Why Startups Should Raise Money at the Top End of Normal

Posted on Jun 5, 2011 | 54 comments


This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.

2 preamble issues having read the comments on TC today:
1: I know that the prices of startup companies is much great in Silicon Valley than in smaller towns / less tech focused areas in the US and the US prices higher than many foreign markets. I acknowledged this in the article. You can be pissed off, but I don’t set prices. I’m just making the commentary.
2: As expected at least one person accused me of writing this post because I want to see lower valuations. That’s stupid. I can’t control the market. When prices are too high I just pass. Simple. I wrote this because over the last decade I’ve seen a destructive cycle where otherwise interesting companies have been screwed by raising too much money at too high of prices and gotten caught in a trap when the markets correct and they got ahead of themselves.

I said both in the article but felt compelled to provide a statement up front for the skimmers.

I have conversations with entrepreneurs and other VCs on a daily basis¬†about fund raising, the prices of deals, how much companies should raise, etc. I’ve stopped talking about this as much publicly because it’s such a heated, emotional topic where the points-of-view are strictly subjective and for which the answers will only be revealed in the future.

I’ve decided to take all of my private conversations and subjective points-of-view on the topic and make them public in a keynote speech at the Founder Showcase in San Francisco on June 15th.

I thought I’d post on one of the topics before hand. It’s the one bit of advice I find myself giving most frequently these days, “raise money at the top end of normal.”

Huh?

Here’s what I mean. There is an inherent value that any company has. On a public stock market that is the value that investors place on future free cash flows of the business discounted to today’s date to account for the time value of money. The more mature the company and industry, the easier it is to predict its future. When investors are feeling confident about the future they tend to bid up the value of public companies due to an increased perception that the future cash generated by the company will appreciate. The price of public stocks change instantly in reaction to news that is perceived to affect the future value of that company.

Every day shareholders vote on the value of the company by buying or selling shares. There is no price movement without one person agreeing to sell the stock and other agreeing to buy it. Stocks that have a lot of people trading are said to have a lot of liquidity, which basically means it’s really easy to get into (buy) or get out of (sell) the stock.

Private markets for stocks are the opposite. They are pretty illiquid. If you invested in the first angel round of a startup company it is usually very hard to sell your stock – usually for many years if ever at all. So how exactly are prices determined?

There is no great science to it. The earlier you invest the higher the chances the company won’t work out and thus you pay a lower price than later-stage investors. As an investor you’re trying to pay the appropriate price for your perceived risks of the company succeeding and protect yourself in the event that it isn’t quite as valuable as you had hoped. As the risks below get eliminated the higher the valuation investors are prepared to pay.

Over time some “norms” have emerged in pricing based on investors risk / return profile.¬†The obvious thing that investors think about is making a financial return on the investment they made in your company. Early-stage investors in technology startups are only looking for growth-oriented companies that can achieve an “exit” someday – either via selling your company to a larger company or via an IPO. The former is much more likely than the latter. So investors have to have some general sense of what companies that are similar to yours ultimately sell for in the private market place via an M&A transaction and they have to have some sense of valuations on public stock markets to be able to back into what their potential returns on your investment might be in the event of an IPO.

For example: If you were to invest $41 million into a company (and one could assume that you owned between 33-50%) then the company is worth $82-123 million at funding. As an early stage investor you’re often planning around 10x your investment at the time your write your first check so in this case you’d be going into your investment expecting an exit of $800 – $1.2 billion. Then you can do a little bit of research and find out that very few companies ever achieve this valuation in a trade sale so you’re clearly gunning for an IPO. You’re unlikely to want to make this sort of investment with the product or the market not yet validated. The risk wouldn’t be appropriate.

Ah, but you say that for a normal-sized angel check or A round check one shouldn’t worry about the ultimate exit because he or she is getting in really early and at a cheap enough price so who cares whether one pays $5 million pre-money or $15 million pre-money – you just have to make sure you back really big companies. Well, obviously if you knew that in advance it would be big of course that would be true. But the reality is that you’re faced with two problems: 1) the earlier the stage the riskier and thus more write-offs so you need to have enough ownership percentage in your winners to make up for the losers and 2) the earlier stage your check the more likely the company will need many more funding rounds behind you and thus you face dilution.

So rounds tend to be “range bound” where the top end of the valuation spectrum often being done in boom markets (i.e. 2007, 2011) and for the hottest of companies and in bad markets for fund raising (2003, 2008) prices test the bottom end of the range.

There is no such thing as a uniform price. It is highly dependent upon many factors: experience of the team, type of opportunity (a big biotech or semi-conductor A round is likely to look different from an Internet A round), geography, etc. So the ranges you would expect can be highly imprecise. But to help with the explanation I’d like to put down some markers of typical Internet pre-money valuations done in major US markets (San Fran, NY, LA, etc.) while acknowledging that San Fran deals are often higher valuations due to increased competition amongst investors.

