Unlike 2000 and 2008, everyone in the startup world is expecting a crash to come at any moment, but few are taking concrete steps to prepare for it.
If you’re running a venture-backed startup, you should probably get on that. First, go read RIP Good Times from Sequoia to get a sense for how bad it can get, quickly. Then take a look at the checklist below. You don’t need to build a bomb shelter, yet, but adopting a bit of the prepper mentality now will pay dividends down the road.
Don’t wait, prepare
The first step in preparing for a coming downturn is making a plan for how you’d get to a point of sustainability. Many startups have been lulled into a false sense of confidence that profit is something they can figure out “later.” Keep in mind, it has to be done eventually and it’s easier to do when the broader economy isn’t crashing around you. There are two complicating factors to keep in mind.
You’ll have to do it with less revenue
In a downturn, business customers skip investing in capital equipment and new software. Likewise, consumer discretionary spending goes way down. The result is you’ll likely have less revenue than you do now. Wargame a variety of scenarios — what you’d do if you lost 20%, 50%, or 80% of your revenue, and what decisions would have to be taken to survive.
Sometimes capital can’t be had at any valuation
When a downturn comes, capital markets don’t soften, they seize. Depending on how bad a hypothetical financial crisis got, there’s a good chance that investors would close up their checkbooks and triage. If you aren’t one of your investor’s favorite portfolio companies, there’s a decent chance you may be left in the cold. Don’t even assume you’ll be able to close a down round. Fortunately, showing a plan with a clear path to profitability will allay investors concerns that you’ll need their capital indefinitely and make it more likely you’ll be able to raise.
Planning around these three realities — the need for profits, while experiencing dropping revenue, in a world where capital can’t be had at any valuation — is going to lead to unpleasant conclusions. A dramatically diminished business, major layoffs, and a decisive drop in morale are likely outcomes. Thankfully, you can take steps now to help soften the landing, or if you’re really successful, avoid it entirely.
Avoid “Growth at all Costs” Mentality
Getting acquisition costs under control will help you in two ways. First, it’ll lower your burn rate. Chasing growth for growth’s sake is always a short-sighted decision, but especially during the late part of the business cycle. Avoid this even if you’re VC is encouraging it. Second, by carefully analyzing the inputs to your acquisition cost, it will force you to examine the dynamics of your business. It gives you an opportunity to decide if a poorly performing channel or lackluster sales reps are actually smart investments. Even cutting your payback period from 12 months to nine will provide an increased measure of visibility and control.
Increase the hiring bar
Instagram took over the web with a team of a dozen. Craigslist is a pillar of the internet with a staff of 40 employees. WhatsApp supported hundreds of millions of daily users with fewer than 50 people. Chances are you need fewer people than you think.
In his new book, Scott Belsky shares an algorithm he used building Behance into a $100M company — automate, automate, then hire. His point was that founders should encourage teams to push hard on improving processes and other labor-saving tools before adding more FTEs.
Don’t institute a hiring freeze or take other actions that might spook the staff, but do send the message that new hires should be the last resort, not the first response to a challenge.
Preach discipline – build it into the culture
Founders often try to change spending habits, and in turn culture, when it’s too late. Is there a fair bit of business class flying among the executive team? Do your employees stretch your free dinner policy by staying just past the dinner hour to take advantage of free food? At most tech ventures, everyone is truly an owner. Try to help the entire team to internalize that they are spending their own money.
Get to know your potential acquirers
The week the market drops 50% is not the week to start a M&A conversation. You should be getting to know the five most likely buyers of your company, now. Find out who the decision makers at each of the companies are and build relationships. Make it a point to catch up with these people at conferences and even consider sending them regular updates about your company’s progress (but not too much data). You’re not running a formal sales process, but helping build up the internal desire to buy your company if the opportunity presents itself. It may not be the exit of your dreams, but it’s nice to have options if you need them.
Jettison expensive office space
If you’re coming to a T-juncture regarding office space, you may want to prioritize price and lease flexibility over quality and location. I remember one of our offices at my start-up was a twelve month lease with 6 months free. The landlords were desperate, and so were we!
If you’re in the kind of business that will support annual contracts, figure out a way to offer them. Pre-sell credits to consumers at a discount. More fundamentally, think about how you might be able to adjust your business model so you can get paid before you deliver services. Plenty of viable businesses are asphyxiated by delays in accounts receivable, don’t allow your ambitions to be thwarted by accounting.
Diversify your customer base
One lesson learned in the 2000 bubble was that startups that serve other startups tend to be hit hardest. It’s important to think about how a downturn will impact your customer base. If more than 30% of your revenue comes from one industry (perhaps start-ups!), or heaven help you, a single customer, start thinking about managing risk by diversifying your customer base.
Raise a pre-emptive round (AND DON’T SPEND IT)
Topping up your balance sheet at this point isn’t a bad idea, provided you have the discipline to treat it as a rainy day fund. Communicate this rationale to your investors. It’s also important to use this moment to reflect on valuation. An eye-popping valuation will feel good when you sign the term sheet, but it’s going to feel like a millstone if the economy turns, and the market for blue-chip tech stocks drops precipitously.
Consider venture debt
Many VCs discourage venture debt. They’ll say “if you need more money, we’ll backstop you.” The problem is when things ugly, they may not be there. Debt providers are a good way to extend the runway. The thing is that it’s best to raise debt capital when you don’t need it. Venture debt can add ⅓ to ½ of additional capital to some funding rounds with minimal dilution and relatively modest interest rates. Do note that when things get bad, some debt funds can get aggressive so do your homework before taking the notes.
It’s tough to predict the top of the market. CNN, Time, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many others argued Facebook paying $1B for Instagram was a sure sign of a bubble — in 2012. Reputable commentators have claimed that we’re in a bubble every year since, see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Going into survival mode in any of those years would have been a serious mistake for most startups.
Still, we’re only two quarters away from marking the longest economic expansion in US history. The good times have got to end at some point. Venture capital is a hell of a drug and withdrawal can be painful. Keep in mind that there’s no correlation between how much a company raised and how well they did on the public markets. If you’re struggling to make your startup’s economics work, read up on dozens of “invisible unicorns” who show that you can get big without relying on outsized amounts of venture capital.
If your house is in order when the downturn hits, you may actually be able to grow through it. As unprepared competitors go out of business, you’ll find that talent is more plentiful and customer acquisition costs plummet. Some of the best companies have been founded and thrived in the worst of times — if you’re prepared.