Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Waterloo startups finding money close to home

Toronto lawyer Suzanne Dingwall Williams wrote a piece for the CVCA blog this week lamenting how often the startups she works with choose to seek investment from American VCs over their Canadian counterparts.

If that's the case, it sounds like another significant difference between the Toronto and Waterloo startup communities. In these parts, if you go much farther than Toronto to look for early stage capital you risk being accused of being exotic. It happens, but not often. Of the six seven-figure seed/early-stage deals we saw last year, I think only one involved a foreign investor. That seems to be consistent with the national statistics, which saw most foreign investment being put into later stage deals.

In the same post, Dingwall Williams also writes about the reputation of Canadian VCs being tarred by American brushes, but from a Waterloo perspective, I'd be shocked if one startup founder in ten here knows anything about Blackstone and Stephen Schwarzmann, to use the example she cites. Actually, my guess is that's true in Toronto as well. Some may be aware that VCs have been very well paid and that -- with some exceptions -- they haven't come close to delivering results consistent with that compensation. But that's made-in-Canada tar. The CVCA and others have published rates of return for Canadian VCs and the numbers don't paint a flattering portrait of the industry. There may have been an emperor-has-no-clothes epiphany on the part of LPs and entrepreneurs toward Canadian VCs but, from what I've seen, this has had more of an effect on LPs than on startup founders.

From any perspective, I don't agree with her view that startups should feel a "moral imperative" to get funding from Canadian VCs. That's straight out of "buy Canadian" campaigns that encourage you to buy products that you would otherwise avoid just because it might help keep people employed and extend the amount of time they spend making second-rate products. If that's the best pitch we can make for Canadian VCs we might as well just shut the whole industry down now. [Actually, with Canadian VCs collectively showing almost zero rates of return, from a strictly economic perspective it would have been better if we had let American VCs make those investments and put our money to more productive use. I wouldn't recommend that either. :-)]

Startup entrepreneurs should go where they can get the best deal for their companies. Fortunately, that will often be with a Canadian VC. What we do seem to be seeing, though, is that a greater percentage of startups today are companies where bootstapping or sub-VC funding are all that's needed to get a product to market, and often to get companies to a point where they are acquired (usually by American firms; at that point you don't hear many complaints about foreign ownership). Of those six deals from 2007 I referred to, only one of them involved a VC, and even that also included angels.

For that reason, there has been the disconnect between startups and VCs that Dingwall Williams refers to. But that's okay. Not all promising startups need VC funding. That was really an artifact of the boom years. As long as companies get the funding they need, I'm not going to lament that a shrinking percentage of startups are paired with a VC.

Unfortunately for the Canadian VC industry, many of its current problems are linked to matters of history that can't be rewritten with better mission statements and promotional campaigns (although, on the subject of marketing, I think Rick Segal has done an amazing job of both getting himself over and improving the reputation of the entire Canadian VC industry). But the message from startup entrepreneurs I'm hearing in Waterloo is more that they often don't see the need to work with VCs, not that they are avoiding Canadian VCs in favour of American investors.

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