Earlier today, to get a sense of what’s happening in the land of venture capital, the law firm Fenwick & West hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with New York investors Hadley Harris, a founding general partner with Eniac Ventures; Brad Svrluga, a cofounder and general partner of Primary Ventures; and Ellie Wheeler, a partner with Greylock.
Each investor is experiencing the coronavirus-driven lockdown in unique ways, unsurprisingly. Their professional experiences are very much in sync, however, and founders should know the bottom line is that they aren’t making brand-new bets at this very moment.
On the personal front, Wheeler is expecting her first child. Harris is enjoying lunch with his wife every day. Svrluga said that he hasn’t had so many consecutive meals with his kids in more than a decade. (He described this as a treat.)
Professionally, things have been more of a struggle. First, all have been swamped in recent weeks, trying to assess which of their startups are the most at risk, which are worth salvaging, and which may be encountering unexpected opportunity — and how to address each of these scenarios.
They are so busy, in fact, that none is writing checks right now to founders who might be trying to reach them for the first time. Indeed, Harris takes issue with investors who’ve said throughout this crisis that they are still very open to pitches. “I’ve seen a lot of VCs talking about being open for business, and I’ve been pretty outspoken on Twitter that I think that’s largely bullshit and sends the wrong message to entrepreneurs.
“We’re completely swamped right now in terms of bandwidth” because of the work required by existing portfolio companies. Bandwidth, he added, “is our biggest constraint, not money.”
What happens when bandwidth is no longer such an issue? It’s worth noting that none thinks that meeting founders exclusively remotely is natural or normal or conducive to deal-making — not at their firms, in any case.
Wheeler noted that while “some accelerators and seed funds that are prolific have been doing this in some way, shape or form for a bit,” for “a lot of firms,” it’s just awkward to contemplate funding someone they have never met in person.
“The first part of the diligence process is the same, that’s not hard,” said Wheeler. “It’s meeting the team, visiting [the startup’s workspace], meeting our team. How do you do that [online]?” she asked. “How do you mimic what you pick up from spending time together [both] casually and formally? I don’t think people have figured that out,” she said, adding, “The longer this goes on, we’ll have to.”
As for what to pitch them anyway, each is far less interested in sectors that aren’t highly relevant to this new world. Harris said, for example, that now is not the time to float your new idea for a brick-and-mortar business. Wheeler separately observed that many people have discovered in recent weeks that “distributed teams and remote work are actually more viable and sustainable than people thought they were,” suggesting that related software is of continued interest to Greylock.
Svrluga said Primary Ventures is paying attention to software that enables more seamless remote work, too. Telecommuting “has been a culture positive event for the 18 people at my firm,” he said.
Naturally, the three were asked — by Fenwick attorney Evan Bienstock, who moderated the discussion — about downsizing, which each had noted was a nearly inescapable part of lengthening a startup’s runway right now. (“It sucks,” said Svrluga. “People are losing their jobs. But to continue to run teams with the same organizational structure as 60 days ago, [which was] the most favorable environment for building industries, you can’t do it.”)
Their uniform advice for management teams that have to cut was to cut deeply to prevent from having to do it a second time.
Though no one wants part ways with the people who they’ve brought aboard, “no CEO has ever told me, ‘Dammit, we cut too far,’” said Svrluga, who has been through two downturns in his career. In contrast, “at least 30%” of the CEOs he has known admitted to not going far enough to insulate their business while also keeping its culture intact.
And culture can be especially fragile given the current circumstances, suggested Wheeler. “It’s so hard to do [layoffs] well.” Being forced to do them remotely makes it that much worse. After all, “Maintaining culture after a remote [layoff], no one leaned how to do that [before this pandemic struck]; it’s really hard.” But the “second cut hurts way more,” she continued. “It’s the second [layoff] that really throws people.”
As for what’s next, the VCs all said that they’ll be receptive to new ideas after spending the last few weeks working through layoffs and burn rates and projected runways and the new stimulus package that they’re trying to find a way to make work for their startups.
As for how soon that might be, Wheeler and Svrluga suggested their worlds might look less upside down in a month. They proposed that a month should also give founders more needed time to adjust some of their expectations.
Meanwhile, Harris seemed to agree. “It will probably be a gradual thing . . . “I’m not sure what next week holds but feel free to ping me in a month and I’ll let [founders] know if I think it’s opening up.”