In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the symbiotic relationship between seed-stage and Series A investors.
But things are becoming a little less symbiotic of late, suggests Josh Felser, co-founder of Freestyle Capital, a San Francisco-based seed-stage firm that recently closed on a second, $40 million fund. Felser says that he has encountered a number of Series A deals recently that “pitted the entrepreneur against the seed investors.”
Here’s the scene that Felser has seen playing out more and more: A VC agrees to invest $5 million into a company with a $20 million pre-money valuation, giving the startup a post-money valuation of $25 million. The company’s seed investors, presumably holding convertible notes, ask to invest an additional $2 million in the Series A round to maintain their pro rata rights. But the VC refuses to go above the $25 million post money, telling the entrepreneur that if he or she wants to make room for those seed investors, the company will have to accept a lower pre-money valuation.
It isn’t a new tactic. It’s always been the case that some VCs don’t play nice with seed-stage investors. In certain situations, too, there are simply too many seed-stage investors to accommodate; if everyone maintains their pro rata rights going into the Series A, it doesn’t give the VC firm enough of an ownership stake to make the investment worth its while.
Still, in recent years, some Series A investors have either left room for seed investors or at least been upfront about their designs to maintain specific ownership levels, thus giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to look elsewhere.
That’s changing, says Felser, who has been involved with two recent investment rounds where VCs have put entrepreneurs and their seed backers in precarious positions by not disclosing their true intentions until very late in the game.
Felser tells me of one startup raising a Series A round that asked Freestyle to invest less than the $750,000 it had planned after the Series A investor laid down some inflexible terms. Felser and Freestyle co-founder Dave Samuel — successful founders themselves — reminded the entrepreneur of how much work they had poured into the startup. (As Felser jokingly tells it, for effect, they refreshed the entrepreneur’s memory over lunch in a darkly lit nightclub that opens out into an alley.)
Ultimately, the founder made room for Freestyle, accepting a lower pre-money valuation in the process. But Felser says the trend is “something [for early investors] to be worried about” and calls relations between seed and Series A investors “symbiotic still, but tense.”
Says Felser, “We depend on each other.” He acknowledges that “fixing the post-money [valuation of a startup] can make a ton of sense,” too. But he doesn’t like that some VCs are starting to play hardball, or that it’s happening “sneakily deep in the process” all of a sudden.
“It’s something we’re mindful of,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Freestyle Capital.
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