The Truth About Venture Capital Funding
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In 2016, I conducted a study in Berlin, one of the major start-up hubs of Europe, to determine which start-ups secure venture capital funding, and which don't. I conducted numerous in-depth interviews with the founders of start-up firms who have received venture capital backing, gaining insight into the impact that venture capital has on start-ups.
Venture capital is often regarded as one of the most attractive and sought-after sources of financing for start-ups, and rightly so, especially due to the range of value-added services that a venture capital firm can provide to help the start-up grow and succeed.
For any founder considering venture capital, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many driving forces behind the scenes for the venture capitalist, which may cause problems for the founder team and the start-up. This could be anything from pressure from the VC’s own investors, or other deals that have gone wrong for the VC in the past.
Not all VCs are created equal
A point that was commonly brought up by founders is how their expectations have not been met. Not all venture capitalists are the same, and they vary in terms of the extent to which they are able to provide value- added services.
There were several cases from the start-ups interviewed who stated that their expectations had not been met. In certain instances, this is a result of the venture capitalist not living up to their word, but it is often because the founders’ expectations are not set at the correct level.
Your move: The best way to manage this is by doing extensive research on the venture capitalist you are engaging with. As a founder, you should not be afraid to speak to other entrepreneurs who have dealt with the VC to gain an understanding of what to expect if you engage with this particular firm.
Chasing funding is time consuming
As a founder, it’s important to manage your time carefully, and getting involved with VCs makes this even trickier. Generally, founders will need to go to countless meetings before they are able to get any investment. Over and above meeting with investors, the process of fundraising can be very time-consuming, especially if you enter a due diligence phase with investors.
You should not underestimate the time required for this, which is further elaborated by the founder of a firm that went through several fundraising rounds:
“It was really a strain on the business during the fundraising period due to the time and effort involved in engaging with VCs. And actually, a lot more than we thought. It really took a lot of time and work to get the money and I think that’s the most disruptive thing to the business.”
Once you have VCs on board, another time element is introduced. Of course, a lot of time would be spent on productive tasks with the VC, which is beneficial to the company. However, several founders criticised the amount of time that they felt was wasted on non-productive tasks — the type of administrative tasks and reporting that VCs generally require.
This requirement varies amongst firms, but it’s understandable. They have their own investors and reporting requirements. As a founder, you generally will have key roles across the board, and your time is extremely valuable. If you become involved with a venture capitalist, the non-productive time spent with them generally can’t be avoided, but it’s something that should be taken into consideration, and a key part of your planning.
Your move: Approaching multiple investors, conducting due diligence and reporting to your VC if you close a deal are all extremely time-consuming tasks. Does your business need the funding, or would your time be better spent building the business while you bootstrap it?
Who holds the control?
From the perspective of the venture capitalist, one of the most important aspects is control. Although loss of ownership and control for yourself as a founder may be obvious, there are several implications to consider.
First, a VC with less than 50% ownership of a company (which is often the case) does not necessarily mean they have no control in your firm. They usually have a variety of control mechanisms, which, in practice, give them control of many elements of the business.
A VC can, under certain circumstances, replace the CEO or founder team, even if they don’t have majority control. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of growth, internal conflicts, or a high employee turnover rate.
Second, as has been seen in several VC-backed firms, when the venture capitalist has control and is able to influence decisions, this potentially leads to several conflicts. One of the founders interviewed had this to say:
“We were at a point where we needed to make a critical decision on the strategy of the business. Our venture capitalists were pushing for a change; one that I was not happy about. This caused a lot of conflict and confrontation. In the end, the venture capitalists were able to enforce the change by convincing some others on the board. Ultimately, this decision didn’t work out and the business suffered substantially.”
Your move: The ability of a venture capitalist to enforce a decision is dependent on numerous factors, and especially the investment contract. The structure of the investment contract is critical, as it can determine the future relationship with your investor. Consider all these factors as you enter into an agreement.
The problem with too much money
A point that may seem counter-intuitive at first is that receiving venture capital can actually put a sin into your business model. Why? Because a big cash injection can distract you from your core business operations.
You’d think that suddenly having lots of money (when you’ve been trying to get an investment) is a perfect situation. Generally speaking it is; but there’s also a very real danger that not managing that money correctly can put you and your business in a situation where you’re even worse off than before receiving it.
Inexperienced founders are the most likely to experience this problem. Many start-ups interviewed talked about how they initially wasted money, overspending and putting it into the wrong areas. The classic problem is that in order to grow your business and improve your results, you hire people, but you don’t necessarily grow a business by hiring people. It’s absolutely essential to manage this money wisely and to avoid the money serving as a false sense of security.
Your move: In almost all cases, it’s advisable for any new entrepreneur to bootstrap for as long as possible. Don’t see funding as the first option. Try to raise as much as you can yourself, get revenues as early as possible, and focus on your fundamental business operations. It’s amazing what you’ll learn about business when you have to be very careful with your cash — and be cash generative as quickly as possible.
The exit question
Venture capital investments are generally governed by a life-cycle based on when to enter and exit from investments. These are typically around ten years.
When the fund gets close to the end of its life cycle, the fund managers, or investors, will be under pressure to gain liquidity for their investment. An important consideration for a founder is how old the fund is. The closer the fund is to the end of its life cycle, the more challenging things can become, due to this additional pressure for liquidity.
As many founders have experienced, the topic of an exit, or liquidity event, can often be a difficult one, especially if the founders are not ready to exit. “The discussion around the exit was a major confrontation because they wanted to sell, and we didn't want to sell,” says one founder. Who makes the final decision is dependent on a variety of factors, and especially the terms that are written in the investment contract.
Your move: Carefully consider the life cycle of the fund that will be investing into your business. If you’re just at the beginning of your start-up journey, selling too soon could cost you a lot of money. Rather find a different VC firm or funding route, and hold onto your equity for longer.
Bringing it all together
All in all, venture capital is a great source of finance and its value should not be discredited. There are numerous benefits to venture capital, and receiving professional mentoring, assistance and resources from people who have the knowledge and experience can be an invaluable tool.
Just the fact of having your firm backed by venture capitalists serves as a type of ‘stamp of approval’ for other players in the market. The points mentioned above do not necessarily represent every venture capital investment, but it is important to understand some of the potential impacts of going the venture capital route, and with this knowledge in hand, you can better prepare yourself for the process.