The tech industry avoided an ‘extinction-level event,’ but it’s not unscathed

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For much of the weekend, Silicon Valley scrambled to find a way through what one prominent tech investor described as an “extinction-level event for startups” after the collapse of a top lender in the industry.

Startups raced to line up loans from venture funds and fintech firms to make payroll. Venture-backed retailers hosted last-minute sales to boost their cash reserves. And at least one prominent startup accelerator convinced thousands of CEOs and founders to sign an “urgent” petition calling for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others to offer “relief.”

Then, late Sunday, federal officials stepped in to guarantee that all customers of the failed Silicon Valley Bank would have access to their full deposits on Monday. The sense of relief was palpable throughout the tech sector.

“Obviously, I’m quite relieved,” said Stefan Kalb, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based startup Shelf Engine, who told CNN that his company would have had to shut down by the end of the week without the government intervention. “It was a very stressful weekend and I’m quite relieved with the news.”

Parker Conrad, the CEO of HR platform Rippling, who had previously said some customers’ payrolls were being delayed by the bank failure, tweeted Sunday: “Anyone else breathing a sigh of relief and looking forward to a good night’s sleep tonight?”

And Garry Tan, the CEO of tech startup accelerator Y Combinator who authored the petition to Yellen, praised the federal government for “decisive action.” Tan, the investor who had previously warned of “an *extinction level event* for startups” that would “set startups and innovation back by 10 years or more,” added his appreciation on Sunday for “everyone who helped us through a very very intense time.”

But even as the tech industry enjoys a respite from a fearful weekend, unknowns remain. “You can feel the collective *sigh*,” Ryan Hoover, a tech founder and investor wrote on Twitter Sunday. “I’m still nervous,” he added. “Hard to predict the collateral effects.”

It’s unclear how the aftershocks of the bank’s collapse will add to the startup industry’s growing challenges accessing capital. SVB’s collapse also risks changing how the world, and prospective recruits, think of Silicon Valley.

For years, the term itself conjured an image of an enclave of bright, contrarian, libertarian engineers and thinkers who could see around corners and make big bets on the future. Now, that same industry is relying on the federal government to survive after failing to see the risk, or worse, contributing to it through a shared hysteria.

In the chaotic days leading up to the bank’s collapse on Friday, some venture firms reportedly urged their portfolio companies to withdraw their money, which may have contributed to the bank failing.

Then, over the weekend, many venture capitalists and tech founders banded together to try and lobby government and public goodwill towards saving the companies impacted by Silicon Valley Bank’s sudden collapse.

While some VCs appeared to embrace fear-mongering on Twitter, much of the public messaging focused on the small businesses with exposure to Silicon Valley Bank that might be not be able to continue operating after losing access to the money in their bank account.

“We are not asking for a bailout for the bank equity holders or its management; we are asking you to save innovation in the American economy,” the Y Combinator petition stated. “We ask for relief and attention to an immediate critical impact on small businesses, startups, and their employees who are depositors at the bank.”

A separate coalition of more than a dozen venture capital firms, including Lightspeed Venture Partners and Upfront Ventures, released a joint statement late Friday supporting Silicon Valley Bank, given its unique and vital role in the startup economy. The bank worked with nearly half of all venture-backed tech and healthcare companies in the United States.

“For forty years, it has been an important platform that played a pivotal role in serving the startup community and supporting the innovation economy in the US,” the statement read. “In the event that SVB were to be purchased and appropriately capitalized, we would be strongly supportive and encourage our portfolio companies to resume their banking relationship with them.”

Even before the bank’s collapse, the startup industry was in a tough moment. Venture capital funding had dwindled amid rising interest rates and broader macroeconomic uncertainty; tech companies were cutting staff and ambitious projects; and some of the biggest private companies were reportedly slashing their valuations.

The instability at a top tech lender, and the lingering questions about its impact on other regional banks and the broader financial system, risk making it even harder for money-losing startups to access the capital they need to survive.

President Joe Biden emphasized in remarks Monday that “no losses will be borne by the taxpayers” related to the government’s intervention for Silicon Valley Bank. But some are already skeptical of that statement, including Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who wrote in an op-ed Monday morning, “We’ll see if that’s true.”

More immediately, there’s uncertainty around how long it will take for companies to get their money out of the bank.

As of Monday, Kalb said the money in his Silicon Valley Bank account has not been transferred yet to the new JPMorgan Chase account he set up for Shelf Engine on Thursday. “I’ve been obsessively checking my email,” he said. “Hopefully the money will be able to be transferred shortly.”

Ben Kaufman, the co-founder of venture-backed toy store and online retailer Camp, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow in an interview Monday morning that he and his team spent the weekend trying to “fight for survival,” including holding a last-minute 40% off sale, using the code “BANKRUN,” to raise capital over the weekend.

“We did not know how long it was going to take for us to get our cash out … we still kind of don’t, they say today, we’ll see what happens,” he said, noting the bank held 85% of his company’s assets. “We hope we can, and we’re so grateful that the Fed stepped in, and the way they did.”

When asked if the past week’s events would change how and where he stores his money, Kaufman said that is “going to have to be a consideration moving forward.”

“I don’t want to do this again,” he said.