More debt, improving margins: How startups are retooling in the COVID-19 era

A new data set from Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) details how startups are reacting to the post-unicorn era as COVID-19-related disruptions upset the global economy and remake the risk tolerance of private investors.

What SVB’s new report shows is unsurprising: venture capital deal volumes are falling, startups are tapping existing debt capacities to add cash to balances while they still can and some upstart firms are curtailing spend to reduce unprofitability. The last data point comes via the lens of startups that recently raised, making the data more a snapshot of what companies that are successfully attracting capital may have accomplished with regard to improving profitability — the directional shifts are material regardless of that particular nuance.

Let’s briefly examine what the data says and what it tells us about the state of the startup market.

Spending less, borrowing more

Venture capitalists are pulling back, SVB data indicates. A chart from its Q2 markets report notes that the “SVB Deal Activity Index” had fallen from a rating of 160 in early March to just over 70 by mid-to-late-April. That staggering decline means fewer rounds are getting done and that there is less capital going into startups of all sizes.