Startup fundraising in a meltdown environment

The takeover offer that was in the works for over a year was supposed to arrive on February 14 but didn’t. Your contact at the company informed you they needed more time to “go over the numbers.”

Discussions with a strategic partner and potential investor have slowed to a stop.

A few months ago, your lead investors begged you to reject “low-ball offers” in the hundreds of millions. At the time, you had multiple bidders and ample interest from venture capital funds looking to participate in your Series A, B, or C. Now there is radio silence.

Investors in startups like to talk about the “special sauce” that makes a startup unique – the alchemy of technology, leadership, vision, scale, and product/market fit that makes a startup uniquely qualified to corner a market, or corner the market long enough to make everyone rich.

Today’s economic conditions are wartime conditions. Nobody in the developed world has managed through a war in a long time. There is no “special sauce” to raise money in wartime conditions, but some will manage it well, and many more will fail.

The instinctive reaction of most startup founding teams will be to delay their round. Startup valuations are in part built on good vibes and fear of missing out. Good vibes are hard to come by when thousands of people are dying, the living remain cooped up in their homes, and the economy sprints into reverse. The fear of sticking out has replaced the fear of missing out. A reasonable person could argue, why swim against the tide? Delay the round.

Delaying may not be a bad strategy if you are convinced that your company will be in a better position six months down the road. “Better” is defined by more traction with customers, longer runway, and better financing market conditions. No matter how much progress you made with customers in the previous six months, it will be extremely difficult to get commitments for substantial orders in the next six months, at least with enterprise customers. Unless you are among the very rare, you can expect revenues to be lower, your runway to be shorter, and your cash reserves to be depleted. Not exactly a “hot” investment.

In a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, the best policy is honesty. Tell your existing investors that, as hopeful as you are that the situation will become better in the next six months, chances are that it won’t drastically change for the better given customers’ current reticence to commit and your limited runway.

Then comes the hard part: Explain that the future will not stop, despite the current crisis. Humans always find a way to work around challenges, and we will do the same with the coronavirus. If your crop of investors liked your vision, your team, your technology and your market before the coronavirus, you should explain that nothing has fundamentally changed, except the time horizon. Suggest that you work together to meet the new time horizon.

Good investors are realistic. As scared as they may be at this moment, they know that the world will not end and that they will need to invest their partners’ money somewhere. If they don’t, they need to find another job.

Investing is all about confidence. You can’t control the market, but you can control how your company reacts to it. Investors want to see a realistic plan for cashflow, product development, and business development, with measurable goals. They want to see a team that can execute that plan, and the best predictor of future success is past success. In times of crisis it all comes down to fundamentals — management competence inspires investor confidence.

Convincing existing investors to support you in some tangible way during this period is critical to your future ability to attract new investors. Impressive examples are Exor NV’s $200 million investment in Via Transportation Inc. and the recent $240 million investment in Lilium led by Tencent, including other previous backers Atomico, Freigeist and LGT.

No matter how many zeros are involved, this is the time for your existing investors to step up. If you can’t convince those who know your business best that you are worth supporting through this period, you will have little chance of raising a new round once the coronavirus smoke clears.

Milan A. Račić is a co-founder of Gideon Brothers, a robotics and AI company in Europe.


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