Finding and securing a steady inflow of capital is the harbinger of uncertainty for many founders and start-ups. Whether it’s bootstrapping with whatever resources are available or securing seed financing, start-ups face the ever-present challenge of keeping the ship above water. For some, this eats away at productivity that could have been used somewhere else. For others, it’s a sure-fire sign that infighting could threaten the company’s lifespan.
With this looming reality in mind, it’s important to note that there are now more early-stage growth companies than ever before, each one riding the wave of disruptive technologies to the promised land of being fully funded. Internationally, countries like Canada, Switzerland, and China are plowing ahead with patent filings for new and innovative tech. Canada especially has begun to outperform even its southern neighbor. In fact, an article by The Globe and Mail reported that Toronto has added over 82,000 tech jobs over the past five years.
To complicate matters, traditional avenues for financing have seen a reduced appetite for injecting seed capital into early- stage companies. Venture Pulse found that overall, angel, seed, and Series A funding diminished in Q2 of 2018, down from previous quarters. The number of closed deals also diminished, indicating lower volume. Crunchbase News reported that late-stage start-ups accounted for only 7% of the deals, but almost 70% of the total deal flow in Q2. VCs and angels are being picky with where they put their money, betting bigger on fewer plays. The US venture cycle exerts a passive influence on global venture investment by nature of its size. With deal flow cooling off in the world’s largest check-writing arena, more likely than not this indicates a slower period everywhere else. So there are more early-stage companies competing for a shrinking pie, with their hopes of seeing their product go to market dwindling with every dollar spent somewhere else.
This reduction of investment has coincided with disruptive crowdfunding models, possibly due to another disruptive technology, blockchain. Founders can now do an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) and source millions from accredited/institutional investors, but also everyday people. With over $5 billion raised in 2017, and a globally projected $175 billion already in 2018, the ICO threw the venture industry for a loop, and for more than one reason. As a direct competitor, ICOs outstripped VC and angel funding in 2017. This could be due in part to the demands placed on growth-stage companies by VCs eager for 30x returns leading to a misalignment of priorities. Ultimately VCs are choosing to pass on perceived riskier ventures for something more in line with their preferences from a checkwriting standpoint. It could also signal that founders are opting out of traditional financing models and trading them in for flexible capital and the possibility to retain more equity while they’re at it.
The ICO is so big that Telegram completed a $1.7-billion token sale last year. The blockchain space is further rife with examples of ICO-to-market use cases that are cementing themselves as the backbone of the entire ecosystem. The Ethereum crowdsale, EOS, and IOTA are all crypto-projects that bring their unique vision of a blockchain-powered world for the future. From Ethereum’s World Computer to the IOTA internet-of-things strategy, ICOs have enabled incumbent frontrunners to forge ahead by injecting capital via token sales. They have also left a persistent fleck on the entire blockchain ecosystem because they do literally zero to prevent scam coins from popping up and duping investors. Enforcement action by government bodies like the SEC has already begun to leave a trail of indictments and criminal penalties in its wake. On the flipside, non-scammy ICOs looking to do legitimate securities filings like the popular SAFT agreement have also risen this year. So at the very least, there is a green-lit project for every shady one out there.
Where does this leave founders and start-ups? Seemingly not without options. The biggest strength early-stage companies have is their agility. Some underfunded companies are also understaffed. This doesn’t have to be a minus. Small teams can work from anywhere, or have more flexibility in their choice of work stations. Put enough small teams in the same place and they tend to benefit each other from time to time. Cities that are successful in developing a strong start-up ecosystem will ultimately see a rise in deal flow because the positive externalities of young companies cross-pollinating, sharing ideas, collaborating, and broadening their respective networks will yield a more successful community overall more times than not.
Harnessing the disruptive potential of novel ways to raise capital is another asset rather than a liability. VC funding, although steady, comes with conditions. The mess of term sheets, and VCs demanding massive returns, usually before the end of a fund’s life cycle, tend to put uneven pressure on small firms not ready to tackle the bigger structural problems their investors usually force them to confront. This can lead to a breakdown in the business relationship or kill a deal altogether. A company looking to source alternate financing should bear in mind that proper due diligence, the right filing, the tokenomics of their coin, and their responsibilities to investors come before profit.
The brilliant thing about the start-up community is that there are companies popping up everywhere with the express intent of solving the very problems start-ups face. Corl, a financial technologies firm based in Toronto, Canada, has in its crosshairs every start-up’s biggest problem: funding. The world’s first company to issue 100% of its equity on the blockchain, Corl is aiming to inject flexible capital into start-ups through revenue sharing agreements that do not dilute founder equity, and to allow firms to get funding promptly and without the misalignment of priorities and unsustainable time horizons that come with some VCs. Those companies that satisfy Corl’s rigorous due diligence and vesting will enjoy the freedom to worry about all the other problems they’ll inevitably encounter as they bring their product to market, because at least they won’t have to worry about the money. South Africa-based Crypto Janitor is looking to clean up the ICO battlefield by ‘recycling and restoring’ dead and dying ICOs in a bid to wipe the suspicion from the blockchain community, and churn a nice profit for themselves in the process.
Wherever the macroeconomic headwinds are blowing, the last year has made several things clear. VCs are making smaller plays on risky ventures, and founders are wising up to VCs. Disruptive crowdfunding models are here to stay, and fledgling firms will overcome financing hurdles faster by building strong entrepreneurial ecosystems that can tap into the combined braintrust of the enterprise and reap the benefits of collaboration.
Stefan Katanic is the executive co-founder of Coinbio, an online media platform that promotes crypto-adoption by educating and providing authentic information on cryptocurrencies and digital token assets. He's worked with some of the smartest teams in the financial services industry on product and business development.