With daily morning newspapers dedicating pages and front lines to startups and venture capital(VC) investments, they are no longer the niche they used to be. Whenever a startup investment is in the news, I hear questions along the lines of:
- Is the VC crazy to invest so much money in that startup?
- Why does that startup need massive amounts of money?
In my opinion, these questions stem from not having an understanding of how the VC business works.
Let us say that there is a contest with prize money of 1 billion dollars. You have to form teams, do some tasks; whoever wins, walks away with the prize money. There are a hundred individuals who are eager to participate but do not have the financial means and resources to recruit people to form teams and get to work. There is a wealthy benefactor who is ready to fund these hundred individuals with 10,000 dollars each. He strikes a deal with each of these hundred people saying, if you win, you give me 50% of the prize money; if you lose, you do not have to repay the 10,000 dollars I gave you. The benefactor is sure that one of them is going to bag the prize, she does not know who. The benefactor has invested 1 million dollars in total(10000 * 100) to ensure a return of half a billion dollars, i.e., 500x returns.
The above is a crude explanation of how the VC industry works. The individuals are the startup founders, and the wealthy benefactor is the VC. The only difference is, in the real world, there is no guaranteed success, i.e., there is no way for the VC to tell with cent percent certainty that someone is going to win for sure; it is all about probabilities, data, reading the trend and gut instincts. To bring a semblance of certainty to returns, VC spreads her bet on a wide array of startups in different domains; at least a handful of them is going to hit the jackpot.
Why does this startup need so much money and are the VCs crazy to give them that?
Startups that VCs invest in are not chasing organic growth. Organic growth is steady, sustainable growth which compounds to big returns over decades. VCs are chasing exponential returns in a few years; not steady growth. The money that VCs give to startups helps them with this exponential growth.
Double-digit returns are achievable by investing in public companies and debt. Why take the risk of investing in startups with absolutely no guarantee of returns when there are better ways to get there? For the chance that VCs are taking, the gains have to be comparable, i.e., exponential returns.
Why do startups need so much money?
To short-circuit the whole organic growth curve and achieve exponential growth so that investors get the returns in a relatively short period. The money is spent on scaling teams, building technology and more importantly in acquiring users through discounts and advertising. In short, the VC capital infusion empowers startups to compress multi-decades of growth to a decade or less.
Why is this startup spending money on discounts when they are not even profitable?
Big spending circles back to the concept of exponential growth and building market dominance for a winner take all effect. The idea is that once the startup dominates the market or has enough users, they will eventually figure out a way to make money, dominate the market and turn profitable. Case in point; Amazon, Google, and Facebook. When VCs invested in these firms, none of them were revenue positive, but look at where they are today. Of course, there is a risk of startups never figuring out how to make money, but VC investment is about calculated risks and spreading the bet.
You might have read of startups of previous successful founders raising astronomical capital without even having a product. VCs are not crazy to do this; they are betting and playing with probabilities and sentiments. The chance of the founder hitting the lottery again is high, hence the clamor to invest. VCs know for sure that not all the startups they invest in are going to be home runs, some are going to go dud and die, and they take this into account while investing. Only a very handful of the startups they invest in turn out to be successes and these handfuls generate the returns. A minority of the successes cover up for the majority of the failures. Returning to our lottery example, out of the hundred, the VC is betting on only one person to win, she knows the rest of them are going to fail, but she gets 500x returns with just one win and 99 failures.
Treat this as a dummies guide to startups and venture capital. I have watered down a lot ignoring VCs and funds who invest for more extended periods. Like any business, the VC industry is varied and diverse.