If you’re feeling confused about the state of startup investing, join the club. Public company shares have been relentlessly hammered in recent months amid rising fears of a recession, yet startup funding seems as brisk as ever and, more surprising, to us, VCs are still routinely announcing enormous new funds as they have for many years.
To better understand what’s going on, we talked this week with Index Ventures cofounder Danny Rimer, who grew up in Geneva, where Index has an office, but who now splits his time between London and San Francisco, where Index also has offices. (It just opened an office in New York, too.)
We happened to catch Rimer — whose bets include Discord, 1stdibs, Glossier, and Good Eggs, among others — in California. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length.
TC: This week, Lightspeed Venture Partners announced $7 billion across several funds. Battery Ventures said it has closed on $3.8 billion. Oak HC/FT announced almost $2 billion. Usually when the public market is this far down, institutional investors are less able to commit to new funds, so where is this money coming from?
DR: It’s a great question. I think that we should remember that there have been extraordinary gains for a lot of these institutions over the last few years — call it actually the last decade. And their positions have really mushroomed as well during this period. So what you’re seeing is an allocation to funds that most likely have been around for a while. . . . and have actually provided very good returns over the years. I think that investors are looking to put their money into institutions that understand how to allocate this fresh new money in any market.
These funds keep getting bigger and bigger. Are there new funding sources? We’ve obviously seen sovereign wealth funds play a bigger role in venture funds in recent years. Does Index look farther afield than it once did?
There certainly has been this bifurcation in the market between funds that are probably more in the business of asset aggregation and funds that are trying to continue the artisanal practice of venture and we play in the latter camp. So in relative terms, our fund sizes have not become very significant. They have not grown dramatically, because we’ve been very clear that we want to keep it small, keep our craft alive and continue to go down that route. What that means is that when it comes to our institutional investor base, first of all, we don’t have any family offices, and we don’t take sovereign wealth fund money. We really are talking about endowments, pension funds, nonprofits and funds of funds that make up our base of investors. And we’re fortunate enough that most of those folks have been with us for close to 20 years now.
You do have quite a bit of money under management, you announced $3 billion in new funds last year. That’s not a tiny amount.
No, it’s not tiny, but relative to the funds that you’re alluding to — the funds that have have grown a lot and have done sector funds or crossover funds — if you look at how much Index has raised [since the outset] versus most of our peers, it’s actually a very different story.
How much has Index raised over the history of the firm?
We should check. I wish I could have the exact number at the tip of my tongue.
It’s sort of refreshing that you don’t know. Are you in the market now? It does feel like it’s been one year on and one year off in terms of fundraising for most firms, and that this isn’t changing.
We’re not in the market to fundraise. We are obviously in the market to invest.
We’re starting to see a lot of companies reset their valuations. Are you having talks with your portfolio companies about doing the same?
We’re having all types of discussions with companies within our portfolio; nothing is off the table. We absolutely do not want to suspend disbelief when it comes to the realities of the situation. I wouldn’t say that it’s an umbrella discussion that we’re having with all our companies. But we consistently try and make sure that our companies understand the current climate, the conditions that are specific to them, and make sure that they’re as realistic as possible when it comes to their future.
Depending on the company, sometimes the valuations have gotten well ahead of themselves, and we can’t count on the crossover funds coming back . . . they have to defend their public positions. So some of these companies have to just weather the storm and make sure they’re prepared for difficult times ahead. Other companies really have an opportunity to lean in during this period and capture significant market share.
Like a lot of VCs, you say you’d prefer that a startup conduct a ‘down round’ rather than agree to onerous terms to maintain a specific valuation. Do you think founders have gotten the memo that down rounds are acceptable in this climate?
It really depends. I think you probably have some new funds that started during this period — you have some new sector funds — that make it complicated because [they’re] not investing in the best business. [They’re] investing in the best business, or trying to fund the best business, within that sector. So there are probably some pressures with respect to some of the VCs that’s being felt by some of the entrepreneurs.
I do want to highlight that not all companies need to take a cold shower with respect to valuation. There are a lot of companies that are doing very well, even in this environment.
Fast, an online login and checkout company, quickly shut down earlier this year, and Index was razzed a bit online for quickly removing the company from its website. What happened there and, in retrospect, what more could Index have done in that situation? I’m guessing your team had a postmortem on this one.
I wasn’t aware that we took it down from our website. I guess it’s probably there but probably harder to find, is what I suspect. We do promote the companies that are doing great.
You’re right, we did digest it as a firm and really tried to take the lessons learned from there. There are a number of factors that we’re still digesting or we can’t know about but probably what was difficult during COVID was really evaluating talent and understanding the folks that we were working with. And I’m sure that my partners who were responsible for the company would have been able to spend more time and really understand the entrepreneurial culture of the company in a lot more detail had we been able to spend more time with them in person.
(We’ll have more from this interview in podcast form next week; stay tuned.)