Had an interesting conversation with a Bay Area-based founder a few weeks back. His startup is in the high-ACV enterprise space wherein the product is solving an intense and wide-ranging problem that is especially applicable to large companies. He got off the blocks in 2021 with a mid-single digit $Mn pre-seed round by a top-tier VC at the idea stage itself. A start that most founders dream of!
However, now two years down the road, the situation on the company’s Board is far from rosy. The company has gone through tumultuous times that are typical for any 0-to-1 startup. While the founder has kept his chin up during this phase, he is very disillusioned with the VC’s advice, behavior & general stance so far. When he shared some specific examples of this with me, my first reaction above all else was that this firm clearly has little past experience of portfolio management at the seed stage & in particular, what founders need in order to navigate its inherent complexity.
As I started relating this to many other founders I have met this year, a pattern is clearly emerging in the 2021 vintage of startups. Specialist VCs who have mainly invested in the Series A & beyond space in the past, went upstream & wrote massive pre-seed & seed checks with minimal or no traction. They were probably under pressure to deploy or get early dibs on the best teams as later stage valuations were going to stratospheric levels.
Seeing these companies now, after most of them have almost consumed their 24-month runway, I am seeing how the lack of milestone-based capital sequencing & strong stage-firm fit has created many fundamental issues with their core:
1/ Armed with big checks from large AUM firms, founders ignored the scrappy, capital-efficient approach right out of the gate. Instead, they bulked up teams & spent disproportionately on go-to-market even before problem-solution fit. Now in hindsight, they have ended up creating fragile organizations that are at the mercy of the macroeconomy & availability of follow-on capital.
2/ Many of these VC firms have put relatively inexperienced team members on the boards of these companies. My guess is because in their overall AUM game, these types of really early investments are probably considered highly risky “option bets” with low stakes in general & therefore, good learning opportunities for more junior members.
While experience by itself doesn’t make anyone a good or bad VC, pre-seed & seed stages of venture capital demand much more art & judgment in company building from all stakeholders. A firm writing seed checks without specific competence in that stage is like a cheetah in the rainforest. The beast is a wonder of nature that can run at a top speed of 60-70 mph in the African grasslands. But place it in the Amazon rainforests, and all its wondrous capabilities will amount to zilch. It’s just not built for it!
It’s a bit counter-intuitive but in my view, the best VC talent (best = strong fit from a personality & skills perspective) needs to be involved in the earliest stages of company building. There is a reason why YC has a strong moat in that stage, & why while most fresh MBAs can invest & do portfolio management at Series A & growth funds, pre-seed & seed needs artists like Paul Graham & Semil Shah that are few & far between.
One of the things I would like to see coming back into the startup ecosystem foundation post this venture downturn is the importance of “capital staging” – rigorously thinking through how the company should be capitalized at the earliest stages, what kind of investors should be assembled for it, the mindset, approach & time a specific company would need to iterate towards problem-solution fit & eventually, product-market-fit.
I would like to see the return of angels, domain operators & specialist boutique VCs partnering with founders at the earliest stages of venture. We need some version of the Arthur Rock & Ron Conway models but modified for this age. These types of stakeholders in turn, would educate and/ or encourage founders to be scrappy, agile and perseverant during the 0-to-1 stage, supporting them in building the most optimal path to the next base camp.
Closing thoughts specifically for the 2021 vintage startups – while it’s not easy to rewire the foundational DNA of a company, it’s not impossible. While the lesser gritty teams will flame out, I am also seeing founders who are acknowledging both the mistakes of the past as well as the new reality that faces them and are determined to learn & re-invent themselves. Even though as an investor, I am not too excited about the 2021 vintage the way it looks & is behaving right now, I will be more than eager (& rightly so!) to back its re-invented & re-wired v2.0.
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