Sorry, But Who You Know Still Matters

We live in an age where “democratization” is all the rage in the world of startup investing. An age where rent-seeking gatekeepers such as venture capitalists are going to be put out of business by Crowdfunding, ICOs, and more generally the mass dissemination of information across the world via the internet. Pretty soon, so the narrative reads, everyone will have access to the best deals, and a new entrepreneurial golden age will emerge. The only thing that will matter is what you know, and John and Jane Doe will be driving the Tesla’s previously consigned to the folks on Sand Hill Road.

Baloney.

The problem with the notions that “everyone will have access to the best deals” and “everyone will be empowered to make the best deals” is that neither assertion is true.

On the first score, the people with the best deals will continue to seek out the investors with the best track records and value-add. I mean, if you are really good and have a really good idea, who would you rather have financing your start-up, Sequoia or some guy named Barney and his pals at the country club in Podunk?

As for the second point, evaluating, making, and managing the best deals is about more than having access to them: it is about having the skills, experience, and networks to recognize them and turn opportunity into achievement. Good venture investors are in fact good at something that is very hard to be good at, not something any old Jane Doe could master if only she had access to the same raw material (most if it garbage in any event). Seriously, pick a name out of the phone book and the chances you’ll find a really good high impact venture investing talent is probably about the same as your finding someone who can hit a major league curveball.

I am not arguing that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally have not changed and will not continue to change the venture capital business. What I am arguing is that those changes will be evolutionary more than revolutionary; that the fundamentals, including the curation of deal flow, will still be very much in play. And that curation will continue to be one of those “guilt by association” situations driven by relationships, not algorithms.

Look at it this way. Most venture investors see far more entrepreneurs and deals than they can possibly give serious attention to, much less invest in. Further, the best venture investors not only see the most deals generally, but the most good deals as well. There is an awful lot of noise in the system. And for pretty much every venture pro out there, the most logical and effective first noise reduction filter is… who that I respect thought this deal was worth my time to look at?

Deals where the answer to that question is “no one,” aka “over the transom” deals, seldom get more than the most cursory review, and as any honest VC with a solid track record will tell you almost never get done.

Will adding more over the transom deal flow – for example via web solicitation or on public Crowdfunding sites – change that? Of course not. An experienced VC will be no more likely to seriously investigate a deal that comes in over a digital transom than a deal that comes in over a traditional transom.

 

None of this means that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally are not changing the venture business. But the changes are around the margins – more efficient ways to distribute, access and process information. And these changes are lowering transaction costs, which is great for everyone. But as much as there is more noise in the system, the value of getting a curated introduction to a good investor is if anything more, not less, valuable than it was in the past.

And so, discounting the hype and the bad actors in the Crowdfunding and ICO worlds, the large majority of the good deals are mostly being done by professional investors in closed – even if online – syndicates. And by teams that meet their lead investors via an introduction (likely as not a digital one), not the online equivalent of a billboard.

The point, then, is this: if you are serious about getting your start-up funded by investors that know what they are doing, start talking to folks – other entrepreneurs, service providers, other investors – that are known and respected by those folks. Because no matter how much you know, who you know still matters.

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Back to the Future in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley came by its name honestly enough: way back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was the place where venture capitalists and entrepreneurs turned silicon into computer chips in high volumes and at low prices that astonished the world. I have a chart on my office wall that shows how hundreds of silicon-based chip companies emerged in the Valley in that period, the vast majority of which could be traced to Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory (founded 1956), and Fairchild not long thereafter – the later spawned so many later chip companies that it fairly earned the moniker “Fairchild University.”

The Big Kahuna of the silicon companies in Silicon Valley was and is, of course, Intel.  The company’s x86 chip architecture, launched in 1978, powered the PC revolution and remains to this day by far the dominant architecture in personal computers, laptops, workstations, and even the cloud computing business. It’s even a big player in the supercomputer segment. Name a big chip company and chances are good a big part of its business is x86-based chips. Much the same as the IBM System/360 architecture has dominated the mainframe business since the 1960s. Yes, there is still a market, albeit not so big as it used to be, for mainframes.

The x86 architecture has been so dominant for so long that for maybe the last two decades or so, the venture capital business – a business that owes its current form largely to its role financing all those chip companies way back when – has pretty much stopped funding chip startups. Until recently, that is.

I was doing a bit of research on the current AI revolution (there have been others: folks of a certain age will remember the “expert systems” AI hype in the late 80s) when I found something pretty interesting – well, to me, at least. Over the last couple of years, VCs have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 20 new chip companies. All of which seem to have one thing in common: they are developing chips optimized for AI applications. Chips with non-x86 architectures.

