Running a Startup During a Recession

Startups are a microcosm of the economy and we can observe that things are changing quickly towards a recession footing. The effects of inflation on valuations are readily apparent, but we also see that things were too good to be true and investors and late stage companies exploited it.

Everyone looks like a genius when things are going well, but as it turns out, that wasn’t very durable.

How should we think about running a startup during a recession?

See also:

  • Founders Should Write the Check for All Expenses

    For as long as possible, in an early-stage startup, one of the founders should write the check for any expenses of the company. That includes payroll, vendors, SaaS subscriptions, professional services, and how much you’re paying accountants and bookkeepers (whom you may incorrectly think are looking out for the company’s cash).

  • Saas Benchmarks for Series B

    B2B SaaS businesses targeting enterprise customers that want to be in good shape to raise their Series B during a downturn need to have a run rate of $7-10MM ARR, growing at 2-5X year over year, gross margins 75-85%, and an LTV to CAC ratio of 3-5X. That’s because multiples fell from 100 to 39 times ARR and the target valuation multiples for Series B is ~20X ARR.

  • Inflation Causes Downward Pressure on Startup Valuations

    As inflation rises there will be a tightening of money supply and higher interest rates to control it. This causes a repricing of assets and, in particular, high-growth tech stocks. The median public company software valuations dropped from 12x forward revenue to 5x or less—an almost 60% decline.

  • Startup Multiples Fell from 100 to 39 Times ARR in 2023

    According to a recent presentation by Redpoint, ARR multiples for Series B and C companies dropped sharply from the all-time-high in 2022 (100x) to a more sober 39x, representing a 4x premium compared to public markets.

  • Probability of a Recession (2022 Q3)

    The probability of a recession in the near term based on estimates from economists at investment banks.

  • CEO Lifespans Decrease 1.5 Years in a Downturn and They Look Older

    In a paper CEO Stress, Aging, and Death, the authors studied the effects of managerial stress on lifespan and visible signs of aging. They found that CEOs' lifespan decreased by 1.5 years in response to an industry wide downturn. They also look older than there age by one year over the decade following a ‘distress shock’ like the Great Recession—James Donald, CEO of Starbucks, looked 3-5 years older than his biological age base on pictures from 2004 to 2010.

  • Many Startups Will Run Out of Cash Starting End of 2023

    In Startup Decoupling & Reckoning by Elad Gil, the author lays out the situation many mid-to-late stage startups will be in starting at the end of 2023. Companies raise capital for 2-4 years of runway. Valuations have risen sharply compared to public markets. Raising money will be more difficult as startups that don’t have product-market fit will not hit key milestones relative to their valuation.

  • Revenue Multiples Fell from 24x in 2021 to 10x in 2022

    Enterprise Value (EV) to Next Twelve Month (NTM) revenue multiples in public markets for SaaS businesses rose sharply from 2019 to 2021 up to as high as 24x. Now, those multiples are falling below pre-pandemic levels to 10x. This has major implications for retail investors, VCs, and running a startup during a recession.

  • Burn Multiples Are a Way of Managing Growth Efficiently

    A burn multiple is the amount of cash burned compared to annual recurring revenue (ARR). For example, if a company burns $10MM to add $30MM ARR the burn multiple is 3.0x. Higher burn multiples are worse and imply the company will run out of money faster. This is a better measure of overall efficiency compared to LTV/CAC because it encompasses all costs (burn).

  • Time Between Series a and Series B Is 31 Months on Average

    In 2023, the average time between raising a Series A and Series B round increased to 31 months according to Crunchbase. With startup funding falling 67% in 2022, more startups could face a difficult time getting funding. Some predict startups will run out of cash in 2023 with the most fiscally conservative ones run out in 2025 unless conditions change.

  • How Long Will a Recession Last?

    We are probably in a recession already, but we can’t know for sure for another quarter or so. With inflation on the rise and interest-rate hikes making less money available, it will be some time before things grow again.

  • Startup Sales Win Rates Decreased

    According to the Lightspeed sales benchmark report for 2023, win rates decreased for 42% of companies surveyed. The larges decreases happened for initial sale prices of $250k+.

  • Startup Growth Calculator

    There is a long list of reasons a startup might fail, but running out of money is high among them. A common piece of advice for early startups is to make rapid progress towards “default alive” as in, running the business on revenue rather than relying on outside investment.

  • Large Durable Business

    People often ask me in interviews where I see our company going in the coming years (which is more of a meta question asking about the exit strategy). I always say the same thing: the plan is to build a large durable business because if you do that, every option is available to you.

  • Layoffs in Tech

    There have been 115 tech companies with layoffs since April 2022 and a steep increase in May.

  • § What I Learned 2022

    Outline for my annual essay about things I learned and reflections for the year.

  • How Much to Pay Yourself as an Early-Stage Founder

    This question comes up a lot from founders starting a company and raising a seed round—how much should you pay yourself?

  • Startup Funding Fell 67% in 2022

    In 2022, startup funding fell dramatically—down 67% year over year. Late stage funding took the largest hit (down 67%), but early stage (series A and B) also dropped 59%. Seed stage investments were down 37%.

  • Don’t Normalize Mediocrity

    When coming up with goals for your business, it’s a disservice to adjust it down to make everyone—employees, investors, yourself—feel better. There are important goals like staying alive, raising your next round, or seizing the opportunity that are the cold reality of markets that you can only temporarily avoid. While showing progress is important, it’s easy to normalize mediocrity if you’re not careful which is much worse for the company than having to tell your investors you are not meeting the goal.

  • Protect Against the Downside by Enjoying the Upside

    Bill Gurley, GP of Benchmark Capital said, “The best ways to protect against the downside is to enjoy every minute of the upside.” Markets have cycles and it’s difficult to time the market. One way to protect against downside risk is to take full advantage of the upside. That way, your returns cushion the inevitable downturn.

  • How to Set up an Inbound Sales Motion

    It should be repeatable, measurable, and profitable. Every product and business is different. This will focus on a B2B SaaS product.