Setting Your Valuation Could Work Against You

Founders who decide to raise venture capital sometimes do things unwittingly that could cause a venture fund to opt out prematurely. The most common is setting the valuation before chatting with VCs. Founders decide the amount of capital they want to raise, pick a valuation, and put all that info in their pitch deck. This can be OK in raising from angels, friends, or family, but it’s not advisable when you’re seeking to raise a round of capital from venture funds.

Founders usually don’t have as good a grasp of valuations in venture markets as venture funds do. Funds usually see a constant flow of deals, which helps them keep a finger on the pulse of market valuation for companies at a particular stage. Founders are usually relying on conversations with other founders or data they find online. While helpful, these sources of information may not reflect current market conditions or may not give founders enough data points to really understand market conditions. A fund could be interested but decline to meet the company because the valuation is unrealistic.

Another variable founders should be aware of is a venture fund’s portfolio construction. I won’t get into the details of it, but when a fund is raised, the general partner(s) communicate to limited partners how many companies the fund will invest in, the average check size of each investment, and how much of each company the fund plans to own. These and other factors help create the hypothetical portfolio of companies the fund will own and the hypothetical portfolio return (i.e., how the fund will return a profit to limited partners). If a venture fund receives a pitch deck with a valuation that’s too far high, they’ll be more inclined to pass on the company. A high valuation can mean a lower share of ownership in a company, which can throw off the portfolio construction. If general partners deviate too much from the portfolio construction they communicated to limited partners, they have to explain why. These kinds of conversations can cause some limited partners to decline to invest in future funds. Of course, founders usually don’t know a fund’s portfolio construction, so they’re at an information disadvantage when they set a valuation.

So, what can founders do when they’re raising a round of venture capital? Simple: leave the valuation out of your deck. Include the amount of capital you’re raising and figure out the valuation as you chat with venture funds. These questions can help you figure out the right valuation and evaluate funds:

  • Ask VCs what the current market valuation is for companies at your stage. If you talk to enough funds, you’ll have your finger on the pulse of the market.
  • Ask VCs what their average initial check size is and if they have an ownership target. If a fund says they write $1 million initial checks and aim for 10% ownership, you know they’re likely in the $10 million post-valuation range.

Figuring out valuation for an early-stage company is part art, part science, and part negotiation. I hope this will help founders go into their fund raises better prepared.