I said I found this interesting. That’s because it suggests to me that while lots of folks are talking about how various tech-enabled and tech-driven revolutions are on the cusp of changing the world for people who use technology, and how to frame that as an investment opportunity, far fewer folks are talking about how those revolutions might change the world for today’s biggest producers of technology, and how to frame that as an investment opportunity. So, for example, while there are plenty of people talking about how AI might disrupt the smartphone business and the personal transportation space, not so many are talking about how AI might disrupt the businesses that provide the components that power those businesses. Who, that is, will be the next “Intel Inside.”

I’m betting it won’t be Intel – for the same reason IBM didn’t follow its System/360 mainframe architecture with something like an x86 architecture of its own. When you are king of a big mountain, and Intel’s is still sitting at the top of a pretty big one, you tend to think more about defense than offense. Protecting your realm, not cannibalizing it. Just ask Kodak – the folks who invented digital photography.

So here is an investment hypothesis: Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that today’s AI revolution will be even nearly as big as the hype suggests, I’ll bet when the dust settles there is a new sheriff in the silicon part of Silicon Valley. Though if you look at where those chip-hungry VC investors have been spending their money, it just might be an out-of-towner.

Is Your VC a Chicken or a Pig? Part II: The Role of the Lead Investor – From Term Sheet to Closing (and Beyond)

In Part I we talked about the critical importance of focusing your fund raising efforts on identifying a lead investor – a “pig” – and reaching agreement on a term sheet with them before you spend significant time lining up “chickens” to “follow” along in the deal. Today, we’ll look at what role your lead investor plays post-term sheet agreement when it comes to getting your deal closed.

The first role of the lead investor post-term sheet is working with the company to build out the investment syndicate: that is, to find and close on chickens/followers. The lead becomes, in effect, a part of your pitch team – albeit, without abandoning its primary role as an arms-length investor/skeptic.

The “selling” role of the lead includes identifying, prioritizing, and even pitching potential followers. That typically includes folks the lead brings to the table from its own network as well as appropriate candidates the company suggests. While the company will still be front and center in pitching chickens, the lead is usually the primary due diligence source for potential followers, both “deal” and “legal” due diligence, and actively shares their own thinking on why the deal is compelling with various chickens.

This dual role, working with the company to build the syndicate while also being the principal due diligence resource for the syndicate, makes managing the company/lead relationship complicated as well as critical. The lead, at this point, wants the deal to happen and is committed to making it happen. But only to a point. The lead’s enthusiasm is tempered by its continuing obligation to act in the best interests of its own investors. In addition, its credibility is on the line with other investors, which is something that can cut both ways in terms of how it reacts to any bumps in the road on the journey to closing.

The lead also manages the “deal” part of the deal: that is, the concerns of followers about the terms of the deal. On that score, the lead should focus on convincing followers that the term sheet is “good to go” as is. Indeed, the company should resist any material changes to the term sheet based on follower concerns, just as it would if the lead was the only investor. The whole point of agreeing on a term sheet was to finalize the material terms of the deal. As a practical matter, one or more immaterial changes to accommodate a valuable follower may be acceptable. Any material changes, though, should be viewed as putting in play changes the company might want in exchange, or even grounds for the company backing out of the deal altogether.

The lead also manages the legal process associated with negotiation of closing documents and related legal requirements. Typically, there is one counsel for the investment syndicate, and that counsel works through the lead investor and is paid by the company out of closing proceeds from the financing. (If a follower wants to have an independent legal review, they should pay for it, and that counsel should work through the lead and its counsel in terms of communicating any concerns to the company.) If a lead can’t persuade followers to work through the lead and its counsel, that’s a good sign that the lead is not up to the job.

Once the deal is closed, the lead is usually the “point” investor for the rest of the investment syndicate. If the investors have a director on the Board, it will usually be someone from the lead investor. (Someone that should have been identified at the term sheet stage). When the company has news to share with the investors – good, bad, or indifferent – the lead is usually the first to get it, and often has input on what to share with the rest of the syndicate, when, and how. As with the period of time from the term sheet to the closing, this dual role of investor/advisor can be complex and must be managed carefully.

Lead investors make deals happen, and typically play central roles even after the closing. Smart entrepreneurs know that raising money is first and foremost about getting a credible lead’s name on a solid term sheet. Be a smart entrepreneur: don’t waste time and energy collecting followers until you’ve got a lead for them to follow.

Back to the Future? Venture Investing in Flyover Country

The term “Venture Capital” covers a lot of ground, even when confined to the traditional institutional funds at the heart of the industry. Funds come in many flavors based on factors including stage of investment, industry focus, geography, and propensity to lead or follow in deals.

