A relative analysis on the shape & size of Series A rounds for ‘accelerated’ startups
I was intrigued by the numbers recently released by Mattermark on accelerators share of the US Series A market (tl;dr c. 10% of all Series A are raised by graduates of the top 3 accelerators, Y Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups), so I did some digging to see what the situation is like over here in Europe.
The headline is that in 2016 18% of all European Series A rounds were raised by startups that at one point went through an accelerator or incubator programme.
This table has many more interesting numbers in it, which I will dissect below.
- 10x more rounds. The number of Series A rounds raised by accelerator graduates has increased more than 10-fold since 2012, from 6 to 61, while the rest of the A market ‘only’ grew by 2.8x over the same period;
- Bigger share of the volume pie. Series A rounds raised by accelerator graduates have taken a larger and larger share, trebling from 6% of all A rounds in 2012 to 18% in 2016. This year we can be pretty confident that at least 1 out of 5 Series A are of this type. Series A investors better show up at those demo days!;
- Bigger share of the dollar pie. Accelerator graduates have raised $456m worth of Series A rounds over the past 5 years, representing c. 8% of the total Series A capital raised over the same period, although that was 14% in 2016 and only 3% in 2012. So the pace of capital deployment is accelerating, literally;
- Smaller A rounds. The average Series A round size raised by accelerator graduates is consistently lower than that of non-graduates, with the average discount being c. 28% over the last 5 years ($3.6m vs $5.0m). It would be fascinating to have the data on how pre-money valuations (and thus dilution) compare between graduates and non-graduates. I would speculate that this discount can be attributed to either: a) adverse selection (i.e. the more confident, experienced and networked founders do not need an accelerator and/or are able to raise more capital); or b) once ‘accelerated’ a startups has less funding needs, having invested previous capital more wisely and achieved more with it;
- Less pre-A capital. The average amount of pre-Series A capital raised by accelerator graduates is 22% lower than that of their counterparts ($1.1m vs $1.4m). In other words, graduates get to a Series A more capital efficiently, ‘wasting’ less capital, or perhaps it is adverse selection at work again;
- More pre-A rounds. The average number of pre-Series A rounds for ‘accelerated’ startups is more than double the number of rounds than their counterparts require to get to a Series A event (1.5 vs 0.7). i.e. graduates needs an extra round to get to a Series A (which I guess is glaringly obvious if the acceleration is considered as a round per se);
- The A-crunch is real. Across the board it is very clear that the Series A bar has consistently risen, with the average amount of capital needed before getting to the A having increased 7x from $0.4m over 0.34 rounds in 2012, to $2.6m over 1.03 round in 2016.
While one can easily get stuck in it, it is always interesting to draw some comparisons to what is happening in the US, where in 2016 21% of all Series A rounds were accelerator graduates (so not too far from the 18% in Europe).
Other then the most obvious observation, such as that Series A rounds are generally larger in the US (just shy of 50% larger, whether or not the startup has been through an accelerator), it is interesting to note that:
- It appears hard to unlock a US Series A with less than $3m in pre-Series A funding, regardless of accelerators involvement;
- In Europe a Series A can happen with a lot less pre-Series A funding, particularly going though an accelerator which gets you there on about half the capital ($1.5m vs $3.1m) and fewer rounds (1.8 vs 2.3);
- The accelerator Series A ‘discount’ applies in similar fashion across the pond, with average size of Series A rounds 37% higher for non-accelerated startups in both US and Europe.
So overall, with various caveats, it seems clear that accelerators and incubators in Europe can be a very strong engine of Series A creation, just like they have been in the US.
Last night I was invited as a guest to a networking event, hosted by Tablecrowd and attended by about 20 people. The format is more intimate than other networking dues I get to attend, consisting of drinks, followed by a proper dinner, closing off with a quick speech by the guest and Q&A. Given most of the audience was made of entrepreneurs, I talked about what I look for in entrepreneurs.
— Caroline Sherrington (@sherringtoncj) November 30, 2015
Here is a quick summary of what I talked about.
When investing at the early stages of a company there are two factors that matter more than anything else in my view: people and market. So in evaluating investment opportunities, I end up spending the large majority of my time thinking about them.
The reason I am obsessed with people and market is that if you get one of them wrong, or worst you get both wrong, you have limited scope for manoeuvring. While a team may be able to fix a product, or improve unit economics, it’s incredibly disruptive to replace founders when an early stage business has 12–18 months of runway, and it’s obviously inconceivable to change a market. Of course a company can pivot to address a different audience, or to a new business model or pricing strategy, we often expect them to do so. It’s rare that a company successfully pivots to a different market. It can happen, but as an investor I’d rather not take that risk.
