Intro

The world is a radically different place from where it was early this year. In early February, COVID-19 still felt like a faraway problem to many investors – something that people read about but did not expect to encounter firsthand.

Before we knew it, the disease exploded exponentially into a full-blown global pandemic. Given the current environment, founders must question all their assumptions about their business and assume that the conviction potential investors may have had in their company may waver during this trying time.

Accounts of companies with less than three months of cash runway have increased dramatically in the last few weeks in Southeast Asia, as founders and CEOs confront a new reality that brings with it an uncertain outlook. Even for companies with more runway, the difficulties of preparing for an unknown horizon is looming in everyone’s minds. As liquidity from an unprecedented decade of economic growth dries up, cash is once again king. Investors will be much more judicious about how investments are made, putting focus on business fundamentals to determine allocation.

When competition for capital intensifies during a crisis, founders must do three things – first, have an honest and objective look at what makes the moat for the business; second, shore up cost structures to conserve cash, and third, persevere in maintaining the relationship and trust with your investors. When you address all three, you are in a much stronger position to think about fundraising during a crisis.

In every crisis period we’ve gone through in the past, investors always stress the term defensibility. Make no mistake, the concept of defensibility in a new economy will certainly look different from that of an old one, but the principles should not change – do customers want your product, whether we are in a down or upcycle? If the answer is yes, you have a moat.

Second, shoring up cost structures is perhaps the single most vital element when there is less capital in the market. To reduce fundraising needs and extend cash runway, companies should operate with a view of 1) what happens if they are unable to find new capital, 2) what happens if they have difficulties collecting receivables and 3) what should they do if they have limited-to-no access to credit over a 12-to-24-month timeframe.

Another point to keep in mind is that the bulk of many startups’ operating expenses is typically driven by personnel costs. During this time, founders must consider headcount reduction in balance with other tactics such as compensation cuts, role reassignments and workday reductions. I believe this is what that differentiates great leaders from business managers.

Third, the knee jerk reaction of some founders to fundraise in the current climate is probably one of the worst things to do. Developing new investor relations just before you require capital is never a good idea. With fundraising rounds realistically requiring months of work to execute, any money raised will likely be too little, too late. This underscores the importance of understanding that investor relations is an ongoing effort – not a once-off exercise to gather investor commitments.

Thoughtful transparency is instrumental to maintaining a relationship of trust and conviction between founders and investors. It also helps prepare founders and their investors for difficult conversations around renegotiation of terms or funding extensions, all scenarios which a founder may have to actively consider during this period.

For any founder and CEO, it is important to set in place a mechanism of regular communication with your key investors. At a minimum, monthly updates and more frequent for close investors. Investors should be updated on operating and financial health, and how the founder or CEO intend to solve for problems. Understand each of your investor’s strengths and leverage them to help you go further. Relationships are a two-way process.

There are founders who may end up accepting a flat or down round during this time, which is understandably hard. In the end, company valuations are a measure of what the market would pay for a business at any point in time, and by design is not static and will fluctuate with exogenous factors. The truth of the matter is, maintaining a company’s viability in a downturn, and over a longer run, is more important than what a company is worth on paper right now. If one can raise a round even as capital becomes scarce, keep an open mind and do so from investors one has built relationships with.

Under the current landscape, the founders who benefit most from their investors’ support are those who have proven their worth and invested in developing a relationship. There is no quick path, as with all things that are built to last.

Having witnessed the effects of the Asian Financial Crisis, dotcom bubble, 9-11, SARS, Great Financial Crisis and countless other market selloffs, there is one great lesson for any company through every crisis.

Keep your balance sheet in check and keep your investors close.

Written by Hwee Ang, an investor relations and fund marketing professional

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