Distributed Capital

In theory, the hard part about finding capital for unproven founders with unproven technologies in unproven markets should be that no one wants the risk. There was a time when that was true, but it isn’t anymore.[1] For a founder, the issue is different: venture capital is abundant, but it’s not very evenly distributed.[2]

There are groups of founders to whom this uneven distribution is an advantage. These founders are well connected or pedigreed and can use their access to capital as an advantage in building their startups. That’s good for them, and they should use every advantage they have.

But the world of startups would be better overall if capital could more easily find great startups. That should be a given, but in looking at the various bottlenecks in the system, it is clear that, at least some of the time, some of the parties involved are actively impeding access and distribution. Other bottlenecks are the result of the fact that venture markets are immature.

Manufactured impedance

Professional investors are in something of a bind when balancing accessibility and exclusivity. On the one hand, the best investors generally believe that returns are driven by significant outliers. These outliers are unlikely to come from an expected source or pattern match precisely on previous outliers. This means that investors would be best served by having the largest possible funnel and the least biased filtering mechanisms. In other words, investors should treat any and all inbound investment opportunities as potentially incredible and equal weight their attention to them.

However, this presents a set of problems. Investors who tout their willingness to look at everything equally and actually do so will lose their auras of exclusivity. This aura is important in convincing founders to contact the investor and later when investors try to win deals - when given the opportunity, most people choose exclusive clubs over inclusive clubs.

Then there’s the practical problem: capital may be abundant, but good people and their time are scarce. Let’s say, for instance, an investor decides to follow the “evaluate all inbound” model. This investor actively markets that she’ll meet every company that emails her. The strategy works and the emails pour in.

That investor will then need the time to meet hundreds of companies each week. Software can help route and filter, an application process can eliminate some number of in person meetings, but the investor will need partners and staff to deal with volume.[3] New partners and staff cost money, which means raising more funds. Larger teams and larger funds start to impact exclusivity, as does the greater numbers of investments dictated by adding people and looking at more companies.[4] Investors who want to pursue the abundance path will get caught in a recursive loop that seems dangerous to their model.

Structural impedance

The other set of barriers to capital distribution exist because venture markets are relatively new and immature. There are many markets without local venture capital investors. Foreign investors may be interested, but face challenges in understanding the nuances of those markets and those founders.[5] This impedes the flow of capital to companies that should get it.

Because venture markets are relatively new, they are also unnecessarily opaque. Information within these markets is rightly viewed as incredibly valuable, and so it is rationed by those who have it. This makes it hard for new entrants with money to figure out where to put that money. Instead, LPs are required to route it through the professional venture investors that have access to information about what companies are raising and which are not. The analogy here would be an equities market which forced university endowments to call hedge fund managers to discover what stocks exist.

There are a number of other structural bottlenecks to evening out the distribution of capital. What is so interesting about these and the manufactured bottlenecks is that they could all be solved by either a new common set of behaviors, or an intermediary that made it significantly easier for startups to access the sources of capital already looking for them.[6]


This is the second in a set of essays drawn from watching the interactions between investors and founders during several hundred Series A and B in the last few years. If you are wondering how this dynamic impacts your company, please reach out at [email protected].

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[1] See https://blog.aaronkharris.com/abundant-capital

[2] Apologies to William Gibson for bastardizing one of my two favorite quotes about the future and technology. The other is from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

[3] Operating under the assumption that the investor can successfully generate inbound interest.

[4] Partners at venture funds are primarily evaluated on the quality of their investments. This means they have to actually make investments, especially early in their careers.

[5] When Rappi first launched, US investors failed to understand the radical differences in their economics relative to US counterparts. These differences were driven by dramatically lower employment costs and urban densities that were only apparent if you’d studied Latin America enough.

[6] To some extent, YC’s Demo Day does this for seed stage companies. However this function has not yet been replicated at later stages.

Abundant Capital

The venture capital industry was built on the premise that both capital and high quality companies are scarce. For most of the history of the industry, this has been true. I remember sitting at demo day in 2011 and marveling at the fact that the combined capital of all the VCs in the room was less than that controlled by the hedge fund at which I had worked. But the model is wrong. Venture capital is abundant, and that fact should fundamentally change how founders fundraise.

