MAYBE WINTER REALLY ISN'T COMING
Good morning, Term Sheet readers. In today's guest column, Upfront Ventures managing partner Mark Suster returns to examine why venture capitalists are so optimistic for the year ahead.
Upfront Ventures recently published its outlook for the technology startup world and venture capital overall. We titled it “WTF Happened to Winter?” because so many of us a year ago had been predicting that “winter is coming.” The conclusion of our report was that winter did come, but it was mild and short. This was driven by the influx of corporate VCs, foreign VC money, sovereign wealth funds and the new war chests of VCs who raised new funds in the past 18 months.
Our report was based on desk-based research of what the data in our markets told us. It was also based on a survey we conduct every year of our peer group—partners at VCs firms across the country and some internationally.
The results are in and they're pretty clear (you can read the full deck here):
—VCs are significantly more optimistic about the startup ecosystem and their likelihood of funding than they were a year ago.
—A large minority of VCs were planning to cut their pace of investments a year ago. This year, very few of the VCs we surveyed plan on cutting pace.
—VCs believe that valuations of startups have stabilized and don’t expect any serious corrections to valuations in 2017.
—VCs seem to be taking financial discipline in later-stage companies more seriously, valuing unit economics over “growth at any cost.”
—VCs are most excited about the machine learning and artificial intelligence sub-sector of the technology startup market. Nearly two-thirds say this would be the most important investment area of the next five to 10 years.
—A large number of VCs believed that virtual/augmented reality and the blockchain, while interesting, would take a few more years to mature.
—And unsurprisingly, in our anonymous poll VCs were overwhelmingly negative about Donald Trump. Three quarters said they were “anti Trump” (34%) or “deeply offended” (40%) by him. This was pre-inauguration, so perhaps there's some scope that people feel even worse by now. (I certainly do.)
—Across the board, VCs cite areas of concern about Trump’s policies on: China relations/manufacturing; cyber security; immigration; and social issues.
Here are some details. (Once again, many thanks to Chang Xu for her work preparing and analyzing the data.)
Let's start with the good news. As you can see from this chart, at this time last year 82% of VCs were either “very concerned” or "didn't feel compelled to do deals, given uncertainty.” That has totally reversed. Sixty-two percent report being optimistic or bullish.
Unsurprisingly, with VCs more optimistic, the number of VCs who planned to increased their investment activities doubled in 2017. The number who planned to do fewer deals went down by nearly two-thirds.
As VCs get more bullish on the investment environment and pick up the pace of their activities, there's a natural result: valuations tend to hold up. That bodes will for entrepreneurs raising capital in 2017. As you can see from this chart, very few VCs (2%) forecast significant price drops compared to a year ago, when a large number (30%) were bracing for price drops.
We also asked VCs to weigh in on the areas of technology that most interested them in the coming five years. The overwhelming winner was in startups focused on machine learning or artificial intelligence. You can therefore expect an increase of activity in investments in the AI category in the coming year. (Many VCs believe AR/VR and blockchain investments are more ripe as opportunities in the three-to-five year time horizon.)
Since the change in government is still fresh on people’s minds, we asked what VCs thought about the Trump administration. This anonymous survey was conducted after the election but before the inauguration. Still, the data were clear: VCs don’t like Trump. Eighty-five percent of VCs polled had a negative view of the President and I suspect if we re-polled them today it would be even worse.
The biggest area of concerns for VCs were Trump’s policy issues regarding international trade—especially with regard to China—cyber security, and immigration.
Will it really matter, though? Venture capitalists say no. VCs said that they don’t think that Trump will have much of an impact overall on the tech ecosystem. That's not to say that they aren't concerned about net neutrality, cyber security, immigration, and trade more broadly; they are. It's more a matter of believing that Trump is effective enough to meaningfully change policy to slow technology innovation in America. Our survey's respondents believe he is not. (Not that he won't try.) —Mark Suster
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