I’d like to suggest another basis for classifying venture investors, one that I think is absolutely critical when considering the unique opportunities – and challenges – of investing in places outside of the major established centers of venture capital investing. Places like where I grew up, and after twenty years in Silicon Valley and North Carolina, returned to some years back: Wisconsin.

My classification is based on two alternative paradigms for investing capital and managing investments: Nurturing and Managing.

The Manager Venture Investing Paradigm

The Manager paradigm dominates the venture business today (certainly in terms of capital deployed and public mindshare). It is characterized by large funds, many in the billions of dollars (see Softbank’s $100 Billion fund for the current outer limits of the industry) with multiple levels of investment professionals, many of which do not have early stage operating experience or even STEM educational credentials. The “value add” Manager investors provide is largely in terms of the later stages of expansion and exit planning and execution.

The Manager paradigm is ideally-suited to the contemporary Silicon Valley venture capital scene and in terms of number of deals and capital deployed the large majority of Manager paradigm investing occurs in Silicon Valley and a handful of other major venture capital hubs. Today’s large funds simply can’t efficiently make and manage smaller deals. Even those that operate affiliated “seed” funds typically make larger initial investments than their traditional seed fund peers, and limit those investments to deals that they perceive as having mega deal potential (and capital needs) going forward. As a result, the Manager paradigm funds are much less likely to invest in raw entrepreneurs who need a lot of hand-holding on basic operational blocking and tackling. Their deep pockets also make them more likely to focus on capital intensive growth/brand-driven exit metrics than profitability.

Now, the Manager paradigm may get all the headlines, and skew the statistics such that Silicon Valley round deal sizes and valuations or as much as an order of magnitude or even more than the comparable figures in flyover country markets, but it is not the only venture investing paradigm. In fact, it was preceded by a very different and still important, if no longer as publicly prominent, paradigm.

The Nurture Venture Investing Paradigm

The modern venture capital era began in the late 1940s and hit its stride in the 1970s.  Throughout that period, and into the 1980s, even the largest venture capital funds seldom exceeded $100 million and most were only a fraction of that. The prototypical Nurture VC was someone with industry operating experience as well as a STEM education. Further, these smaller funds had minimal junior staff compared to the layers of analysts, directors, junior partners, etc. that make up the bulk of the investment professionals at today’s larger venture funds.

The early decades of the venture business were characterized by something else, besides smaller funds: less experienced entrepreneurial teams. With the industry’s small size, and even with fairly rapid growth in the 1970s, it took awhile for the “serial” entrepreneur to emerge as a regular part of the deal flow. It was probably not until well into the 1990s that most venture-backed Silicon Valley startups included founders and senior managers well-versed in the art of building a high impact company from experience at prior venture backed emerging companies.

When you put all of these factors into a pot and stirred them up, you came up with the Nurture venture investing paradigm. An investment model based on VCs focusing on startups where they could add a lot of value to the deal in terms of the basic nuts and bolts of defining and building the business. Indeed it was a time where the venture investor was often involved – as for example Brook Byers and Genentech – in the actual conception of the business, recruitment of the founding team and formulation of the business plan. Sometimes well before it was even clear there would be any resulting investable deal.

The industry’s structure during the ascendancy of the Nurture paradigm had other implications, among the most prominent of which was the emphasis on profitability as an exit metric. This was not because Nurture investors were any smarter than today’s Manager investors, who by comparison are far less concerned with early profitability. Profitability was part of the Nurture paradigm simply because the typical Nurture fund – even when factoring in syndication of investments – simply did not have sufficient capital to support a portfolio company burning tens or hundreds of millions (or as per Uber recently billions) of dollars of capital a quarter.

The Nurture paradigm led to venture capital’s first golden age in the 1980s. It also sowed the seeds of the Manager paradigm which arrived on the scene in the later half of that decade. The Manager paradigm was launched, ironically enough, when some of the great Nurture firms started raising the first wave of mega funds with hundreds of millions of dollars and, before long, even billions of dollars to deploy.

Implications for Flyover Country Venture Investing

If there is still a meaningful role for Nurture funds in Silicon Valley, there is very little room – today – for Manager-modeled funds outside of Silicon Valley and a handful of other of the larger venture investing centers. And that is something that too many folks in flyover country just don’t understand. And something that is making it even more challenging than it needs to be to foster the emergence of a meaningful high impact entrepreneurship and investing sector in still nascent and emerging flyover markets.

I saw the problem in North Carolina circa 1990, and I see the problem in Wisconsin, today. Regional folks who want to foster a vibrant high impact entrepreneurship and investing community look to Silicon Valley and, seeing how the Manager venture investing model dominates the headlines, conclude that we should be doing the same thing here. That we should invest as if our entrepreneurs had the same kind of “been there, done that” startup experience and networks that their Silicon Valley counterparts enjoy.

