Startup Funding Fell off a Cliff Last Quarter

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The frenetic era of billion-dollar startup unicorns is slowing down, according to research published on Thursday by CB Insights. Overall, venture capital funding fell by 30% between the third and fourth quarters of 2015, according to the report.

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There were fewer “mega-rounds” of $100 million or more in the fourth quarter.

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Also lower in Q4 were the number companies crossing the $1 billion valuation mark.

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I asked a ten venture investors if they’d noticed a slowdown on deals in the fourth quarter, and I received an interesting split: Late-stage investors, who back startups on the premise that they’ll go public or be sold in the next few years, said they had become more cautious.

But early-stage investors said the fourth quarter was business as usual – most continued the pace of deals they’d been doing all year (“Glad to hear it!” said one early stage investor, when apprised of the later-stage situation).

Why the slowdown for late-stage investors? For one, September’s public market correction caused them to take a closer look at the deals they were doing. It didn’t help that mutual funds began marking down the value of their shares in a number of the better-known unicorn startups, and troubling reports outlining major business challenges surfaced about several others.

Second, expectations of startup valuations have wildly diverged. Fundraising is taking longer to get done because founders think their companies are unicorns when they’re probably not. “Market dynamics are setting the bar much higher” than before, one investor said. Late-state investors are particularly cautious about sectors that require lots of investment, like e-commerce, adtech and fintech, according to another VC.

Investors are bracing themselves for more markdowns from late stage investors, which will produce “shock waves” all the way down to the seed level, said another.

As I wrote previously, most of the billion-dollar startups missed their year-end revenue targets, causing a rift between the startups and results-driven crossover investors that will likely make it harder for the startups to raise more late-stage capital.

Founders are aware of this new difficult reality: Almost all of the startup founders who answered a recent survey by First Round Capital said that they expect it to be harder for them to raise funding next year. Three quarters of them believe we’re now in a tech bubble.

So even if the “age of unicorns” is slowing, it’s not doomsday for startups. Early-stage companies can still raise capital. They’re just going to have figure out how to turn a profit earlier than before. They’ve got less margin for error, and more pressure to go public sooner than they’d prefer. Gone are the days of floundering along unprofitably on private money.

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