Over 10,700 venture-backed companies received a combined $136.5 billion in funding in 2019, and the year saw double the exit value of 2018.[i] As stocks, real estate investments, and venture capital reach record highs, what are investors thinking about where to invest?

The answer depends on the type of investor:

Is this a good time for venture investing?

If the economy continues to do well, venture investments will do well. If the economy falters or if there is a stock market correction, this may still be a good time to invest in venture capital.

This is because stock market corrections (and corrections in the real estate market, which usually follows the stock market) follow business cycles, which can last 4-7 years. Venture funds usually invest over a 9-10 year investment cycle (i.e., a 5-6 year investment period followed by a 4-5 year harvest period). A slower business climate or stock market correction ahead could well be bracketed within the life of a new fund. And if needed, with due approvals from the limited partners, venture funds can extend their term to time their exits better.[vi]

Is there benefit in investing in venture funds in down cycles?

Let us look at the dynamics of different asset classes in downturns.

  1. Real estate – During the 2008 financial meltdown, real estate crumbled. As people lost their jobs, renters could not pay their rents, and property owners could not cover their mortgages. As defaults grew, real estate prices dropped. The Case-Shiller index dropped from 195 in 2005 to 116 in 2011.[vii] Considering the leverage of real estate investments, the losses for investors were much higher.
  2. Stocks, ETFs – The stock market similarly took a serious hit. The DJIA dropped 54% from 14,164 to 6,469 over 17 months.
  3. Venture capital – From Q1 2008 to Q1 2009, venture funding fell by 50% nationally to $3.9 billion (Dow Jones Venture Source).

Why did venture capital fare better than real estate or stocks?

First, lean times promote capital efficiency. As is often heard, recessions are the best time to start new companies, which is where early-stage venture capital is focused.

Second, venture capital firms mark up or mark down their investments over their life cycle. However, as actual valuations are pegged only by liquidity events, the real IRR is not known until the investments achieve liquidity. During the holding period, capital-efficient companies, and venture companies that focus on capital efficiency, do well, i.e., are counter-cyclical. They suffer fewer dislocations during downtimes. They can maintain their strategies, continue to do business as usual, and get ahead of those that slow down. Employees of such companies are more secure and loyal. And if needed, high-quality talent not available during good times can be hired, with loyalty that again pays dividends over the long term.

The capital efficiency of the upper Midwest

Companies in the upper Midwest inherently tend to be capital-efficient because there is less capital available. Similarly, smaller funds such as there are in the upper Midwest are inherently more capital-efficient, as they have less to invest.

44% of venture capital flows into Silicon Valley.[viii] This sets the consumption set-point of Silicon Valley companies at much higher burn rates than in regions where availability of venture funds is limited. The relative lack of available capital in other regions, including the upper Midwest, instills caution in spending.

Employee wages

While most other expenses are comparable across the US, with legendary real estate prices, Silicon Valley employees cannot survive at less than Silicon Valley wages.

This is not true in the upper Midwest. Though other expenses are comparable, housing costs may vary from 1/3rd to 1/10th of the Bay Area, enabling much greater capital efficiency for employers. For example, Google employees can buy 5 houses for the price of one by moving to one of Google’s locations across the country.[ix]

Figure 1. The real estate cost advantage of the upper Midwest compares well against not only the most expensive regions in the US, but also against what may be incorrectly perceived as lower-cost overseas regions (e.g., China). Seven cities in China and an equal number of cities in the US are listed above Minneapolis.

Fold? Hold? Or double down?

Not only can capital-efficient companies continue without disruption during slow times, given the lag between investment and market benefit, those that increase their investment can emerge even stronger in a recovery.

Intel applied this counter-intuitive strategy across many recessionary cycles, and invested several billion dollars in down cycles.[x] When their new semiconductor fabrication capacity resulting from these investments came online a few years later, their timing coincided with market rebound. On the other hand, competition (e.g., Atmel, Fairchild, Intersil/GE, IBM, Motorola, Raytheon, and several others) weakened from retrenchment and lost market share. As the industry consolidated during down cycles, Intel gained market share, and cumulatively over several cycles, emerged as its leader.

