Welcome to 2021, a year that could extend 2020’s startup market disruptions and excesses — or change patterns that previously performed well for early-stage tech companies and their investors.
As we turn the page, I have a number of questions worth raising as we muck into 2021.
Each relates to a 2020 change that is expected to persist, by either the general market or those bullish on startups. I want to know what would need to change to shake up what became the new normal last year. After all, it’s precisely when it feels like nothing could shake up a downturn (or a boom) that things often do.
Today, let’s discuss seed deals, venture investing cadence, the resulting valuation pressures from rapid-fire bets, current IPO expectations and what happens to software sales when remote work begins to fade.
1. How long can seed deal-making stay hot?
As 2020 came to a close, Natasha Mascarenhas and I reported on seed investing’s strong year and its especially strong second half. How long can that pace keep up?
Nearly all our questions today deal with the endurance of certain conditions, namely: how long the market can keep parts of startup land red-hot.
When it comes to seed deal-making, Q1 and Q2 2020 saw similar levels of investment in the United States. But Q3 proved explosive, with money invested into domestic seed deals rising from around $1.5 to $1.6 billion during the first two quarters to $2.2 billion in the July-September period.
Q4 numbers are yet to fully come in, but it’s clear that private investors were incredibly bullish on early-stage startups in the second half of 2020. How long can that keep up? I think the answer is for a while yet, as investors have shown scant enthusiasm for slowing down their dealmaking cadence.
While cadence remains hot generally, seed deals should stay heated as the number of investors who are willing to invest early has increased.
Which brings us to our second question:
2. How long can investors keep writing such quick checks?
A theme that cropped up in the second half of 2020 was the pace at which investors were conducting venture capital deals. This was for a few reasons. To start, venture capitalists have raised larger funds in recent years, meaning that they need larger returns to make the math work out. This led to many investors putting money to work in younger and younger companies, hoping to get in early on a big win. That setup led to more deal competition and faster deal-making.
How? Two things. Investors who were already on a startup’s cap table — already part-owners, in other words — led preemptive rounds, in part to get ahead of other investors who might want to poach the succeeding deal. Other investors, knowing this, seemed to do the same math and move even faster, and earlier, to get around the defense.
So how long can the trend keep up? Given that many big VC firms raised in 2020, many startups picked up some tailwinds from the COVID-19 economy and exits have been strong, forever? Until something stops things? Think of it as Newton’s First Law of startup investing.
What could be the sudden impact to shake up the current set of conditions boosting the pace at which seed and later deals occur? An asteroid strike is probably too extreme, but inertia is one hell of a drug and markets love to stay happy.
Moving along, all the competition to get money to work in hot startups now has had another effect than the mere speed of deal-making; it has also pushed prices higher.