Holden Spaht is a managing partner at private equity firm Thoma Bravo.
A new year is upon us, and with it comes uncertain, and uncomfortable, market conditions. Accompanying those conditions are equally uncomfortable decisions. For startup founders, determining which path is right for their business may require fundamentally rethinking the way they measure success.
The business climate in 2023 will be unfamiliar to many who founded a company in the past decade. Until now, a seemingly endless stream of relatively cheap capital has been at the disposal of any startup deemed by the VC world to have high growth potential. Everyone wanted a piece of “the next Facebook.” With interest rates near zero, the risks were relatively low and the prospective rewards were astronomical.
Burning money to chase growth became the norm; you’d just raise more money when you ran out. Debt? Who needs it! Existing investors were happy to play along, even if their share in the company was somewhat diluted — growing valuations kept everyone sated.
Over the years, this pattern of rapidly rising valuations and a pie growing fast enough to compensate for any dilution — fueled by “free money” that made almost any investment justifiable — crystallized into a mythology at the core of startup culture. It was a culture that nearly everyone, from founders and investors to the media, fed into.
Climbing valuations made for great headlines, which sent a signal, both to potential employees and the markets, that a company had momentum. High valuations quickly became one of the first things new investors looked to when it was time to raise additional capital, whether that was through a private round of funding or an IPO.
The funding route you take has enormous consequences for the future of your company; it shouldn’t be clouded by ego or driven by media appetites.
But tough economic conditions tend to dispel complacency with hard realities, and we’ll see reality checking in when it comes to funding this year. Amid rising interest rates and a generally negative macroeconomic outlook, the tap will run slowly –– or not at all. Equity financing is no longer cheap and plentiful, and as drought strikes, a sense of anxiety will grip founders. They can no longer burn cash without seriously contemplating where they’ll get more when it’s gone.
When that time comes, founders will be faced with a choice that could make or break their business. Do they turn to alternatives like convertible notes, or do they approach new investors for more equity funding? Tech stocks have been pummeled in the past year, which could mean their company’s value has taken a hit since the last time they raised capital, leaving them with the prospect of the dreaded “down round.”
It’s easy to see why down rounds seem out of the question for many startup founders. For starters, they’d face the flip side of the positive media mania, which risks eroding employee morale and investor confidence. In a culture where growing valuations are worn like a badge of honor, founders may fear that taking a down round would render them Silicon Valley pariahs.
Down rounds don’t spell the end of your business
The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The funding route you take has enormous consequences for the future of your company, and so it shouldn’t be clouded by ego or driven by media appetites.