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Seed Investing Phenomenon Of 2010: Be Prepared For The End

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There have been a number of thoughtful "early warning sign" posts in the past few weeks including one from Fred Wilson (Storm Clouds), one from Mark Suster (What Angel Investing & Florida Condos Have in Common), and Roger Ehrenberg (Investing in a Frenzied Market).

The seed investing phenomenon of 2010 has been awesome to watch and participate in. The velocity of activity from individual angels, angel groups, seed VCs (the correct phrase for most of the "super angels" which have now raised actual funds), and even traditional VCs has been on a steep climb throughout the year. When the numbers are tallied up at the end of the year (I'm sure someone will do it -- and it won't be me) I expect there will be all kinds of new records set.

But the warning signs from Fred, Mark, and Roger are worth reading and pondering carefully. I have a few choice quotes to add to the mix that I've heard over the past thirty days.

  • Prolific Seed VC: I only expect that 30% of the companies I funded this year will raise another round.
  • Established VC With A New Seed Program: We are planning to make 30 seed investments out of our new fund. We'll do follow on investments in 10 of them.

In both cases, when I speculate on the next sentence they would have said if they were being direct and blunt, it would be something like "I expect the balance of them will go out of business after thrashing around for a while." The optimist would have a different view (e.g. that they would be quickly acquired or they would never need additional capital), but anyone that has been investing for a while knows this isn't the likely outcome for any but a small number of these companies.

Mid-year I felt compelled to write a post titled Suggestions for Angel Investors. When I reflect on that post, my fear is that most seed investors aren't implementing a "double down on the first round" strategy. Some percentage of seed deals will quickly raise their next round (30 percent if you believe the two anecdotes above.) Some percentage of seed deals will fizzle out. But some percentage will get stuck in the middle. They will be interesting ideas with solid teams that realize their first idea out of the gate needs a pivot. Or they'll be in the middle of a pivot when they run out of cash. In the absence of the existing seed investors stepping up and writing another check (without any new / outside validation) it's going to be hard for these companies to get to the place where they raise a next round financing.

While all entrepreneurs are optimistic on the day they raise their seed round that they'll be one of the hot deals that easily raises a significant next round, it's worth starting to plan from the beginning for the case where you "are interesting, but not unambiguously compelling." In these cases, you need more time and the only place you are likely to get it is from your existing investors. If they are willing to keep investing on their own without a new outside lead, you'll at least have a chance to get to the next level. But if they aren't, you could find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation.

I'll end with Fred's money quote:

"Anything that is unsustainable will eventually stop happening. And when it stops happening, there will be a dislocation event that will cause people to change their behavior...When will it stop? Who knows? But be prepared for it to end. And when it does, things will be different. And we should all be prepared for that time."

Having worked alongside Fred for a long time in a number of companies through several cycles, I can assure you these words come from a place of wisdom, experience, and shared pain.

This post originally appeared on Brad Feld's blog, FeldThoughts.