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‘We will see spectacular failures’: CEOs and investors on what the end of cheap money means for tech

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Guillaume Pousaz, CEO and founder of payment platform, speaking onstage at the 2022 Web Summit tech conference.

Horacio Villalobos | Getty Images

LISBON, Portugal — Once high-flying tech unicorns are now having their wings clipped as the era of easy money comes to an end.

That was the message from the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal, earlier this month. Startup founders and investors took to the stage to warn fellow entrepreneurs that it was time to rein in costs and focus on fundamentals.

“What’s for sure is that the landscape of fundraising has changed,” Guillaume Pousaz, CEO of London-based payments software company, said in a panel moderated by CNBC. 

Last year, a small team could share a PDF deck with investors and receive $6 million in seed funding “instantly, ” according to Pousaz — a clear sign of excess in venture dealmaking. itself saw its valuation zoom nearly threefold to $40 billion in January after a new equity round. The firm generated revenue of $252.7 million and a pre-tax loss of $38.3 million in 2020, according to a company filing.

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Asked what his company’s valuation would be today, Pousaz said: “Valuation is something for investors who care about entry point and exit point.”

“The multiples last year are not the same multiples than this year,” he added. “We can look at the public markets, the valuations are mostly half what they were last year.”

“But I would almost tell you that I don’t care at all because I care about where my revenue is going and that’s what matters,” he added.

Rising cost of capital

Private tech company valuations are under immense pressure amid rising interest rates, high inflation and the prospect of a global economic downturn. The Fed and other central banks are raising rates and reversing pandemic-era monetary easing to stave off soaring inflation.

That’s led to a sharp pullback in high-growth tech stocks which has, in turn, impacted privately-held startups, which are raising money at reduced valuations in so-called “down rounds.” The likes of Stripe and Klarna have seen their valuations drop 28% and 85%, respectively, this year.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years was a cost of money that was 0,” Pousaz said. “That’s through history very rare. Now we have a cost of money that is high and going to keep going higher.”

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Higher rates spell challenges for much of the market, but they represent a notable setback for tech firms that are losing money. Investors value companies based on the present value of future cash flow, and higher rates reduce the amount of that expected cash flow.

Pousaz said investors are yet to find a “floor” for determining how much the cost of capital will rise.

“I don’t think anyone knows where the floor is on the upper hand,” he said. “We need to reach the floor on the upper hand to then decide and start predicting what is the lower end, which is the long term residual cost of capital.”

“Most investors do valuations still to this day on DCF, discounted cash flow, and to do that you need to know what is the residual floor on the downside. Is it 2%, is it 4%? I wish I knew. I don’t.”

‘An entire industry got ahead of its skis’

A common topic of conversation at Web Summit was the relentless wave of layoffs hitting major tech companies. Payments firm Stripe laid off 14% of its employees, or about 1,100 people. A week later, Facebook owner Meta slashed 11,000 jobs. And Amazon is reportedly set to let go 10,000 workers this week.

“I think every investor is trying to push this to their portfolio companies,” Tamas Kadar, CEO of fraud prevention startup Seon, told CNBC. “What they usually say is, if a company is not really growing, it’s stagnating, then try to optimize profitability, increase gross margin ratios and just try to just lengthen the runway.”

Venture deal activity has been declining, according to Kadar. VCs have “hired so many people,” he said, but many of them are “out there just talking and not really investing as much as they did before.”

Not all companies will make it through the looming economic crisis — some will fail, according to Par-Jorgen Parson, partner at VC firm Northzone. “We will see spectacular failures” of some highly valued unicorn companies in the months ahead, he told CNBC.

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The years 2020 and 2021 saw eye-watering sums slosh around equities as investors took advantage of ample liquidity in the market. Tech was a key beneficiary thanks to societal shifts brought about by Covid-19, like working from home and increased digital adoption.

As a result, apps promising grocery delivery in under 30 minutes and fintech services letting consumers buy items with no upfront costs and virtually anything to do with crypto attracted hundreds of millions of dollars at multibillion-dollar valuations.

