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Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

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Of the Inc. 5000 companies, only 6.5% raised money from VCs and 7.7% raised from angels. Where else can fast-growing companies get funding?

More and more startups are pursuing revenue-based VCs, but it’s not a good fit for everyone. A new category of investors has emerged offering a hybrid between VC and revenue-based investment (RBI), which we call “flexible VC.”

From RBI, flexible VCs borrow the ability to reap meaningful returns without demanding founders build for an exit. From traditional equity VC, flexible VC borrows the option to pursue and reap the rewards of an outsized exit. Every flexible VC structure allows founders to access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.

Before raising capital, we encourage founders to dig into the nuances between different flexible VC structures.

Our categorization is not a technical one. Rather, we want to accommodate the wide variety of instruments currently offered by flexible VC investors, detailed below. As two fund managers employing flexible VC, we think it is a healthy addition to the ecosystem and will yield more predictable and stable healthy returns for investors.

Flexible VC 101: Equity meets revenue share

This is currently the most common investment structure: The flexible VC investor purchases either equity ownership, or a convertible right to equity, and a right to regularly scheduled payments based on a percentage of revenues.

By tying payments to actual revenues, founders and investors remain aligned around the company’s real-time performance, good or bad.

“Too often, investment structures force the management team to make decisions between misaligned growth and investment (return) objectives. This structure allows for alignment on the front end, and real-time flexibility for performance metrics,” says Samira Salman, a family office investor and advisor.

Payments are commonly delayed for a grace period of 12-36 months. John Berger, director of Operations and Impact Solutions at Toniic, observed that this has clear investor benefits: “The grace period became a feature because it benefits investors in regions like the U.S. where there can be tax differences between short- and long-term gains. It has moved from its origins as a tax benefit and can be viewed as a feature that benefits founders.” After the grace period, the return payments begin, often lasting until a return cap is hit, such as 2-5 times the original investment.

To account for these revenue share payments, the investor’s ownership (or convertible right to ownership) is simultaneously reduced. Once the return cap is reached, the investor is typically left with a residual stake — a fraction of the pre-revenue share ownership. At any point, should the founder wish to pursue a traditional equity VC round, or get bought, the revenue share is paused, and the investor’s then-current ownership converts to equate to a traditional equity VC investor.

Flexible VC 102: Variations

Flexible VCs have created structures based on other company performance metrics than revenues, such as profits or founder salaries. These different company performance metrics provide a slight variation in how the investor and founder relationship is defined. For example, profit-sharing structures ensure payments do not begin until the company is profitable, though likely delaying returns to the investor and complicating payment calculations.

Similarly, when flexible VC structures are based off of the founder’s own compensation (often via salary or dividends), investors are specifically tying their returns to the financial success of the founder. This translates less directly to company performance compared to a revenue or profit share, but offers uniquely personal alignment. These variations in founder alignment allow flexible VCs to specialize in the types of companies they work with.

The state of flexible VC

In all these cases, capital is provided to fuel forecasted growth without creating a commitment to a particular vision for future funding rounds, exit goals and associated blitzscaling. The founder retains full control over whether they want to optimize for hypergrowth (usually at the expense of profitability) or for organic, profitable growth. Flexible VC opens up a new risk capital option for bootstrappers, minorities, family-owned and countless other founder segments left out by the traditional funding landscape.

A range of small VCs are deploying with flexible VC structures, but we believe the total amount of AUM deployed with this strategy is well under $50 million. Similar to the explosion of seed funds in the past decade, we (and some limited partners too) believe these Flexible VCs are on the forefront of what will become a major segment of the venture ecosystem.

We detail below the major categories of VC:

Funder category Equity ownership Returns primarily based on  Composition of returns Example VC
Equity VC Yes, typically preferred equity.

15%-20% sold per round. On average, founders own just 43% of equity by Series B, declining thereafter.

The value ascribed by subsequent investors (in a secondary); buyers (acquisition); or the public markets (IPO). Volatile, uncapped. Andressen Horowitz, ff Venture Capital, HOF Capital, Sequoia.
Flexible VC: Revenue-based Yes, nonvoting common shares (if converted).

5%-20% initial stake, with 50%-90% of this redeemable.

