Raising capital is really difficult, no matter what people say about the influx of seed and early-stage dollars into the startup eco-system. I know very strong entrepreneurs that need to grind really hard to get seed rounds done, so I definitely don’t want to take away from the challenge of doing that.
But in some cases, I find that exceptional entrepreneurs have the opportunity to “jump straight to A”. That is, by-pass a traditional seed round of $750K – $2M from angels and seed funds and raise $3M+ primarily from one large venture capital investor. The rationale for doing this is obvious. You get a large capital partner involved early who is fully committed to your company. You also get more money earlier that you can use as a weapon. After all, if only a minority of seed rounds (on average) result in a series A investment, why not take that risk out of the equation early and jump straight to A?
There are a few reasons NOT to do this. Jumping straight to an A may seem like a good idea, but you are giving up a few things that I think are pretty valuable, and are offered by raising a typical seed round. Keep in mind that I’m a biased observer here since we are exclusively a seed-focused fund and I think that is usually the best “product” for most entrepreneurs. But having said that, here are the four main reasons to raise a seed, even if you have the option of jumping straight to your series A.
1. Getting a variety of great people involved. Seed rounds tend to be composed of a larger number of participants, including both angel investors and institutional seed funds. Getting access to a breadth of network and resources is pretty helpful in the early stages of a company when you are under-resourced and have no scale. When jumping straight to A, the ownership requirements of large funds will dictate that there is less room for other participants for the round to happen, and that fistfight for allocation will result in fewer helpful investors around the table. The first round is usually the last time one can get some really terrific folks involved, whereas most larger VC funds happily invest in the series A or B rounds of companies. Just check out the list of great people involved in Uber’s seed round.
2. Maximing your series A firm. Great people are always stretching. Entrepreneurs are stretching to get the best investors in the world involved they possibly can. VC’s are stretching to back entrepreneurs that are a little outside of their network, or are more “premium” than the brand of their own firm. Often, I see that when founders jump straight to A, it’s because a VC was stretching and the founder got one of their top choices, but not the absolutely best capital partner for their business. Seed rounds allow you to put some wins on the board for your company, and then run a process to really maximize your series A round and the firm and person that you would want to work with.
3. Maintain flexibility. Raising a smaller amount of capital not only forces more focused experimentation and opportunity validation, it allows founders to be more flexible in the path they want to take for their business. Sometimes, founders will find that the company they thought was going to be great was going to be a lot harder to build, or take a lot longer, or is actually not as big of an opportunity as they thought. If she has raised a lot of capital out of the gates, there is greater pressure to do unnatural things to try to morph the business into something of greater scale, even at much greater risk. A seed round allows you to be more measured about your progression, and respond more flexibly to your learnings. This isn’t primarily about maintaining optionality of a smaller exit. I think it’s primarily about time. Does a founder want to take 7-10 years of his life to grind out a company towards an unnatural outcome, or would it be better to sell a company sooner, make money for investors and employees, and then give it another shot again after a few years? The small or mid-sized exit may mean a lot less for experienced founders, but getting years of their productive life back is pretty valuable for almost everyone.
4. Lower possible net dilution. It’s hard to predict total dilution over time for two different financing paths. But what I do see is that when jumping “straight to A”, entrepreneurs usually do need to sell a large chunk of their company to make it worth the while of a large VC to write a big check. Usually, the dilution is in the 25% range, and certainly at least 20%. On top of that, this capital will essentially need to take a founder through the next 2 value accretive inflection point to be able to raise their next round at a big step up.: 1) getting to product market fit and 2) build a scaleable marketing machine. That’s a pretty tall order most of the time, and if you can’t achieve both, you are going to raise your next round at flat terms or at a very small step-up to the last round.
In raising a seed round, you can minimize dilution up front due to the smaller round size, and then take these 2 inflection points one at a time. At each juncture, you are able to use competition to your advantage and optimize for the best terms. You will still be selling 20% of your company in most cases to your series A investor, but you may be able to raise more capital than you would have if you jumped straight to the series A. That then gives you a better chance of knocking it out of the park in developing a great marketing machine. So in a big upside scenario, you may achieve less total dilution after the series B, or acheive the same dilution for much more capital. And although capital is never an end in and of itself, it is a weapon that you can use to turn your company into a monster.