What is the Average Exit for Startups: Exploring the Different Routes to Success

The startup world is abuzz with excitement and possibilities, but it’s also a world filled with uncertainty and risk. One of the biggest questions that founders and investors alike grapple with is what the average exit for startups looks like. Will it be a wildly successful IPO, a strategic acquisition, or a slow and steady growth to profitability? In this article, we’ll explore the different routes to success and delve into the data to answer the burning question: what is the average exit for startups? From acquisitions to IPOs and everything in between, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of startup exits and what they mean for entrepreneurs and investors alike. So, buckle up and get ready to explore the highs and lows of the startup exit game.

The Startup Journey: Understanding the Exit Options

Initial Public Offering (IPO)

An Initial Public Offering (IPO) is a process through which a privately held company can go public by issuing shares of stock to the public for the first time. It represents a significant milestone in a startup’s journey, as it provides access to public capital markets and can potentially boost the company’s valuation and visibility. In this section, we will delve into the definition and process of an IPO, explore the pros and cons for startups, and examine notable examples.

Definition and Process of an IPO

An IPO is a complex and multifaceted process that involves several stages, including:

  1. Preparation: This stage involves assessing the company’s readiness for an IPO, conducting due diligence, and engaging underwriters to help facilitate the process.
  2. Registration: Companies must register their securities with the relevant regulatory bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States, which requires extensive documentation and disclosure.
  3. Marketing: In this stage, the company and its underwriters engage in a roadshow to market the securities to potential investors, both institutional and retail.
  4. Pricing: The company and underwriters determine the offering price and finalize the terms of the securities.
  5. Trading: The company’s shares begin trading on a stock exchange, typically within a few days of the pricing stage.

Pros and Cons for Startups

While an IPO can provide several benefits for startups, such as access to public capital markets and increased visibility, it also comes with potential drawbacks. Some of the pros and cons are as follows:


  • Access to public capital markets
  • Increased visibility and brand recognition
  • Potential to boost the company’s valuation
  • Attracting long-term investors


  • Significant legal and regulatory requirements
  • Increased scrutiny and reporting obligations
  • Loss of control over the company’s operations
  • Risk of market volatility and investor sentiment

Notable Examples

Some notable examples of successful IPOs by startups include:

  • Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. (2014): The Chinese e-commerce giant raised $21.8 billion in its U.S. IPO, making it the largest IPO in history at the time.
  • Facebook, Inc. (2012): Facebook’s IPO was one of the most anticipated events in tech history, with the company raising $16.2 billion and reaching a valuation of $104 billion.
  • Uber Technologies, Inc. (2019): Uber’s IPO raised $8.1 billion, making it the second-largest U.S. IPO in history. Despite early setbacks, the company’s stock has since rebounded.

These examples illustrate the potential benefits and challenges associated with pursuing an IPO as a startup. The decision to go public requires careful consideration of various factors, including the company’s readiness, market conditions, and long-term goals.

Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A)

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are two of the most common exit strategies for startups. In this section, we will delve into the definition and process of M&A, explore the pros and cons for startups, and examine notable examples.

Definition and Process

Mergers and acquisitions are two distinct yet related processes. A merger occurs when two or more companies come together to form a new entity, while an acquisition happens when one company purchases another. Both processes involve the consolidation of assets, resources, and capabilities to create value and achieve strategic goals.

The M&A process typically begins with the identification of potential targets, followed by a thorough analysis of the target company’s financials, operations, and market position. If the acquiring company decides to proceed, they will negotiate the terms of the deal, including the purchase price and any contingencies. Once the terms are agreed upon, the deal is executed, and the two companies are integrated to create a unified entity.

Pros and Cons for Startups

Startups can benefit from M&A in several ways. By merging with or being acquired by a larger company, startups can access new markets, resources, and expertise. This can help them scale their operations, enhance their product offerings, and expand their customer base. Additionally, M&A can provide startups with a faster route to profitability and liquidity, allowing them to realize their value more quickly.

However, M&A also come with some risks and challenges for startups. Integration difficulties, cultural differences, and the potential loss of autonomy can all pose obstacles to a successful outcome. Moreover, M&A can be a costly and time-consuming process, requiring significant resources and attention from the startup’s management team.

Notable Examples

There have been numerous M&A deals involving startups in recent years. One notable example is the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012. This deal not only provided Facebook with a popular social media platform but also gave Instagram’s founders and employees a lucrative exit opportunity. Another example is the merger of Twitter and Periscope in 2015, which allowed Twitter to expand its live-streaming capabilities and enhance its user experience.

