The global domino effect is shaking up high-tech complacency and is rapidly approaching Israel
The sharp declines in capital markets over the past month are changing the playing conditions for high-tech companies. After years of enjoying almost unlimited money, companies are preparing for selective investments and a freeze on new hires
Bracing for impact. This is the most accurate description of what is happening these days in the local high-tech industry. The crash on the Nasdaq, which until two weeks ago seemed like echoes of explosions from a distant war, is slowly approaching the local ecosystem.
The celebration is not over yet, the battle for talent is still in full swing, capital raising continues and new unicorns are being born, albeit at a slower pace. But just over our shoulders there are signs of a different reality.
In the United States, where everything is faster and more violent, there are already companies closing down and many companies that are laying off workers. Since the beginning of May, no less than ten companies have announced layoffs, some firing dozens of employees, but some, like Israel’s Avo, firing hundreds of workers. All of this comes on the back of many companies following the lead of giants like Facebook and Uber who decided to freeze recruitment, as well as the sense that in recent weeks high-tech workers are starting to cling to their office chairs in fear that they could be let go next.
While workers from many public technology companies rushed to leave in search of a more rewarding job, especially in terms of the capital reward, as soon as the fall on Wall Street began last November, now they are beginning to internalize that the salary tap may also close soon.
For example, one of the massive exoduses was at Israeli company Wix, which lost more than half of its value in early 2022. However, in recent weeks it has become clear that many of those leaving are unable to find a new job, at least not under the same conditions they dreamed of. Unlike the U.S., in Israel there is still no talk of layoffs or even cuts, and a ‘freeze’ is probably the most accurate description of what is happening. Everyone prefers to wait a bit for further developments and especially to understand how far the domino effect of the Nasdaq collapse will go.
The taps for venture capital investments are closing
How does this domino effect work? The contraction in the tradable portfolio of large investment entities, especially institutional entities, is expected to affect their willingness to increase exposure to non-tradeable investments, which are startups. In most entities there is a rule of thumb regarding the balance between the two parts, so it is not possible to continue at the same rate of venture capital investment if the shares have taken a hit. Moreover, a large part of the money channeled to startups comes from the income received from companies' offerings, their sales, or the positive returns on their shares.
In the current state of the markets the three taps are closed and therefore less money will flow into alternative investments. This is even before taking into account the rising interest rate and the fact that it is already possible to get a return of 3% in ten-year U.S. bonds without risking the money at all. The changes are expected to remove the hotter money from the tech investment market, or as it is known "tourist money", by hedge funds and crossover funds that exploit opportunities at random without a structured strategy, and also from the institutional bodies.
Tiger Global lost $15 billion this year
The result of this development is less venture capital money. Since the beginning of 2022, investment funds worldwide and in Israel have managed to raise a huge sum of $70 billion, probably precisely because they smelled the impending avalanche, but all the money will not necessarily actually go to those funds.
Although this is a rare event, at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 and of course in 2008 there were funds that had difficulty "calling for money", i.e actually receiving it from the institutional body despite the commitment given earlier. This is an extreme scenario that seems far-fetched, but in Silicon Valley they are already talking about a difficult atmosphere that has not been the case since the bubble burst in 2000. The main symbols of high-tech prosperity in recent years - the Tiger Global investment fund and Cathie Wood’s mutual funds, both of which have significant exposure to Israel - have already suffered severe blows in the form of negative returns of tens of percent. Tiger Global, which made a new investment almost every day last year, now features prominently at the other end of the statistics. The hedge fund lost 25% in April and 51.7% from the beginning of 2022. Given that the fund manages $35 billion, this translates to a loss of $15 billion or $183 million in every trading day since the beginning of the year.
There are no clear exit options on the horizon
Venture capital funds prefer to be more careful with the money now and make fewer investments. They also sent a message to their portfolio companies to think about each expense twice. In the meantime, it is mainly a matter of examining the structure of expenses to understand how many months the company can continue to run without the need for new capital. Companies that do not have enough breathing space for 18 months need to start thinking about cuts or raising capital.
The interesting test will be in the willingness of funds to inject additional funds into companies without having clear exit options on the horizon and there is significant difficulty in estimating what the value levels will be in two years. Although there does not seem to be a single notable crisis in the global economy today, there are too many factors that have come together and are working against the markets. "There is an accumulation of events that has never been seen before: The war in Ukraine, inflation, and also remnants of Covid-19 hitting supply chains. These stars have simply never aligned together before so no one can say whether the declines in the markets will last a year or half a year," Aaron Mankovski, managing partner at the Pitango venture capital fund, which has been operating for more than 30 years and went through the crises of 2000 and 2008, told Calcalist.