This scarcity model has shaped the structure of startups and VCs - most of what an early stage startup does is designed to convince a VC to invest. Companies treat VCs as a limited resource that is both hard to access and hard to convince. Investors do their best to perpetuate this idea because it allows them to retain control of the pitch and fund dynamic.[1]

Something interesting happens, though, whenever a company has a signifier of quality - a YC demo day slot, a high quality angel, pedigreed founders, or, even better, strong growth. In these cases, there are investor feeding frenzies, leading to oversubscribed rounds, ever climbing prices, and investors willing to accept ownership targets they - until recently - would have termed unacceptable.

To be sure, there have always been bidding wars in private equity (of which venture is a subset), but these bidding wars are so frequent now as to be approaching the norm. If capital was actually scarce, this wouldn’t happen, there wouldn’t be enough money to create so many bidding wars.[2]

Bidding wars aren’t the only evidence of capital abundance. The VCs are changing their businesses because of this abundance, whether or not they admit the reason. The evidence is in the new funds that seem to launch on a daily basis, the multi-billion dollar growth funds that have become increasingly common, and the ownership targets at various rounds that continue to drop.

At the same time that capital has become more abundant, founders have become smarter about fundraising. There are now a huge number of blogs, classes, essays, guides, and advisers ready to help founders navigate the previously opaque world of fundraising. As a result, founders can approach each funding event with a clear plan of how to run a process. Running an orderly process further increases the chances that a company will see competitive bids.

As a thought experiment, assume that the abundance model is here to stay. It is also safe to assume that founders will not suddenly forget their newfound knowledge about process. I think this should encourage founders to think about changing fundraising in a few major ways:

  1. Founders should approach every fundraising as an auction. This is what each process already is, but the auction is inefficient. There’s lots of language and pseudo-moral arguments about why this is bad, but most of those fall apart if capital is abundant.

  2. Founders should expand their funnels beyond the traditional VCs. These VCs hold a marketing and branding advantage, much of which is built around the signal to later rounds. If, however, each round is an auction, this benefit evaporates. YC’s demo day proved this funnel expansion works at seed, and there’s no logical reason it should fail at later rounds.

  3. Once a founder has the information produced by this process, she can decide whether to minimize dilution, maximize price, or optimize around the partner. The answer will change based on the situation, but having access to the choice is important.

Founders are hesitant to run this model because they fear that running an auction will create a negative quality signal. Investors encourage this belief because it allows them to keep deal flow proprietary. This is flawed logic. The quality of a company can’t be determined by the investors to whom that company talks when raising money. The quality of a company is determined by whether or not the company is good, and good companies should take advantage of abundant capital markets.[3]

This is the first in a set of essays drawn from watching the interactions between investors and founders during several hundred Series A and B in the last few years. If you are wondering how this dynamic impacts your company, please reach out at [email protected].


Thanks to Adora Cheung, Janelle Tam, Ilya Sukhar, and Nabeel Hyatt for helping me think this through, even though our conclusions might differ.

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[1] Perhaps more importantly to the investors’ business model is that this dynamic creates a reason for the existence of VCs. If founders and LPs both internalized how non-scarce capital actually is, they could find one another directly, bypassing VCs.

[2] It’s important to remember that, even though capital is abundant, it remains unevenly distributed. There are companies that struggle to raise money - some of these may be bad investments, but many are good. This is a problem of access rather than capacity, which is a whole different issue.

[3] When a company IPOs, it opens ownership up to anyone who can afford a share. Imagine, for a second, an investor arguing that this is a sign of low quality.


Goodbye YC

I sent this email to the whole team at YC yesterday:

When I joined YC 7.5 years ago, there weren’t many people around. PG and Jessica were still running things. We had offices in Mountain View, Palo Alto, and on Kearny street, but they were nearly always empty. The only meeting on any calendar was the lunch on Thursdays where we’d talk about companies over takeout or at a table in a crowded restaurant.

The ways in which we’ve changed since then have been amazing to see. YC has grown in every way imaginable. The scope of what YC funds is larger. The team is bigger and more capable. The number of companies is pushing towards some ever receding upper bound. There’s more software, a larger community, and more programming designed to help YC founders build better futures.