Some investors may feel that liquidity is useful during a downtime. Others argue against it, as getting out of the game when entrepreneurs are especially capital-efficient has a higher opportunity cost, and to use the Intel analogy, puts the winners further ahead of the losers. According to a prominent Silicon Valley investor, “you got to stay in the game”. At these times there are opportunities to go one step farther and double down.

Are smaller funds better than larger funds?

The statistical odds of a unicorn (company valued at over $1B) are lower than, say, of a ‘deci-corn’ (company valued at over $100M). Larger funds invest larger amounts per deal. To return high multiples, they need unicorns, which are rare. Smaller funds invest smaller amounts and can get the same multiples from ‘deci-corns’, which are much more common.

Advantages for Midwest venture capital

There are other tactics used by, and attributes common to, small Midwest VC’s that safeguard against downturns:

  1. Global investments that require skills available in the upper Midwest. While staying abreast of the latest trends in Silicon Valley to stay competitive, Midwest VC’s can take advantage of expertise available in the upper Midwest to serve global markets. In so doing, they avoid the valuation markups and early-round dilutions of Silicon Valley yet seek global parity in later rounds and exits.
  2. Local investments, global exits. An emphasis on the upper Midwest inherently allows investing at a discount compared to the investments in overheated markets such as Silicon Valley. This roughly translates to a 60% discount in term sheets offered on companies in the Upper Midwest. Global businesses rooted in the upper Midwest still attain exit valuations that correlate with global valuations. Thus, if a down cycle may require 50% markdowns for some Silicon Valley funds, Midwest VC’s can still record a 10% (=60-50%) markup at the bottom of the trough, emerge stronger from uninterrupted progress from investees’ capital efficiency, and exit with a markup brought to parity with global valuations in strong economic times.
  3. Emphasis on product-market fit. With the reduced capital investment now possible in many tech businesses, the barrier to entry has been lowered. Smaller venture funds can adjust criteria to focus investments on product-market fit, early revenue, and early break-even and profitability, instead of being limited by the number of affordable investment options. Nothing demonstrates product-market fit and staying power than paying customers and profit; for customers, employees and investors alike, there is nothing more powerful than profitability. Judicious investment in such businesses and mentorship to focus teams on profitability facilitates survival in lean times.
  4. Operators as investors. Small venture funds are often started by former operators with past successful exits, and the Midwest is no different. Many Midwest VC’s have a history of building profitable businesses the old-fashioned way, a dollar at a time. This experience of running a company, of managing payroll through good times and bad, of knowing the revenue and cost management discipline required to make money operationally and sustainably (i.e., not with short-term financial engineering), is invaluable for VC’s to have. So much so, that even accomplished operators will supplement their teams with experienced industry advisors.
[i] https://pitchbook.com/news/reports/q4-2019-pitchbook-nvca-venture-monitor
[ii] https://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/news/2018/03/15/how-the-leader-of-the-university-of-minnesotas.html
[iii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/robert-f-wallace-named-ceo-of-stanfords-endowment-1427138729
[iv] https://news.yale.edu/2017/10/10/investment-return-113-brings-yale-endowment-value-272-billion
[v] http://www.pionline.com/article/20151014/ONLINE/151019943/university-of-minnesota-endowment-reports-57-fiscal-year-return
[vi] https://www.strictlybusinesslawblog.com/2017/06/29/the-life-cycle-of-a-private-equity-or-venture-capital-fund/
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Case%E2%80%93Shiller_index
[viii] according to the National Venture Capital Association website
[ix] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/07/you-can-buy-multiple-houses-for-the-cost-of-one-near-google-hq.html
[x] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-intel/intel-to-invest-7-billion-in-u-s-as-recession-deepens-idUSTRE5196WR20090210

