according to trustworthy sources) only backed out on one term sheet in the last 10 years.

Yesterday, one of the 40 or so startups I’ve invested in (either personally or through Founder Collective) had a well-known VC back out of a term sheet for no particular reason besides that they decided they no longer liked the business concept. It’s the first time I’ve seen this happen in my career.

In later stage private equity (leveraged buyouts and such) it is a common trick to “backload diligence” – you give the company a quick, high-valuation term sheet, which then locks the company in (the no-shop clause prohibits them from talking to other investors for 30 days or more). Then the firm does their diligence, finds things to complain about and negotiates the price down or walks away. If they walk away, the company is often considered “damaged goods” by other investors who wonder what the investor discovered in diligence. This gives the investor a ton of negotiating leverage. In later stage private equity, this nasty tactic can work repeatedly since the companies they are buying (e.g. a midwestern auto parts manufacturer) are generally not part of a tight knit community where investment firms depend heavily on their reputation.

I learned the basics of VC when I apprenticed under Jeremy Levine and Rob Stavis at Bessemer.  It was at Bessemer that I learned you never back out on a term sheet except in cases of fraud etc. I never saw them back out on one nor have I heard of them doing so. In fact, I remember one case where Rob signed a term sheet and while the final deal documents were being prepared (which usually takes about a month), the company underperformed expectations. The CEO asked Rob if he was going to try to renegotiate the valuation down. Rob said, “Well, if you performed better than expected I don’t think you would try to renegotiate the valuation up, so why should I renegotiate when you performed worse than expected.” That’s how high quality investors behave.

Besides simply acting ethically, firms like Sequoia and Bessemer are acting in their own interest: the early-stage tech community is very small and your reputation is everything. Word travels fast when firms trick entrepreneurs. What happened yesterday was not only evil but will also come back to haunt the firm that did it.

Being friendly has become a competitive advantage in VC

Over the last decade or two, the supply of venture capital dollars has increased dramatically at the same time as the cost of building tech startups has sharply decreased.  As a result, the balance of power between capital and startups has shifted dramatically.

Some VCs understand this. The ones that do try to stand out by, among other things, 1) going out and finding companies instead of expecting them to come to them, 2) working hard on behalf of existing investments to establish a good reputation, and 3) just being friendly, decent people.  Believe it or not, until recently, #3 was pretty rare.

As a seed investor in about 30 companies, I’ve been part of many discussions with entrepreneurs about which VC’s they want to pitch for their next financing round.  More and more, I’ve heard entrepreneurs say something like “I don’t want to talk to that firm because they are such jerks.” In almost all cases these are well-known, older firms who come from the era when capital was scarce.

Every experienced entrepreneur I know has a list of “toxic” VCs they won’t deal with. (Often because of horror stories like the “partner ambush“). There are so many VCs out there that you can do this and still have plenty of VCs to pitch to get a fair price for your company and only deal with decent, helpful investors. It sounds kind of crazy, but being a reasonably nice person has become a competitive advantage in venture capital.

What’s the right amount of seed money to raise?

Short answer:  enough to get your startup to an accretive milestone plus some fudge factor.

“Accretive milestone” is a fancy way of saying getting your company to a point at which you can raise money at a higher valuation.  As a rule of thumb, I would say a successful Series A is one where good VCs invest at a pre-money that is at least twice the post-money of the seed round.  So if for your seed round you raised $1M at $2M pre ($3M post-money valuation), for the Series A you should be shooting for a minimum of $6M pre (but hopefully you’ll get significantly higher).

The worst thing a seed-stage company can do is raise too little money and only reach part way to a milestone. Pitching new investors in that case is very hard; often the only way keep the company alive is to get the existing investors to reinvest at the last round valuation (“reopen the last round”). The second worst thing you can do is raise too much money in the seed round (most likely because big funds pressure you to do so), hence taking too much dilution too soon.

How do you determine what an accretive milestone is? The answer is partly determined by market conditions and partly by the nature of your startup. Knowing market conditions means knowing which VCs are currently aggressively investing, at what valuations, in what sectors, and how various milestones are being perceived.  This is where having active and connected advisors and seed investors can be extremely helpful.

Aside from market conditions, you should try to answer the question: what is the biggest risk your startup is facing in the upcoming year and how can you eliminate that risk?  You should come up with your own answer but you should also talk to lots of smart people to get their take (yet another reason not to keep your idea secret).

For consumer internet companies, eliminating the biggest risk almost always means getting “traction” – user growth, engagement, etc. Traction is also what you want if you are targeting SMBs (small/medium businesses). For online advertising companies you probably want revenues. If you are selling to enterprises you probably want to have a handful of credible beta customers.

The biggest mistake founders make is thinking that building a product by itself will be perceived as an accretive milestone. Building a product is only accretive in cases where there is significant technical risk – e.g. you are building a new search engine or semiconductor.

Now to the “fudge factor.”  Basically what I’d recommend here depends on what milestones you are going for and how experienced you are at developing and executing operating plans. If you are going for marketing traction, that almost always takes (a lot) longer than people expect.  You should think about a fudge factor of 50% (increasing the round size by 50%).  You should also have alternative operating plans where you can “cut the burn” to get more calendar time on your existing raise (“extend the runway”). If you are just going for product milestones and are super experienced at building products you might try a lower fudge factor.

The most perverse thing that I see is big VC funds pushing companies to raise far more money than they need to (even at higher valuations), simply so they can “put more money to work“. This is one of many reasons why angels or pure seed funds are preferable seed round investors (bias alert:  I am one of them!).