I feel a deep sense of pride and honor at the part that I’ve played in that change and growth. I recall the first conversation I had with Aaron King about the Series A for Snapdocs. The questions he and I worked through were the kernel of the Series A program. I am amazed to see the directions in which Janelle is now building YCA. I’m grateful for the part I played in our conversations about growing beyond seed investing - conversations which eventually took shape as YCC. And, of course, there are fifteen batches worth of applications, interviews, dinners, office hours, and demo days rattling around in my head.

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the founders with whom I’ve had a chance to work. I’ve lost count of the number of incredible people I’ve gotten to know over these last years. Thinking back, it’s easy to see how the sheer weight of numbers can drive a person to be jaded about the problems that founders face. But the other night, as I spoke with a founder about a tough situation, I was reminded about how important it is to that individual that she gets the best possible advice. This is a lesson I learned time and again, and is something I hope I’ll never forget.

And then there’s the funny stuff. There were stolen air conditioners, barefoot pitches, robots that did not make sandwiches, update emails pulled from the I Ching, bandages, inhaled jet fuel, and literal blood on the interview floors. These are the things that I’ll remember long after everything else.

The truth is, I only meant to stick around YC for two years. Somehow, that two became two more, and then some more. As meaningfully as I’ve enjoyed my work here, it’s time for me to move onto something different and new and outside the bounds of what YC does. That’s a strange, exhilarating moment, and an important one for me and for my family. The pandemic provided the practical and existential nudge I needed to see the depth of this need.

To my fellow partners - thank you for your tireless work for our founders and for YC. Thank you for everything you’ve taught me, for all the strange conversations we’ve had, and for all the demo day presentations we’ve crafted.

To PG and Jessica and Trevor and RTM - thank you for giving me this opportunity and for making YC the kind of place I could love enough to stay long after I meant to leave.

To Janelle - thank you for building YCA with me and for being the best person I could imagine to take it into the future.

To everyone else - YC’s mission in the world is abstract. It could mean so many things, but it wouldn’t be anything without your work. Whether you are managing founder expectations about housing in the Bay Area, helping someone understand the mysteries of cap tables, talking someone down off the ledge of yelling at a reporter, or making sure that there will one day be an office to come back to, you are what makes YC a viable, vital force in the world.

I’ve never liked goodbye.

aaron

Raise less money

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that good companies are increasingly over-diluting themselves in their seed and A rounds. Counterintuitively, dilution seems to rise along with price. One would expect the opposite correlation. Strong founders who command high prices should be using that higher price to sell less of their companies in exchange for money to grow. As I’ve tried to understand what’s going on, I’ve tried several arguments.

Somewhere in the last week, I’ve come to understand an error I’ve been making when talking to founders about how much money to raise. I realized that the conversation about raising always anchors back to the idea of adding “months of runway.” That always seemed appropriate to me because it was a measure of the amount of time a company had to stay alive. Staying alive seemed good since it increased the time a company had to find product market fit and to grow.

But I now realize that this is the wrong framing because simply staying alive is an inadequate goal for a company.  Founders start companies to find product market fit and grow. Venture capital is designed to speed growth, not to extend runway.

As a result, in recent conversations, I’ve started to ask founders: “How much could you get done in the next 12 months with the amount of capital you are planning to raise? If you’re a good company, you’re either going to raise your Series A - or Series B - in the next 12 months or have significant revenue such that you won’t need more capital.[1] If you’re doing badly, why would you want to keep working on this for 24 or 36 months? That’s a waste of your time.”

Founders who raise too much capital are acting out of fear rather than acting out of confidence. This fear made sense ten years ago when seed financing was relatively scarce. This is when much of the fundraising advice I read as a founder was written. However, the world has changed and so should the advice

Financing is more accessible to good founders than it has ever been.[2] Confident, competent founders should take the risk of running out of money vs. the certainty of over-dilution.

Good founders respond to this framework as it shifts the argument from one in which “winning” is about adding months of runway to the bank to one in which “winning” is fast and high quality execution - as evidenced by hitting milestones. It’s also easy to draw a straight line from this framing to the best companies. When a company raises a Series A nine months after launch - or Demo Day - with 80% of its seed funds in the bank, it’s apparent that those founders sold too much.[3]

A founder’s decision on how much money to raise in any given round is more art than science. It is a fraught decision since it necessarily forces founders to make predictions about the future. There is no perfect answer, and over-optimizing around any single factor is a mistake. However, it seems clear that shifting the goal of fundraising from adding runway to progress would limit both the amount of money companies believe they need and the dilution that founders take in the process of building successful startups.

