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You Don’t Need to Fundraise - As told by a venture capitalist

Entrepreneurship comes in all colors and flavors. Not every business has to raise US$20 billion dollars from visionary funds. There are plenty of impactful, sustainable, and large companies that are changing people’s lives without venture funding. Before listing a few of these businesses, let me explain my thought process.

Disclaimer: I work at an early stage venture fund, Fresco Capital. We meet with about 1,500 companies annually.

Now that’s out of the way: in this column, we will go over what kind of companies should raise from venture capitalists (VCs), from a nerdy VC’s point of view. We will then touch on companies that never raised from VCs, but are incredibly successful.

First, we have to understand a notable key performance indicator (KPI) for venture funds: multiples. It’s the number of times the initial injection of capital multiplies over the investment’s lifetime, and on a more macro level — the multiple of the total portfolio. VCs look at multiples because startups are risky investments.

The second definition we have to understand is the impairment ratio, or the total amount of capital in investments valued below their initial investment value. In a typical venture portfolio, one-third will generate zero return, one-third will generate one time the return, and the remaining one-third will–by necessity–generate most of the return, making your impairment ratio around 50%.

Having identified two notable components that make up the venture framework, we can now create a hypothetical scenario:

Your fund, Future Fund II, has $100 million to invest. Your limited partners (LPs), or investors that give investors money, expect you to generate three times the return on their commitment ($300 million) by year ten. As a fund manager, you decide to make ten investments. A third of those investments generate no return, so that’s $33 million gone. A third return their initial investment —you have $33 million in the bank, great. Now, you have to generate $267 million with the remaining $33 million, which is more than eight times your initial investment.

Let’s take a closer look at those remaining three companies. With a $10 million investment, you might get about 20% of the company–that is if all goes well. Considering this 20% ownership, you would need the combined valuation of the companies to be $1.3 billion to return enough capital to your fund, so you hit that target for your LPs.

If one of those companies is valued above $1 billion–that’s unicorn status. There are about 300 million companies out there. Only 325 are unicorns. Building one is super difficult, and getting to invest in one is almost as difficult. Thus, VCs have to find companies and founders that fit a profile. Not every business will or needs to grow as explosively as the startups VCs are looking for. Every founder must ask themselves whether they want to go through this journey–although it is fulfilling, too.

Now you may be thinking: companies that don’t fundraise are non-tech, non-scalable, or small. However, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth, as you’ll see with the following examples.

Shutterstock: Jon Oringer was a professional software developer and amateur photographer. His skill set and the company’s capital efficiency meant he didn’t need to add as much outside talent or raise funds early on. It helped that he had a head start with 30,000 images when he launched the stock photo service, which is currently worth $2 billion.

Ikea:  Ingvar Kamprad founded the company as a mail-order home furnishings business, and he became an expert in flat furniture. This competency became Ikea’s core selling point. The first store opened in Almhult, Sweden, and the company–due to its operating revenue–has never raised external equity funding to this day (and it’s not even listed).

MailChimp: Co-founder and CEO Ben Chestnut was running a design consultancy and had a number of clients who were looking for email newsletters, but few designers provided this service. He and his friends started MailChimp as a side business, which became a $400 million company 18 years later.

Lynda: Lynda Weinman was teaching web design in the 1990s, before it was cool, and saw a gap in the market. Textbooks were boring, so she began recording short videos to help teach her students. She meticulously built out her content platform and was rewarded with a $1.5 billion acquisition by LinkedIn.

PluralSight: CEO Aaron Skonnard bootstrapped and steadily built out a content platform that covered everything a software developer would need, from C++ to Javascript to Ruby-on-Rails. The company went public for $2 billion last year after almost nine years of operation.

Unity: David Helgason wanted to democratize game development and allow game developers to reach the biggest audience possible. He achieved this by focusing on cross-platform compatibility and ease-of-use. Founded in 2004, Unity only raised a round five years later, and is now valued at over $1.5 billion and loved by game developers everywhere.

There are many more examples of successful businesses that required little to no venture capital to get to where they are. The profile of a company looking to fundraise is clear, whether one needs it or not is usually the bigger question.

Startup culture has ingrained this notion that fundraising is the be-all and end-all of building a company. However, founders should not allow the dollar to distort why entrepreneurialism exists, and realize the ability to scale always goes back to the product and the value it provides.

(Source: JUMPSTART July 2019 Issue 25)

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