Well, they don’t. The opportunities and challenges of venture investing in Wisconsin in 2017 are indeed comparable to the opportunities and challenges of venture investing in Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley circa 1975, not 2017.

What places like Wisconsin need, in terms of venture investors, is Nurture VCs, not Manager VCs. We need small funds, run by hands-on partners who bring their own “been there, done that” high impact startup operating and investing experience to the game. People who are willing to get down in the trenches with entrepreneurs to help shape raw talent and ideas into fundable deals; and who are willing and able to start doing that even before making an investment. Venture investors who can proactively help their portfolio entrepreneurs achieve profitable operations supporting attractive exit opportunities with lifetime risk capital needs that don’t exceed even the average A round in today’s Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, instead of Nurture funds led by experienced startup entrepreneurs and hands-on investing professionals helping raw entrepreneurs with good ideas build modest companies that offer solid investment returns with limited capital, what I’ve seen here in Wisconsin is mostly investors with little or no venture backed startup operational or seed/early stage risk capital investing experience casting about for the kind of startup teams and capital-ready deals that fit the Manager venture investing paradigm.  Teams and deals that we just don’t yet have enough of in Wisconsin to support a sustainable high impact venture-driven startup community.

Don’t get me wrong. I think – know – that Wisconsin and places like it have the raw entrepreneurial talent and capital to become small but important and sustainable centers of high impact entrepreneurship and investing. But getting there is not going to happen unless and until the folks who want that to happen understand that right now we need Nurture venture investors, the kind that built Silicon Valley, not Manager venture investors in the mold of those who get the headlines in Silicon Valley today.

Jones: Hard truth about angel investing

Paul Jones, co-chair of Venture Best, the venture capital practice group at Michael Best, has been selected as a regular contributor of OnRamp Labs, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog covering start-ups and other Wisconsin technology news. Paul’s most recently contributed piece, “Jones: Hard truths about angel investing” can be found under their Business Tab in the Business Blog section: Click here to view his latest blog.

A short excerpt can be found below:

“Angel investing is a critical part of the high impact startup world, particularly outside of the big venture capital centers. A good portion of Wisconsin startup success stories achieved liftoff with critical assistance from angel investors and their capital.

But what about the angel investors themselves? How does angel investing work for them?

Well, you don’t have to look very hard to find blogs, books and speakers extolling the virtues of angel investing for the angels. And a lot of them make a pretty good case that the angel investing community makes a nice profit for its efforts. A good case, but also a misleading case.”

Click here to read more.

Stanford Offer is a Good Thing

Paul Jones, co-chair of Venture Best, the venture capital practice group at Michael Best, has been selected as a regular contributor of OnRamp Labs, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog covering start-ups and other Wisconsin technology news. Paul’s most recently contributed piece, “Stanford Offer is a Good Thing” can be found under their Business Tab in the Business Blog section: Click here to view his latest blog.

A short excerpt can be found below:

“So the good folks at Stanford University’s business school want to lend a hand to the ‘underserved’ folks in flyover country.

Good for them — and us.

Even way back when I was in school — we are talking late 70s to mid 80s — the attraction of Stanford was, at least in part, that it was ‘there.’ And I was ‘here.’ A ticket to Stanford was generally thought of as a one-way ticket: ‘Go west, young man,’ Horace Greeley advised; and don’t come back, he implied.

As it turns out, I did not go to Stanford, and instead got my MBA and JD closer to home, in Chicago. But my first post-education stop was in Silicon Valley, and it was a great move that I never regretted.

Those Who Do it All… Shouldn’t

Paul Jones, co-chair of Venture Best, the venture capital practice group at Michael Best, has been selected as a regular contributor of OnRamp Labs, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog covering start-ups and other Wisconsin technology news. Paul’s most recently contributed piece, “Those Who Do it All…Shouldn’t” can be found under their Business Tab in the Business Blog section: Click here to view his latest blog.

A short excerpt can be found below:

“In more than thirty years in and around the high impact entrepreneur and investing space, I’ve come to the conclusion that every entrepreneur, even and in fact particularly the most successful, has at least one serious personality flaw.

One of the more common flaws is the “I can do it all” personality: the entrepreneur who insists that they are not only good at, but the best at everything involved with making their business a success.

What really makes the “I can do it all” entrepreneur so frustrating is not so much that they are almost always wrong about their capabilities. Rather it is that even if an entrepreneur really is the best at everything actually doing everything is still a bad idea.”

Click here to read more.