Secondary Sales

Secondary sales refer to the resale of equity shares in a privately held company. These transactions typically occur when an existing shareholder decides to sell their stake to a third party, often through a broker or investment bank. Secondary sales differ from initial public offerings (IPOs), which involve the sale of new shares by the company itself.

  • Pros:
    • Access to liquidity: Founders and early employees can access cash by selling their shares, which can be useful for funding personal ventures or diversifying their investments.
    • Market signaling: A secondary sale involving a well-known startup or its executives can signal the company’s growth potential and attract further investment.
    • Portfolio management: For investors with diverse portfolios, secondary sales can help manage risk and rebalance investments.
  • Cons:
    • Information asymmetry: Founders and shareholders may have more information about the company’s performance and future prospects than the buyer, leading to a potential misalignment of expectations.
    • Dilution: The sale of shares can lead to dilution of ownership, reducing the stake of existing shareholders.
    • Market volatility: The price of secondary shares can be affected by market volatility, making it difficult to predict their value.

Some notable examples of secondary sales include:

  1. WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann’s sale of shares: In 2019, WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann sold approximately $400 million worth of shares in the company to SoftBank Group Corp. This sale came after the company’s initial public offering (IPO) was canceled due to investor concerns over its financials and governance.
  2. Uber’s share sale to Toyota: In 2019, Uber sold a stake worth around $400 million to Toyota Motor Corp. as part of a broader strategy to partner with established companies and expand its business.
  3. Spotify’s direct listing: In 2018, Spotify became the first major tech company to go public through a direct listing, allowing existing shareholders to sell their shares without the need for an IPO. This process bypassed the traditional investment bank underwriting process, potentially saving the company millions of dollars in fees.

IPO Exit vs. Acquisition Exit: Key Differences

Financial Implications

When considering the financial implications of an IPO exit versus an acquisition exit, it is important to note that IPOs tend to provide a larger financial payout for founders and investors. This is because the initial public offering process allows companies to raise capital by selling shares to the public, resulting in increased liquidity and the potential for higher valuations. On the other hand, acquisition exits typically involve the sale of a company’s shares to another entity, which may result in a smaller financial payout.

Liquidity and Shareholder Impact

Another key difference between IPO and acquisition exits is their impact on shareholder liquidity. IPOs allow shareholders to sell their shares to the public, providing them with immediate liquidity and access to a broader market. In contrast, acquisition exits may limit shareholder liquidity, as the acquiring company may choose to restrict the sale of shares or implement lock-up periods to retain control over the newly acquired assets.

Founder and Employee Considerations

From a founder’s perspective, an IPO exit may offer greater prestige and the opportunity to establish a lasting legacy within the industry. Additionally, the IPO process often requires companies to adhere to strict regulatory requirements and financial reporting standards, which can enhance a company’s reputation and credibility. On the other hand, acquisition exits may be more attractive to founders who prioritize financial gain and expediency, as they can provide a faster route to liquidity and allow founders to move on to new ventures.

For employees, the impact of IPO and acquisition exits can vary significantly. While an IPO may offer the potential for significant financial gains through stock options and equity awards, it may also introduce new challenges, such as increased scrutiny from investors and the public. Acquisition exits, on the other hand, may provide a more straightforward financial payout for employees, but may also involve uncertainty around job security and career prospects within the newly acquired company.

The Role of Market Conditions in Exit Strategy

Factors affecting market conditions

The startup journey is a dynamic and ever-changing landscape, influenced by various factors that impact market conditions. Understanding these factors is crucial when considering the different exit options available to startups. Some of the key factors that affect market conditions include:

  1. Economic indicators: Economic indicators, such as GDP growth, inflation rates, and interest rates, play a significant role in shaping market conditions. Startups need to stay informed about these indicators to anticipate changes in the market environment.
  2. Industry trends: The technology industry, for example, is constantly evolving, with new innovations and disruptions shaping the landscape. Startups need to keep abreast of these trends to understand how they might impact their exit options.
  3. Geopolitical events: Geopolitical events, such as trade wars, political instability, or natural disasters, can significantly impact market conditions. Startups need to monitor these events and assess their potential impact on their business and exit strategy.

Impact on startup exit options

Market conditions can have a profound impact on startup exit options. For instance, during an economic downturn, it may be more challenging for startups to secure investment or find acquirers, leading to a decrease in the number of exit opportunities. On the other hand, during an economic boom, startups may have more exit options, but the competition may also be fiercer.

