About 10 years ago, I entered the venture capital business after being an entrepreneur. My new partners warned me that my “bar" for new investments would get higher over time. In other words, the criteria to make a new investment or clearing "the bar" would get stricter with time as I developed more experience.
They were right. The notion that investors get wiser and more selective over time has become common wisdom in the industry. But there's something very new going on in the last few years, something very striking. Simply put, when it comes to funding young companies, the investment community’s collective bar has recently gotten higher-- much higher.
The entrepreneurs I speak to are feeling it every day. When they pitch their new idea to investors, they are told to build a prototype first. When they build the prototype, they are told to go get customers. When they get customers, they are told to show engagement metrics. When they show engagement metrics, they are told to run some monetization experiments. When they run monetization experiments, they are told to prove scalability. Maybe I have Passover on the brain this week, but it's like investors are putting entrepreneurs through a nightmarish version of the song Dayeinu. (Speaking of Passover, if you haven't seen this Jon Stewart clip of Passover vs. Easter, it's a must. I'll wait.)
Why is the new investment bar so high today? Isn't there plenty of euphoria to go around with the IPO market returning, marquee acquisitions (e.g., Instagram for $1 billion) and the impending, earth-shattering Facebook IPO? I believe this new phenomenon of an extraordinarily high bar is an outgrowth of three related forces:
1. The Lean Start Up movement, which has trained entrepreneurs on capital-efficient start-up techniques.
2. The plummeting cost of experimentation and the cloud, which allows entrepreneurs to rent infrastructure that allows them to develop prototypes and pilots much cheaply than ever before.
3. The proliferation of social media, which allows entrepreneurs to read innumerable books and blogs to educate them on building start-ups and effective fundraising.
These three forces have led to a major increase in the collective "Start-Up IQ" of both entrepreneurs and VCs, while at the same time putting in their hands inexpensive tools to progress with their ideas.
Thus, if you are an entrepreneur, your competitors (not necessarily market-based competitors but simply other entrepreneurs who are pursuing capital) are that much more sophisticated and advanced than ever before. A great example of this is Crashlytics, a company that makes crash reporting tools for mobile apps. We led the company’s $1 million seed round (with Baseline) last year, and then its $5 million Series A, which was announced this week. At the seed round, the two entrepreneurs (who are in their mid-20s and, like many young entrepreneurs today, wise beyond their years) had already both been successful serial entrepreneurs, had completed a customer discovery and development process with 20 application vendors and had built an alpha product.
In other words, before they had raised a nickel, they had made as much progress as a $10 million funded Series A start-up circa 1999 or even 2004.
They had achieved initial customer validation and identified a precise experiment they were going to run with the first $1 million - whether they could get broad adoption for their crash reporting tool. Indeed, they crushed their milestones. By the time they had spent half the $1 million and were ready for a Series A round, they had over 500 organizations using the product across tens of millions of devices.
Crashlytics is a special company run by special entrepreneurs, but their story isn't unique. It is playing out across the world, as more start-ups are more sophisticated in their approaches and achieving more with less. That's generally a good thing for everyone. But it does mean the bar has gotten higher, much higher comparatively speaking, to raise money.
And in the spirit of sharing more information to help entrepreneurs raise their game, below is a presentation I gave as part of a Skillshare class I delivered at Harvard's i-Lab with a few tips on raising capital: How To Raise Your First Round of Capital.
View more PowerPoint from Jeffrey Bussgang.