Asymmetries in Fundraising

Too often, founders approach fundraising as if they are supplicants to the investors. They understand that fundraising features many asymmetries, but the founders mostly see the asymmetries that are tilted towards the investors. Here’s the thing - in today’s market, the asymmetries largely favor the prepared founder.

This is a rough catalogue of the major asymmetries:[1]

  • Experience - The more fundraises someone sees, the more skilled they are in getting what they want.

  • Capital - This is what the investor has that the founder wants.

  • Ownership - This is what the founder has that the investor wants.

  • Speed - This is the pace at which the investment process moves.

  • Information - Data on how the business is faring. Particulars about the progress of the fundraise.

  • Price - How much the business is worth.

  • Emotion - A key element in any negotiation.

Near as I can tell, there is only one item on this list that is squarely in an individual investor’s column:

Experience

Simply put, it is an investor’s job to invest. This means she does it frequently, knows the language, the paths, the places to negotiate and relent. She has a better sense of where the market is and what tactics work on founders. The best investors use their experience at an intellectual level - to evaluate a deal and rapidly make a decision - and at an emotional level - to influence what deal a founder takes and when.

Even founders who have raised multiple rounds have not done as many as a good investor, or as that investor combined with her partners.[2]

Every other item on the list can be tilted to the founder’s advantage. This is what the best and most prepared founders do.

Capital/Ownership

It is true that the point of fundraising is to get capital. Investors have that capital, and founders do not. However, this does not actually mean that the investor has the advantage because the founder has something that the investor wants even more: ownership. This may seem purely psychological, but it is important.

Investors have more access to capital from LPs than they do to equity in great startups. This seems strange to most founders, because they have not internalized how abundant capital is in today’s market.

Founders who see this dynamic for what it is have a psychological advantage when pitching - they know that they are in control, which in turn creates confidence. An investor who believes that the equity she is trying to purchase will be worth 100x what it is today will move mountains of money to get that equity.

Speed

Most founders that are new to fundraising allow investors to control their fundraising timelines. They believe the investors who say “we need to meet once a month for six months to evaluate you” or “we only have investment committee meetings on Monday mornings between 9-11am PST.” Neither of these statements are true. In fact, there is no such thing as a required timeline or minimum time spent for an investor to issue a term sheet.

Founders can largely control the pace of their own fundraises by preparing the market of investors ahead of time. This means building the right relationships over the months preceding an active fundraise and executing a tight and coordinated process when the time to raise arrives. This also means that founders should plan fundraising activities around the natural rhythms of their businesses, the calendar, and their runways.

This is even true in the case of a “pre-empted” round - a round in which the investor offers a term sheet before the founder is “ready.” Some founders believe that they need to take a pre-emptive offer, but no one will force them to do so. The most prepared founders are, however, always ready for a term sheet because they have sets of relationships which they can use to check the market at any time. These founders also know whether or not a pre-emptive offer makes sense given the path of the business.

Information

There are three types of information that influence the path of any fundraise:

  • Information about the company

  • Information about the process of the fundraise

  • Information about the market in which the fundraise occurs

I’ve written about how founders can use information to their advantage in a fundraise ( https://www.ycombinator.com/library/3N-process-and-leverage-in-fundraising), so will just summarize the major points.

Founders should assume that all information they share about their company with an investor will be public and that it will always be used to evaluate an investment in the company. With this knowledge, founders can choose who sees what information and when, creating a dynamic where investors are always pressing for more. This is a clear advantage for the founder because it allows him to control the pace of the process and manage the excitement of the investor.

Information about the process works similarly. The only person that actually knows what’s happening in a fundraise is the founder, provided the founder is paying attention. Founders should release information about meeting cadences, offers, term sheets, etc. when they choose to, and not simply when asked.[3]

The final type of information, market data, generally favors the investor. This is relevant because it informs what terms are good/bad. However, founders can significantly decrease this imbalance by talking to other good founders or to advisers who see many rounds at any given time. Price is a subset of this information set.

Emotion

There are many emotions involved in fundraising. Investors are able to approach a raise with emotional detachment since, for them, the raise is just one in a series of business transactions.[4] Founders generally experience far more emotional range and depth during a raise since their companies are extensions of themselves. While, to some extent, business is business...it isn’t.

Rather than try to balance this one, it is useful to recognize that there are emotional games played on both sides. Founders should be aware that investors work hard to get founders to “fall in love” or to believe that there are (morally) right and wrong decisions on picking a capital provider. This isn’t actually true. Investors who lose deals may be upset, but they move on. Founders who negotiate hard aren’t hurting the feelings of investors - and the same should be true in the other direction.[5]

Some of the emotions investors leverage to win deals:

  • Guilt: “Look how long we’ve known each other! Look how much I’ve done for you! Isn’t that worth something?

  • Fear: “If you don’t pick us, we will fund your competitor and grind you into dust.”

  • Greed: “Don’t you want to be rich? I’ll make you rich.”

