How we raised $100 million for my Silicon Valley startup in a down market

Amir Khan CEO and Founder Alkira 1 e1720716520681

If you’re an entrepreneur for a late-stage company, you know that securing funding is a challenge that requires a lot of hard work, commitment, and a relentless mindset. Doing so in a down market with high interest rates adds another layer of complexity. Recently, our company Alkira was fortunate to close a $100 million Series C funding round. While we’re incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received, the journey wasn’t easy.

I’ve been through the fundraising process several times, as both Alkira CEO and founder, as well as CEO and founder of networking startup Viptela, which Cisco acquired in 2017. But this latest experience taught me unique and valuable lessons that other leaders can benefit from in this market. Here are some key takeaways I want to share.

Lesson 1: Start with the numbers

In a down market, investors are naturally more cautious. They’re looking for companies that have a great product or service and a clear path to success, even amidst economic headwinds. On top of this, AI startups attracted one out of every three dollars invested in the U.S. in 2023, making this particular down market even more competitive. For a late-stage company, getting a significant investment in this market is extremely rare. So, how did we pull it off, and what can you do if you’re in this situation?

The cold, hard truth is that it comes down to fundamentals. Your numbers need to be strong, and you must show consistent, substantial growth over time. You also need to make a compelling case for your future growth with proof to back it up. Customer testimonials are extremely important. In our case, the breadth of “network infrastructure on demand” use cases that we solve for our customers and how much they love our solution helped. In addition, although Alkira is not classified as a pure AI company, we do play a foundational role for enterprises looking to embrace AI quickly and securely. Specifically, we’re able to bring up AI services quickly, secure them, and effectively meet compliance requirements. Clearly articulating our AI vision, while showing that our customers are already benefiting from this, helped us tremendously in the fundraising process. 

Another important point was that our previous round of funding lasted for nearly four years. In that time, we were very responsible with the investment, proving out our business model without overspending. This was also amidst a global pandemic. Highlighting this to investors gave them confidence that we would maximize their investment.

Lesson 2: Prioritize investor fit

Despite having so many key elements in place, finding the right group of investors that understood our product and market did not happen overnight. We spent countless hours preparing for investor meetings that ultimately didn’t result in the outcome we were looking for, oftentimes through no fault of our own. Sometimes you can nail your presentation, but the connection just isn’t there. That can be the toughest part of all: knowing you’re doing everything right, while having to remain patient for the stars to align. As someone who’s on the other side of the fundraising process, I can say it’s well worth the wait for the right investors in the current market. 

Broadly speaking, there are two types of investors. One is investors that simply provide your business with capital but have a loose understanding of what you do and the market you serve. The other is a true business partner that’s going to do their research, talk extensively with your customers, have a comprehensive understanding of your unique market, and add significant value to your company’s growth. Both types of investors can be helpful for your business, but in a tight economic market, the latter becomes much more critical. 

Finding investors who grasp your market opportunity and competitive edge allows them to build a stronger conviction in your business. This is essential in a down market where investors are more selective with their capital. Additionally, having investors familiar with your space can expedite the due diligence process, saving valuable time and resources. The right investors can also leverage their network and expertise to connect you with potential customers or partners, further strengthening your investment case. This has happened on more than one occasion throughout my career, and I’ve found that those connections are usually the ones that stick around the longest.

By prioritizing investors who understand your business and market, you can increase your chances of a successful fundraising round and attract the capital you need to thrive even in challenging economic conditions.

Lesson 3: Don’t settle for good enough

In a down market, where every dollar counts, excellence is the most valuable currency for attracting investors. Don’t settle for good enough in any step of the fundraising process. Throughout the process, there will be temptation to rush things, such as your pitch deck or your brand narrative. However, if your startup has strong numbers, consistent and sustainable growth, and a clear vision for why you’re well-positioned for the future, invest the time, resources, and energy necessary to ensure your business puts its best foot forward and succeeds in reaching its funding goal. Going back to something I mentioned earlier, even though there were investor meetings that didn’t go the way we’d hoped, and frustration could start to creep in, we never let those experiences shape how we prepared for the next meeting. We treated every investor meeting as if it were the only meeting we’d have, and we always made sure we put ourselves in the best position to succeed.

The same holds true in how we approach our technology every day. We pioneered the concept of on-demand network infrastructure a few years ago, and now, finally, more people are starting to understand why this technology is so valuable. Had we taken shortcuts along the way or let the frustration get the best of us, we wouldn’t have raised $100 million in the current market. Disrupting a legacy industry requires an unwavering commitment to seeing processes through, demonstrating efficiency in how you use your resources, and not settling for good enough in the face of pressure.

Key takeaways

To be sure, I and Alkira do have some advantages that not all founders and companies do. Our networking technology does mesh very well with the recent AI boom, and I have established a successful track record with a previous startup. I also had validation from Microsoft’s Elite Startup Program. Not every entrepreneur will have these advantages, of course.

Still, securing funding in a down market requires a strategic approach and unwavering commitment to excellence. By focusing on strong fundamentals, finding the right investors, and not settling for good enough in the face of pressure, you can increase your chances of success. Remember, even in challenging times, exceptional companies with a clear vision for the future can attract the capital they need to thrive.

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