Amazon (mkt cap ~$760B) recently paid more for Whole Foods ($13.7B) than the balance sheets of many mid-market grocers. This frames the obvious question for all grocers: how can your business compete long-term?
This is an especially challenging question for the smaller-cap grocers. Large companies such as Walmart (mkt cap ~$250B) and Target (mkt cap ~$40B) can afford sizable investments. To a lesser degree, the balance sheets of the next tier of grocers, like Kroger (mkt cap ~$21B), also allow them to focus on a couple of key moves and a few smaller initiatives, and to double-down if necessary.
Smaller grocery chains have to look more carefully, however. Except for mergers or sales, their balance sheets are not strong enough to complete large transactions on their own. Nor do they have the operating margin to buy with debt without materially impacting their P&Ls and carrying long-term risk to pay it down, especially if the economy takes a downward turn. With average pre-tax profits of 2% and an annual growth of 0.9% (2012-17), retained earnings can barely meet working capital growth needs, leaving limited capital for innovation.[i]

Mid-Market Innovation

Capital availability aside, the main question still remains: what should mid-market grocers do? To answer this question, let’s break it down into smaller questions and then explore those topics:

1. Without active strategic steps, can mid-market grocers survive over the next 1-2 decades? Do they have to counteract Amazon’s thrust and make similar moves to stay in business? Will they be weaker if they cannot or do not do so?

2. If they act, how should they proceed? Diversify into new markets? Consolidate with other mid-sized grocers? Or try to sell to Amazon, Walmart or Target assuming they are interested?

3. Or, should they build their own path by seeding and growing innovation, and grafting small acquisitions to accelerate growth and achieve scale down these paths?

Long-term Survival

The US grocery retail market stands at $649B today, with 3.4M (1% of the US population) employees across the 66,000+ businesses comprising this industry.[ii]  Given a growing population and the fact that in times good or bad, we all must eat, demand for food is unlikely to go down, though there may be shifts in preferences (e.g., generics v. branded) depending on economic conditions.
In other words, the industry is not small, not consolidated, and not at risk for a decline in demand. Rather, it is large, fragmented, and diverse, with fundamentally stable or growing demand. This makes it difficult for disrupters to disrupt broadly or deeply, and for adaptive innovators, it presents many options.
Evolution favors innovation and adaptability over size and scale, and nature provides useful insight into this Darwinian paradigm. While size and scale produce advantages for certain species, it is no guarantee of future success- it is a sign of successful growth, of successful past innovation. Colossal dinosaurs once dominated the planet, but the reason they rose to prominence, and the only reason their lineage persists in birds is because of adaptive innovations.
With the universal need for food, severe consolidation of grocery chains is unlikely as long as the US economy grows. And with the diversity of ecosystem players, customer preferences, and products, those who innovatively adapt will continue to grow.

Capital: Strength or Weakness?

For over a decade now, Amazon has taken advantage of its strong balance sheets and scale to gain presence in groceries. Given that Amazon’s market cap is roughly twice that of Target’s and Walmart’s combined is a material factor in its choice of strategic weapon: capital. Amazon’s investments related to grocery retailing are approximately $15B.
However, it is incorrect to assume that lots of capital means inevitable success. Many acquisitions simply fail to take root in their new home, no matter how useful the innovation. And companies such as Webvan failed under the weight of their capital because they failed to establish product-market fit incrementally and left no room for adaptive course-correction.

How to Proceed?

If Darwinism tends to prevail, then capital is not an unequivocal advantage, and the existential factor is adaptive growth, not survival.
We believe the multi-part answer is to (1) seed the eco-system for knowledge and initial product-market validation, (2) place 1-2 larger bets (at any given time for focus) based on an understanding of the market forces towards new business models or diversification, then (3) strengthen them to achieve scale, and (4) in parallel, carve out or sunset lines of business with the strongest headwinds to free up cash and focus on growth.
The outcome of such steps can put a mid-market grocer into high-growth business(es) that may not collide directly with Amazon or Walmart, and possibly even set the stage for a valuable acquisition or merger.