Strategies for navigating different market environments

Given the volatility of market conditions, startups need to develop strategies to navigate different market environments. Some of these strategies include:

  1. Diversification: Startups can diversify their revenue streams or product offerings to reduce their reliance on any one market segment. This can help mitigate the risk associated with changes in market conditions.
  2. Flexibility: Startups need to be agile and adaptable, able to pivot quickly in response to changes in the market environment. This requires a strong focus on innovation and a willingness to embrace new opportunities.
  3. Strategic partnerships: Startups can form strategic partnerships with other companies or organizations to gain access to new markets or technologies. This can help mitigate the risk associated with changes in market conditions and provide new exit opportunities.

In conclusion, market conditions play a critical role in shaping startup exit options. By understanding the factors that impact market conditions and developing strategies to navigate different market environments, startups can increase their chances of success and find the right exit strategy to achieve their goals.

Startup Metrics and Exit Strategy

Key takeaway: Startups should consider the market conditions and the potential outcomes of each exit option to make informed decisions and increase their chances of a successful exit. This involves understanding the definition and process of each exit option, such as IPOs and M&As, as well as monitoring market trends and adapting strategies accordingly. Additionally, strategic planning and continuous evaluation are crucial for maximizing exit value and staying on track towards their goals.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for Startup Success

Startup success is often measured by key performance indicators (KPIs) that help entrepreneurs track their progress and make informed decisions. The following are some of the most important KPIs for startup success:

  • Revenue Growth: Revenue growth is one of the most important KPIs for startups. It measures the increase in revenue over time and helps entrepreneurs determine whether their business is growing or not. This KPI is critical for startups that rely on revenue to sustain their operations and scale their business.
  • Customer Acquisition and Retention: Customer acquisition and retention are essential for the long-term success of any startup. These KPIs measure the number of new customers acquired and the percentage of existing customers who continue to do business with the startup. Startups that have a high customer acquisition and retention rate are more likely to succeed in the long run.
  • Product-Market Fit: Product-market fit is a measure of how well a startup’s product or service meets the needs of its target market. This KPI is critical for startups that are looking to scale their business and compete with other players in their industry. A strong product-market fit can help a startup differentiate itself from its competitors and attract more customers.
  • Competitive Landscape: The competitive landscape is a measure of the level of competition in a particular industry or market. This KPI is important for startups that are looking to enter a crowded market or compete with established players. By understanding the competitive landscape, startups can identify opportunities for differentiation and develop strategies to gain a competitive advantage.

Using Data to Inform Exit Strategy

Analyzing market trends

When it comes to exit strategy, analyzing market trends is a crucial step for startups. Market trends can provide valuable insights into the current state of the industry and help startups make informed decisions about their future. By examining market trends, startups can identify potential opportunities and challenges, and adjust their exit strategy accordingly.

One key aspect of analyzing market trends is keeping track of the performance of similar companies. By looking at the successes and failures of other startups in the same industry, founders can gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This can help them make more informed decisions about their own exit strategy and avoid common pitfalls.

Assessing investor interest

Another important factor to consider when using data to inform exit strategy is investor interest. Investors play a critical role in the success of startups, and their interest can have a significant impact on a company’s exit strategy. By tracking investor interest, startups can get a sense of how the market values their products or services, and use that information to make informed decisions about their future.

One way to assess investor interest is by looking at the amount of funding a startup has raised. Startups that have raised a significant amount of funding are often seen as more attractive to investors, and may have a higher chance of success in the long run. Additionally, startups can use data on the types of investors who are interested in their company to inform their exit strategy. For example, if a startup is receiving interest from strategic investors, it may be a sign that the company is well-positioned for acquisition.

Identifying potential acquirers

Finally, using data to inform exit strategy involves identifying potential acquirers. Startups should take the time to research and analyze potential acquirers to determine which companies are most likely to be interested in acquiring their business. This can help founders make more informed decisions about their exit strategy and increase their chances of success.

One way to identify potential acquirers is by looking at industry trends and identifying companies that have historically acquired startups in the same industry. This can provide valuable insights into which companies are most likely to be interested in acquiring a startup. Additionally, startups can use data on the financial performance of potential acquirers to determine which companies are most likely to be able to afford an acquisition.

The Importance of Strategic Planning for Startup Exits

Building a Strong Foundation for Exit

When it comes to exit strategies for startups, having a strong foundation is crucial for a successful outcome. In this section, we will explore the key elements that make up a solid foundation for exiting a startup.

