If you have a small but growing business selling on Amazon or even direct-to-consumer (D2C) you’re bound to hit a point where you require money to scale. For as much as the media talks about venture capital, the reality is that less than 1% of startups here in the US are able to raise money from VC’s. The challenge, however, is that consumer brands often have working capital needs associated with carrying inventory or affording increasingly expensive paid media. So where do these types of businesses get the cash to grow? Traditional lenders, such as banks, often have strict covenants in their terms and have not historically catered their products to this cohort, but a growing number of new, innovative solutions are disrupting the model. I should note that pre-revenue/pre-product startups are likely not going to be a candidate for institutional debt – but a convertible note, SAFE or crowdfunding remain a viable alternative at this early stage. As a side note on crowdfunding, the SEC recently increased the cap for fundraising via this channel to $5m (from $1m) which I suspect will open up more activity in this space.
If you have a startup and you’re venture backed, then you ultimately need an exit. Historically, this has been through M&A or by going public. However, with the exception of some SaaS deals, there’s not been a lot of M&A activity recently in the consumer space. Strategic buyers often feel many startups are overvalued and aren’t interested in paying the premiums. The alternative is an IPO and there’s a lot of new innovation to look forward to here. Earlier this year, there was growing support for direct listings among some high profile VC’s, namely Bill Gurley, who felt many startups were leaving “money on the table” by going through a traditional IPO. Slack and Spotify are two examples of companies that have done direct listings. His argument is that in a traditional IPO the bankers engineer the deal to get a pop for their institutional clients and ultimately the company doesn’t get to keep any of the upside. Case in point is Snowflake (SNOW) that went public yesterday via a traditional listing. The stock jumped 111% on the first day and as a result left $3.8b on the table. The downside with doing a direct listing has been the inability to raise capital as has been the case in a traditional IPO. That said, the NYSE has been working with the SEC on a way to do a primary raise concurrently with a direct listing that was recently approved but has since been rescinded as other parties pushed back. More to come here.
This is a period of immense uncertainty but also a time for great opportunity. Some of the most well known companies were created during past periods of volatility. Apple and Microsoft were born during the OPEC induced recession of the 1970’s. Netflix survived the Dot.com bubble and came out stronger than ever, and Airbnb was born during the 2007-2008 recession. Fast forward to today and there seems to be two schools of thought on investing during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Either it’s batten down the hatches and conserve cash or let’s use this as an opportunity to double down on our winners and also invest in other startups that are booming due to stay at home restrictions. As we’ve seen in the public markets there are multiple bulls out there in certain sectors and the same theme applies to venture.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen coined the term “Software is eating the world” nearly 10 years ago. His argument that software would be at the heart of every business moving forward could not have been more astute. For example, Amazon’s not a retailer; their primary capability is their software technology enabling sellers around the world to get their products to consumers. The same could be said for their AWS cloud business; again a software play. Uber, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and to some extent Apple’s app store business, are all examples of companies that are fundamentally software first. Interestingly, this same software has empowered a foundational shift in business model. It has enabled disintermediation. The complex network of intermediaries that have existed historically have been circumvented which has led to the world of everything being direct-to-consumer (D2C) or direct to source. Many think of D2C as mainly having an impact on consumer goods, but the theme permeates into numerous industries. Here are some examples:
It’s been interesting to watch Q2 play out in VC land. While initially a cataclysmic drop-off in funding was expected, the industry overall was not as affected as originally thought. Similar to the public markets, many investors continued to see a buying opportunity and had re-allocated their portfolios to support their likely winners. A key takeaway for me is early stage funding continues to face some challenges while late stage appears to have fared better. Many early stage B2C companies are struggling.
I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently on tech companies that took PPP loans during Covid. Was this right? What’s definitely not right is our government bailing out bloated corporations during the pandemic. If you believe in capitalism then we should let the free markets take their path and prune the weak. One would argue that this infusion of cash saved jobs. Not sure how true that ultimately will become in October when the stipulations attached to the loans disappear. I bet we’ll see more layoffs, lots of them. US airlines have already made announcements for layoffs as soon as they are legally able. So basically taxpayers have funded a short term experiment on borrowed time that was setup for failure from the beginning. Harvard economists agree, the program has had little impact on employment at small businesses to date.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why much of the venture capital ecosystem hasn’t invested in innovation that could really help stem some of the challenges we are facing during this pandemic; areas around synthetic biology, contract tracing, vaccine development and even our antiquated unemployment systems. The fact that millions of Americans haven’t been able to access unemployment benefits due to systems that are 20-30 years old is mind boggling, especially when 75% of venture capital dollars goes to software that ultimately could alleviate these challenges. The main culprit: Privatization of US innovation.
For US brands that are considering testing out Asia before jumping head first into the market, they should consider the rise of e-commerce live streaming options that are proliferating in the far east, especially in China.
Startups usually focus on pain points that consumers have found with large bureaucratic companies. The old guard typically misses the signs when an insurgent brand comes on their turf, or they simply believe it’s not going to be a threat. Meanwhile this gives the entrepreneur time to build up a small loyal group of customers. As a result of corporate venture capital teams, and an increased interest in following startup land closely, corporations are no longer sitting back idle while startups take share.
If you haven’t read the Innovator’s Dilemma by the late Clay Christensen I highly recommend it. For those who work in innovation, this book is a wealth of knowledge on how best to structure your organization in order to embrace new technologies. Prior to joining the startup world, I spent nearly 9 years at a large S&P 500 corporation where I witnessed firsthand how slow and cumbersome these giant companies are. We held significant market share in many of the niche categories we dominated but slowly it became clear that insurgent brands (startups) wanted a piece of the pie. When large incumbents want to innovate it can sometimes take years to get a new product to market and by then the customer (and this sometimes can be a large retailer) may not even want it. Furthermore, this assumes R&D is even a priority. In 2018, less than a half of the S&P 500 companies recorded any R&D expense. The reason for this? Blame share buybacks. Over $200b more was spent on buybacks in 2018 than R&D and one would argue that this has little to no influence on the productive nature of the company. Hedge funds and activist investors chasing short term wins are further enabling this behavior.
Meanwhile tech companies who are spending in R&D are reaping the benefits. Startups are getting products to market 3x faster than incumbents (Bain & Co: 2018). So as a corporation, you must refine your innovation strategy into three parts under a buy, partner, build scenario or be left like one of these folks.