Service Providers See Gold in Shares of Startups

By Telis Demos And Liz Hoffman Startup Casper Sleep Inc. has blanketed New York subways with catchy ads promising “the perfect mattress,” ordered online and shipped free. Those ads were designed by one of Casper’s shareholders. Brooklyn-based branding company Red Antler was paid, in part, in stock for working with the company in its early days.Red Antler belongs to a growing class of service providers that are looking to profit on the soaring valuations of young startups by taking payment in stock instead of cash. There are 115 private companies valued at more than $1 billion, up from 64 a year ago, according to Dow Jones VentureSource, and the rise of what the industry calls unicorns has drawn a growing pool of vendors seeking equity stakes.“It’s a core part of our business model,” said JB Osborne, Red Antler’s co-founder. The firm regularly takes small stakes in young companies such as Casper, and it often helps firms craft pitches to venture capitalists before their first big fund-raising rounds. Casper is valued at over $550 million, The Wall Street Journal has reported.While shares-for-service swaps give companies like Red Antler a shot at big profits, they are also in line for big losses if the startups fail. During the dot-com bust, some West Coast law firms that took stakes in their clients watched the value of their shares evaporate. And, increasingly, huge private funding rounds are allowing startups to delay going public, which limits investors’ ability to turn paper gains into actual ones.Still, many service providers are willing the take the gamble as they watch the value of some young startups skyrocket. Seven-year-old home-rental service Airbnb Inc. was valued at $25.5 billion in a recent funding round, and messaging service Snapchat Inc., founded in 2011 by college dropout Evan Spiegel, was valued at $16 billion earlier this year, the Journal has reported. The strategy has paid off handsomely for some. In 2011, two-year-old Uber Technologies Inc. tapped Bradley Tusk to help the car-service app navigate the governments that held the key to its ability to expand into new cities. Mr. Tusk, a past campaign manager for former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, accepted Uber stock as payment for his services.Today, Uber is valued at $51 billion, the Journal has reported, up from $330 million at the end of 2011, increasing, on paper, the value of Mr. Tusk’s small stake more than 150-fold.Mr. Tusk recently launched a political consulting firm that will take stock in some clients and cash from others. He is confident the strategy will pay off, in part because he believes the political advice he gives to companies like Uber will help them grow. Companies operating in the “sharing economy” often face resistance from governments and organized trade groups, which can hamper their expansion.“We’d be crazy to take equity…if we didn’t think we were able to create more value,” he said.Consigliere Brand Capital, a branding and marketing firm launched in 2010 by Madison Avenue veterans, also aims to help its clients grow. It sometimes takes equity as payment and also invests its own cash in startups, alongside venture-capital firms, in formal fundraisings. Its portfolio includes beauty-subscription service Birchbox and Harry’s Razor Co., which sells shaving supplies.“These companies are growing very quickly,” said Brent Vartan, the firm’s chief strategy officer. “We’re going to be along for that ride, creatively and financially.”Veterans of the dot-com bust, however, warn that the ride could be bumpy. Valuations for some private startups have begun to decline from their peaks, with firms such as Box Inc. going public at prices below where they previously raised money privately. A 2012 study by a Harvard researcher found that three in four startups fail to return investors’ capital.And even with big winners, opportunities to reap profits on the investments can take years to materialize. More than 40 companies have joined the list of startups valued at more than $1 billion in 2015, but only three billion-dollar startups have gone public this year, according to VentureSource. While a marketplace has emerged to help private investors sell startup shares, it remains opaque and, as the Journal reported in July, has attracted regulatory scrutiny.Some service providers would rather take the cash. Adam Goldstein, co-founder of online hiring marketplace Vettery, which works with a number of young startups, says his firm prefers to take cash instead of equity.“Companies are generally only willing to give equity when they’re young, and when it’s hardest to predict if they’ll be a success,” said Mr. Goldstein. “The odds of an exit are low. Getting paid is tough.”Some startup founders, meanwhile, are reluctant to part with potentially valuable stock. Erik Norwood, an entrepreneur based in Austin, said he has been approached by former employees of companies including Microsoft Corp. and Dell Inc. seeking equity in exchange for handling marketing for his “smart-home” startup, Curb, which is working on a prototype of its energy-monitoring smart-home device. While equity can help him buy services he doesn’t have the cash for, Mr. Norwood said he is wary of giving away too much of his firm.“Everyone who used to ask for cash is now asking for equity,” he said. “They start seeing the bigger picture and wonder, ‘How do I get a piece of this?’ As a founder, you have to be a little careful.” Write to Telis Demos at and Liz Hoffman at

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