Seattle startups, banks face SVB setback

Seattle startups, banks face SVB setback
Seattle startups, banks face SVB setback

Seventy-two hours after the stunning failure of Silicon Valley Bank, federal action means Seattle-area tech and wine companies can access millions of dollars frozen in SVB accounts.

“People are breathing easier knowing they can at least take a paycheck this week,” said Dave Parker, Seattle-area founder and chairman of startups at the Washington Technology Industry Association, shortly after SVB operations resumed Monday morning.

But Sunday’s federal bailout of SVB depositors has not answered larger questions about who will finance the often risky startups. It also does not reveal whether the SVB meltdown could spread to regional financial institutions, including in Washington.

“Is my money safe? Is it okay to be here?” said Rachel Ayres, spokeswoman for Spokane-based Canopy Credit Union, recounting questions credit union members had Monday. Ayres said Canopy customer service representatives spent a lot of time Monday explaining to concerned members “that their money are safe”.

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That has also been the general message from many government and industry officials since regulators shut down SVB on Friday amid a run of panicked customers and a doomsday tweetstorm from investors.

On Sunday, federal regulators announced that the government would insure all SVB depositors, even those above the normal Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. limit of $250,000. Had they not done so, many of SVB’s large tech customers would have been seriously short of funds. “Your deposits will be there when you need them,” President Joe Biden said Monday.

Sunday’s bailout actually meant that startups like FlowPlay, a Seattle gaming company with several million dollars in its frozen SVB account, were able to transfer about $500,000 in time for the company’s Wednesday payroll.

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“I was a little concerned this morning when we couldn’t log in,” said FlowPlay CEO Derrick Morton, adding that the transfer finally went through around 2:45 p.m. Monday.

“Companies are … able to act today, which is very encouraging,” added Hope Cochran, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle-based venture capital firm that spent the weekend working with the “vast majority” of its 100-plus customer companies that bank with SVB and could not touch their money.

The federal guarantee also provided “a huge sigh of relief” to the many Washington wineries that used the 40-year-old California bank for financing and other services, said Erik McLaughlin, CEO of Metis, which advises Pacific Northwest wineries.

A concierge at the building on Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle that houses SVB’s Seattle branch confirmed that the branch was open Monday.

But many concerns remain. The failure Sunday of another bank, New York-based Signature Bank, raised concerns that regional banks and smaller banks and credit unions could also be vulnerable to bank runs.

This helped to push share prices down in some smaller listed banks. It also led many banks, including in the Pacific Northwest, to try to reassure customers and investors that they were not exposed to the risks that hurt SVB, especially a large concentration of large customers in a single sector.

“We have no significant exposure to volatile deposits such as startup funds, crypto funds or venture capital,” Mark Mason, chairman and CEO of Seattle-based HomeStreet Bank, said in an email, adding that “only 16% of our deposits are larger than [$250,000] FDIC insurance limit.”

Seattle-based WaFd Bank is “not involved in a high concentration level of investments that caused the failure of SVB and Signature Bank,” spokesman Brad Goode said by email Monday.

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Investor concerns sent shares down nearly 26% at Utah-based Zions Bank, parent of Seattle-based Commerce Bank Of Washington. Zion’s president Scott Anderson said the bank’s deposit base was significantly different from the failed banks.

Even with Sunday’s measures, there is still uncertainty for many SVB startup customers and other depositors.

For those who remain with SVB, which is currently under federal supervision, it is unclear when or if the bank can resume its previous level of business.

“Most entrepreneurs I know switch to very safe, too-big-to-fail banks, just to be safe,” said R. Joe Ottinger, a Seattle-area tech entrepreneur and CEO of the Innovate Leadership Network.

But those who jump ship face other concerns, say industry experts. Other banks may lack SVB’s decades of industry expertise or willingness to finance startups, especially newer ones that may be years from generating profits.

SVB filled that role by offering loans, or “venture debt”, to startups that had secured venture capital but might not qualify for conventional bank financing. It also offered lines of credit, which allowed startups to cover shortfalls in cash flow—for example, when a startup had to pay its suppliers before it received payment from its customers.

Madrona’s Cochran says SVB was not the only bank offering venture debt or credit lines to startups. What is not clear, she said, is whether SVB’s problems mean that other banks can now charge more for loans “because the big competitor is gone”.

Another concern: the large number of former SVB customers switching banks could create painful financing delays, especially for smaller startups with smaller cash reserves, said Parker, of the Washington Technology Industry Association.

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“From a practical point of view, the banks that take on all of these [former SVB] accounts are going to prioritize the companies with the most money, Parker said.

And many venture capital firms had already become hyperselective about funding startups amid a broader tech slowdown and higher interest rates, Ottinger said.

Even before SVB, “venture capital firms have basically told the vast majority of their companies, ‘keep your money,'” Ottinger said. “VCs pick their winners and really hold back money.”

Cochran said Madrona’s “investment mission” for the companies it backs “didn’t change this weekend.” But, she added, “I think we’ll probably have some strong proposals [for companies] about how they should manage cash.”

Other industry observers hoped the SVB debacle would lead to changes in the banking sector and the venture capital community that might prevent a similar failure.

“Will the VCs who created the crisis and the SVB executives who allegedly gave themselves bonuses just hours before the crash face any consequences?” said Brett Greene, founder of New Tech Northwest, a Seattle-based tech meet-up community.

“Like everything,” he added, “it’s a mixed bag of good and bad lessons and results.”

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