Why Startup Investors Need Billion-Dollar Exits and Entrepreneurs Don’t

Exit Strategy

By Alejandro Cremades

Billion-dollar startup exits are cool. Yet, are they really as great for startup entrepreneurs as they are for startup investors such as VCs?

The new California gold rush has definitely been in “ludicrous mode” for a while. Who knows, unicorn farms may soon become the new norm. Yet, it’s worth pausing for a moment to really think about the math and mechanics of startups to figure out the smartest strategy for you as a founder before you take another dime in funding.

Which is the better exit?

Is it better to have a one-billion-dollar exit, but only own 2% of the company on the sale, or to keep 20% of the company, and be willing to exit at $100 million?

They’re the same thing. Both would theoretically give you a gross of $20 million to walk with. In practice, aside from the street cred and bragging rights, there are likely to be other substantial differences as well.

The cons of going all in for the unicorn

As a founder, there are some drawbacks to holding out for the biggest possible IPO or acquisition:

  • Odds are you will mistime the market.
  • The odds of failure are higher than the odds of selling for $1 billion.
  • It may take five times longer to reach a billion for the same amount of cash.
  • Your net may be depleted by bad earnout clauses.
  • The higher the dollar amount, the more limited you’ll be in what you can do after the sale.
  • You’ll need to raise more money, hire more, and dilute more.
  • You’ll have increasingly far less control of the venture as you go.
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Some of these drawbacks might be considered “selfish,” so whatever you decide should be about doing what is best for your customers, your employees, and your early backers.

Why VCs need billion-dollar exits

VC firms don’t just crave billion-dollar exits, they need them. While news about companies like Uber make it sound like every startup should be worth billions, they aren’t.

Micah Rosenbloom, managing partner of seed-stage VC fund Founder Collective, says that out of 270 startup investments his company invested in, only 60 had achieved an exit and 30 had gone bankrupt. He also says that data shows the average startup with an exit sells for just around $150 million.

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The bottom line is VCs need really big wins, because those wins are very few and far between. They have to make up for all their losses and mediocre returns. VCs also are making much bigger investments, meaning they need big dollars back to create acceptable multiples. You might also say VCs can afford to take a gamble and risk going long more often—versus the founder who has just one horse in the race.

Why founders don’t need billion-dollar exits

I’ve interviewed several founders with billion-dollar exits, and some founders have had even more than one exit. As humble and modest as these people are, I’m sure they would not have preferred to sell for less. Yet, that doesn’t mean they are going to insist on ten-figure exits for future ventures.

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