  • Inferiority: “You’d have to be stupid not to work with us. This is an intelligence test. Don’t fail the intelligence test.”

There are more, but this is a reasonable catalogue of the ones I see most often.

The key thing to understand about asymmetries in fundraising is that they most disadvantage founders who are unprepared. I’ve always thought that Sequoia’s focus on the “prepared mind” was a useful model for approaching a consequential decision.

To the investor, a prepared mind means having the right frameworks and knowledge to evaluate an opportunity and most effectively and quickly move to take advantage of it. To the founder, a prepared mind follows the same model, but the opportunity set is different. Founders don’t need to be prepared to evaluate their business, they need to be prepared to run a fundraising process with knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses, of leverage points and norms, of asymmetries and of ways to utilize or mitigate them. There’s never going to be a perfectly even interaction between two people. That’s only a problem if you were expecting it to be.

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[1] For the purposes of this essay, I’m not going to address asymmetries of power resulting from the personal attributes of either founders or investors. These are critically important dimensions of fundraising, but are so nuanced that I only feel comfortable addressing them directly with founders vs. in this fixed essay form.

[2] This is, admittedly, not true for a brand new investor at a brand new firm putting money into a seasoned founder, but I’m going to ignore that for the sake of argument.

[3] The way in which a founder releases information - who, when, how much - is a topic for an entire tactical essay.

[4] This isn’t to say that all investors actually do approach fundraises with emotional detachment, just that they should be able to do so more easily than founders.

[5] Adora Cheung’s advice here is that founders should find their peak toughness while negotiating with investors. This is a perfect framing - tough doesn’t mean being a jerk or unfair or amoral, it means knowing and pressing your advantages.


Thanks to Adora Cheung and Janelle Tam for helping me write this.

Unbundled Capital

The way we talk about fundraising is wrong. Specifically, I don’t think that founders sell equity when they raise money. It’s the other way around - founders use their equity to buy capital from investors.[1]

Investors know this, which is why they spend so much time and money on marketing.  That marketing makes it clear that money isn’t enough to win deals, at least not the competitive ones. Investors make a big fuss about their ability to advise companies, their ability to help companies hire, and their ability to help companies raise future funding rounds. These capabilities can all be real, but, if a founder is valuing any of these items as worth more than 0, then each is worth some amount of equity.

Think about it this way: if all the founder needed was cash, then the smart thing to do would be to optimize for the least dilution to get the money needed. If the founder needs cash + advice, then the founder should figure how much dilution he needs for the cash, and how much dilution for the advice. The founder would keep doing this until he’d assembled all the required capital and services to grow the company.

For instance, the founder could say “In this next round, I need to buy capital, a brand, a board member, and help with the next round. I’m willing to spend 14% of my equity on the capital, 2% on the brand 2% for the board member and 1% on help with the next round. That means I’ll sell 20% of my company in this financing.” Founders are doing this implicitly when they pick a given investor over another because of “brand,” but it should be explicit.

This calculation will change for different founders at different stages. An experienced founder may not need help from a board member or care about the investor’s brand. This founder may decide she only needs capital, which is worth 12% of her company. That’s all she should sell in the round.

A less experienced founder that knows her next round is likely to be difficult may put a premium on the brand of the investor and the investor’s ability to help pull a round together. If each of these is worth 3%, and the market price of the cash is 15%, then the dilution on the round is 21%.

Once you reframe the fundraising transaction this way, the current model breaks down. The natural next question is to ask why any of these elements should be combined inside of a given investor in the first place. Founders should unbundle these items. This would have been extremely difficult in the past, but the market has evolved. There are now specialists at each of the things that the founder may need from outside parties. These specialists do not necessarily work as VCs. Founders should be able to pick and choose the best of each of these specialists at the best price, rather than averaging them out just to buy some dollars from an investor.

This is the fourth 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 (The first three are https://blog.aaronkharris.com/abundant-capital, https://blog.aaronkharris.com/distributed-capital and https://blog.aaronkharris.com/conflicted-capital). If you are wondering how this dynamic impacts your company, please reach out at [email protected]

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[1] All transactions are bidirectional, but founders use their abundant resource - equity - to buy scarce resources - mainly cash.


Conflicted Capital

I’ve spent a long time wrestling with how to advise founders about investors and the conflicts of interest generated by opposing incentives.[1] These considerations are especially important when a founder thinks about fundraising. The founder needs to figure out how to treat internals, how to balance the incentives of those internals with new investors, how to assess the various conflicts that might arise and the likelihood of those conflicts. This is exhausting and seemingly unavoidable.

Part of the analysis here is to figure out what to do with investor attestations to being the most “founder friendly,” as if this term is a talisman. Investors hold up their hiring prowess, willingness to grant extraordinary voting powers, secondary offers, etc to show how they are friendlier than everyone else. Unfortunately, no amount of upfront promises can make up for the fact that investors are definitionally conflicted with founders any time the financial interest of the LP diverges from the founder.

