Raising Venture Capital Isn’t Right for Most Entrepreneurs

Earlier this week I was on a panel at the excellent 36|86 Entrepreneurs Festival in Tennessee talking about bootstrapping vs venture capital. Reflecting on the panel discussion, and other conversations at the event, it’s clear that raising venture capital is still viewed as too much of a default path for tech entrepreneurs. In reality 99% of entrepreneurs, tech or otherwise, shouldn’t raise venture capital.

Here are some of the common reasons raising venture capital isn’t right for most entrepreneurs:

  • It limits exit opportunities
  • It puts a timeline on the business
  • It requires a 5x greater exit for the founder to make the same money
  • Most markets aren’t winner take all

Beyond the common reasons, the reality is that most entrepreneurs can’t raise venture capital because they don’t have enough traction (revenue!), growth (much be growing super fast), unit economics (strong gross margins and profit possibility), and market opportunity (must be a huge market). Too many entrepreneurs spend time trying to raise institutional money when that time is better spent building the core business.

The solution: find a trusted advisor or mentor in the community to help think through financing options. Most of the time venture capital isn’t the right path, and isn’t even an option due to the business characteristics.

Entrepreneurs would do well to better understand venture capital and know that most of the time it doesn’t make sense.

When SaaS Valuations Weren’t So Rosy

With Thomasz Tunguz’s recent post The 5 Forces Driving Startup Valuations Today it reminded me that SaaS valuations weren’t always so rosy. Today, the median forward multiple for public SaaS companies is 8.5x (meaning, these companies are valued at 8.5x expected revenues).

10 years ago we were out actively raising money for Pardot after hitting $1M in annual recurring revenue. We met with 29 different venture firms in Atlanta, D.C., Boston, and Silicon Valley. After being turned down several times with the message that the total addressable market for marketing automation was too small (hah!), we had three interested parties that floated valuations and wanted to talk potential term sheets.

By the time of these advanced conversations, we had $1M in trailing twelve months recognized revenue, $1.3M annual run rate, and 300% growth rate. Here were the verbal offers:

  • $500,000 investment at a $2M pre-money valuation
  • $1M investment at a $2.5M pre-money valuation
  • $5M investment at a $7M pre-money valuation

After doing some spreadsheet math it became clear that we were better off not raising money and continuing to go it alone. We decided not to raise money and kindly discontinued conversations with the VCs. If the valuations back then were what they are today, the spreadsheet math would have likely turned out differently.

Know that SaaS valuations have never been better but that we’re in unusually good times — it wasn’t that long ago when they were substantially lower. Still, do what’s best for the business and don’t raise money just because valuations are high.

What else? What are some more thoughts on SaaS valuations?

3 Alternative SaaS Funding Strategies

One of the things I love about startups is that every week I’m learning something new. Naturally, there’s no one way to do things and so entrepreneurs are always trying out different ideas and occasionally sharing them with the world. Earlier this week three different blog posts came out detailing alternative SaaS funding strategies a) Raise one time from angels ($1.3M) and might do more, b) Raise from multiple rounds but smaller amounts ($2.5M) each time depending on the progress of the business, and c) Raise a tremendous amount of money ($700M+) as quickly as possible over multiple rounds. Let’s dive into some of the highlights.

SparkToro Raised a Very Unusual Round of Funding & We’re Open-Sourcing Our Docs

  • “We believe that there’s room for a company that can be successful for its customers, employees, founders, and investors (generally in that order) without demanding a multi-hundred-million or billion-dollar outcome. We spent a lot of time discussing the frustrating binary (succeed on a massive scale or die trying) of the classic tech startup model, and how we might craft a creative structure that would allow for the potential of a huge outcome without forcing an unhealthy growth rate or a destructively impatient approach.”
  • Only raise from non institutional investors so that there’s no timeline
  • Investors initially expected to get their money back via dividends (1x non pref)
  • Keep optionality open to go the venture route but don’t drive towards that

