There has a recent spurt of bad news coming out of startup world this year. Readers will know Ning & I are conservative angel investors – is there such a thing? We take calculated risk in angel and VC investing and worst case, are prepared to write off our money. Of course, we are obviously doing it because we like the activity and believe we can generate returns worth our time.
Let’s do a recap just for this years news alone. Locally we have :
- Honestbee on brink of bankruptcy.
- Carousell taking a less than ideal round with OLX
- Rotimatic losing $1 for every $1 they sell.
- Propertyguru shelving IPO due to poor valuation offered by retail investors
I also buy the ACRA reports of many startups at Series A and B and they are inevitably all loss making. And to make things worse, the losses are not narrowing but sometimes expanding faster than revenue!
On a global basis
- Wework failed IPO and subsequent writedown/bailout by Softbank
- Uber & Lyft poor post IPO performance
- Grubhub stock tanking 40+% in 1 day due to poor earnings guidance
So how do we read all this? Especially as an angel investor? Does this mean we should just stop investing? Wait & See? Every angel needs to make up their own mind. For us, these are some of our thoughts:
First the good, positive stuff.
1.The fact that Carousell & Honestbee can raise so much with such bad revenues and/or unit economics is actually a sign that the ASEAN ecosystem is really strong with liquidity and interest. It is also the reason why SEA has decided to go all in for Shoppee so as to really stake their claim as a major ecommerce player in the region.
So ecosystem is growing and doing well. Liquidity is there as we see more and more VC funds raise and so will deploy capital next 3-5 years. And this is across all stages. At AngelCentral, which is an angel investing club, we have seen amount funded for our pitches grow at least 50% YonY (AngelCentral Journey 2018)
2.Market growth is real. ASEAN really is a strong demographic play. GDP growth is strong in Indo, Vietnam, PH etc and this growth will accrue to tech related plays. Just see how fast revenues have grown in Shopee or Grab or Gojek.
Now the not so good stuff …..
3. However, because of (1), many founders have decided to go for revenue or even just metrics without the cost discipline and patience to grow revenue and cost in tandem. This has led to massively loss making entities who all claim that their ultimate market size will justify the losses. In industry speak, we hear founders talk about their unit economics and the LTV of each customer. This all makes sense provided capital is sufficiently patient and that the unit economics assumptions are real and market growth assumptions are accurate. Unfortunately, assumptions are often wrong and unit economics or market size sometimes does not bear out. When this happens, valuations have to come down dramatically.
Eg. I suspect this will happen for all the co-working spaces. None of them have succeeded beyond being a property play with some ancillary services added on. This makes them a 1-3 times revenue multiple play which is exactly how Softbank values Wework now. Thats a 50-90% valuation haircut.
Will this play out in more verticals? Unfortunately the answer is yes. With Softbank licking its wounds, IPO market rejecting expensive listings, the froth has been blown off somewhat.
4. So there will be more bad exits or failures coming. Where will they come from? My bet will be on those low gross margin or pure traffic plays. B2C and with loads of cost and who have raised loads of VC money. The pressure will be intense to deliver on actual revenues next 1-2 years and profits thereafter. Quite a few names come to mind but I will reserve my judgement and see what happens.
So what should angels do?
Personally, we are sticking to our investing thesis. Remember VC/Angel investing should be just 5-20% of your total portfolio. So you probably made that same 10%-20% in public equities and bonds last 5 years. So it must be money you can lose. We cannot stress this enough.
Next, we invest base on the founders skills and ambition, business model, product and market sizing. We invest systematically on a portfolio approach with discipline. We want our companies to become profitable with superior unit economies and branding. Then they have the luxury to decide to trade sale or IPO. We do not want to invest just because an area is hot or if there is a high valuation ascribed to the vertical overseas or if a famous VC is investing. That is called investing blindly and greedily. You need luck to behave that way and do well.
And if the shit really hits the fan on the ecosystem, i would argue it will be the best time to fund great founders who make it work even without much funding. Talent also becomes easier to find and of course, round valuations will adjust downwards to compensate for risk and capital scarcity.
What should startups do?
To me, founders should take a long hard look at just what your unit economics are. And have a plan if funding is less or dries up. Because I can tell you having gone through SARS in 2003 and GFC in 2008, operating a startup without any outside money requires a mindset and hunger and obsession that is very absent in many founders mindset today.
We don’t think things are so bad right now like back in 2008. In fact it is nowhere near. Our assessment is that the pendulum has merely swung back to more normal state and there is still much interest and liquidity. Of course, if the rest of economy swings into recession and more failures like wework appear, then all bets are off. But we do believe sticking to consistent disciplined investing will work through both good and bad times.
NB : if you are keen to learn and hear our sharing as rather prolific angel investors, come attend our next workshop for Angel Investors.