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This is what you should know about early-stage investing

Venture today is crowded and flushed with capital, especially at the early stage, where the only constant seems to be change. With more money and players, pre-seed today is the new seed round — everything is getting bigger. But is it better for founders? Yes and no, said Jason Williamson, VP of Oracle for Startups, and Hayley Barna, partner at First Round. The two tackled the topic, “Everything you need to know about early-stage investing,” during the Startup Grind Global Conference on February 25. You can watch the full session here.

An ambitious topic, Jason and Hayley provided a wealth of insights and helpful information for founders trying to navigate early-stage investing. Below are a few of the highlights:

What is considered early-stage nowadays?

For Hayley and First Round, seed is defined broadly. Early stage can be a person with an idea all the way to a “mango” seed which could be $7 million. They are seeing more players and a fragmentation of early-stage rounds. “We’ve seen companies start with $500k rounds, raise another $2 or $3 million six months later, and then a second seed of $5 to $7 million,” she said. Here are some takeaways on the topic:

· Yes, over-capitalization is a risk

· 18 to 24 months of runway is still most prudent

· Bootstrapping gives more control, but it must align with your desired outcomes

· Be very clear and specific about your goals as a founding team, and don’t bend to get funded

· Fundamentals of the business is what still matters most

· Founder-focused firms offer unique support and resources

The trend of multi-stage funds moving downstream

Jason introduced the topic of bigger, multistage funds moving downstream to earlier-stage investing, driving up valuations and crowding the ecosystem. “Clearly, the economics work for them,” said Jason, noting it gives them early access. Hayley agreed: “It’s like buying an early option.” She continued, “These funds have always been involved, but it was through scouts or smaller checks into rounds. Now they are leading and sometimes taking all of the round.” But both agreed that’s not necessarily great for all founders.

· Multi-stage is a trend that will continue — and it works for some founders

· Bigger, more established funds do have benefits

· Watch out: these bigger firms aren’t “purpose built” to support early stage

· Pure seed funds are better designed to support and scale in the zero to one phase

· “Signaling risks” when multi-stage funds don’t lead the follow-on rounds

What founders should be asking and doing when fundraising

With the “always raising” mindset, founders have to be prepared and strategic to ensure their startups have the resources to scale. But, especially for first timers, the nerves can lead to bad decisions. “Founders have to balance the tension between speed and finding the right fit,” Jason said. “You better be sure this is someone you want in your foxhole.”

For Hayley, here’s one thing founders absolutely should be doing: “Once you get the offer, then you turn the tables and ask why they deserve to be your partner. Too often founders say a quick yes for fear of missing the deal. That leaves them vulnerable.” Other highlights include:

· Ask for references — both founders that had success and those that did not

· Remember a partner is more important than the firm

· Do back-channel and off reference list research, too

· Develop a supportive and diverse peer group; share knowledge and challenges

Hayley’s decision-making process and what’s most important?

One of the biggest questions for founders: How do VCs make their decisions? Jason explored this topic with Hayley and got a wealth of interesting answers, including, “We first evaluate the team, the market, and the product. And in that order.” Below are additional takeaways:

· “Founder market fit” is most important at early stage

· Storytelling critical. Tell me your inspiration, motivation, your why

· Product roadmap shows me how the team thinks, their big vision

· Founder’s passion, vision always the reason

“For example, Mirror iterated on the product for two years before they had a customer. But we saw a reflection of what it would become, even when the product was very basic. We could see Brynn’s vision, passion and grit,” Hayley said.

Pandemic learnings, advice, and what’s on the horizon

The session tackled a big, ambitious topic, covering many subjects and issues, while earning quite a few “favorite session yet” shout-outs in the chat. Below are a handful of random but impactful takeaways:

· Sometimes it’s better to take the local train versus the express train (analogy on pure seed funds vs. multi-stage funds)

· Bootstrapping vs VC route: Founders have to ask themselves, are they okay to prioritize growth over profitability for a while?

· First Round thinks of “venture as a product” building a community for founders that can scale. So, as you add more companies, the value of the community grows

· Virtual has unleashed new efficiencies in the system and accelerated everything.

· First meetings will be virtual. In-person meetings will have intention.

· Compressed timelines and increased velocity from first meetings to term sheets.

· Sometimes it’s a great idea, and the wrong team. And you pass.

· Beware of the “undisciplined pursuit of more” in yourself and your startup.

Written by Amy Sasser Sorrells

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