By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Cash-strapped start-ups need look no further than Looker Data Sciences for evidence the investment boom is alive and well.
The two-year-old company that helps businesses analyze data announced on Tuesday it's tapped venture investors for $16 million in early-stage funding - the type of sum no start-up could previously have managed without a slog of around four or five years.
These days, even as some young companies complain of a crunch in the early-stage funding known around Silicon Valley as "Series A", a growing cohort is chalking up giant amounts. That's creating a class of richly valued, deeper-pocketed companies in prime position to outmaneuver the competition.
Beside Looker, online-security company BitSight raised a $24 million Series A in June; website-testing company Optimizely scared up $28 million in March; and data-driven lending service AvantCredit raked in $34 million in April.
"The definition of Series A has been strained," says Redpoint Ventures principal Tomasz Tunguz, who led Looker's funding round. "You have larger and larger rounds that are called Series A."
Behind the supersized checks: rapid growth rates in an era where business expansion may involve simply renting more server space on Amazon Web Services, along with sizable potential markets. For consumer companies, they would likely have to be adding at least 1 million users a month.
Inflation is also popping up one level down from Series A, at the very-early stage called seed - funds that used to total around $1 million or so and come in when the company had little more than proof of concept for its idea.
Looker raised $2 million last year at the seed stage. By that time, it already had a product and paying customers, says chief executive Frank Bien, a feat that would have been impossible in the days before technology allowed start-ups to skip time-consuming and expensive steps such as building their own computer servers.
Many of the group are what Silicon Valley denizens like to call "ramen profitable," meaning they are profitable as long as expenses like salaries stay minimal — even if it means the founders go for months eating little more than noodles.
Greg Gottesman, a partner at early-stage investment firm Madrona Venture Group, has a test to see if seed rounds truly merit the term. He checks to see if the rounds included preferred shares, which means investors holding them get paid back first if the company is sold or shuts down.
"Sometimes, it's just an A round," he says, even if it is actually called seed. In the past, seed rounds included only common shares, which do not come with special privileges.
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Some changes on the venture side are helping the move to bigger checks. A handful of elite firms such as Andreessen Horowitz is raising ever larger funds, and those firms are deploying some of the cash much lower down the food chain than previously, including Series A and seed.
At the same time, more money is coming from corporations that wish to back start-ups. Last year, corporations represented 8.4 percent of all venture dollars invested, more than any time since 2007. Some of those are very active at earlier stages; Google Ventures is one of the most active seed investors in the Bay Area, according to consultancy CIBC.
Still, many start-up companies complain of the "Series A crunch." They say increasing numbers of punters are starting companies, so the funding simply does not exist for them all to continue to the next stage. During the first half of this year alone, some 242 Bay Area companies raised seed money, according to CIBC, far ahead of the pace last year.
But many early-stage venture investors say they just do not see any signs of a crunch, at least for good companies with growing revenues and decreasing losses.
"I'm perplexed by the whole thing," says John Malloy of BlueRun Ventures, saying he has heard a lot of talk about the crunch on the conference circuit but has seen no evidence of it in his own portfolio.
Revenue-generating companies that are growing at solid but less than breakneck speed continue to attract venture dollars at traditional levels — typically around $2 million to $5 million for series A and $1 million or less for seed, venture investors say.
Some imply the crunch has been exaggerated, in part to help venture capitalists who want lower prices for their Series A investments. The notion of a crunch, says angel investor Dan Scheinman, allows venture firms to scare good companies into taking lower valuations than they otherwise might.
"Look, you should come with us," he describes as a typical line. "If you don't, there's this big crunch out there."
(Editing by Edwin Chan and Stephen Coates)