Over the past 9 months, we have screened thousands of companies, had introductory meetings with about 200 founders, and conducted deep due diligence on about a dozen. Whether we’re doing a full dive into a company’s history, projections, and vision, or just having a quick chat about short-term goals, one topic that almost always comes up is the alignment of entrepreneurs’ operating strategy with a thoughtful and defined capital strategy.
We have been repeatedly surprised by how few entrepreneurs see capital as a strategic activity. Raising money for the vast majority of entrepreneurs we encounter (even some really excellent operators) is a glorified form of securing what may be referred to as allowance money. VCs are pseudo-parents, there for the asking in order to get cash in one’s pocket!
But, venture capital functions so very differently from merely being money in the bank. And trouble will brew if it’s not seen in its full utility.
The benefits of a sound capital strategy are numerous. For one, disciplined management of optimal cash resources allows founders to foresee operating pitfalls that may have otherwise gone unnoticed for months. This attention to strategy and capital needs provides founders with the tools to adapt and make adjustments in a timely manner. Beyond merely ensuring the survival of the company, a sound capital strategy maximizes a company’s leverage in subsequent financings. Planned and controlled runway is a strength that will be rewarded in higher valuations and dollars raised. A position of strength and operating integrity will be created through an optimal capital strategy.
While the benefits of an optimal capital strategy may be somewhat obvious, the mechanics of actually building it are less so. Let’s start with the numbers. Operating a startup is like navigating through a jungle Tarzan-style. The entrepreneur swings from one milestone vine to another in order to progress toward scale and sustainability. Swinging too far or not far enough is dangerous.
As such, clearly defined milestones must inform the raise amount. In nearly all cases, the amount of capital raised should lead to either the next round of financing or profitability within a given time frame. A raise amount should not merely allow for X months of runway. To determine this optimal round amount, build a financial model that granularly accounts for the drivers and variables of both revenue streams and costs, making sure to factor in some leeway/optionality. It is often helpful to have 2-3 different scenarios modeled with varying round amounts, hiring plans, and sales projections to truly understand what can be ramped up or slowed down. Use this information to raise optimal cash that tightly supports the execution vision in month-to-month detail.
After mastering these numbers, the next earnest consideration is the investment partners. Much has been written on the topic of choosing “value-add investors”, but the point remains: as hard, long, and disheartening as fundraising may be, putting in the sweat to secure VCs and strategic investors that contribute their networks and expertise to your company is immeasurably more worthwhile than settling for the low-hanging fruit of funding simply for the sake of moving on. Choose your partners wisely. Do your due diligence. As we always tell the founders we meet with, ask a VC’s portfolio companies what working with them is like, not just when things are going well but especially when they aren’t. A strong investor network, in combination with a solid Board of Directors (more on that in our next blog), can make or break a company.
In addition to the right partners and the right capital, founders also need to be mindful of capital structure itself. Some of the elements to keep in mind are below:
Number of investors (both individuals and entities) -- having a cluttered cap table with dozens of investors can become a logistical nightmare regarding updates, information requests, and general communication. While the diversity of perspectives that comes with a varied investor base is valuable, there is an inflection point after which the utility of numbers begins to decline.
Investment vehicles -- venture rounds can come in all shapes and permutations, with combinations of notes, SAFEs, preferred equity, common stock, etc. Though notes are often touted as being simpler to structure and execute, this is not necessarily true for early stage rounds; term sheets are quite vanilla and can be done comparably quickly and inexpensively. For everyone’s benefit, keep structure as simple as possible. Particularly avoid stacked notes with varying caps that reduce transparency for both founders and investors alike. Fred Wilson’s post on Convertible and Safe Notes adds additional color.
Terms -- in line with the previous bullet, again, keep terms as simple as possible. Atypical preferences, ratchets, etc. have no place in early stage financings. Brad Feld’s timeless Term Sheet Series is a fantastic resource for those unsure of what to expect or avoid.
Often, we use a “clean cap table” as a proxy for a deliberate capital structure: if the above is done correctly, a neat cap table will reflect it. If prior financings were suboptimal and unnecessarily complex, a new round is the perfect time to reset the overall strategic direction, as a mess of a cap table is often a deterrent of future investment interest.
Finally, make sure that the capital strategy leaves the founders with enough skin in the game to want to play. Nothing makes us as investors more miserable than seeing founders crammed down into a miniscule amount of equity that will require nothing short of a miraculous exit for the venture to have been worth their while.
Applying strategic thought to capital, rather than treating it as a temporary, painful and necessary evil, will pay off in building a sustainable venture. With some luck, you may even find the ordeal rewarding.