With Little Notice, Seed-Stage Valuations Begin Falling

mo moneyA widely held belief in Silicon Valley is that valuations are still on a one-way trajectory toward the sky, with founders firmly in the driver’s seat.

But the reality for seed-stage companies may be a bit more dire than that — and getting worse by the month.

According to the research firm CB Insights, both average and median seed-stage valuations have fallen since last year, with the average valuation dropping from $2.2 million to $1.7 million and median valuation falling even more precipitously, from $1.7 million to just .6 million.

Data from AngelList, a matchmaking service for investors and seed-stage entrepreneurs, also shows declining valuations. According to AngelList, which tracks thousands of startups in its system, the average seed-funded company’s valuation dropped from $3.9 million in the third quarter of 2012 to $3.6 million in the third quarter of this year. That isn’t a massive dip, but AngelList founder Naval Ravikant tells me that “by the time [a shift in one direction] shows up in the averages, it’s pretty pronounced.”

A recent quarterly venture capital report out of Pitchbook, which operates a subscription-only database of private equity and VC deals paints a rosier picture. Pitchbook found that median pre-money valuations for seed-stage, VC-funded companies have nearly doubled over the last three years — from $3.2 million in 2010 to $5.2 million through the first three quarters of 2013.

Still, this same report observed that lofty valuations are only making it harder for companies to raise Series A rounds. Pitchbook further noted that the rise of valuations can’t go on endlessly, suggesting there will likely be more flat and down rounds in coming years.

Ravikant — noting that “everyone’s dataset is incomplete” — suggests the future is now. Though he can’t pinpoint exactly when things began trending downward, he thinks valuations “kind of peaked around the Facebook IPO, when it turned out to be less than people thought it would be.”

According to Ravikant, there “hasn’t been a mass exodus out” out of the seed-stage investing market, mainly because “people still believe some percentage of your portfolio should be early-stage. But there’s increased recognition” that it’s a tough racket, with many angels suffering from investor fatigue and suddenly becoming more realistic about the chances of their portfolio companies receiving follow-on investments.

There will always be a market for the most promising seed-stage startups, in other words. But evidence from CB Insights and AngelList suggests that for entrepreneurs just setting out, the road ahead looks bumpy.

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