July 20, 2016 Matt Hottle

Venture Capital May Stop Unicorn-Hunting

A few months ago, Oscar Williams-Grut wrote a great piece in Business Insider talking about the shift in investing interest from “unicorns” to what he coined “cockroaches.” His definition of a cockroach was a company that could survive anything. These were companies that were more interested in profits, self-funding, minimizing costs, and measured growth. Certainly a departure from the kinds of pre-revenue VC darlings that received massive funding in 2014 and 2015.

I was surprised that his article didn’t gain more traction and that #cockroaches didn’t become a thing.

At present, he is looking prophetic.

Theranos has all but imploded. Twitter is looking a lot less shiny than it once did. Zenefits is worth half what it was a year ago. Tesla cars are driving themselves into other objects at high speed.

During last year’s $4.2 billion spike in private investment deals, 59% of that total went to just three companies: Airbnb, Spotify, and Zenefits. There were 39 other “tech” deals in that same period for the remaining 41% of the $4.2 million. That’s a lot of investment money living in only 42 companies.

With this kind of concentration in private investment, fund-raising that used to be an incredible long-shot for the average non-valley-based startup just became impossible. At some point, the money is all spent.

Theranos, Twitter, and Zenefits could turn it around. With that much investor money involved, the sunk cost fallacy should encourage investors to pour in more cash if things get dire. If, however, these companies improve PE and VC rationalizations in value and fund-raising, that could be a very good thing for the rest of us.

Potential, rather than probability, has been favored for a long time among the millionaires providing VC cash to build various funds. The biggest of gambles were worth it because it only required 1 in 15 startup investments to actually make it. Now that ratio seems to be slipping further and private investment may find incremental growth far sexier than it did in the past. Risk mitigation, at some point, becomes a basic fiduciary responsibility and cockroach companies could benefit from that shift in investment theory.

Here are three fundamental shifts I predict could happen in the next 18 months:

  1. VCs start putting together “balanced” funds that act more like low-risk securities. Filled with smaller investments across more “bets,” these funds start to look for companies that exhibit clear paths to profits. This would also create a way to attract lower net worth investors to a fund.
  2. VC money will shelve tech-for-consumer concepts in favor of tech-for-business solutions. Private investment money isn’t willing to put down the app develop crack pipe just yet, but they will look more closely at those companies creating B2B applications as that market is, historically, less capricious.
  3. PE firms will be increasingly interested in finding opportunities in non-traditional hotbeds. GE Capital just partnered with Lamppost Group on their new logistics accelerator, Dynamo, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There is a concentration of capital in a handful of places in the US, but ideas and innovation are not landlocked. The return on invested capital will be far greater in less expensive locales.

Of course, I could be completely wrong. Money can be inherently dumb and illogical. Companies who’ll champion the moniker of “cockroach” will focus on the things that make them hard to kill. Their survivalist mindset will lead to different decisions than one betting on run-rates, future value, and traffic monetization.



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