Two startups with competing, equally compelling technologies at the same stage of development are pitching venture capital investors for Series A funding. One startup is led by a serial entrepreneur founder, the other by a novice. Assume each will get funded. In all likelihood, the deal will happen quicker and the amount funded and pre-money valuation will be higher for the serial entrepreneur led startup than its novice competitor. That according to Pitchbook’s latest report (the “Report”) on the impact of entrepreneurial experience on the venture capital ecosystem, which finds that founder experience has a material impact on VC fundraising. Moreover, this disparity among serial and novice entrepreneurs actually grows as startups progress through the capital raising lifecycle. But does this apparent advantage enjoyed by serial entrepreneurs come at any cost?
To build a successful startup, an entrepreneur needs to be able to assemble and manage a strong team, raise capital and execute a business plan. Some of the skills necessary to pull this off an entrepreneur may be born with, while other skills may be acquired in the classroom. But much of what characterizes a successful entrepreneur is intangible and learned in the process of doing, and for that reason an entrepreneur who has previously started up is perceived to have a more complete set of skills and more likely to build a successful startup. In the course of building his first company, an entrepreneur has also likely developed relationships with a diverse community of professionals whose services will be important in building a subsequent company as well, such as angel and venture capital investors, corporate finance lawyers, scientific advisers and human resource experts. And if he’s previously executed an exit, the entrepreneur’s contacts would also include exit specific professionals such as investment bankers, underwriters and mergers and acquisitions lawyers.
So it should come as no surprise that the Report finds that serial entrepreneurs (repeat entrepreneurs with one or more previous exits) raise VC rounds earlier in each stage of the startup’s corporate life than novices or even unproven serial entrepreneurs (repeat entrepreneurs who have not yet exited). The median number of years between founding and first VC round for serial entrepreneurs remained at 1.13 years as compared with Pitchbook’s 2019 study, and the median period of time for unproven and novice founders increased to 1.34 and 1.92 years, respectively.
Serial entrepreneurs also enjoy an advantage in terms of deal size. Median angel and seed deal sizes for serial entrepreneurs in 2022 year-to-date were 2.5 times larger than novice-led deals, while early- and late-stage rounds led by serial entrepreneurs were roughly 3.4 times larger.
Valuations are also progressively higher for serial entrepreneur-led startups. Pre-money valuations for serial entrepreneur-led startups had median valuations that were 1.9 times higher than those of novice-led companies, with the variances between serial and novice entrepreneurs increasing to 2.5 times for early stage rounds and 3.7 times for late stage deals.
The larger divergence in deal size and pre-money valuations between serial and novice entrepreneurs in later stages vs. the angel and seed rounds suggests that even the emergence of objective performance metrics in later rounds such as market proven products and demonstrated revenue growth cannot overcome the inherent investor confidence afforded to serial entrepreneurs. The Report also suggests that the seed stage fundraising momentum that serial entrepreneurs benefit from could be allowing their startups to mature more quickly and display stronger financial performance than novice-led companies, thus leading to an even greater deal size disparity in later stage rounds. The exit track record of a serial entrepreneur may be even more valued in later rounds as exit comes more into focus.
Earlier, larger and higher valuation rounds enable serial entrepreneur-led startups to scale and exit faster. But the Report points out that this advantage comes with a price: dilution. Bigger deal sizes in early rounds when valuations are lower than they would be in later rounds means larger amounts of equity are being issued to investors, resulting in greater dilution to the founders. During angel and seed funding stages, serial entrepreneurs are giving up a greater percentage of the equity in their company, nearly 2% more than unproven entrepreneurs and 6% more than novices. This trend is maintained in early stage deals (Series A and B). Apparently, the higher pre-money valuations given to serial entrepreneur-led startups are not enough to offset the effect of larger amounts being raised at low-valuation points in the corporate cycle. The trend reverses course in late stage rounds, however, as much higher pre-money valuations result in less equity being issued to the investor for any given amount of investment in late stage rounds and less dilution to the founder.
A related question is whether prior exits alone are a reliable predicter of startup success. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review piece entitled “Why Serial Entrepreneurs Don’t Learn from Failure”, the authors focus on the concept of overoptimism in relation to failure. The authors find that overoptimism is a trait shared by most entrepreneurs, but that serial entrepreneurs are just as likely to be overoptimistic after failure as before, which poses a significant risk for investors who fund serial entrepreneur-led startups. Although overoptimism is generally helpful in founding a startup, it can also help cause it to fail if it is associated with a greater tendency to commit to and overinvest in risky projects, to neglect to plan for the unexpected and to throw good money after bad while postponing the inevitable. The authors argue that experiencing failure helps temper this overoptimism among some entrepreneurs, but not serial entrepreneurs.
 Here’s how Pitchbook generally identifies the stages of startup funding:
- “angel round”: if there are no VC funds on the company’s cap table and it’s unclear whether any VC fund participated in the round, or if a press release identifies the round as an angel round or only mentions individuals as investors.
- “seed round”: if the investors and/or press release state that a round is such, or if it is for less than $500,000 and is the first round as reported by a government filing.
- “early stage”: Series A or B.
- “late stage”: Series C or higher.