Can you build a unicorn business outside the Silicon Valley?

Total
1
Shares
Photo by mark glancy on Pexels.com

This is a follow-on post to my last blog post about building a global-first startup

The tl;dr for my last post is that these days geography is rather confusing. It’s quite common for a San Francisco Bay Area company to start hiring from day one an engineering team that is elsewhere and building up a real hub elsewhere even though everyone sees them as a San Francisco company. Or for a startup located outside of the US to sell to US companies.  The world is a lot smaller than it used to be.  

And so for these reasons, I believe that to start a company, you can start building a startup these days from pretty much anywhere. The most important thing in the earliest stages is to try to get to product Market fit quickly.

Knowledge has become commoditized at the earliest stages – you can pretty much read about Lean Startup anywhere on the internet.  But what about scaling a business? 

The numbers are actually pretty sobering.  I went ahead and graphed some interesting fundraising data from past portfolio companies that I’ve invested in either as an angel or as part of a team where I was a/the decision maker.  

I took my whole portfolio of all companies that I had invested in between 2014-2016 and created pie charts based on geography. N = over 250 companies in this dataset.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.30.52 PM
You can see the vast plurality of companies that I invested in during this time were largely international companies  Note: for the purpose of this exercise, I separated out my Canadian startups from the rest of the world. (Canadian startups are so similar to US startups that I thought they deserved a category of their own.)

I did the best job that I could in labeling just one geography for each startup, but this exercise was a bit tricky. For example, a company that I had invested in is categorized as a San Francisco-based company even though the vast majority of their employees are now based in Dallas. The reason for this is that when I invested in them, the founders were and still are based in San Francisco, and the bulk of their decision-making and operations were happening here at the time.  On the flip side, I classified a number of companies whose founders had recently moved to the US from another country and were doing significant operations in that other country as “other int’l”, even if they were US Delaware C corps. As you can see per my last blog post, it gets a little bit complicated. 

I then went ahead and grabbed the companies that made it to the Series A level and graphed what the breakdown of those startups look like by geography.  The reason I say Series A level is that I have a number of portfolio companies who have done well in revenue and have not had to raise larger rounds.  So if a company had raised a series A, I labeled the company as a Series A company regardless of where the raise happened. Now, I understand that there are some issues with the nomenclature because a Series A in the Bay Area is so much later than a Series A in say Australia, but, this was the best I could do. In addition, if a company had not raised a Series A but had hit US Series A milestones – namely $2m+ “net revenue run rate”,  then I counted the company as a Series A company.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.34.47 PM

What is interesting about this graph is just how much the percentages have changed.  Let’s come back to the analysis in a second.

I went ahead and did the same exercise with Series B companies.  I graphed my portfolio that had graduated to the Series B level. And again, for companies who raised a Series B – whether here in the US or abroad — were labeled a series B company.  For companies who had hit US Series B traction milestones – namely 10m+ annual net revenue runrate – I also added those companies to this category as well.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.35.57 PM.png

You can see that this graph has changed even more.

Here are my takeaways: 

1) The San Francisco Bay Area punches above its weight. (not surprising)

One could try to argue that perhaps my San Francisco Bay Area founders are stronger. While I couldn’t tell you whether that’s true or not, intuitively, my gut feeling is that that is not the case.

What I do think is happening here is that the San Francisco Bay Area has a lot more capital, and so there are more startups that get more funding than in other parts of the world. And by proximity of being here, it is easier to access the capital (even though there is also more competition).

But the other thing that I think is happening is access to talent and knowledge, especially as companies scale. I tend to invest in businesses that require less capital. This tends to skew towards B2B companies or other businesses where the margins are nice. I tend to prefer investing in companies where if they could never raise a dime of VC funding again, they would still be able to survive and thrive.

And I’ve applied this lens across all geographies. So as a result, I would not expect such wild differences in ability to get to the Series A level or the Series B level even if there is less capital available in other markets. But you can see that there is a big difference.  

1b) One side note: also, if I remove startups who have founders with pedigree, then SF doesn’t punch above its weight and proportionally stays the same at each stage. 

2) International companies outside of the US & Canada have a much harder time raising money.

You can see that across-the-board, my international companies have had really had a tough time getting to the Series A or Series B level.

And again, I attribute this to less access to knowledge about scaling, less access to capital, and less access to talent that has scaled businesses before. One potential wildcard explanation for this lack of success is that the US & Canada have pretty established customer acquisition channels.  But, that isn’t the case everywhere globally, so it may also be that customer acquisition makes marketing and sales in the US & Canada just faster and that other international companies just need more time to make headway.  

3) Companies based outside of the SF Bay Area that have been successful have spent significant time in the Bay Area

The last interesting thing I would say here is that if you look at the Series B companies, anecdotally I can tell you that all of those founders have cultivated lots of relationships here in the SF Bay Area to get scaling knowledge and access to capital.

Takeaways:

I don’t think you need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to start a company. In fact, I actually think that since your money goes so much further elsewhere and knowledge is commoditized regarding starting a business.  As an early stage founder, you really should just focus on product-market fit wherever you feel is best for you to live.

BUT!  If you want to start scaling a business – call it at the Series A level and beyond – that’s when you really need to start having connections ideally to the SF Bay Area to raise money from and have a network / learn from and potentially even a pool of people to hire.  

unicorn

Image courtesy of Giphy

If you are starting a business outside of the Bay Area and want to build a unicorn business, in today’s global economy, it is significantly helpful for you to start building from connections on day 1 to the SF Bay Area.  

2 comments
  1. Luckily the answer is no, you don’t have to be in the SF Bay Area to create a tech unicorn.

    Here in San Diego we have been lucky to birth a number of tech unicorns recently – TuSimple, Kyriba, and Seismic. More, like Tealium, are closing in on that vanity metric too. So far all of these are B2B, but maybe that will change in the future.

    San Diego is also the home of Qualcomm, and lots of life science unicorns, so we are no strangers to fast growing companies. But it’s only been recently that we have been gaining momentum in birthing non-life science companies in volume, instead of being the exception like Qualcomm was at the time.

    As someone that has been part of the San Diego startup community over the last decade, it really takes an “all the above” effort to get to a point like this in our region. The big question will be how durable it is during future economic slowdowns, but I think our local economy is broad enough to weather what is to come.

    For fundraising though, I agree that the SF Bay Area is a rich resource that should not be ignored. Because it’s not just money that is needed for a successful startup, but knowledge and connections too, and VC’s in the Bay Area have a lot of that. And luckily for those of us creating startups in San Diego, it’s just a short plane ride to access all of that. Win-Win!

  2. “As an early stage founder, you really should just focus on product-market fit wherever you feel is best for you to live.”

    Very correct!

Leave a Reply

Want more bullshit-free fundraising advice?

Sign up for my newsletter to get weekly updates.

You May Also Like

It’s actually hard to hustle

I should have known that when we picked a company name like Hustle Fund, it would lead entrepreneurs to introduce themselves as “real hustlers”.  But, I think my definition of…
View Post