Anatomy of our $5 million seed round

  • “SaaS companies do not require large amounts of capital all at once in order to fund expensive R&D, brand marketing, or giant sales teams. Instead, we require small amounts of capital over an extended period of time, in order to experiment and continuously push harder on the things that work. This is why most SaaS companies today should raise several smaller rounds of funding during their “seed phase” before raising a series A. The ideal funding for a SaaS company looks closer to an IV drip than a shot of adrenaline to the heart. We need more funding sources that understand this.”
  • Most SaaS startups don’t warrant the traditional VC model of go big or go home
  • Raise enough money each round to get to breakeven at another milestone
  • SaaS supports dripping in more modest amounts of capital and still producing great outcomes

Domo IPO | S-1 Breakdown

  • “Domo recently drew down $100M from their credit facility and currently only has ~6 months of cash left with their current burn rate. Given they raised $730M in equity capital from investors and another $100M through their credit facility, it implies they have spent roughly $750M over the past 8 years to reach a little over $100M in ARR, an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of cash burn for a SaaS company.”
  • Last quarter burned $40M to add $8M of new ARR
  • CAC of $430k with avg ACV of $67k
  • Median payback of 98 months

It’s great to see people detailing different funding strategies as there’s room for innovation and new ideas. Figure out what’s best for the business and execute accordingly.

Implications of Raising Venture Capital

Last week I was talking to an entrepreneur that was dead set on raising venture capital. Naturally, I wanted to understand more and asked a number of questions. Turns out, this entrepreneur just thought it was the next step to being successful. Venture capital shouldn’t be viewed as just another step in the startup journey — raising venture capital is a serious decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Here are several implications of raising venture capital:

  • Growth – Startups are growth-oriented organizations. Raising venture capital takes the emphasis on growth and raises it to max — everything is focused on growth. If growth stalls, more money needs to be raised or the company needs to be merged with someone else that is growing faster. Grow, grow, grow.
  • Timeline – As soon as you raise institutional capital (as different from angel capital, family office capital, etc.) the business is now on a timeline to sell in as little as 3-5 years and as long as 7-10 years. No matter how you feel, the business has to be sold (or go public) in an effort to generate returns for the limited partners (the people and institutions that provide capital to the venture capitalists).
  • Partnership – Selling a piece of equity is signing up for a long-term partnership with the investor. The relationship should be viewed as a partnership and not merely as an investment. Only raise money from investors you want to work with indefinitely.

Raising venture capital puts the startup on a path to grow at all costs, and has serious implications. Most startups fail and most startups that raise venture capital don’t make any money for the founders. Entrepreneurs should deeply study the pros and cons of this type of capital and know that most of the time it doesn’t make sense. Yet, when everyone is aligned and the startup does well, it’s a beautiful thing.

Startup Success: Team, Stream, and Not a Meme

Over the years I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out why some startups are successful, and most are not. The goal: distill startup success down into as simple a framework as possible. Of course, startup success is hard and messy, but it’s helpful to have a high-level context for the over-arching components of success.

Alright, let’s get to it. The three components of startup success:

  • Team
  • Stream
  • Not a Meme

Team represents the group of people working together to achieve the mission. Some of the most important attributes are resourcefulness, grit, and determination. Startups are an environment of limited resources, repeated failure, and long odds. Most people don’t thrive in a startup. The best teams figure out what needs to be done and makes it happen.

Stream represents movement and speed whereby disruption is happening, and it’s clear that a new, better way is possible. The best streams are large, major shifts where entire industries are transformed. The more disruption, the more opportunity for startup success. Examples include the shift from offline advertising dollars to online, the shift from telephone lines to voice over the Internet, and the shift from field sales to inside sales.

‘Not a meme’ represents things that are must haves, not nice-to-haves. Memes are funny or witty quips that represent a cultural phenomenon. As an example, Chuck Norris has a number of memes around things he can do that no one else can. One of my favorites: Chuck Norris gets Chick-fil-A on Sundays.

Most startups build nice-to-have products and fail. Nice-to-have can be a product that isn’t valuable, a product that’s useful but in an over crowded market, or something that’s too far ahead of its time.

Let’s take AirWatch, an Atlanta success story that VMWare acquired for $1.5 billion. The original team was comprised of the Manhattan Associates (NASDAQ:MANH) founder and another executive that had worked together before. The stream was the rise of the smartphone and people bringing their own devices to work (major transformations). The ‘not a meme’ was companies needing to enforce security rules and policies across thousands of employees’ smart phones. All three components — team, stream, and ‘not a meme’ — were combined with a massive market.

