A New Kind Of Drought In Silicon Valley

I have some not so fun news for folks.

It is not on the level of RIP Good Times. There are good times to be had, but only for a portion of the ecosystem’s participants. The news is as follows: Traditional venture capitalists have become significantly more cautious since Labor Day this year. I can’t prove it with data or a fancy graph. And VCs likely won’t confirm it because everyone wants to be in the market. The truth is, they are in the market, but they’re being much, much more selective. The premium companies with real teams and real metrics will get even more intense investment interest, but the rest will look like Lake Wobegon.

I can’t prove why this has happened, but I can take a few guesses: We’ve seen a string of public flameouts of well-funded VC-backed startups hit the press now, even though those carcasses were on the highway this summer; we’ve seen some VC firms quite rationally not bridge some of their portfolio companies to the next round; we’ve seen international economics to be more interconnected than we’d imagined them to be; we’ve seen a number of companies struggle to even get their houses in order to go public; and we’ve seen many investors with a newfound swagger on Twitter, as if the pendulum has swung back a bit after years of being portrayed negatively in the overall narrative of how startups form and grow.

But, most critically, VCs hear from their LPs who have been coaching them now (1) to watch their investment pace; (2) to extend the term of their current fund; (3) to focus on previous funds’ liquidity before asking for fresh capital; and (4) to more aggressively consider partial secondary sales, even if it puts relationships with founders in jeopardy for a bit, as there’s very little M&A to be had for highly-valued startups that need to grow into their valuations. There’s no way out.

It’s the flow of money in and out that is now in question. It’s not about a bubble, per se. LPs largely believe in the asset class and in the long-term arc of technology and computing power transforming industries for decades to come — however, they have their bosses to answer to, as well, and a lot of money has gone out of their wires and not a lot has come back. That engine needs to be lubricated with cash, and with a dry IPO market and very little M&A to write home about, many funds are taking a more cautious approach, examining their own runways, the fuel left in the tank, and are circling the landing strips before being cleared to descend for touchdown.

If I’m right (and hey, I might be wrong!), what this means for founders is that raising subsequent rounds won’t be impossible — it will just be significantly harder. It is not unreasonable to prepare oneself for a prolonged process, to be subject to reams of diligence, to have investors push prices down to cut a deal. This maybe how it should be (in the LPs eyes), but it will be a different look than founders have seen in a few years, and that will make things feel different and likely change behavior overall in the ecosystem. There’s a long way to go until the end of the year, so let’s see if I’m right.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

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