Having seen 1000s of deals across a decade of investing my own as well as institutional money, I rarely cringe while evaluating a new company. As an investor, I have often seen the same goods-and-bads in other deals several times before. As an ex-founder, I have walked the path & made the same unforced errors so almost every time, I can empathize & almost pre-empt why a founder is doing things a certain way.
However, there is one specific thing that is guaranteed to make me cringe – a founder attempting to raise an amount that is totally out-of-sync with where the business is. In many cases, this is accompanied by other precursors:
- No intent to bootstrap from idea to “some” traction.
- Wasteful handling of the last round.
- Coding & building product for months at a stretch without putting anything meaningful in front of customers.
Personally, one of the strongest leading signals I look for in a startup is progress per unit of capital – how much forward movement has the team achieved & the resources it has consumed for it, especially when evaluated relative to other comparable startups.
I remember an interesting learning from my time at IDG Ventures (now Chiratae). Sudhir Sethi, the Managing Partner & the lead investor who had backed Myntra (Zappos of India at that time; was eventually acquired by Flipkart for ~$300Mn in 2014), often cited how when he went to meet Mukesh Bansal (the founder) for the first time at the Myntra office, he observed they were working out of a dingy space in a classic Indian neighborhood market with the ground floor occupied by a fruit & vegetable vendor. Sudhir used this as one of the positive signals for the team’s ability to execute in a cut-throat eCommerce vertical like fashion.
Fast forward a few years, and I got a similar insight yet again in the retail context. While working with Alibaba, I saw how frugal the Group was in terms of saving every dollar of operating cost. eCommerce works on wafer-thin margins, especially in highly competitive & price-conscious markets like Asia. And one could see this by comparing the bare minimum facilities & perks we got at the US HQ in San Mateo vs even well-funded growth startups, which were offering everything from catered meals to draft beer stations at that time.
Why is a capital-efficient mindset so important for early-stage tech founders? It’s because they are playing a game where the odds are hugely stacked against them. Where 9 out of 10 new startups fail on average. Where the starting point and end point of companies are vastly different, with each year choked with iterations, a major pivot every few years, and team members jumping on & off the ship.
Setting yourself up to have even a remote chance of winning such a game requires many shots at the goal, many course corrections, and many resets. At the same time, capital is scarce at the pre-PMF stages even for the best teams. Capitalism is brutally efficient, throttling money when relative risk is high, & opening the faucet once success is highly certain (typically post-PMF).
Building even a decently sized company can take anywhere from 6-8 years, & up to 15+ years. In such a long period, both the overall economy as well as your specific market will go through several cycles. The key is surviving long enough, even with limited capital, to be able to walk this arduous path.
This is what the best founders bring to the table – using investor capital like their own, each dollar wisely deployed towards only what’s truly necessary for the stage, raising each round with specific milestones in mind, and realizing that ownership is everything, with each bps of dilution being the costliest trade shareholders can make. To me, this mindset & building approach is perhaps the biggest signal of perseverance in a team.
Come to think of it, in the non-tech world where starting a business isn’t called “doing a startup”, entrepreneurs typically use their savings to get going, & once there is enough business confidence & profitable revenue flowing-in, grow using either internal accruals or debt. Initial bootstrapping creates skin-in-the-game, profitable revenue creates high confidence that customers want what you are making, & debt creates financial discipline around managing cash flows while preserving the founder’s ownership to compensate for all the risk they have taken.
This model has been used by everyone from Sam Walton to Richard Branson, & continues to survive in all parts of the SMB economy. While the venture capital model definitely works for building tech companies, which are asset-light, highly scalable & operate in winner-takes-all dynamics, I believe the founders who are in it for the long run build with a similar philosophy – planning for the next basecamp & raising conservatively, maintaining discipline around cash & giving high importance to ownership.
On a related note, I wanted to share something I recently wrote on Twitter regarding a fundraising pitfall specifically for serial founders:
Often see serial founders who have seen success before (scale and/ or exit), raise large rounds at high valuations at the idea stage!
From what I have seen, even the most successful founders have operated in phases where a lack of capital could have potentially killed their startup. That’s probably why on the 2nd attempt, they try and take that risk out of the equation at the beginning itself.
Oddly enough though, having a capital-rich Plan B to fall back on reduces the scrappy iterativeness, discipline & underdog mindset that startups usually need to succeed. And which probably contributed to their success the 1st time too.
In asymmetric bets like startups, to reference The Dark Knight Rises, “the way to climb out of the pit is without a rope”.
Hopefully, as this cycle resets, all of us founders & investors will go back to the drawing board & start appreciating Benjamin Franklin’s age-old virtue of frugality as a key to success in business & life.
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