A couple of weeks ago, TechCrunch published an essay called "Raise softly and deliver a big exit" by Jason Rowley. In this essay, he set to explore the relationship between the amount of funding startups raise, and the success of the exits, measured by the ratio of exit valuation to invested capital (VIC).
The analysis, unfortunately, doesn't provide a breakdown by space the startups operate in, and thus is relatively high level. It also raises some questions about the validity of using VIC as a metric to compare to the amount of capital raised or the valuation: as both of those are in fact used in the calculation of VIC, any inferences about the correlations between either of them and VIC aren't really meaningful.
Still, even if the conclusions aren't statistically meaningful, the analysis itself raises some interesting points, all of which can be summarized in a single phrase: "raising a lot of money makes getting high return on investment less likely".
One could argue that this is a fairly obvious conclusion that doesn't require looking at any specific data, and she'll be right about that: making high returns (meaning a percentage of capital invested, not absolute numbers) at scale is often harder compared to a situation when you invest relatively small amounts of money.
For the startups raising venture capital funding, that appears to be particularly true. Selling your company for $50 million is a success, if it only raised $5 million in funding; it becomes much more complicated if it attracted $100 million in funding - in this case, to deliver the same multiple you'll need to sell it for at least $1 billion, which drastically limits the number of potential buyers (and also the chances that the company would be able to get to the stage when it could be solved for such an amount of money).
So why are we so focused on the huge rounds raised, "unicorn" startups and the outsized exits?
Part of the story is tied to the business model of the VC firms: most of them receive a fixed percentage of the assets under management (AuM) as a management fee (typically, 2% per year), plus carry (say, 20% of the overall proceeds from exits, once the investors in the fund are paid the principal back). Both of those pieces are directly tied to the AuM, creating the incentive to raise more money from the limited partners.
What that means is that there is a misalignment between the interests of limited partners (who care about returns as a percentage of capital invested), and those of general partners (whose compensation, and especially their salaries, is to a significant extent determined by the AuM size, followed by the absolute returns).
This compels the general partners to raise larger funds, which in turn means that they need to pour more money into each startup (or do more deals per fund, which brings the risk of spreading your resources too thin). And investing more money per startup creates the obvious pressure for larger exits.
While VC piece is relatively straightforward, the situation for the startup founders is more complicated. Unlike the general partners of VC firms, the founders do almost exclusively care about the returns: the founders' compensation isn't really tied to the amount of money they raise, only to the proceeds from selling their companies. Another interesting point to consider is that for the vast majority of individuals, the amount of money required to completely change their lives is much lower than the amounts that might be deemed satisfactory for the VC firms, especially the larger ones.
To illustrate this point, for a firm with $1 billion under management, selling a company they've invested $5 million in at $10 million pre-money valuation, for $50 million, isn't really attractive: even though they'd make a decent return on this investment, the absolute gains are too small to make much of a difference.
For the founders of that same company, however, such a deal can be very attractive: if there were 3 of them, it would yield them more than $11 million apiece - a huge sum of money for any first-time entrepreneur. Accepting a deal like that would also leave them free to pursue their next ventures, knowing that they can now take bigger risks, with their financial security already established.
So again, why does the entire industry pay some much attention to the largest deals and exits?
Well, for once, it's just more interesting for the public to follow those deals - they create a rock-star aura around the most prominent founders and VCs, something that is obviously lacking for the smaller investments and exits. Next, some of the more exciting ventures do require outsized investments: that is often particularly true for some of the most well-known B2C startups (e.g. social networks, or on-demand marketplaces) - that, however, certainly isn't the case for a lot of companies out there. Finally, the VC agenda certainly plays a role there as well.
And yet, while all those reasons might be legitimate, it's worth remembering that for every $1 billion exits there could be dozens of $50-100 million sales, and while such deals don't always sound as cool, there surely do have the potential to change the lives of the entrepreneurs involved in them.