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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In the Midst of the Nuclear Winter

from Andy Wilson





Andy Wilson is Managing Director and Founder of Momentum Venture Management (www.mvmpartners.com), a firm which helps early-stage companies achieve early business results in order to attract funding and create sustainable, successful businesses. He was also previously SVP of Global Product Management & General Manager of New Ventures at Overture Services before it was acquired by Yahoo! for $1.7 billion, and was President & COO of RiverOne. He responded to Wil Schroter's post from earlier this week about the ease of finding funding for startups.

After 20 years of building entrepreneurial ventures I have had no choice but to be a devout optimist. The challenges are overwhelming, the naysayers abound but we as entrepreneurs persist. Over this period I have personally been involved in over a dozen start-up ventures with 2/3rd of those under the umbrella of Momentum Venture Management (www.mvmpartners.com), the early stage venture fund/accelerator I started 6 years ago with Matt Ridenour.

The Undeniable Reality

However, we as entrepreneurs most acknowledge the nature of the challenges we face. Not so that we can become discouraged but so that we can be prepared and thoughtful about how to overcome them. I think right now it is undeniable that we are facing an extraordinary pull back across the venture spectrum. I strongly disagree with Wil Schroter’s recent post that people are“eager to write checks.” The rule today is that raising venture financing is extraordinarily difficult. The exception is that a few sharp, experienced entrepreneurs like Wil can still quickly pull in modest amounts of capital from the personal wallets of a few name investors who under “normal” conditions would typically be writing much larger checks from their funds. Furthermore I anticipate only a gradual thawing which I don’t expect will begin in any material manner until the first half of 2010. The evidence of this broader reality is overwhelming and is directly contrary to Wil’s personal experience:

  • Venture capitalists invested 48% less capital in Southern California during the third quarter with $458 million put into 66 deals (Dow Jones Q309)
  • Dramatic move away from first time/early investments – 60% decline year over year in first time financing dollars (PWC MoneyTree)
  • 13 year low in technology investing (Dow Jones09)
  • Massive drop off on new deals from groups like TCA and Pasadena Angels – now primarily focused on supporting existing deals (just ask a TCA or PA member)
  • Recent showing of investors (or lack there of) at VentureNet (which I believe is one of the best early stage gatherings in SoCal)
  • Personal experience at Momentum where we historically could work with a portfolio company and secure the next round of financing in 3 months; now we are looking at 9 - 12 months if at all
  • Massive drop off in valuations and dominance of down rounds (as they say, flat is the new up . . . if you are lucky!)

OK – I think you get the point. It is ugly . . . .really ugly!

Getting the Cash Flowing Again

So what is the basis of this massive slow down and what has to change to get investors to start writing checks again? First, I believe that it is unlikely we’ll see a return to pre-crash levels (it will be similar to unemployment – a much more gradual up-tick). Many of the issues are structural and may never go away.

For institutional funds:

  • Reallocation of institutional investors to more liquid asset classes (embarrassing that Harvard had to issue $1.5Bn to pay its bills)
  • Reallocation of institutional assets due to the denominator effect (essentially rebalancing of their portfolios to reflect the depreciation of other more liquid asset classes)
  • It is widely known that many institutions have instructed their funds to limit additional capital calls even though the capital is “committed” – the implication is that there are now funds that can no longer count on having “dry powder”.
  • Lack of liquidity in current funds and unrealized returns make it difficult to raise new funds
  • The recession has depressed growth rates and extended time lines to reach cash flow break-even thus increasing the need to invest additional capital in current portfolio companies rather than new companies

The common wisdom is that we are at the beginning of a massive contraction in the asset class both in terms of dollars under management and number of firms. The National Venture Capital Association has publicly commented on this

I think the angel story is marginally more positive:

  • Clearly the massive depreciation of individual balance sheets has forced many angels to take a more conservative approach to riskier investments
  • The lack of investment by down stream capital has required they put most of their dollars toward protecting current portfolio

However:

  • Recent stock market rebound and bottoming out of real estate has provided some level of stability in their balance sheets – though the scars are still fresh at this point
  • Investing is usually a “hobby” that they enjoy so there is generally a passion to return as soon as it seems somewhat sensible
  • Decision making is concentrated in the individual and not tied to investment committees or LP’s; if they start to feel good they will start to write checks (witness Wil’s previously referenced experience with affordit.com)

We are already seeing some early indications that angels want to take advantage of current market conditions and do deals that historically they could not access at valuations that are often 50% less than what they were at 12 months ago. Part of the success Wil experienced was probably associated with these factors.

So What Does it All Mean?

Entrepreneurs need to accept that capital will be much scarcer for quite some time. There are particular implications depending on where one is in the company building process.

  • Just starting out: find businesses that are highly capital efficient where you can build a company with your own capital or friends and family without relying on traditional VC; possibly consider consortium models or strategic partners instead. With the abundance of free or inexpensive technologies available to entrepreneurs, the cost to start many businesses is a small fraction of what it was a few years ago.
  • Ship has left the dock: if you have started a company that is heavily reliant on VC be prepared to work closely with your current investors as they most likely are the ones who will have to support you for the duration; look at revising your business plan to reduce capital needs. If you need to access VC then allow plenty of time and do everything possible to show traction.
  • Later Stage: reset your expectation around potential partial take-outs through mezzanine rounds and time to IPO or exits. Consider yourself lucky if you have achieved sustainability but be prepared to be “pulling an oar” longer than you had expected.

In this changing environment, even perpetually optimistic entrepreneurs need to adapt their strategies and expectations for fundraising. There will always be money out there for great businesses led by passionate entrepreneurs. But the amount, the time to raise, the types of investors, and their expectations on traction will likely make the fundraising experience a much greater challenge than in years past. My hope is that rather than denying today’s reality, entrepreneurs will do what entrepreneurs do so well – look at the situation and use their creativity and enthusiasm to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Go build that business, solve that problem, change the world. But be careful about counting on VC backing to be the primary fuel to power your dream. The cash simply may not be there for you. Like Wil, seek out angel investors and other pockets of capital who believe in what you are doing. Good luck!


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