Gross revenues (generally 2%-8%). 2x-5x return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Capacity Capital, Greater Colorado Venture Fund, Indie.VC, Reformation Partners, UP Fund, Versatile VC.
Flexible VC: Compensation-based Yes, via conversion rights at a valuation cap. “Founder earnings” (Founder salaries + dividends + retained earnings). 2x-5x return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Chisos.
Flexible VC: Blended Return Yes, via conversion rights at a valuation cap. Profits, founder salaries, and/or dividends declared. Typically ~3x+ return cap + path to uncapped equity returns. Discretionary dividends and salary share built in. Collab Capital, Earnest Capital, TinySeed.
Revenue-share investing No. Gross revenues (generally 2%-8%). 1.35x-2.2x return cap. Novel Growth Partners, Lighter Capital, Rev Up, Corl.

Flexible VC versus other venture capital models

Flexible VC investors offer founders some of the same advantages as equity VCs:

  • Aligned incentives. Whether it is a breakout success or complete failure and loss of capital, investors are along for the ride. When the company hits potholes, flexible VC investors usually don’t have the nuclear options of firing management and/or doing a recapitalization. Their only option is to work with management to try to fix the problems.
  • Few strings attached. Founders have autonomy to spend the funds in whatever way they like.
  • Long-term alignment. Many flexible VCs retain a small residual stake in the company after the return cap is reached, driving alignment well beyond the horizon of the revenue share, similar to the long-term orientation of equity VC.
  • Seed-stage compatible. Like traditional equity VC investors, flexible VCs accommodate early-stage investment risk within their portfolios better than a traditional RBI funder.
  • Eligible for favorable treatment under qualified small business stock exemption, if structured as equity. This applies if the investment converts into common stock; details are beyond this essay’s scope.

Flexible VCs also offer investors some of the same advantages as RBI:

  • Clear return expectations. The return cap is a stated multiple of the investment, typically 2x-5x.
  • Early liquidity. Equity VC is a “get rich slow” business. Flexible VC creates early liquidity that can be either reinvested or distributed to LPs.
  • Improved financial management. All parties want the company to be able to afford the payment obligations and, ideally, deliver a quick return. As a result, unfounded hockey-stick graphs and unicorn promises give way to financial fluency, realistic expectations, frank conversations about what a business can credibly achieve and transparency.
  • Profitability is prioritized. The revenue that is going to grow the company immediately is the same revenue that is going to get investors to their return cap. If the company is profitable, the revenue share becomes increasingly affordable. This drives an earlier focus on profitability than is typical for a company backed by traditional equity VC.
  • Founder retains control. Flexible VCs typically purchase nonvoting common stock, if they purchase stock (one even assigns their voting rights to the founders). This keeps the founder in the driver’s seat of the company.
  • Attractive to women and underrepresented founders. See Why Are Revenue-Based Investors Investing in Women & Diverse Entrepreneurs?

Flexible VC also offers some unique advantages:

  • Straightforward equity interface. If an equity round is needed to fund breakout growth beyond what the flexible VC funds, the mechanics of including a flexible VC in an equity VC round are predetermined and simple.
  • Prepared for blitzscaling, but neither required nor expected. Blitzscaling typically means prioritizing user growth over revenue growth and revenue growth over profitability. Tim O’Reilly, CEO, O’Reilly Media, argues, “Blitzscaling isn’t really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy.” With flexible VC, not every company is expected to achieve breakout growth, but that possibility is accounted for up front.
  • Particular application in impact capital. Our research has found that impact investors appear to be particularly interested in flexible VC. An impact investor typically needs some economic return to function, but doesn’t necessarily want the company as a whole to exit, given exits often have a negative impact on the company’s founding mission. Flexible VC allows impact VCs to thread this needle.

That said, nothing is cost-free. The unique disadvantages of flexible VC include:

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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Holidu books $45M after growing its vacation rentals business ~50% YoY during COVID-19

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Vacation rental startup Holidu has tucked $45 million in Series D funding into its suitcase — bringing its total raised since being founded back in 2014 to more than $120M.

The latest funding round is led by 83North with participation from existing investors Prime Ventures, EQT ventures, Coparion, Senovo, Kees Koolen, Lios Ventures and Chris Hitchen. Also participating, with both equity and debt, is Claret Capital (formerly Harbert European Growth Capital).

The financing will be ploughed into product development; doubling the size of the tech team; and on building out partnerships to keep expanding supply, Holidu said.

While the global pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to much of the travel industry, the Munich-headquartered startup has been able to benefit from coronavirus-induced shifts in traveller behavior.

People who may have booked city breaks or hotels pre-COVID-19 are turning to private holiday accommodation in greater numbers than before — so they can feel safer about going on holiday and perhaps enjoy more space and fresh air than they’ve had at home during coronavirus lockdowns.