Topline Levers

Across these phases – seeding the ecosystem, placing 1-2 larger bets, and achieving scale – the two topline levers are greater share of wallet and new customers. These can come from new products and services.
Products (“SKUs”) such as staples and provisions, non-perishables, and fresh fruits & vegetables, all offer room for expansion. Depending on local demographics, preferences such as branded vs. non-branded, price vs. selection, organic foods, local produce, regional/ethnic items, and specialty items such as liquor and wine, define growth options.
SKU expansion does not require significant capital. Rather it requires a process that allows select experiments to be managed by the grocer, and a much longer ‘tail’ to be ‘self-managed’ by the SKU suppliers, where the grocer only provides limited ‘shelf space’ for a limited time (e.g., in-store endcaps or online kiosks) and charges for the service (and is able to do it without losing money). It is reasonable for SKU suppliers to be willing to pay for more visible use of physical space, differentiated presentation, or better ways to engage customers.
Online shopping enables choice extensions and endless aisles at a modest cost, whereas in-store options can emphasize experience. Demographic understanding of customer needs (healthy foods, organics, specialty foods, local/seasonal produce, etc.) can be assessed through affinity programs and community engagement combined with analytics. Going beyond food and provisions, adjacent businesses such as banking kiosks or medical ‘minute clinics’ can be evaluated in the same way.
Services such as partially- or pre-cooked foods, cellar management (a la VinCellar), produce delivery (a la Instacart or Peapod), meal delivery (a la Blue Apron), in-store eateries, and in-store convenient checkout without PoS lines can also be offered without material investment as vendor or partner offerings from established players and startups.

Bottomline Levers

The main bottomline levers are operational expenses such as rent, labor, and logistics including warehousing and supply chain management (e.g., inventory turns, lower margin items online); and financial items such as cash flow management or cost of debt. Many optimizations for these levers (e.g., robotic warehouses, robotic kitchen management, blockchain-based cold chain tracking, etc.) can also be enabled by partnerships with technology-based startups.

Capital Efficiency

In reviewing the above ideas, it becomes clear that many options are available in capital-efficient ways. Among these options, relationships with venture firms can facilitate access to both topline and bottomline tech-based innovation partners.
We are in an era of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which itself mitigates capex. Examples of services include online store builders and marketplaces (e-tail), security, brand/user preference analysis and brand promotion (martech, AI), customer service platforms (chatbots, CRM, KPO), and fleet management (IoT, gig economy apps). As federated web services with APIs, integration of SaaS offerings with the grocer’s enterprise software has become less expensive. With responsive design techniques, consistent desktop and mobile presentations for omni-channel access have become easy. And with integrated dev-ops processes, their deployment and upgrades have become easier as well.
Similarly, the gig economy mitigates capex and opex. Alternatives to home delivery by Whole Foods or Walmart Grocery (earlier known as Walmart-to-Go) can be made available without capex through third parties such as Instacart and Peapod. Federated independent couriers (e.g., Dispatch[iii])provide alternatives (figure 2). Also on the innovation frontier, though groceries are not the prime use case today, third-party drone companies offer drone-based services for commercial payloads of various sizes and type.

Figure 2. Which is better – owned delivery fleets, or independents marshalled with SaaS software? The answer may lie in the clash of medallions vs. Uber.
All of these services become easier to procure through relationships with VC firms that have a high awareness of these start-ups and use cases. The VC community has been quite active in grocery-focused investments. With 100+ investments, ~429 investors, and ~47 exits, grocery-focused VC firms have been active globally. Driving growth through capital-efficient innovation is necessary for mid-market grocers to stay competitive in the industry. Venture firms can provide options for adaptation, intelligence and diversification without billion-dollar expenditures.
[i] http://www.mngrocers.com/index.php/industry/stats
[ii]https://retailowner.com/Benchmarks/Food-and-Beverage-Stores/Supermarkets-Grocery-Stores#290291-profit
[iii] Dispatch is a Great North Labs investment

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