Before the last New Year’s Eve sparkler flickered out on January 1 there was already plenty of hand-wringing over the direction of the venture and technology markets and the apparent shift in mood since the heady days of, well, just a few months ago.
For the venture and technology markets, 2015 was a watershed year on many levels. The number of “unicorn” companies exploded which, by extension, gave rise to concerns that the term had lost some of its cachet since it appeared the logic behind according billion-dollar valuations had become somewhat unmoored from reality. 2015 also saw the first wave of valuation re-sets by notable and prolific venture investors and, with it, concern that this was a but a harbinger of what would become a wholesale value reappraisal across the venture landscape.
Judging from the recent gyrations in public equity markets, the first weeks of 2016 have certainly not calmed these fears. Technology stocks, and broad market indices, have taken a beating. Many seasoned observers would argue that this kind of market re-set in technology companies was long overdue and, as it happens, healthy and necessary. I would put myself in this camp. The market had gotten ahead of its proverbial skis. Many unicorns had failed to yet prove their businesses’ core fundamentals. Equity capital had been too readily available in 2015 and, thus, helped fuel “momentum investing” by some that perhaps perverted the economics of how startups should be funded, what they should focus upon, and how long-term success should be gauged.
With that preamble, here are some of my top-of-mind thoughts on what we might expect in 2016:
No bubble pop, but valuation resets abound.
I am not of a mind that we are in a valuation “bubble”, per se — at least not in a circa 2000-2001 sense of the word. I don’t think we will see the kind of wholesale collapse in valuations as we did 15-odd years ago. The macro fundamentals are simply vastly different. What I believe we will see, however, is a continued reappraisal and level-setting of valuations across the board and, with it, the failure of a few unicorns that will be both unable to sort their unit economics issues and to continue to raise sufficient capital to buy them enough time to figure them out.
A Tougher Equity Funding Environment.
Venture capital flowed freely in 2015; some might say too freely. For the highest profile companies, venture rounds were raised as if almost on a phone call. While I’ll submit that in 2016 the best companies will continue to have their pick of good venture investors with whom to partner, terms will not likely be as company-favorable, valuations will not be as rich, and the timing to close will not be as brief.
A return to traditional venture firms and processes.
Traditional venture capital firms were certainly not on the sidelines in 2015. Far from it. However, there was certainly a trend of non-traditional venture investors—I dislike the term “tourists” –taking a more prominent role than usual participating in and sometimes leading venture rounds. This often lead to sniping and charges of irrational behavior between firms. Traditional “Sand Hill Road” investors would argue that the non-traditional firms were only winning marquee deals by “paying up” since, by definition, they did not possess a strong brand nor reputation within venture to win such deals otherwise. This, in turn, raised valuations for everyone involved and forced some Sand Hill Road names out of participating in financings entirely. While 2016 is barely a month old, we are already seeing a clear pullback in the investment activities of firms not traditionally associated with backing early stage tech companies. Expect to see that trend continue in 2016, with the advantages going to the more traditional venture brands.
A ferocious focus on unit economics and core fundamentals.
In 2015, the growth of a startup in a new, exciting market–often by any means necessary–appeared to take precedence over the less sexy task of making sure a business’ fundamental unit economics were sorted. Given enough growth and enough users the hope was always that, eventually, all the right curves would intersect. But no matter how exciting a startup or its vision, one can get away with selling dollar bills for eighty cents for only so long. In 2016, while we will continue to see many well-funded startups with negative gross margins, the appetite of investors to continue funding upside down economics has likely peaked. This year expect to see a renewed–some might say, ferocious–focus on unit economics and fundamentals.
Again, these are but a few macro thoughts as we close out the first month of 2016. By and large, this is not meant to be a negative or cautionary post. I remain firm in the belief that we are in a period of intense innovation and value creation across technology. While there will be some fallen unicorns this year, we will also see some breakout stars and new markets emerge that will fuel even more innovation and market expansion. That said, every market must first digest what it has already consumed. I suspect we will see continued volatility as tech markets rightsize and as we head deeper into an election year. I will post again shortly on some of the tech trends I expect us to see in the coming year.