An Extinction Level Event for Seed Funding?

The global financial crisis and the resulting recession made a deep impact on seed funding

New venture funding is the lowest it’s been for a decade according to Nesta’s July report; Venture Capital Now and After the Dotcom Crash and that’s not all…

The BBAA’s glittering annual awards dinner and conference took place last Wednesday providing an  opportunity for business angels to meet up and share their experiences over the past 12 months. I wonder how many of those attending had read Nesta’s report on VC funding. Ok so we haven’t really witnessed the end of seed stage funding, but there has certainly been a huge decline.

The findings of this latest report which follows Nesta’s business angel report last year will likely have provided a sobering topic of conversation. What is interesting about this latest report is that it takes us back to the Dot Com crash of 2000 and compares it with 2009. It makes three alarming conclusions :

•    Fundraising in 2009 is the lowest in the past decade.
•    The situation now would be far worse without public funding.
•    It is taking longer for investors to see returns on their investment.

You could say this is all about VC investments and not really indicative of the likely performance of investments made by business angels. You might also think that it is understandable given the scale of the financial crisis and a deep global recession that there would be a temporary loss of appetite for risk – considering the millions rather than thousands VCs tend to invest.

But this report suggests something more than a temporary blip. It highlights a longer term decline in the performance of VC investments made in the past decade. I
t is worth remembering that 2009 was the start of recovery when most countries were beginning to move out of recession. Yet fundraising was also lower than it was in the last recession.

What is also alarming is that it was investment in seed and start-ups which suffered most between 2007-2009 dropping by 58 per cent. And this is an area that would be of concern angel investors who use their own money to help those early stage businesses.

Looking at these figures there appears to have been a marked loss of confidence amongst VCs and a dramatically reduced appetite for the risks involved in early-stage investing.
So will business angels be filling in those funding gaps? Possibly, but rather than dive in and exploit all those growth businesses the VCs are missing out on it might be worth finding out why VCs have seemingly abandoned seed stage businesses.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m guessing the biggest reason lies in the time taken to exit. I recently read with interest a blog which talked about angels finally getting in on the act with all those seed stage businesses, however it won’t be a simple as a VCs out, business angels in scenario.

Owners of those businesses shouldn’t get their hopes up. The reason VCs are pulling out of investing in seed stage businesses is down to the time it takes to exit. Typically the patient investor would want to see a nice return on their cash and an exit in three or four years.

What this report tells us is that exit is more than likely going to come in seven years or more. Seven years is far too long. While not all exits will take this long, clearly there will need to be a considerable commitment. The landscape appears to have changed dramatically in the 10 years since 2000 when it took on average three years less to exit a company in the UK.

More worrying still is that the report says there is greater uncertainty now about the time taken to exit and there are likely to be more funding rounds now before flotation than ever before.  So more money is being pumped in than ever before and it takes longer to get your money back out again, if you make any at all and that is far from guaranteed according to last year’s report. This doesn’t sound attractive. The impact on those promising growth companies that should be helping to boost economies should also be considered.

On this evidence things can only get better and at that glittering awards ceremony in Manchester there was much to celebrate, but this latest report from Nesta certainly provides some food for thought.

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  • Neil Lewis
    Very interesting piece Brett.

    I think the period to exit hides a bigger problem – and that is about risk and commitment.

    The chances of a broad mix of people (young CEOs and mates – or partners, experienced business angels and VC investors) all with different agendas, being able to stick to a single path and vision for 7 years is very unlikely.

    I reckon you can keep this eccletic group together for 3 or 4 or perhps 5 years (ie worse case – after 3 years, you start to prepare for exit) but 7 years?

    I think the real issue with the length to exit is that most business angels aren´t willing to go 7 years – and those that are, don´t believe a 7 year plan will hold together long enough to reach the exit.

    The solution? Well, entrepreneurs need to get the first 3 years of growth out of the way before asking for cash – then the cash simply comes as a 4 year commitment to reach a more probable exit.

    So, the real issue is – can entrepreneurs manage the first 3 years on their own? Well, if they can, the chances are that they’ll manage the last 4 years too!


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