Facing facts can be tough, but it’s something every pragmatic founder and CEO has to do. One such fact is that venture funding is slowing down. All deals have become tougher to do. While early stage deals like seed or Series A are still getting done, later stage deals are experiencing a much more challenging time securing capital. This is true in Austin and mirrors what’s happening on the two coasts due to global economic climates. It won’t stay that way forever, but for founders and business leaders trying to make it in today’s competitive Austin landscape, the important thing is to not panic. Beyond that, there are very practical measures for those leaders to take and (un)conventional pieces of wisdom for them to internalize that will help their companies weather the storm.
Realize that good companies will still get funded.
A slowdown doesn’t mean that funding sources dry up or that VCs stop making investments altogether; it just means they have to be more judicious with their money, rigorous in their vetting process and more confident about where they deploy capital. The fund dollars still exist and need to be invested, but VCs want to preserve capital to support the best companies. In an uncertain climate, companies with less traction, fewer proof points and less experienced teams will struggle greatly, whereas investors may be more willing to take a chance when the environment is more stable. If you have an idea for a company that solves a real business problem paired with a sound, provable strategy for sustainable growth and delivering value, you’ll be just fine.
Recognize that customers are KING.
Customer traction is always critical. However, during a downturn, VCs are going to want to see more hard evidence before they’re willing to make an investment. This doesn’t necessarily equate to needing significant revenue out of the gate, but it does mean you must know your target customer, have closed deals and retain reference customers. That said, resist the urge to sell to anyone who will buy. Just having logos isn’t always a good thing, as it distracts from your focus, product strategy, etc. Focus your market, acquire the right customers and make them incredibly successful. Part of our culture at Datical includes “delighted customers.” This is critical. VCs understand that repeatability and scale will come from early customer success. Demonstrate traction in your market, be able to articulate the overall value of your market, and you’ll have the attention of capital sources.
Build and manage to your business plan. (Also known as: Closely manage CASH.)
While it’s true that young, growing companies are agile and need to react quickly, sometimes that becomes an excuse to not manage to a tight business plan. A business plan isn’t just a budget. It states where you are going to invest, what you will and will not spend, how much you need to sell, and other financial forecasts you must stick to. It forces you and the team to make decisions and manage to those decisions. Too often, I’ve seen leaders assume that “the next round will be there.” In this environment, you should assume this round might be the last round. Do you know your customer acquisition costs, how many deals you will close, your sales rep productivity and churn rate assumptions? You must demonstrate competence here to secure capital and then manage that cash carefully, especially through the next 18 months when follow-on capital is going to be hard to come by.
Understand that the team is always important.
The right team makes all the difference. That doesn’t change during a downturn. VCs know that the right team significantly reduces risk in a deal, which helps secure capital during these challenging times. Be very “self-critical” about your team. If you have gaps, make the tough decisions and build a leadership team that VCs will want to invest in now and in the future. Be open to VCs’ feedback on yourself and the team.
Know how much.
I’m often asked the question, “How much money should I get?” The reality is, it depends. I believe you have to secure sufficient capital to run your business without making every decision based upon cash constraints. Secondly, resist the urge to “always be raising money.” “Always be building your business” and the capital will take care of itself. That said, think about the environment right now and work to lock down sufficient capital for the next 18 months. Personally, I don’t think the climate is going to be friendly for follow-on deals through 2017, unless your company is a rocket ship. Get the capital, run your business and ensure you make it through this period without depending upon another round.
Find the right partner, even if it means looking past the dollar signs.
Not all dollars are created equal. While getting capital is more challenging, you still need to be selective about who you allow to invest. The right partner can add value well beyond capital. The opposite is completely true as well. Be clear about how much money you truly need, for what purpose and where you plan to be when you need more money. You must think about the next realistic round of capital when negotiating your current funding to guarantee you don’t limit your options. This is one key aspect of picking the right VC. Are they aligned with your strategy and the plan for the next round further down the road? As a board member and trusted advisor, strategically-selected investors can add great value to building your company beyond providing money for money’s sake. Do your due diligence when taking an investment to ensure the people behind it really do add value in terms of experience, connections and follow-on support for capital.
Austin startups are going to be just fine, at least the ones that are founded on good ideas, have built the right teams, focus on their market and customer acquisition, have done their math homework, and are actively looking for the right investment partner rather than chasing the biggest check. A last word of caution: Securing an investment always takes longer than you think it will. In this environment, it will take even longer. Ensure you are running your business accordingly TODAY. The capital is still there; just realize that the playing field is (and will continue to be) tougher than it has been the last few years.