The Tech Selloff Is About to Cause Big Problems for Start-Ups, Too

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As public markets tumble, venture-capital firms are pulling back. The conditions on Sand Hill Road—the home to top Silicon Valley VC firms—are likely to get tougher from here.

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The sharp selloff in technology shares has already had a severe impact on investors’ portfolios, and now it’s also causing considerable ripples in the venture capital market. Start-up valuations are getting slashed and VC firms are slowing their commitments to new deals. Barring any quick reversal in the market’s mood, conditions on Sand Hill Road are likely to get even tougher from here.

The stats on the public market carnage are sadly familiar by now. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite index is down 27% this year, with many high profile stocks— Shopify (ticker: SHOP), Netflix (NFLX), Peloton Interactive (PTON), Roku (ROKU), Chewy (CHWY), Snowflake ( SNOW), and DoorDash (DASH)—suffering declines of 50% or more.

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Meanwhile, the market for initial public offerings has come to a halt, SPAC issuers are struggling to find merger partners for their deals, and regulatory scrutiny is making it all but impossible for well-capitalized companies like Meta Platforms (FB) and Alphabet (GOOGL) ) to rescue the start-ups through acquisitions.

The pain is less obvious in the venture capital world, where firms tend to operate out of public view. They have no requirement to report their results, or to disclose the fate of their portfolio companies. Many early-stage deals fade from view, acquired for modest returns, or simply shutdown.

While start-ups loudly shout about their new venture rounds—you should see my email inbox—there’s a lot less shouting when there are down rounds or Chapter 11 filings.

But in this market, even the secrecy can’t cover up signs of trouble. The Renaissance IPO exchange-traded fund (IPO), a portfolio of initial public offerings completed within the last two years, is down some 50% in 2022—and the new issuance has largely stopped.

In late March, the grocery delivery start-up Instacart reduced its stated valuation by about 40%, to $24 billion, reflecting the sharp selloff in shares of its publicly traded peers, like DoorDash and Uber Technologies (UBER). That selloff has only gotten worse in the weeks since.

Earlier this month, SoftBank Group (SFTBY) revealed that it lost nearly $27 billion across its three large venture funds—Vision Fund, Vision Fund 2, and a Latin American venture fund. In part, that reflects the reduced value of holdings that previously came public, like Coupang (CPNG) and DiDi Global (DIDI). But SoftBank also took hits on holdings of private companies. No doubt every venture fund is suffering from reduced valuations. SoftBank, as a public company, is just one of the few VC firms required to disclose the bad news.

A new report from research firm CB Insights shows a sharp slowdown in venture capital activity from every dimension—in particular, fewer fundings and slowing exits. The firm forecasts there will be 6,904 total venture deals in the quarter, down 12% from a year ago, and off 22% from the first quarter.

And IPOs, the traditional VC exit, have all but dried up. There have been just 34 IPOs in the US market so far in 2022, down 78% from the same point a year earlier, according to Renaissance Capital.

There are also signs of trouble in the secondary market for private company shares. Forge Global Holdings (FRGE), which operates a market that matches buyers and sellers of pre-IPO stock, reports that the average transaction price fell 8.9% in the March quarter from the fourth quarter. That’s a sharp decline, though it still pales in comparison to the 31% drop in the price of the Renaissance IPO ETF over the same span, a sign that pricing in the private market remains a bit stickier. It’s all but inevitable that the gap will soon start to close.

Forge Global CEO Kelly Rodriques, who I recently interviewed for a Barron’s Live event, notes that most private transactions in pre-IPO shares still take place at prices above the last completed financing round—but the premium is shrinking. The average secondary transaction in the first quarter came at a 24% premium to the last round, according to Forge, down from a 58% average premium in the fourth quarter.

Forge is seeing a record number of sell side “indications of interest,” paired with a widening dispersion between bids and asks—sellers want out, but buyers are increasingly price conscious. With IPO exits slowing, the urgency for finding ways into once-hot start-ups is waning.

Maybe it’s a good thing that IPO markets have all but shut down. A new study from Manhattan Venture Partners, a merchant bank focused on the secondary market in pre-IPO shares, shows venture-capital investors have spent the last decade making hay through IPOs. Regular public market investors? Not so much.

According to Manhattan Venture Partners, companies that went public between 2010 and 2021 produced annualized returns of about 60% for their early-stage investors. That’s using a closing price six months after the IPO. The returns are even better for those investors that bought into late-stage private companies. They’ve enjoyed annualized average returns through the six-month post-IPO period of roughly 80%.

But public-market buyers—people who bought stock at the end of the first day of trading—had average returns of -1% six months after the IPO.

Manhattan Venture analyst Santosh Rao concludes that buying IPOs in the public market, “is a sucker’s bet.” That’s something to keep in mind when IPOs eventually make their return.

Write to Eric J. Savitz at [email protected]

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Credit: www.marketwatch.com /

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