September 23, 2023
The Challenging VC Landscape
in 2023-24: Insights for Startups
Over my journey in Silicon Valley’s startup world, I've witnessed a multitude of shifts in the venture capital landscape. I remember when just a couple of years ago, in 2021, securing capital felt like a breeze. That time felt so promising; money was flowing, valuations soared, and it seemed the startup dream was within reach for many. But, as they say, the only constant is change. This essay aims to offer some guidance for navigating the current VC terrain during this and most likely next year.

The venture capital (VC) market, like any financial market, is subject to periodic ebbs and flows. Historically, startups have been guided by the principle of securing enough capital to fund 12-18 months of operations. This not only aids in efficient financial planning but also ensures that startups can navigate periods of capital scarcity.

However, the recent dynamics of the VC landscape have necessitated a deeper understanding and reevaluation of the fundraising strategies that startups employ. Recently, I penned an article diving into early-stage fundraising strategies. In contrast, the following analysis delves into the broader VC landscape, with a particular emphasis on later-stage startups.

The Rollercoaster of VC Availability: the Era of Overcapitalization
Not too long ago, in 2021, we witnessed what can be described as an era of 'overcapitalization.' Startups were raising more funds than they typically required. This surge was catalyzed by multiple factors: post-pandemic economic recovery, historically low-interest rates, and the assertive investment strategies of financial behemoths like SoftBank.

This frenzy resulted in an interesting phenomenon where, despite having ample opportunities to go public through lucrative IPOs, many startups chose to remain private, potentially in pursuit of even greater valuations or to maintain control without the pressures of public market scrutiny.

A Changing Tide: The Capital Drought
Fast forward to 2022-23, and the VC scenery has changed dramatically. The massive $347.5 billion that was invested in the US in 2021 starkly contrasts with the $85.6 billion in the first half of 2023. The US startup market is now facing a significant undersupply of capital.
Over the past year, the time between funding rounds has seen a rapid adjustment as companies strategically allocate their available cash to navigate the demanding deal-making environment. Those firms that delayed their IPOs now grapple with less appealing public offering options and a private financing scene that may undervalue them.

Remarkably, even unicorns, traditionally viewed as the market's pinnacle startups, have experienced a substantial increase of more than 50% in the median time between rounds – jumping from 0.85 of a year in early 2022 to 1.45 years by the latter half of 2023.
The VC pullback isn’t just in sheer numbers; its character has changed too. A significant portion of the recent investments has been dominated by mega-deals, with less sprinkling of capital across the broader startup ecosystem. Non-traditional VC institutions, which played a pivotal role in the previous boom, have reduced their activity, signaling caution and selectivity.

The ripple effect of this restrained VC activity is evident across the startup lifecycle. Both seed and early-stage ventures are finding it challenging to secure financing. The rapid fundraising cadence of yesteryears has tapered, causing general partners (GPs) to be more judicious with their investments, fearing they might exhaust their available funds (dry powder) too quickly. By the second quarter of 2023, according to Pitchbook, the demand-to-supply ratio for late-stage funding surged to an approximate 3.0x. This indicates that for every dollar invested, there was a theoretical need for three dollars.
This lean period isn’t just about numbers; it’s shaping behaviors. Valuations, which soared during the overcapitalization period, are now under pressure. Startups are facing terms that are increasingly skewed in favor of investors — terms that can be dilutive and demanding. Furthermore, the weight of this capital scarcity has been felt tangibly, with many startups restructuring their operations, often leading to layoffs and a pressing need to achieve operational efficiency.

As the era of overcapitalization winds down, companies that haven't successfully extended their cash reserves will likely start reentering the financing market. From 2022 onwards, there has been a noticeable increase in down rounds. In the second quarter, 15.2% of the rounds were completed at valuations lower than a company's preceding round, a figure that is more than double what we observed at the market's zenith.
Navigating the 2023-24 Investment Landscape

For startups now, the implications should be clear:

1. Efficiency Over Exuberance: Gone are the days of aggressive growth at all costs. The new mantra is to do more with less. Startups need to focus on lean operations, sustainable growth, and most importantly, extending their cash runway.

2. Prepare for Competition: With more than 50,000 private, VC-backed firms in the US, the fundraising arena has become intensely competitive. Rather than investors competing to park their capital, startups are now vying for investor attention and funds.

3. Reevaluate Going Public: With the current constraints in the private fundraising world, it might be worth revisiting the decision to go public or explore strategic mergers and acquisitions.

4. Debt as an Alternative: While equity remains the primary mode of startup financing, debt has increasingly been utilized to extend operational runways. However, startups must tread carefully, considering the implications of rising interest rates.

Final thoughts
While the current VC climate is undeniably challenging, it reminds me of the resilience and tenacity that define us as entrepreneurs. Every era has its challenges, and while today might be about capital availability, startups’ true strength lies in their ability to adapt, innovate, and persevere. In sharing these reflections, my hope is that the entrepreneurs can collectively navigate this terrain, leaning on their shared experiences, supporting one another, and never losing sight of your passion that set you on this journey.