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Startups spring from ashes of Big Tech purge

Nic Szerman lost his job at Meta Platforms in November, just two months after joining full-time, falling victim to a sweeping 13% reduction of its workforce as the advertising market cratered.

Days later he was back working, seeking investment for his own company Nulink, a blockchain-based payment company, and sent pitches to startup accelerator Y Combinator and Andreessen Horowitz’s cryptocurrency fund.

“As counterintuitive as it may sound, this layoff left me in a really good position,” the 24-year-old said. “Because I don’t have to pay back the sign-on bonus, I get four months of pay, and now I have time to focus on my own project.”

Szerman is part of a wave of would-be entrepreneurs who are emerging from the ashes of the mass job losses seen in Silicon Valley in the second half of 2022, according to venture capitalists.

U.S. tech giants including Meta, Microsoft, Twitter and Snap have purged more than 150,000 staff, according to Layoff.fyi, which tracks technology job losses.

While overall venture capital (VC) financing fell 33% globally to about $483 billion in 2022, early-stage funding was robust, with $37.4 billion raised in so-called angel or seed rounds, in line with the record level seen in 2021, according to data from research firm PitchBook.

Day One Ventures, an early stage venture fund in San Francisco, launched a new initiative in November to fund startups founded by people who had been laid off from their tech jobs, touting the slogan “Funded, not Fired”.

The program aims to cut 20 checks for $100,000 by the end of 2022. Day One said it had received over 1,000 applications, most of them from people who were cut loose by Meta, Stripe and Twitter.

“We’re investing $2 million in 20 companies – if we just find one unicorn it almost returns the fund, which I think is a really unique opportunity for us as fund managers,” said Masha Bucher, co-founder at Day One Ventures.

“Looking at the last economic cycle, companies like Stripe, Airbnb, Dropbox have been created in crisis.”

Also in November, multi-stage fund Index Ventures, which has bankrolled Facebook, Etsy and Skype, launched its second Origins fund, which will invest $300 million in early-stage startups.

Silicon Valley investor U.S. Venture Partners and Austrian VC firm Speedinvest have meanwhile earmarked a similar amount for newly founded companies.

Investors highlighted gaming and artificial intelligence among hot areas of interest.

“With advances in game design, new innovations like cloud gaming, and the emergence of social networking in this sphere, gaming has really transcended into mainstream culture,” said Sofia Dolfe, partner at Index Ventures.

“In every period of economic uncertainty, there is opportunity – to reset, re-prioritize and re-focus energy and resources.”

Szerman said his project was rejected by Y Combinator, while he hasn’t heard back from Andreessen Horowitz yet, though he added that other early-stage venture capitalists had expressed interest.

“I told the investors we’ll chat in two or three months,” he added. “I’ll focus on scaling the system now.”

Some investors compared the 2022 downturn to the dotcom crash of the early 2000s, when dozens of overvalued startups went bust, flooding the market with talent and helping to spark a wave of new companies such as Facebook and YouTube.

“Many great companies have been created in relatively dark times,” said Harry Nelis, managing partner at investment firm Accel, who sees a new generation of risk takers emerge among the swathe of people left unemployed.

Some industry players say former Big Tech employees are uniquely placed to start their own companies, having seen first-hand how some of the biggest firms in the world operate, and enjoying ongoing access to their network of highly skilled colleagues.

One former Googler has sought to help others like him looking for life after technology giants. In 2015, Christopher Fong, who spent almost a decade working for the tech titan in California, launched Xoogler, a project designed to help former employees hoping to start their own companies. Since then, the group’s membership has since swelled to more than 11,000.

Fong told Reuters that experience in Big Tech firm gave founders a “strong brand that can be leveraged to meet investors, potential customers, and recruit team members”. Reuters

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