Get the popcorn and soup up your resume: 60% of Unicorns need more capital in three quarters
We all know peak venture capital, peak unicorn, peak mega-deal was around the third quarter of last year.
We all know this quarter has been one of the worst for IPOs since the dot com bust.
We all know that mutual funds-- one of many sources of late stage capital in recent years-- have marked down many of their investments.
But because so much of the capital-- some $90 billion to be precise-- is sitting in private companies waiting to go public, that’s about all we know. We don’t know how aggressively entrepreneurs have cut burn rates. We don’t know how many of the mega rounds closed last year were for the purposes of providing 18 months of runway just in case, versus making crazy gambles on market expansion, paid growth, or some ill-guided Chinese strategy.
In theory, every unicorn should have enough capital to make it. But many VCs warn that today’s entrepreneurs have never been in a time where A) everyone wasn’t predicting a bubble bursting and B) there wasn’t ready availability of capital. Most entrepreneurs assume a down round is their worst case scenario, not that there’s no more capital anywhere.
If WeWork’s third mega-deal in some 18 months at a 60% higher valuation is any indication, some sources of foreign capital are still investing like it’s 2015. It remains to be seen who else-- if anyone-- may join that round.
We had the explosion of Zenefits, some non-company-ending bad news at DoorDash… and that was about it.
So when do we get an answer? CB Insights says sometime in the next 90 days. In the US, some 40% -- some 40 individual companies-- need to raise capital by the end of the year. That means fundraising is likely starting now. Fifteen need to raise in the second quarter.
See if you can spot your company’s logo below:
CB Insights came to this by looking at how frequently companies were raising rounds, which may not be a great indicator across the board. While companies like Uber are spending billions as quickly as they are raising them, some companies may have backed up the truck while the getting was good last year, hoping to have a warchest for an impending nuclear winter. Put another way: 2015’s mega deals may have been done as much out of caution as out of daily cash flow needs.
But assuming the methodology is good that gives a lot of companies who employ thousands of people three options: Acquisition, IPO or another late stage round, likely at a lower price. Astoundingly, for all the talk of “tourists” leaving the late stage funding market, the third is likely the “easiest.” Acquirers are all waiting to see if a lack of IPOs and any contraction of late stage funding will drive down prices. No one wants to do this market’s version of the AOL Time Warner deal. Unless a property is going to spark a bidding war, these companies hold all the power.
You have slightly more control with going public, but not much. There’s a reason almost no one has gone so far this year. Going public for a lower valuation can have real consequences on the value of employees shares. That gives companies two lousy choices: Stretch for a higher valuation and risk a lousy IPO that weighs on a company’s image and employees’ morale or go public for a lower price and risk downside protections kicking in that also impact any value of employees’ options-- again-- weighing on morale. An IPO is supposed to be a celebration and a reward for all the hard work thus far. Not a depressing realization that your shares weren’t worth that much after all.
CB Insights maintains that deals not getting done in the next nine months is the only sign of what people have been saying for some ten years: That we were in a bubble and it’s popped. I think it’s more complex than that, and subscribe more to the view that air has been escaping from a balloon over the last five months or so, it’s a matter of whether someone “re-ties” the balloon at some point or it just flies all over the room until it’s depleted. It took us a long time to get into this overheated market, and I don’t think there’s a single moment when it explodes. We called the top at the end of the second quarter-- ironically at Zenefits last major over-heated round. We may have picked the most over-valued unicorn, but we were off by a few months. Look at the market for exits and decline in deals since: If that’s not the beginning of the correction, I don’t know what would be.
But whatever your metaphor of choice, the next nine months will show us how disciplined this crop of entrepreneurs really are. A strategy of throwing money at the problem has made a lot of people look good over the last few years. Let’s see if they really are.