  • Developing a clear vision and mission: A clear vision and mission statement provide a roadmap for the startup’s future, helping to guide decision-making and ensure that all stakeholders are aligned. This helps to build a cohesive and focused organization that is ready for growth and change.
  • Aligning stakeholders and shareholders: Aligning the interests of stakeholders and shareholders is critical for a successful exit. This includes creating a shared understanding of the startup’s goals and values, as well as developing a mutual sense of ownership and responsibility for the company’s success.
  • Cultivating a strong company culture: A strong company culture fosters a sense of community and shared purpose among employees, helping to create a positive and productive work environment. This helps to build a strong team that is capable of achieving the startup’s goals and creating value for its stakeholders.

By focusing on these key elements, startups can build a strong foundation for exiting, setting themselves up for success and creating value for all stakeholders involved.

Exit Planning as a Continuous Process

Regularly reviewing and updating exit goals

One of the key components of effective exit planning is regularly reviewing and updating exit goals. This means taking the time to assess the progress of the startup, as well as the current market conditions, in order to determine whether the original exit goals are still realistic and achievable.

Identifying potential exit opportunities

Another important aspect of exit planning as a continuous process is identifying potential exit opportunities. This can involve conducting market research to identify potential acquirers or investors, as well as keeping an eye on industry trends and developments that could impact the startup’s exit prospects.

Adapting to changing market conditions

Finally, it’s important to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to exit planning. As the startup grows and evolves, so too will the market conditions and opportunities available. Therefore, it’s essential to regularly review and update the exit plan to ensure that it remains relevant and aligned with the startup’s goals and objectives. By taking a proactive and continuous approach to exit planning, startups can increase their chances of achieving a successful exit and realizing their full potential.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding different exit options: It is crucial for startups to familiarize themselves with various exit options, such as acquisitions, IPOs, and long-term growth, in order to make informed decisions. This knowledge allows startups to evaluate the potential outcomes of each option and choose the most suitable path based on their goals and circumstances.
  • The role of market conditions in shaping exit strategies: Market conditions play a significant role in shaping exit strategies. Startups must remain vigilant and adapt their strategies to the evolving market landscape. Factors such as market volatility, changing consumer preferences, and new competitors can impact the success of a startup’s exit strategy. By monitoring these factors, startups can adjust their plans accordingly and increase their chances of a successful exit.
  • The value of strategic planning and continuous evaluation: Strategic planning and continuous evaluation are essential for startups aiming to maximize their exit value. By developing a well-defined plan and regularly assessing their progress, startups can identify areas for improvement and adjust their strategies accordingly. This proactive approach helps startups stay on track towards their goals and increases their chances of a successful exit.


1. What is an exit for a startup?

An exit for a startup refers to the eventual sale or acquisition of the company, which usually occurs when the founders or investors decide to cash out and realize their returns. This can happen through an initial public offering (IPO), merger, acquisition, or being acquired by another company. Exits can also happen when a startup decides to merge with another company, or when it goes bankrupt and is liquidated.

2. What is the average exit for startups?

The average exit for startups varies depending on the industry, location, and stage of the company. According to a study by CB Insights, the average exit for startups is around 6-7 years after their founding, with the most common exit route being acquisition. However, some startups take much longer to exit, while others may exit in as little as 2-3 years.

3. What are the different routes to exit for startups?

Startups can exit through various routes, including IPOs, acquisitions, mergers, and bankruptcy and liquidation. IPOs are a popular exit route for startups that have grown significantly and want to go public to raise additional capital. Acquisitions are also a common exit route, where larger companies acquire smaller startups for their technology, talent, or market share. Mergers can also be a way for startups to combine forces with other companies to create a stronger entity. Finally, bankruptcy and liquidation can occur if a startup is unable to turn things around and pay off its debts.

4. How does the location of a startup affect its exit?

The location of a startup can significantly impact its exit options. Startups based in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, and London have a higher likelihood of exiting through acquisitions or IPOs, as these regions have a more developed ecosystem of investors, entrepreneurs, and companies. However, startups based in less developed regions may have fewer exit options and may need to be more creative in their approach to exiting.

5. How does the industry of a startup affect its exit?

The industry of a startup can also impact its exit options. For example, startups in the tech industry may have more exit options than those in other industries, as the tech industry is more developed and has a higher number of potential acquirers. Additionally, startups in the healthcare industry may face more regulatory hurdles and a longer path to exit. However, there are many examples of successful exits in various industries, and the specific circumstances of each startup will ultimately determine its exit options.

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