In a time when monetary stimulus is unwinding, those business models have been tested.

“An entire industry got ahead of its skis,” Parson said in an interview. “It was very much driven by hedge fund behaviour, where funds saw a sector that is growing, got exposure to that sector, and then bet on a number of companies with the expectation they will be the market leaders.”

“They pushed up the valuation like crazy. And the reason why it was possible to do that was because there were no other places to go with the money at the time.”

Maëlle Gavet, CEO of startup accelerator program Techstars, agreed and said some later-stage companies were “not built to be sustainable at their current size.”

“A down round may not be always possible and, frankly, for some of them even a down round may not be a viable option for external investors,” she told CNBC.

“I do expect a certain number of late stage companies basically disappearing.”


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Two children and two adults survive after Tesla plunges 250 feet off California cliff

View from the helicopter during a rescue operation after a vehicle carrying two adults and two children went over a cliff in Devil’s Slide, San Mateo county, California, U.S., January 2, 2023, plunging hundreds of feet, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in this still image obtained from social media video.

CHP – Golden Gate Division | Reuters

Two adults and two children were rescued from a Tesla that plunged 250 feet off a cliff Monday morning in San Mateo County, California, officials said. 

The car was traveling southbound on the Pacific Coast Highway when it went over the cliff at Devil’s Slide, south of the Tom Lantos tunnel, and landed near the water’s edge below, the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit said. 

The car flipped and landed on its wheels in the fall, CAL FIRE/Coastside Fire Incident Commander Brian Pottenger said. Witnesses saw the accident and called 911. 

As crews were lowered down, they were able to see movement in the front seat, through their binoculars, meaning someone was alive.

“We were actually very shocked when we found survivable victims in the vehicle. So, that actually was a really hopeful moment for us,” Pottenger said. 

Fire officials called for helicopters to help hoist the survivors to safety. As they waited, firefighters rappelled to the scene and rescued the two children.

Rescue teams are seen at the scene as a Tesla with four occupants plunged over a cliff on Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Devils Slide on January 2, 2022 in San Mateo County, California, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The California Highway Patrol shared video on social media showing helicopters lower first responders to the scene to extricate and rescue two adults inside. 

All four were hospitalized. The San Mateo Sheriff’s Office said the two adults suffered non-life-threatening injuries and the two children were unharmed.

It’s not clear what caused the car to go over the cliff. CHP is handling the investigation. 

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Tesla shares tumble more than 10% following deliveries report

Tesla vehicles are shown at a sales and service center in Vista, California, June 3, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Shares of Tesla dropped 13% on Tuesday morning, a day after the electric auto maker reported fourth-quarter vehicle production and delivery numbers for 2022.

Deliveries are the closest approximation of sales disclosed by Tesla. The company reported 405,278 total deliveries for the quarter and 1.31 million total deliveries for the year. These numbers represented a record for the Elon Musk-led automaker and growth of 40% in deliveries year over year, but they fell shy of analysts’ expectations.

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According to a consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by FactSet, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Wall Street was expecting Tesla to report around 427,000 deliveries for the final quarter of the year. Estimates updated in December, and included in the FactSet consensus, ranged from 409,000 to 433,000.

Those more recent estimates were in line with a company-compiled consensus distributed by Tesla investor relations Vice President Martin Viecha. 

Some Wall Street analysts think Tesla’s deliveries miss spells trouble for the electric vehicle maker, but others see a buying opportunity for the company in 2023.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo, who recently named Tesla a top pick for 2023, maintained an outperform rating and said he would remain a buyer of the stock ahead of the company’s earnings report, which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

“Q4 deliveries missed consensus but beat our estimates,” he said in a Tuesday note. “Importantly, production increased ~20% q/q which we expect to continue into 2023 as gigafactories in Berlin and Austin continue to ramp.”