This conflict doesn’t make investors bad or immoral. In fact, the vast majority of the investors I’ve met, even those that have fired founders, are good people. It’s deeper than that, even. Investors mostly want to do the right thing for founders. There are emotional and business reasons for this impulse, but ultimately the fiduciary responsibility has to win. Founders need to understand that venture investing is a business where friendship is an input or an outcome, and not the other way around.

Rather than trying to tease apart every instance at which investors and founders might find their incentives misaligned, I think it would be helpful to focus on one particular divergence since it seems to surprise founders every time. This scenario plays out every time a company raises a round that an internal investor could lead. This means that the company has a multistage investor on the cap table which has the capital and mandate to lead the round in progress.

This type of conflict used to be rare, but it seems to be popping up in every round I see. Ever larger numbers of VC funds are now multi-stage, which means they generate internal conflicts at any round they want to lead. Many angels now have sidelines in running SPVs,[2] which makes them multi-stage investors with the same type of conflict as the VC. Finally, given how closely rounds now follow one another for hot companies, the time in which an investor can think about something other than her position for the next round has shrunk. Every interaction a founder has with an investor is colored by this dynamic.

To name the incentives for the founder at fundraise:

  • Least distracting process

  • Best possible terms

  • Best possible partner for building a large company

  • Balanced cap table

  • Not piss off the internals[3]

To name the incentives for the investor at fundraise:

  • If the belief is that the company is a future $100B behemoth

    • Lead the round and build ownership

    • At lowest price possible to win

  • If the belief is that the company is good not great

    • Lead the round if the price is right

    • Maintain ownership

  • If the belief is that the company is not good

    • Help the round get done by someone else to preserve brand

    • Maintain most ownership in case the company surprises to the upside

Many founders approach internals at the very start of a new fundraise, which allows the internal investor to choose first. This gives the investor significant leverage in any resulting negotiation. The investor’s decision also sends a signal to the rest of the market about the company’s prospects, which could sour a fundraise.[4] In this scenario, the founder needs to treat the investor like Schroedinger’s cat - keep the investor in the dark about the fundraise until such time as the founder wants information to leak.

This is a tricky dynamic since the internal investor often has information rights, probably wants to be helpful, but does want an early look at the deal. However, the best thing for the company would be a clean and competitive process. The “founder friendly” move here would actually be for the conflicted internal to proactively recuse himself from the fundraising conversations until explicitly invited in by the founder. This is unlikely to happen.

Instead, a founder needs to take control of the fundraising process even before talking to internal investors.[5] I generally advise founders to do something along the following lines:

  1. In the months leading up to a fundraise, create touch points with likely future leads, i.e. coffee meetings. At the very least, this gives the founder a group of investors that can be activated when necessary. In the best case, this can lead to pre-emptive offers.

  2. When the founder determines that the company is ready to raise, the founder needs to prepare a deck, practice a pitch, and decide which funds and partners are top choices.

  3. Once the founder has that set together, start scheduling initial meetings with external investors. 

  4. Once those meetings are on the calendar, approach the internals and say “Ok, we’ve got strong interest for an A, and are going to run a process, we’d love for you to take the lead here. Can we set up a formal meeting?”

    1. If the investor declines the meeting and says “we’re not interested in investing at this time,” then the founder and investor need to figure out a narrative for the rest of the world about why the investor is passing. This is unlikely to happen without first having a meeting.

    2. If the investor is interested, she’ll often ask to meet in order to “practice the pitch.” The founder should decline a practice meeting and push for a formal partnership meeting, citing the process and desire to not waste the investor’s time with a “practice” pitch.[6]

  5. Run the process.

To be sure, there are significant nuances in running a process under these circumstances. Founders would do well to have an unconflicted third party with significant experience here to ask for advice on the evolving dynamics. Barring that, remember that an awful lot of awkwardness can be smoothed over by simply being polite.

This is the third 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 (The first two are https://blog.aaronkharris.com/abundant-capital and https://blog.aaronkharris.com/distributed-capital). If you are wondering how this dynamic impacts your company, please reach out at [email protected]

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[1] https://blog.aaronkharris.com/investors-and-their-incentives

[2] Special Purpose Vehicle - basically an insta-fund that has a single position.

[3] There are quite a few ways to piss off the internals. The founder could take an outside offer at the same or lower price than the insider’s offer. The founder could refuse to grant super pro rata. The founder may need to renegotiate pro rata. All of these present potential problems and are even more stressful if the internal is also a board member.

[4] https://www.ycombinator.com/library/3N-process-and-leverage-in-fundraising.

[5] This principle holds at every round, but becomes more complicated once a company has a formal board. Founders should not actively hide information from the board, but do need to hold board members at arms length when appropriate. The nuance in how this is done is tricky and varies depending on the situation.

[6]There are quite a few tactical paths at this point that can only be solved with sufficient context.


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.