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Early Stage VCs — Be Careful Out There

By Brad Feld, Originally published at Feld Thoughts.

In addition to our own funds, we are investors in a number of other early-stage VC funds as part of our Foundry Group Next strategy. Yesterday, in one of the quarterly updates that we get, I saw the following paragraph.

“Historically, the $10 million valuation mark has been somewhat of a ceiling for seed stage startups. But so far this year, we’ve seen that a number of companies, often times with nothing more than a team and a Powerpoint presentation, have had great success raising capital north of that $10 million level. Furthermore, round sizes continue to tick up, with many seed rounds now in the $2.5 million to $4.0 million range.”

We are seeing this also and have been talking about it internally, so it prompted me to say something about it.

I view this is a significant negative indicator.

It has happened only one other time in my investing career — in 1999. I remember when, in a period of about six months, the ceiling on seed financings vanished. It wasn’t the uncapped note phenomenon (which seems to have come and gone for the most part), but instead, it was seed rounds of $5m — $10m at $40m pre-money.

In some cases, these rounds were with experienced founders who had previously had a success and could dictate terms. VCs rationalized it as “skipping the seed round” even though there literally was nothing to show yet except an idea.

In this six month period, the need for an experienced founder vanished. Suddenly every company was raising a seed financing of at least $5m, regardless of the experience of the team. In many cases, these rounds were pre-vaporware — just an assertion about what business they were going to create.

For anyone that remembers 2000–2003, this obviously ended badly. By 2002 investments at the seed level had evaporated (there were almost no seed financings happening). In 2003 the angels started to reappear (some of the best angel deals of all time were done between 2004 and 2007) and the super angel language started to be used around 2007.

All the experienced finance people I know talk regularly about cycles. If you believe in cycles, this one feels pretty predictable. Of course, there is an opportunity in every part of the cycle. But, be careful out there.

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