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[1] And if this is true, investors will chase you anyway.

[2] Even during COVID. I did not expect this to be true, however, this market is one of the most active I've ever seen.

[3] Seeing this dynamic on a regular basis while running YC's Series A program is what led me to realize my mistake. Without fail, the founders raising the most competitive rounds have the most capital left, and thereby the most unnecessary dilution.

Thank you to Daniel Gackle and Michael Seibel for your thoughts and edits.

Asking questions

Small children are great at asking questions. Their questions are simple, direct, and utterly without ego. If you spend time with 2-5 year olds, you’ll find yourself answering a near infinite series of progressively more challenging questions. This is one of the main paths by which children learn about the world.

ex. Child question: “Why is the sky blue?”


Adults are generally bad at asking questions. Adult questions come with long preambles, caveats, and agendas. Adult questions don’t seem to be designed to learn about the world, they seem to be designed to avoid looking dumb.

ex. Adult question: “I know the sky isn’t actually blue, and that if I look up, I know there’s nothing between me and outer space except air and maybe some clouds. Beyond that, there’s outer space. Outer space is effectively black because there isn’t light. Yet the sky often, though not always, appears to be various shades of blue. What triggers that blue? Is it something about how light interacts with air? Or gravity? Magnetic fields?”

The contrast between child questions and adult questions is striking, but it isn’t a function of age, it’s a function of conditioning. At some point, children get social signals that asking questions makes them appear stupid. This can come from a frustrated parent, annoyed teacher, or mocking friend.

Kids internalize this feedback and start to ask fewer questions as they grow up. The scope of things about which adults ask questions get narrower and narrower, shying away from things that are new or hard to understand. At the same time, adult questions get longer and longer. Most of this length isn’t important for the question, it is meant to prevent the audience from thinking the questioner is stupid.

These questions aren’t terribly useful to either the questioner or the questionee. If you’re not sure what this type of question looks like, watch a congressional hearing. The questions are meant to prove points, not produce knowledge.

Adult questions reinforce their own badness. When an adult spends most of a question proving his own intelligence, the question doesn’t produce new knowledge. This reinforces the perception that questions aren’t worth practicing. Without that practice, the questions continue to get worse.

I’ve been thinking about questions because I noticed that I’ve become increasingly self conscious about not knowing things, and cover for that by asking adult questions. Some of this is a function of the fact that I’m older and some of it is a function of the fact that my job involves giving a significant amount of advice. I noticed, as well, that conversations in which I ask simpler questions are more enjoyable and more interesting. These conversations lead to new ideas and better plans.

I’m particularly conscious of this dynamic in conversations with founders. Many founders believe that adult questions are the best questions because of their interactions with investors. On the one hand, investors tell founders that asking questions is a good thing. On the other hand, founders are judged for asking questions that are “too basic.” Founders who do things without asking questions first are generally rewarded for being “fast” whereas those that ask some questions first are derided as being “slow.”

However, successful startups are not defined by the questions that a founder asks. They are defined by what a founder does with the information at hand, and how quickly. Founders who acquire new information quickly and act are more successful. Founders who dither or get caught in infinite loops of ignorant execution generally fail.

Founders and investors would have better conversations if each side dropped the pretense of needing to “look” smart and asked child questions. This isn’t a complex task, but it does require focus.

The way I’m working on this is to stop myself each time I’m about to ask a question and figure out what I actually want to know, and then see if I can just ask that specific question in no more than a single simple sentence. If the question does not produce a satisfying answer, I’ll try to understand if it is because I worded the question poorly, or did not provide enough context. If I need more context, I’ll add one or two sentences of context, and ask the question again.

This strategy does not always work: I don’t always catch myself in time, I sometimes ask poorly worded questions, sometimes the question requires more context than is practical. However, I’ve found that the act of thinking about the question I want to ask and examining it in this child/adult dichotomy has helped me ask better questions, have better conversations, and learn more things. That’s enough of a reason to continue doing it.