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SME Finance: Funding Slowdown Means Better Choices for Startups

Venture capital (VC) funding has historically been viewed as the only way for a company to find true success. While there have of course been some companies that broke this mold, for the most part that has been the general view. However, as the global VC funding slowdown begins, startups are being forced to look elsewhere, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Mindaugas Mikalajūnas, CEO of SME Finance, a rising fintech star in Baltics. Since its establishment in 2016, the company financed invoices worth more than €800million, works with such insurance companies like Coface, Euler Hermes and Lithunian buisness support agency Invega

He holds 13 years of experience working in finance, including eight years of project management (CRM) in a Scandinavian bank, followed by CEO and board member (incl. CC) position in SME Finance. He has published a  few articles and comments in multiple news media outlets in the Baltic states. 

Speaking to The Fintech Times, Mikalajūnas explains that as VC funds tighten, European startups are opening their eyes to more appropriate funding alternatives.

Mindaugas Mikalajūnas, CEO of SME Finance, 
Mindaugas Mikalajūnas, CEO of SME Finance,

Tiger Global’s loss of $17billion, reported in May, was certainly eye-catching. But it won’t be the only tech VC nursing a negative asset sheet at the moment and tightening up its lending book. 

It’s far from a rout, but government-initiated credit squeezes mean that global venture funding in May 2022 was down again at $39billion, according to Crunchbase, the lowest level since November 2020 and well below the $70billion peak in November 2021.

As a result, European startups looking for new funds are having to take a longer look around at their options. What they’re discovering is that the starry-eyed VC option was perhaps not the right route after all. 

Instead, they are looking more closely at the many new ways that are now available to them of raising debt funding. These typically involve less risk, less intrusive behaviour by lenders, and serve to encourage more disciplined business practices.

A startling glimpse of the obvious

If anything needs explaining here, it’s the status quo. Why were founders so keen to give away equity when they didn’t need to? “Founders chase VC funding as if it’s the answer to all their prayers and the only way to scale a business”, said James Routledge, founder of Sanctus and author of Mental Health at Work.

Despite all the dire stories about VCs’ incessant demands and the widespread understanding that they take up to 85 per cent of available equity before an IPO actually happens, founders have remained stubbornly blinkered about the pitfalls of the VC model. Even the discovery that VCs’ earnings mostly come, not from successful IPOs, but from the two per cent annual fees on committed capital that they charge their investors, does not seem to put them off. 

Part of the answer for the fixation was the sheer availability of funds. Crunchbase says global venture investment in 2021 totaled $643billion, compared with $335billion in 2020 — a 92 per cent increase. With that amount of money being distributed, perhaps criteria were not as tight as they could have been and funding rounds larger than they needed to be. It was a heady mix that many founders were unable to resist.

And VCs have been chasing companies at earlier and earlier stages. One startup that saw through the VC equity trap was Stockholm-based Planhat. “We’ve had investors reaching out since very early on. We thought we were working under the radar but it’s crazy how they find companies at such an early stage”, said co-founder Kaveh Rostampor, talking to Sifted

But plenty of founders were flattered by the rock star attention they anticipated — and often received — if they made it through the pitching rounds. And once they were on the VC funding treadmill, it was virtually impossible to step off.

What they found, was that the one-size-fits-all VC approach to funding was not right for many, maybe most. We regularly meet startups who have felt pressured by VCs to take funding well beyond their needs at the time, and to give up excessive amounts of equity. 

Initially, these founders tend to just assume that being a startup means getting VC capital. But the more they think about it and research the options, they find there are more appropriate ways to satisfy their needs for working capital.

Plenty of alternatives to VC funding 

The VC obsession was always curious. If you don’t raise equity and bootstrap instead, there are plenty of options available in Europe for you to choose from, including raising VC one day. 

More appropriate working capital availability through Revenue Based Financing (RBF) and tailor-made factoring, loans, and leasing packages, has widened EU businesses’ access to funding, allowing them to grow more rapidly. Adequate working capital allows them to establish their market presence, be more flexible, acquire greater negotiating power with suppliers and partners, manage their operations more smoothly, and obtain insurance against the challenges startups face in their early stages.

Were founders confusing their needs? Did they really need such large amounts of equity capital or just smaller amounts of working capital? In my opinion, SaaS founders would be better off if they could securitise future revenues. With RBF, if revenues slow, so do the repayments. The technology behind it also makes it possible for founders to get funding quickly, and without needing to step out for yet another pitch or meeting. It also assures that founders stay in control during times of uncertainty. 

Credit squeezes exist to weed out the over-extended

And having too much money on the table encourages bad habits. When a company raises equity, it expects it to last for 18 to 24 months. The money stays in the bank account for all that time: Spare cash that’s sitting there not generating anything. It just leads to inefficiency because the company feels compelled to spend it or, worse, forced to buy bad assets. As many startups who have over-extended are now discovering, there’s a natural limit to how fast you can deploy efficiently or how many people you can hire effectively.

The whole point about central bank-induced tightening is to make people think twice about the debt they are taking on. In the white-hot world of tech startups, the medicine appears to be working. Founders are looking for, and finding, methods of financing their businesses that are a lot more appropriate to their needs.    

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