So, what do I look for in founders? The answer is very subjective, a different investor will have a very different answer to that question. I found the answers to the following three questions to be highly correlated to ultimate outcomes:
- Would I work for this founder(s)? I find that it’s almost always a great sign when I am tempted to drop everything and join them in their journey, regardless of what they are working on. It’s a way to set the bar very high. Founders I would have worked for all had similar traits:
- ability to inspire smart people to join by selling them a dream, a vision, and making it look achievable
- ability to lead employees towards realising that vision, with all that leadership entails (e.g. long term strategic thinking coupled with attention to details, delegation skills, hustle, relentlessness, honesty, trustworthiness, ethics etc )
- ability to raise capital, a necessary ingredient until the business is cashflow positive
- Does the founder posses proprietary knowledge? Does the founder know something that others don’t or does she understand something better than anyone else?
- The answer to this question often revolves around the founder’s personal history and what brought her to start that business in the first place. What I am looking for is an obsessive passion for solving a specific problem. Passion often derives from a deep, visceral understanding of the problem, the market, the customers. The stronger the passion, the more proprietary the knowledge.
- Passion is critical because when the going gets tough entrepreneurs only keep hustling through it if they are deeply passionate about what they are working on. That’s why I am typically less keen on what I would call a management-consultant approach to startup: a numerical exercise to picking an opportunity. Again, this is just a personal framework, there are plenty of successful founders who used that very approach.
- Are the founders working on a problem I understand? I need believe I can play a role in helping the founders achieve their vision, beyond just providing the capital. Have I got other investments in the space? Do I know people in my network who can help? Do I know potential customers?
What do I look for in a market? I have narrowed it down to three tests:
- Is the addressable market large enough to sustain at least a £50m revenue business in a capital efficient way and in a sensible time frame, without having to make absurd assumptions on long term market share? By absurd market share I generally mean > 10% and by sensible timeframe I mean 5-10 years. Again this is completely subjective and highly dependent on the size of the fund under management and stage of investing.
- Is the market addressable right now? Is the timing right? One can be too early, and with limited runway the market can “remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent” (J. M. Keynes); or too late, in which case it will take much more capital to catch up with the market leaders.
- Has the company got a good shot at becoming the market leader? The rationale behind this is that value tends to accrue disproportionately to the #1 in a market, so as a VC you really want to back the leader, rather than #2 or#3.
Last week I was kindly invited by Ross Bailey to participate in a panel at the Appear Here offices, featuring Mark Evans of Balderton, Russell Buckley of Ballpark Ventures and myself. Despite feeling outsmarted by two of the best in the business, the common denominator between us three was that we had all invested in Ross and Appear Here at different times and stages.
The idea of the session was to expose the entire Appear Here team to some of the strategic thinking that goes on between management and investors, which rarely makes it through all the ranks of a company, and at best gets ‘massaged’ down. It was also an opportunity for the team to ask us investors some difficult questions.
Interestingly, and unexpectedly for me, we ended up talking mostly about company culture. Ross has always been religious about it since the very early days of Appear Here, I know that because I got involved with Appear Here when it was just him and a few slides, so I have had the privilege to see the baby grow from its very early days: from his obsession with style, design, look & feel, to messaging, choice of words and, later on as growth kicked in, hiring, office layout, parties etc. Today the Appear Here culture transpires consistently across every single touch point with every stakeholder, from the website to the office to the employees.
It’s very hard to define what culture actually means for a company, it’s often not immediately tangible, it’s the result of multiple different things all contributing to it over time, and it’s often very hard, if not impossible, to quantify the monetary impact of having (or not having) one. There also is no widely accepted way of going about building one. What’s clear though is that some of the most successful companies out there happen to have a great company culture, unique and native to them, which has followed them consistently throughout the years. People tend to think these companies have a great culture because they have been successful, but it’s in fact often the very opposite: they have been successful because they have over-invested in building a culture from the early days, which helped them attract and retain the very best people.
It’s very clear from talking to people the other night, that everyone at Appear Here is absolutely delighted to work there, and they all seem to be working incredibly hard and passionately for that reason.
We also talked about a high profile startup, with scale and hundreds of employees by now, who is having a very hard time with culture at the moment. Its founder never really thought culture was a critical factor to its success, and as a result it was never treated as a priority over hard work, growth, processes and KPIs. Now that they have reached scale, they realised they have a problem and that its employees are complaining about the company culture (or the absence of it), and some (many) are leaving. They tried to react by injecting culture, almost artificially, but it does not seem to be working. Culture is not something you can turn on on tap, it’s something that matures with time. There are no shortcuts to it.
Appear Here never had a significant amount of funding until they raised their Series A from Balderton in November 2014, and yet they managed to create a strong culture from the early days, being scrappy, creative and resourceful.
As investor I often get dragged into over-analysing unit economics of a business, addressable market sizes, competitive landscape etc when culture, or the founders’ ability to create a culture that attracts and retains talent, is often the most determining success factor, certainly in the long term. The skill of spotting entrepreneurs that have that innate ability before it’s obvious cannot be learnt at school or from books, it only comes with years and years of experience. I’m still learning…