The next time you evaluate a startup idea for yourself, or meet with an entrepreneur, ask these three questions:

  • Why is this team going to win in this market?
  • What fast moving stream is shaking things up and causing disruption?
  • How is the product ‘not a meme’ such that it’s a must-have for customers?

Answer the team, stream, and ‘not a meme’ questions correctly to predict startup success.

High End SaaS Valuations Using the 2017 Inc. 5000 Data

Every year I love pouring over the Inc. 500 (now Inc. 5000). When I first read Inc. magazine in high school in the late 90s, I made it a personal goal to win the award. As a founder/CEO, I first succeeded with Hannon Hill (#247 on the 2007 Inc. 500) and then with Pardot (#172 on the 2012 Inc. 500). And, now, as a co-founder/chairman, succeeded with Rigor this year (#430 on the 2017 Inc. 500).

When looking through this year’s list, a number of well funded SaaS startups appeared:

  • Gainsight – $23.1M, 3,843% growth, #102
  • Bizible – $3.4M, 2,405% growth, #179
  • Domo – $79.9M, 2,250% growth, #192
  • GuideSpark – $24.8M, 525% growth, #856
  • Smartsheet – $64.3M, 425% growth, #1021

Let’s take Gainsight as it has the highest growth rate and look at some high end SaaS valuations from their funding rounds.

Gainsight Notes

  • Funding rounds listed in Crunchbase:
    • May, 2017 – $52M Series E
    • Nov, 2015 – $50M Series D
    • Oct, 2014 – $25M Series C
    • Nov, 2013 – $20M Series B
  • Recognized revenue by year:
  • Estimated end of year run rate (run rate is always ahead of recognized revenue for fast growing companies):
    • 2016 – $30M
    • 2015 – $17M
    • 2014 – $8.5M
    • 2013 – $3.5M
  • Published valuations:
    • Nov, 2015 – $348M post-money (source)
  • Estimated valuation as a multiple of run rate:
    • Nov, 2015 – $16M run rate with a $298M pre-money valuation making a valuation multiple of 18.6 times run rate
    • Nov, 2013 – $3M run rate with an estimated $80M pre-money valuation making a valuation multiple of 26.7 times run rate

SaaS valuations are typically in the range of 3-5x run rate and can go as high as 10x run rate for the fastest growing startups (see SaaS Funding Valuations Based on a Forward Multiple). When valuations are 18 and 26 times run rate, it’s a bet on building the category winner and a different game compared to 99% of the venture capitalists out there.

Want to explore more? Check out the 2017 Inc. 5000 and Crunchbase.

When Angel Investing Isn’t Charity

Over the years I’ve gone on the record saying angel investing should be viewed as charity work for the majority of investors out there. Why? As an angel investor you get intangible benefits helping entrepreneurs and you’ll almost always lose all your money. Yep, sounds like charity to me.

Now, angel investing isn’t always charity. I know a handful of people in town — less than 10 — that have done well as angel investors. Here’s what they have in common:

  • Long-Term Focus – Angel investing has incredibly long-time horizons. An “average” investment takes 7-10 years to see a return, and most investments don’t see any returns. Angel investors that do it for fun when the market is hot — known as “tourists” — quickly leave when they see just how hard it is to make money, and how messy it is to build a startup.
  • Dozens of Investments – Angels often think that if they make three or four investments, one of them will do well. For angels to make it work, it takes dozens of investments. Think about investing $50,000 per deal, and saving 2x that for startups that go on to raise future rounds. Over dozens of rounds, plus a limited number of follow on rounds, it’s well over $1,000,000 to build a true portfolio.
  • Time Allocation – Sourcing dozens of investments, and talking to hundreds of entrepreneurs, requires a huge amount of time. Most entrepreneurs and ideas aren’t investable upon first meeting, and all investments take multiple meetings.
  • Defined Strategy – With tons of entrepreneurial styles, startup industries, and technologies, it can be overwhelming to pick investments. Successful angels define a thesis or strategy and use it to help in their decision making process. Most bet on people and markets.

For angel investors that have a long-term focus, make dozens of investments, allocate a sufficient amount of time, and have a defined strategy, angel investing isn’t charity work. For all others, they’re providing a charitable service.

What else? What are some more thoughts on when angel investing isn’t charity?