According to Mankovski, he does not see situations of difficulty in receiving the funds from the institutional bodies, but estimates that the funds will be more careful in distributing the money. "We continue to invest because we have already been in this situation and done well in crises as well, but the value is the result of negotiations and it is clear that the valuations will change." At this point Pitango advises its clients to prepare action plans for a number of scenarios: “Every CEO who sees what is happening in the world should examine the events that affect them or are likely to influence them, even if at this stage there is no reason to take actual action. I estimate that there will be no layoffs in Israel in the foreseeable future, because most of the workers in the local market are still research and development people and there is a huge shortage of such. The layoffs we see in the U.S. mainly concern marketing and sales people."
"Even when there was a big celebration in the market, our spirit was to behave modestly and carefully," Sivan Shamri Dahan, a partner in the Qumra venture capital fund that invests in Israeli growth companies, tells Calcalist. "As we have said before, we are not excited about the concept of unicorns and we are not looking for companies that recruit at crazy value levels, but are looking for a generation of companies that have real sales of tens of millions of dollars and their market is real. These are the companies that will exit the crisis reinforced.”
And this is the fundamental change that is taking place these days in the local high-tech market - the decline of the unicorns. Not only are suddenly many companies in no hurry to become a unicorn, but even the funds do not want to invest in them, realizing that it will be difficult to impossible to justify value levels of billions of dollars, which have become common in the last two years for private companies. "In 2021 there was a crazy jump, but in the near future we will see more normal multiples of 8 to 15 times the revenues in technology companies and not 25 or 30," Mankovski adds.
"The rush for unicorn status has gotten out of hand," said Adam Fisher, a senior partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, an American venture capital fund that was one of the first to have significant activities in Israel and place a partner here on its behalf. "Nearly a decade ago, when the term was first coined, unicorns were an elite group of companies worth billions of dollars with significant revenues that left an indelible mark on the global economy. Today there are more than 1,000 unicorns in the world, many with less than $1 million in revenue. From 2020 to 2021, we saw a 120% increase in the number of unicorns, so that a unicorn and a half were born each day."
According to Fisher, a unicorn's status is almost meaningless today and says nothing about the company's chances of success, but only about its ability to interest investors.
"There are quite a few unicorns in Israel that are high risk, but everyone will only start to internalize it when we see unicorns firing a lot of workers or even closing down. That is why we want the focus to be on the centaur companies and for companies that reach this status to declare it and not the status of unicorn,” states Fisher.
The centaur (centum in Latin means 100) is another mythological animal, half human and half horse. For Bessemer, which coined this concept in its annual report on the state of the cloud, centaur is a company that reached $100 million in revenue. In keeping with the spirit of the time, unlike a unicorn, the chances of a centaur closing down are close to zero. "At such a revenue level it is clear that there is a match between the company's product and the market, its customer base is growing and it can grow further. Monitoring centaur growth provides more accurate evidence of the overall health of ecosystem cloud companies as this group measures business growth by arrival at revenue milestones, contrary to valuations, which are a subjective measure to a certain extent," Bessemer explains.
The fund identifies 150 cloud companies that meet the definition of a centaur, and no less than 25 of them are Israeli companies, including Yotpo, Sisense, Cloudinary, Snyk, Transmit, Rapyd, Fundbox, Gong, AppsFlyer and Redis. Although all these companies are also unicorns, in the opposite direction the situation is completely different. While in 2021, 520 unicorns were born worldwide, only 60 new private companies became centaurs. Bessemer estimates that only 70 new companies will reach this status in 2022. Of course, there is also a new cloud now hovering above in the form of rising interest rates and inflation, which will make it difficult for companies to raise the money required for procurement budgets, which may also be reflected in a slowdown in cloud companies' sales. "We estimate that there will be companies that will freeze IT budgets, but usually they do not cut immediately, first they freeze," says Fisher.
New music that investors want to hear
Mankovski also believes that this is the more real way to examine companies and their potential for success. "Back in 2000 and 2008 there were no private companies with revenues of more than $100 million and today there are a considerable number of such companies. We at Pitango alone have 8-9 of these and that is the most in history," he says. "This is the most significant event of recent years."
Alongside the focus on revenue, there is of course also the petty matter of profit that has been completely neglected in recent years. The expression of the spirit of the new period could be seen in the financial report of Vroom, a platform for the sale of used cars in the United States that has a connection to Israel in the form of Eli Wurtman, one of its largest investors. The company was issued in the summer of 2020 at a value of $2.5 billion and the very next day already soared to more than $5 billion. Vroom was traded at a much more modest value of $185 million as of Wednesday.
Vroom’s stock actually jumped earlier this week following a seemingly unfortunate announcement of layoffs and cuts. The essence and no less the wording of the announcement were along the lines of the new music that investors, both public and soon private, want to hear: "The company's board of directors has approved a new business adjustment plan for profitable growth that prioritizes Unit Economics (revenue received from a customer should cover its acquisition cost), reduces operating expenses and maximizes liquidity available to the company."
Vroom did its best to hide the cut in manpower without specifying how many workers will be sent home, but admitted that the avalanche in the market reminded the company and its colleagues that investors are here to make a profit and not just to serve as a band of cheerleaders.