There is no value judgment in my putting up these numbers nor am I negotiating with anybody. I’m just pointing out my gut feel for approximate ranges of deals that I’ve seen with Silicon Valley having the highest valuations, NY / LA / Boston / Boulder / Seattle having valuations in a slightly lower range but comparable and sometimes significantly lower prices in markets that don’t have a healthy venture market. These are not scientific, just anecdotal and just trying to provide some transparency for entrepreneurs on what I’ve seen the market. And of course there are always outliers.

Prices have definitely gone up in 2011 as depicted in the anecdotal chart below. Again, prices are expressed as pre-money valuations.

For me I think that investors have got to accept the new reality in pricing if they want to remain competitive in markets like we’re seeing now. As ever, prices still determined by: quality of team, quality of product / market and competitiveness of the deal.

So when I advise entrepreneurs on fund raising I often say that it’s OK to try and shoot for the “top end of normal” for the market conditions. So in 2011 as a startup company if you can generate lots of demand you can definitely raise an A round of capital (say $3 million) at a $7 or 8 million pre-money valuation or slightly higher whereas just two years ago you would have struggled. That’s fine. That’s the deal you get when you’re raising in a good market for startup financing.

What I caution entrepreneurs from doing is raising money at significantly ABOVE market valuations. I’m a VC so I have an obvious bias. But that’s not where this is coming from. I’ve been preaching the “don’t get ahead of your inherent valuation” message for nearly 10 years. I raised my A round at a $31.5 million post-money valuation with no revenue. It was early 2000. That was market. I saw this kind of pricing when I first entered the VC market in 2007. We had companies pitching us that had almost no revenue at all and they were raising $10-15 million in capital at a $40-50 million pre-money valuation. I should also point out that while they had built their products they had limited market traction.

We passed on all of these deals and often tried to discuss the possibility of more modest amounts of capital raised and at more realistic prices. It’s hard to stop a train. One company which was raising at $40 million pre-money wrote a comment about me in a public forum saying something along the lines of “Mark worked really hard to understand our business and was very detail-oriented. But he and his firm were just too cheap on valuation.” Fair enough. But he sold within 3 years for not a huge price after having raised more than $20 million. Another firm we saw tried to raise $15 million at a $60 million pre-money with similar metrics. They did an inside round, spent a bunch of money and then went through a fire sale of the business less than 2 years later.

Here’s the problem. If you haven’t figured out product / market fit and therefore still have a highly risky business you run great risks for getting too far ahead of yourself on valuation. If you raise at a $40 million pre-money on what would in normal times have been a $15 million valuation you’re fawked if the market corrects and you need another round. To any prospective investor you look like you’ve failed even before your first pitch. Even if you have an interesting story to tell most investors won’t want to go through the brain damage of doing a “down round,” which creates tension between them and early investors.

Finally, even if they could bring themselves to offer you a major down round, the more sophisticated investors know it’s fool’s gold. They get a cheaper price, they wipe out much founder stock value and they reissue you new options. You’ll take the money – what choice do you have? But 6 months later you’re not working past 10pm. 1 year in you stop catching early morning flights. Within 2 years your evenings & weekends are spent planning your next business. And the CEO they would hire to come in and run the business when you go would always be a mercenary.

So my advice: go ahead and ask for a valuation that 2 years ago wouldn’t have been likely. Use competition to make sure you get a fair price. Raise a slightly higher round than you would have previously but keep some amount as a strategic reserve. Make sure that when you need to raise your next round of funding that you are able to show an uptick in valuation that is important for new investor confidence and to maintain great relations with your early investors.

Increase price. But unless you’re already a well-known technology heavyweight be careful about raising above the range of prices that are normal for a bull market. If you’re hot, don’t raise above normal. Raise at the top end of normal.

Other topics I’m going to cover at the Founder Showcase on June 15th:

  • Why I believe convertible debt with no cap is wrong for your investors
  • Why convertible debt WITH a cap is wrong for you
  • How much money should you raise?
  • When should you start talking with investors?
  • Why you shouldn’t stack too many brand names into a round
  • Are we in a bubble?
  • and more.

Hope to see you there.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I’m working on a low-tech (albeit tech-enabled) company, but the tricky part is finding the right fits for such a company – both people and investors. It’s not a “sexy” pitch, since you can’t offer that Google-Facebook-Twitter dream, though it does command some respect, and it’s especially hard to find good people to help work on such an endeavor without guarantees.

  • Paul Azous

    Agreed, wise words. Many are in a rush to raise money though, and get caught up in the flurry.

    Paul Azous
    PPM.net, CEO

  • Boyd Johnson

    The bull market is still an alien concept to me, but this article definitely helps. Sometimes I prefer binary options trading over conventional investments because the latter can be so confusing.

  • jsbpdx

    Mark, pretty much agree with both your pricing tables. Would be interested in your comments about how the new types of early-stage investors – “super-angels”, angels, private individuals, strategics – are affecting competition and pricing. For me these types of investors seem to be moving towards “pricing standardization” more than I’ve seen from the financial VC community over the last 15 years. Could be these types don’t feel the need to “compete” as much as financial VC thought it did…