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As funding slows in Boston, its early-stage market could shine

Chris Lynch, a founder and former general partner at Boston-based seed-stage fund Accomplice, remembers “VC Mountain in Waltham.”

Back then, entrepreneurs on funding quests would visit a building overlooking the Waltham Reservoir near Boston where they pitched to a few investors: Matrix Partners, Charles River Ventures and Highland Capital Partners.

“And if they didn’t invest in you, you weren’t getting money to start your company,” Lynch said.

Since then, Lynch has watched the area’s startup ecosystem reach the point where seed-stage firms are ubiquitous, but in a city populated with firms waiting to make first bets, the scene is unsurprisingly undergoing a funding drought. Crunchbase data indicates that the city’s Q2 venture capital pace slowed dramatically, with April seeing far fewer rounds and dollars invested in 2020 than in 2019.

Boston saw just seven known equity funding rounds in April, investments worth a hair under $60 million. In the year-ago April, Boston recorded 24 equity funding rounds worth more than $500 million.

Yet, while the numbers are slow, some Boston tech leaders think seed startups will continue to thrive thanks to accelerators and a healthy base of local early-stage investors. And Lynch, who left Accomplice in 2017, says the venture slowdown might help firms recalibrate their appetite for new deals to a more healthy pace.

“The advantage of more access to capital without a proportional increase in great ideas really waters down the fort,” he said, referring to upmarkets. “A lot of money has been invested in companies before they even proved their ideas were right, and I think even I fell into a trap of competing so hard for deals that I lost sight of a good deal.” He estimates that in our COVID-19 world, investors will start to again take three months for due diligence on a deal, versus three weeks to a signed term sheet.

If Boston’s seed investors becomes more conservative, that means that accelerators — homes of the brightest founders, often before they even have their first customer — will be pressed to react.

Accelerators

Venture Lane, a co-working space and startup incubator for early-stage companies, was nearing its one-year anniversary in the heart of Boston when COVID-19 hit the city.

The incubator, which traditionally hosts 10 startups at a time, made its whole program virtual and reworked existing content to help navigate the climate. Plus, per founder Christian Magel, its tips and workshops were opened up to any early-stage founder, not just the ones enrolled with Venture Lane. Hundreds have signed up, he said.

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Namely, a former high flier, slashes staff as demand for its HR software dries up in the pandemic

Namely, an eight-and-a-half-year-old, New York-based company that sells payroll, talent management and other HR services to mid-size businesses across the U.S. via subscription software, has let go of upwards of 40% of its roughly 400 employees.

The cuts are across the board, from high-ranking staffers, including a CFO who was brought on almost exactly two years ago, and a chief security officer who has spent just the last year with the company, to its entire customer success team.

In a call earlier today, Namely CEO Larry Dunivan said the company had reduced executive pay five weeks ago, hoping to avoid layoffs, but that the coronavirus and its impact on the business made that impossible. He also shared the difficulties of running a startup right now that depends largely on small- and medium-size businesses, noting that even though Namely’s customers sign up for between one- and three-year-long contracts — they also pay an additional amount for a minimum number of employees — many of those customers are finding it difficult to fulfill those contracts at the moment.

He pointed to one client who has numerous yoga studios and who earlier this year employed 500 people but has laid off all but 15 of them in the shutdown. Said Dunivan, “We just had a stark, painful conversation and you could tell I was one of many people she was calling. [But] because I care about that relationship, I waived that minimum for some period of time so she can conserve cash.”

Which means less revenue for Namely.

It’s a situation that many startups find themselves in, of course. According to Layoffs.ai, a site that’s trying to track industry layoffs as they happen, at least 356 startups alone have now laid off 34343 employees. That’s saying nothing of the many companies and small businesses like yoga studios that don’t register as tech startups. In fact, nearly four million people filed for unemployment benefits last week alone, bringing to more than 30 million the nation’s number of unemployment claims.

While the deep cuts are understandable in the current context, they also represent one in a series of milestones at Namely that no startup wants to encounter. Though it was once among New York’s most promising businesses and accordingly raised at least $217 million from investors, including Matrix Partners, True Ventures, and Sequoia Capital, it has seen more than its share of transition at the top. In the most devastating development for the company until now, Namely’s board abrupt fired the company’s cofounder, Matt Straz, as its CEO in 2018.

Accused of actions “inconsistent with that which is expected of Namely leadership,” as the company told employees at the time, Straz has gone on to launch an employee benefits startup called Bennie.  But it cast a cloud over the the company (which still isn’t talking about what happened).

Soon after, the board member who led the investigation into Straz —  longtime Silicon Valley executive Elisa Steele — was appointed as Namely’s permanent CEO, which at the time helped attract $60 million in new funding to the company led by GGV Capital.

Yet by last summer, she had also left as CEO, a decision that she made based on family commitments says one source, and owes partly to the relationship she had established with Dunivan, he said separately. Specifically, Dunivan said that in his previous role as the interim CEO of the human resources company ThinkHR, he was consulted by Steele on business and product strategy, and that “as sometimes happens, one thing led to the other and i joined” the company in her stead. (Steele remains on the company’s board.)

Certainly, he inherited a business that no longer enjoys the sheen it once did.

As says one person with a stake in the business, “I don’t think anyone is giving up on Namely but it had a modest growth plan at the start of 2020 and that’s now been made uncertain because of [COVID-19]. I think the company is just trying to control what it can and to structure itself so it can operate more efficiently with a major drop-off in revenue.” Adds this person, “It’s like a clean sheet of paper.”

It’s an optimistic perspective and surely one that remaining employees will need to embrace, at least until the fourth quarter, which is when Dunivan estimates that businesses across the board may pick up again.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult time, but we look at the world through a fairly conservative lens and we’re making certain assumptions about how new customers will buy, how existing customers will increase or decrease headcount, and how many businesses will be closed and never to come back,” said Dunivan when we spoke earlier.

“It’s my believe that the recovery will start to show signs of life in the fourth quarter and into the first quarter, and our current looks at it through that lens,” he added. “But in the meantime, employers will be paying fewer people.”

Faced with dwindling options, Namely is now among them.

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