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they consider the delivery report to be an “incremental negative,” and view Tesla as a company that is “well positioned for long-term growth.” Goldman reiterated its buy rating on the stock in a Monday note and said that making vehicles more affordable in a challenging macroeconomic environment will be a “key driver of growth.”

“We believe key debates from here will be on whether vehicle deliveries can reaccelerate, margins and Tesla’s brand,” the analysts said.

Shares of Tesla suffered an extreme yearlong sell-off in 2022, prompting CEO Musk to tell employees in late December not to be “too bothered by stock market craziness.”

Musk has blamed Tesla’s declining share price in part on rising interest rates. But critics point to his rocky $44 billion Twitter takeover as a bigger culprit for the slide.

Morgan Stanley analysts said they think the company’s share price weakness is a “window of opportunity to buy.”

“Between a worsening macro backdrop, record high unaffordability, and increasing competition, there are hurdles for all auto companies to overcome in the year ahead,” they said in a note Tuesday. “However, within this backdrop we believe TSLA has the potential to widen its lead in the EV race, as it leverages its cost and scale advantages to further itself from the competition.”

CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Michael Bloom contributed to this report.

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Tesla makes China boss Tom Zhu its highest-profile executive after Elon Musk

Tom Zhu Xiaotong, Tesla’s current executive in charge of China, speaks as a new Tesla experience store opens on Aug. 18, 2015 in Hangzhou, China.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Tesla’s China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric carmaker’s U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

The Tesla posting showed that Zhu’s title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla’s most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia as of Tuesday.

The move makes Zhu the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Chief Executive Elon Musk, with direct oversight for deliveries in all of its major markets and operations of its key production hubs.

The reporting lines for Zhu would keep Tesla’s vehicle design and development — both areas where Musk has been heavily involved — separate while creating an apparent deputy to Musk on the more near-term challenges of managing global sales and output.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reuters reviewed the organizational chart that had been posted internally by Tesla and confirmed the change with two people who had seen it. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

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Zhu and a team of his reports were brought in by Tesla late last year to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, driving an expectation among his colleagues then that he was being groomed for a bigger role.

Zhu’s appointment to a global role comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter and Tesla analysts and investors have urged action that would deepen the senior executive bench and allow him to focus on Tesla.

Under Zhu, Tesla’s Shanghai plant rebounded strongly from Covid lockdowns in China.

Tesla said on Monday that it had delivered 405,278 vehicles in the fourth quarter, short of Wall Street estimates, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.

The company had delivered 308,600 vehicles in the same period a year earlier.

The Tesla managers reporting to Zhu include: Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Gigafactory in Texas; Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing at Tesla’s Fremont factory; Joe Ward, vice president in charge of Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service, according to the Tesla notice on reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

Tesla country managers in China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to report to Zhu, the notice showed.

Zhu does not have a direct report at Tesla’s still-ramping Berlin plant, but a person with knowledge of the matter said responsibility for that operation would come with the reporting line for Amsterdam-based Ward. Ward could not be immediately reached for comment.

Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, joined Tesla in 2014. Before that he was a project manager at a company established by his MBA classmates at Duke University, advising Chinese contractors working on infrastructure projects in Africa.

During Shanghai’s two-month Covid lockdown, Zhu was among the first batch of employees sleeping in the factory as they sought to keep it running, people who work with him have said.

Zhu, a no-fuss manager who sports a buzz cut, favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and has lived in a government-subsidized apartment that is a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory. It was not immediately clear whether he would move after his promotion.

He takes charge of Tesla’s main production hubs at a time when the company is readying the launch of Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. Tesla has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details on that plan.

When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter last month to celebrate its Austin, Texas, plant hitting a production milestone for its Model Y, Zhu was among hundreds of workers smiling on the factory floor.

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Allan Wang, who was promoted to vice president in charge of sales in China in July, was listed as the legal representative for the operation in registration papers filed with Chinese regulators in a change by the company last month.

Tesla board member James Murdoch said in November the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not respond to a request for comment.

Electrek previously reported that Zhu would take responsibility for U.S. sales, delivery and service.

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