Some early-stage founders are optimistic about raising again

Raising capital is never easy, and the past few years have been particularly tough for startups. But there are signs that the tide may be starting to turn, as some founders are starting to get optimistic about their fundraising chances again. But not everyone.

A new January Ventures survey of 437 pre-seed and seed-stage founders found that 57% of early-stage founders are more optimistic about their ability to raise capital now compared to nine months ago. In 2022, 43% of founders were optimistic and 54% were optimistic amid 2021’s froth. But when you dig into that 57%, a clear demographic divide emerges.

Nearly 70% of male founders recorded that they were optimistic about raising in 2023. Male founders are more optimistic about raising funding this year compared to any other year since the survey started five years ago. In comparison, only 45% of women founders felt the same, making 2023 one of the lowest years regarding optimism from female founders since the survey started. Respondents were almost evenly split 50/50 male and female founders.

Women also feel particularly adversely affected this year: More than 70% of women responded that they felt their gender was holding them back as an entrepreneur.

When you look at recent funding data, this isn’t shocking. Female founders raised just 1.9% of U.S. venture capital dollars in 2023, through the third quarter, according to PitchBook. Jennifer Neundorfer, a founding partner at January Ventures, said she knew the data was bad but was still surprised by that result.

“It’s felt like 2023 is a moment of transition, and it was interesting as we look at data that isn’t in our survey, it seems like funding is stabilizing, but the difference between male and female founders is pretty stark,” Neundorfer said. “We were struck by who this transition is serving.”

One potential reason why this divide is so wide might be because of how founders raise capital and the age-old network problem that exists in venture. Founders responded that other entrepreneurs have been the most helpful network for them to turn to for fundraising help. This presents an issue for women founders: If the majority of their founder network is other women entrepreneurs —who raise less capital as a whole — women founders are at a disadvantage compared to their male peers pretty much from the start.

“Women, their networks are less efficient in this vein,” Neundorfer said. “In a tough fundraising market, where the best way to raise money is from an intro, male founders, there is more efficiency in that network and more friction in female founders.”

The majority of pre-seed-stage companies raise their first round from friends and family, which also further hurts them if their network of potential backers isn’t as strong from the beginning.

The survey also showed that despite the overall optimism about fundraising, companies definitely need cash: 85% of the companies surveyed have less than 12 months of runway. This is higher than last year, 81%, when the market felt even tougher than it does now.

“One part of it is that founders just tend to be wildly optimistic people,” said Maren Bannon, a founding partner at January Ventures. “Founders say, ‘I’m going to raise next quarter, or the beginning of next year things will be better and it will be easier to raise.’”

The confidence could also come from the cost-cutting these early-stage companies have done over the last year. More than a third of founders reduced hiring plans, and 23% had layoffs in 2023, compared to just 12% and 6%, respectively, in 2022.

Bannon said that gathering this data is important because these are all really early companies. Knowing what challenges and issues they are having now helps VCs and other founders better fix them before they become really hard to solve down the road — or unsolvable altogether.

“While the data in this report is pretty depressing, we want it to be something that can spark a conversation with constructive solutions,” Bannon said. “I think part of it is getting more funding to female and diverse founders. Trying to remove the bias and remove these steps in the process. It seems like something that you can’t just attack one way. [We need] this surround-sound approach to really move the needle on it.”

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