Having flexible cancelation options is also now clearly front of mind for travellers — and Holidu credits moving quickly to build in flexible cancellation and payment solutions with helping fuel its growth during the pandemic.

Holidu’s meta search engine compares listings on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com, HomeAway and Vrbo and provides holidaymakers with tools to zoom in on relevant rentals — offering granular filters for property amenities; property type; and distances to the beach/lake etc.

It can also be used to search only for listings with a free cancelation policy.

“We see that many travellers have chosen vacation rentals in rural destinations over hotels or cities,” confirms CEO and co-founder Johannes Siebers. “In spite of this shift in preference, the overall European vacation rental market declined in 2020 due to the strong travel restrictions in many months. Holidu managed to grow against this trend by responding very quickly to the increased demand for domestic lodging and for flexible cancellation options.”

The startup saw year-over-year growth of circa 50% in 2020 — and greater than 2x growth in its contribution margin, per Siebers.

“[That] enabled us to become profitable with our search business,” he adds. “Revenues for 2021 are still difficult to forecast due to the uncertain pandemic and political outlook but we expect a significantly higher growth rate compared to 2020.”

Holidu is active in 21 countries with its search engine — which now combines more than 15M vacation rental offers from over a thousand travel sites and property managers. In July 2020 alone, it said that more than 27M travellers used the product.

Its search engine business has a mixed business model, with Holidu taking a commission per click with a minority of its partners and earning a commission for each booking generated with the majority.

In another strand of its business, under the Bookiply brand, it works directly with property owners to help them maximize bookings via a software-and-service solution — offering to take the digital management strain in exchange for a cut of (successful) bookings.

Back in 2019 it was managing 5,000 properties via Bookiply. Now Siebers says it’s “on track” to grow to more than 10,000 properties by the end of this year.

Bookiply has become the largest supplier of vacation rentals in what it described as “important leisure destinations” such as the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Sardinia (which are all very popular holiday destinations with German travellers).

Part of the Series D funding will go on opening more Bookiply offices across Europe so it can grow its service offering for regional vacation rental owners.

The division aims to reach property owners whose properties are not yet online, as well as optimizing digital listings that aren’t doing as well as they might, so having physical service locations is a strategy to help with onboarding owners who may be newbies to digital listing.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Laurel Bowden, partner at 83North said: “Vacation rentals are a very competitive market and Holidu’s growth throughout the pandemic has been highly impressive. We are attracted by their strong operating efficiency and proven ability to grow market by market.”

Last year Holidu was among scores of startups in the travel, accommodation and jobs sectors that signed a letter to the European Commission urging antitrust action against Google.

The coalition accused the tech giant of unfairly leveraging its dominant position in search in order to elbow into other markets via tactics like self-preferencing, warning EU lawmakers that homegrown businesses were at risk without swift enforcement to rein in abusive behaviors.

Although in Holidu’s case it’s managed to grow despite the pandemic — and despite Google.

Asked how much of an ongoing concern Google’s behavior is for the growth of its business, Siebers told TechCrunch: “Given its size and market position, we believe Google carries a special responsibility in the search market. Furthermore, we believe in merit based competition to drive innovation and provide users with the best products. We have joined the letter to the EC as in our view, Google does not fully live up to its responsibilities in all areas of its product.

“The way Google displays specialized search products in many travel verticals does, in our view, not comply with the principle of fair, merit based competition. It gives Google’s own product eyeballs which no other player could attract in the same way.”

“We have not yet seen noticeable changes in Google’s search box integration but we are confident that Google will eventually provide a level playing field. Even if this would take some time and is important, we are not overly worried as we have a very diversified business. Among others, with Bookiply we have a strongly growing offering towards homeowners which is independent of Google’s activities in the market,” he added.

Since the coalition wrote the letter the Commission has unveiled a legislative proposal to apply ex ante regulations to so called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — a designation that looks highly likely to apply to Google, although the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is still a long way off becoming pan-EU law.

Siebers said Holidu supports this plan for a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ that the most powerful platforms must abide by.

“We are supportive of the commission’s proposal and believe not only the act itself but also enforcement will drive innovation and better products for customers,” he added. “Enabling free and fair competition is a core deliverable for a regulator in a market place and we have high expectations towards the EU in this regard. If we achieve this, I am certain we will  see an  increase in innovation, investments and activities in areas which are currently impacted by gatekeeper’s activities.”

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