Silicon Valley Bank: An essential (and existential) lesson in startup finance

Silicon Valley Bank: An essential (and existential) lesson in startup finance

It’s been a month since the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapse threatened the financial future of almost half the venture-backed startups in the United States. A lifetime of lessons in financial management has been crammed into those intervening weeks.

I’ve lent an ear to more than a dozen founders in the past month, who shared horror stories of missed payrolls, emergency board meetings and blocks-long lines to apply for accounts at other banks. I’ve smiled at revelations about emergency relief funds for climate tech firms assembled in hours, such as the one pulled together by financing company Enduring Planet with backing from philanthropic organizations such as Prime Coalition, which supports early-stage climate tech entrepreneurs. 

“It was interesting to see how quickly the community banded together,” said Ethan Cohen-Cole, CEO and co-founder of carbon capture firm Capture6, which in the past two weeks has received undisclosed sums from South Korean firms Bridge Investment and Sopoong Ventures. “Our experience was far from the doom and gloom.” The firm maintains headquarters in Berkeley, California, and Rotorua, New Zealand.

Indeed, the speed at which most climate tech founders moved beyond shock to take action was breathtaking — many protected their own funds within 48 to 72 hours, while making it loud and clear through their investor networks to policymakers that the government needed to step in quickly to avert a devastating ripple effect.

Another startup CEO, who shared information with me confidentially, literally deposited most of his Houston-based company’s seed funds at SVB the day before the run began March 9, spoke of emerging with “greater resolve” in an email to his team March 17. “One hundred percent funds recovery was the likeliest outcome, but as we say in all matters … don’t count it until the money clears the bank, which it has now done. So, back to business as usual?” he asked. “Of course not. As we also say, never waste a good failure.”   

The “why” of the crisis remains hotly debated, although why the alarms weren’t sounded earlier is baffling. If there’s something “good” to take out of the crisis, it’s this: The climate tech entrepreneur community is keenly aware of the existential need for sound financial governance. “No matter what your expertise is or what your product is, you must understand finance,” said Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, an investor of Cherokee descent and co-founder of New York-based Known Holdings, which specializes in providing growth for entrepreneurs of color. “There is a danger in letting someone else manage that.”

Don’t understand much about finance? Then get a mentor who can help your team understand the options available to startups, Red-Horse Mohl advised. That doesn’t mean pulling all your money out of regional banks or credit unions. Indeed, small financial services firms that understand the needs of entrepreneurial businesses should be at the center of startup treasury strategies, she said. It’s still early days, but here are three financial realities the dozen founders I interviewed are already embracing.

1: They’re diversifying their banking relationships.

You’ve all heard the narrative: One reason SVB’s collapse created such a tsunami of angst is that many founders literally had all their assets tied up in accounts there — because they had to. Indeed, firms borrowing money from SVB were required to keep money there as part of the loan covenants.

Cohen-Cole, who happens to be a former bank regulator, said Capture6 emerged relatively unscathed because it diversified banks from the beginning of its existence, and it closely scrutinized where it entrusted its deposits. “You should apply diversity to everything you do,” he said. “The bank is something that most small companies don’t think about.”

All the founders I interviewed moved quickly to diversify after the SVB collapse, even those who didn’t bank with SVB. Maria Fujihara, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based carbon accounting software startup Sinai Technologies, a customer not of SVB but of another regional bank caught up in the crisis, First Republic, said her team swiftly added a much larger bank, JPMorgan, as a companion relationship. “We cannot have the entire company’s assets in one place,” Fujihara said.

Sinai’s management team is also scrutinizing how its banks use their deposits. When we spoke, Fujihara was looking into more “climate-friendly” options, including Beneficial State Bank (a highly rated B Corp and “certified fossil free” financial institution) and Amalgamated Bank (also a B Corp, one of the largest union-owned banks in the world and part of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values). The consensus among other founders was that spreading banking relationships across at least two to three banks was advisable.     

2: They’re adjusting treasury management practices.

Another founder I interviewed, who requested to remain anonymous, said due to liquidity problems his Florida-based company encountered in the confusing days following the SVB run, his team reclaimed direct management of its sweep accounts. These are financial services used to move money back and forth between deposit or checking accounts and investment accounts, often after they reach the $250,000 threshold protected by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Using sweep accounts, excess cash can be held in financial instruments, such as money market accounts, where it can earn more interest. Because SVB was the custodian for this founder’s sweep accounts, it lost access to that money before the federal government intervened, causing a weekend of worry. The startup has since added another bank explicitly for its sweep activities. 

The CEO of the Houston-based firm mentioned earlier was inspired to add a “fractional CFO,” as he explained to staff in the email shared with me. “This new addition will keep their eye on our finances and financial risk such that we are not caught unawares, as we were last week, while my capacity is focused elsewhere.” 

Peter Reinhardt, CEO and co-founder of carbon removal startup Charm Industrial, based in San Francisco with much of its R&D team in Colorado, said the crisis has encouraged many entrepreneurs in his network to prioritize developing a more formal treasury management policy earlier than expected. That includes scrutinizing and more formally setting policies for short-term liquidity, controlling the operational burn rate through strategies such as slower hiring, and applying more diligence when it comes to fundraising.

“It’s a good idea to understand where your assets are and what’s at risk at any moment … In the end, it’s not rocket science,” said Dimitry Gershenson, co-founder and CEO of Enduring Planet, which offers financing to startups. While Enduring Planet wasn’t directly exposed to SVB’s travails, the Portland, Oregon-based company was considering applications from firms that were affected, throwing off their fundraising schedules.   

3: They’re expecting longer fundraising windows.

Speaking of which, most of the founders I interviewed said they believe SVB’s spectacular failure will make raising additional equity or debt financing tougher, as many larger banks typically don’t have financial products that cater specifically to entrepreneurs fronting risky ideas. SVB filled a special role, and there were few understudies. “They treated startups like features, not bugs,” one of them observed. Now others are rushing to audition. 

The shock to the climate tech venture system could add an additional three to six months to the fundraising cycles, Gershenson estimated. “The trepidation has caused further slowdowns in an already slower venture environment,” he said.

Options for startups that have already begun to realize commercial revenue could include financing based on their receivables or altered fundraising strategies that allow more investors to participate in seed rounds at smaller amounts — every little bit adds up for generating the cash flow to help an early-stage startup reach its growth phase.

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