VCs are Scared When They Should be Greedy

I originally wrote this essay for The Information, where it was published on July 6, 2022.

I've read a lot of the advice that venture capitalists have given founders on the current state of the markets. Most of that advice focuses on how founders need to adjust to survive the deteriorating conditions—cutting cash burn by firing underperforming employees, slowing hiring, shrinking marketing budgets and so on. But this advice is only half the story.

Founders cannot afford to simply survive. They need to build companies that attract investment. That may seem impossible right now while the  markets are collapsing, but venture capitalists still have billions of dollars sitting in just-raised funds that they need to invest. With the exception of crossover funds that have lost massive amounts of money and are nervous about losing limited partners, smart investors are not winding down new funds or reducing fees—they’re taking meetings with founders. For VCs, now is a great time to find deals.

There’s never been more cash available for startups, but the people holding that cash (investors) are telling founders there’s no money available for investing. Founders need to understand the logic behind this contradiction and how to operate within it, because rapidly growing companies still (usually) need to raise capital to build their businesses.

The fact that the markets are bad doesn’t mean founders get to hide. The opposite is likely true—when markets are bad, the best founders will find ways to raise the capital they need to exit the turmoil in a dominant position. And if history is any guide, it is precisely during this downturn that we’ll see the emergence of a new class of tech powerhouses.

Let’s be clear: The current situation is entirely different from the market routs of 2000, 2008 or 2020.

In 2000, the Nasdaq superheated due to the large number of companies that skyrocketed into the public markets fueled by fanciful metrics disengaged from revenue. When that bubble burst, it did so because it became clear, almost all at once, that a lot of the emperors had no clothes…or business models. Critically, the venture market at the time was tiny relative to today’s ecosystem.

Then came 2008, when I got to watch the market collapse from the relatively safe vantage point of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. When the mortgage-backed security market went bust, investors realized they had no idea what they were actually holding or what those holdings were worth, and didn’t know who they could trust to tell them. As the damage rippled outward, it triggered the implosion of multiple major financial institutions. The full impact of those collapses was difficult to understand because of the tangled web of leverage and counterparty agreements that made the financial system run…which is also what caused it to collapse.

Then came the coronavirus-related market shock of 2020. That was a strange one. It felt like the start of a war. For about a month, everyone assumed the absolute worst. And then the markets—public, private and everything in between—went nuts. New initial public offerings flooded the market and share prices jumped 100% in their first days of trading, while private companies raised ever larger private rounds from investors afraid to miss the next $100 billion company. This flywheel kept running until sometime around the beginning of this year, when it all ground down to a halt.

The basic logic of this slowdown is uncertainty. Growth is slowing, and we may be headed for a recession. At the same time, the Federal Reserve Board is hiking interest rates to try to control inflation. When interest rates go up, venture capitalists have to adjust the models they use to value portfolio companies. These models are designed to produce a current value for future cash flows. The interest rate is used to discount the value of those cash flows, so for tech companies—for whom most of the cash flow is far into the future—small interest rate changes produce huge changes in value. The faster this happens, or the more uncertainty there is, the more chaos there is around pricing.

Here’s what isn’t uncertain: whether investors are suddenly going to run out of money. In fact, the opposite is true. Venture capitalists are sitting on more cash than they’ve ever had. Sure, some of them are scared because they might not see much of a return on their most recent deals, and general partners are also feeling queasy about just how much their public stock portfolios have pulled back. But those are temporary conditions. In contrast with the scenario in 2000, most of today’s tech companies are real businesses. They’re simply carrying extremely rich valuations based on a worldview that suddenly looks outdated. It’s only a matter of time before investors shake off their fear and start doing deals again.

True, a few things need to happen before venture capitalists loosen their grip on their wallets again. First, some of their portfolio companies now either have new capital needs or are suddenly willing to take dilution to create a larger margin of safety going forward. That will take more of investors’ capital reserves than they may have initially planned, and it will for sure eat into the capital they have available for new deals, which will make them hesitate. This is, however, a finite exercise. Once venture capitalists have done the math on how much they need to hold back, they’ll know how much they can deploy. While there may be less money available than six months ago, the overall pie is so much bigger than it used to be that this shouldn’t actually matter.

The next thing investors have to worry about is how to price deals. This strikes me as a bit funny because there has never been a science to pricing a venture deal. That said, fear is contagious, and no matter how distant the connection is between public market pricing and private market investing, it works its way back, like so:

  1. The public market investor gets hammered.
  2. The crossover investor sees that, gets scared and becomes unsure how to price a deal.
  3. The late-stage investor sees fear in the crossover investor, the early-stage investor sees fear in the late-stage investor, and suddenly everyone is scared…
  4. …except seed investors, who have always been buying lottery tickets and are likely to keep on gambling.

For this backlog to clear, individual investors need to see someone go first. A venture capitalist won’t lose their job by sitting on the sidelines and tweeting about fiscal responsibility, but they certainly could by sending a term sheet for a company that quickly does a down round.

This is where founders need to get smart. Investors know that the general market paralysis gives them—for the time being, at least—more leverage and more time than they’ve enjoyed in quite a while. A founder willing to play into an investor’s need for certainty is a founder that’s going to come away with a deal.

That means, above all, planning for the worst—not simply figuring out a way for their business to limp along indefinitely, but rather understanding how much they can grow and how long they can last with the cash they have on hand.

Once founders have a sense of that, they need to invest more heavily in their relationships with investors. This has always been important, and now it is even more so. Early-stage investing is as much an emotional decision as it is a rational economic one. Investors are more likely to back founders they know and trust, people they’ve seen execute over time. Founders who work with this dynamic will be better positioned to raise capital when they need it.

That said, founders also need to lower their expectations—about the amount of money they can raise, the price at which they can do it and the amount of time they’ll need to complete a round. Rounds are going to occur further apart, and fundraising processes are going to take longer to complete until the market changes again. And make no mistake, the market will change again, because that’s how cycles work. They go down, they go up.

Despite the doom and gloom, there’s money available for good startups who tell good stories to good investors. That’s harder to do now than it was, but it may also lead to bigger and better things. Fundraising has never been a sure thing. It just felt that way based on the press coverage and the stories you probably heard from other founders. The current market is just reminding us of that.