Financing Strategy for Early-Stage Startups (№1 of Series)
Startups who seek seed or series A financing may feel overwhelmed. Unlike series B or future fundraising, founders may not yet be familiar with the VC circle or the process of fundraising. According to Crunchbase, there are hundreds of venture funds formed every year in the U.S. This hasn’t included USD funds or corporate venture capitals headquartered outside the U.S. but many still are interested in U.S.-based startups.
It is critical to understand the VC market and financing dynamic to get a sense of who may be potential investors for your startup. This article will highlight the main factors and illustrate some examples that may distinguish investors’ investment activities from each other.
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1. Financing types: equity, debt, or (even) token
Corporate financing for startups in series seed or series A are mostly dealing with equity financing, which means investors invest cash in your startup for the consideration of the startup’s shares, turning investors into shareholders of the startup. SAFE (simple agreement for future equity) is one kind of equity financing, introduced by the famous accelerator YC (Y Combinator) has been used widely for early-stage fundraising since 2013.
In some cases, debt financing may be carried out separately or simultaneously with equity financing in the same round. It means debt investors lend money to your startup and then they become creditors. For instance, venture debt introduced by SVB (Silicon Valley Bank) is one choice for debt financing for startups.
In 2017, token financing ICO (Initial Coin Offering) became a popular way to raise capital for blockchain projects. Unlike equity financing which is based on corporate governance, ICO is based on the token economy. There was a brief period when certain startups, especially those who were in the blockchain sector, struggled with choosing between ICO or traditional equity financing. ICO has become much declined in popularity as it was warned by regulators in many countries that ICO is either illegal (such as China) or needs to be regulated and closely monitored under the current regulatory framework (such as the U.S.).
Equity financing is the mainstream choice for most startups nowadays, so this article will not include discussions on investors for debt and token financing.
2. Investment objectives: VC vs. CVC
Investors are not necessarily using their own funding to invest. In fact, most venture capital firms we’ve seen on the market are venture funds with capital contributions by fund’s investors (namely, LPs, or limited partners) and managed by fund management companies (namely, GPs or general partners). These institutional VCs purely seek to maximize the financial return to their investors and themselves. Each fund has its own set of mandates based on the contractual arrangements among the GP and LPs. Each fund management company develops its investment theology and philosophy over years of investment practices. These profoundly distinguish each VC firms’ strategy on deal screening, investment, management, and exit. For instance, a16z currently has USD 10 billion assets under management across multiple funds, including the Bio funds, the Crypto fund, and the Cultural Leadership Fund.
There are some and we’ve seen more established startups and corporations deploy capital to invest in startups. They are categorized as CVC, or corporate venture capital. Some CVCs may seem to be under the branding umbrella of the companies, but they operate independently from the companies and the business objective is to pursue financial return instead of strategic synergy like typical VC firms. Google Ventures and Legend Capital are two such examples of these. However, there are many CVCs whose main goal is to seek synergy creation from investment and M&A, such as Alibaba.
It’s not very common for CVCs to lead series seed or series A, as quite a few of these types of investors care about strategic alignment and have a stronger tendency to influence the onward business roadmap of a startup. But it may not be a bad strategy for some startups if they need to rely on the investor’s ecosystem to rapidly grow the business.
3. Investment stages: only early-stage vs. all stages
Certain VCs are flexible in terms of the stages of startups. Their investments can range from the seed stage to later stages. A startup who has the investors’ funding in its early stage, in theory, may seek to have their follow-on investment in the future. For instance, one recent Silicon Valley unicorn Scale AI has been invested by Accel for its series A (leading investor), series B (co-leading investor), and Series C.
Some VCs may focus strictly on early-stage investments and it’s unlikely for them to lead or even participate in series B or any onward investment. Accelerators typically focus on series seed or even pre-seed financing. Y Combinator and 500 Startups are active investors for early-stage startups only.
The advantage for startups to be backed by investors with an investment strategy at every stage is obvious. In the following rounds of financing, the investors can continue to lead or participate. These investors are also likely more resourceful in scaling startups on its hiring, partnership, etc. A benefit to working with investors with a focus on early stages, especially accelerators is the opportunities to get hands-on mentorship on early-stage operation problems.
4. Investment sectors: specific vs. general
Most VCs would label investments at least two categories, for enterprise or for customers. Some VCs may emphasize certain sectors as that’s where their team’s strengths are. Among these with certain industry focuses, certain VCs may have a dedicated fund for that sector. For example, a16z has a dedicated bio fund and they have built up a wide range of portfolios in the bio sector.
There are also vertical VCs with a focus on one sector. Ribbit Capital is dedicated to fintech investments and they’ve captured well-known portfolios such as Coinbase, Gusto, Revolut. In addition, given that CVCs are derived from a company’s own business, it’s very likely that CVCs have specific sector focuses as well.
Working with an investor with a sector focus will benefit startups in getting more in-depth industrial mentorship and gaining business opportunities in the same ecosystem. Working with investors who have broad investment portfolios may benefit startups in obtaining partnerships and customers in different areas.
5. Investment geographies: one region only vs. cross-regional
Geography is another important factor for differentiating an investor’s investment strategy. It is one component of a VC’s mandate. Certain VCs may point out that they are looking at some specific cross-regional diversity. For example, Lightspeed’s portfolios are located in the U.S., China, India, and Israel, and the same for Sequoia Capital. If VCs don’t specifically indicate that they are looking beyond one region and they don’t have a presence in other regions either, it’s likely that they mainly focus on one region. It is not uncommon that VCs only focus on one region as market dynamics could be fundamentally different in another region.
Most early-stage startups launch businesses with its operation in one region and there is no need to consider cross-regional matters. But for those who face cross-regional matters on day one, it might be more challenging to search for investors who are open-minded and may be able to commit capital as well as business resources at the cross-border level. It will be ideal for these startups to be backed with VCs which have a global footprint and may be able to help at all relevant markets.
Fundraising is not supposed to take a big portion of time from founders but unfortunately, it still does. Learning more basics about investors helps founders research and pitch to the right investors the right way.
This article should not be construed as or relied upon in any manner as financing, investment, legal, tax, or other advice. Readers should consult your own advisors as to legal, business, tax, and other related matters concerning any financing or investment activities.