Justify My Love

My buddy Peter – a very smart cat – was a pure math major in
college. Once, I asked him what the
difference between pure and applied math was and he told me with an impish
grin: “the applied math guys know how to add . . .” Of course, Peter went to Brown University, a
very funky place, so I’m sure that he could’ve done an interpretive dance about
the Lebesgue Outer Measure and still gotten a passing grade on his senior
thesis (just kidding . . . feel the love, Providence!)

I, on the other hand, studied history in college which means
that I’m good with trivia at cocktail parties, but that’s about it. Every now and again, though, I get to
thinking about arithmetic; specifically, the arithmetic of the venture business
and I wonder if we’re all closer to the pure math end of the spectrum than the
applied end.

VC math should be pretty straightforward: send a dollar out
to a portfolio company and hope it comes back with a few of its friends. Do that often enough and you’ve got a good
fund-level return.

Unfortunately, the LPs who invest a Dollar and a Dream have
prevented the shakeout that we were all talking about in 2002 from happening
and there continue to be too many iffy $500 million “early stage” funds out
there. Now I’ve got nothing against $500
million funds in particular. Despite my
seed-stage and smaller-fund bias (I like being "long idiosyncrasy and short
momentum"), we’ve got a few investments in that size stratum and think those specific
guys have some distinctive advantages.

Here’s where it gets dicey for the masses, though (and I’ll
make some gross simplifying assumptions): if you’re an LP and investing in an
run-of-the-mill $500 million fund hoping to get a 3x net return, that fund has
to generate $1.75 billion in returns ($1.25B in profit less 20% carry equals two
turns of profit). Of course, that’s just
the capital that accrues to the firm’s ownership stake. Since a lot of firms end up owning only
10-15% of their companies at exit, you’ve typically got to gross the $1.75
billion up by a factor of between 6.67 and 10. That suggests that those firms need
to create between $12 and $17 billion of market
cap just to get a 3x
fund-level net return to their LPs. Caliente!

Let’s unpack that box a bit more: at the $15 billion midpoint of the exit range
above, a firm that invests in 25 early-stage companies will have to get, on
average, $600 million exit valuations for each and every one of them. That’s a pretty daunting number when you
consider that the typical M&A valuation has hovered in the high
double-digit millions for quite some time.

Of course, such a batting average would be unprecedented
(this is a slugging percentage business, after all), so if you assume that a
quarter of the companies generate all the returns while the other three
quarters collectively return the cost basis, each of those 6 home run companies has to enjoy an exit valuation
of $1.67 billion (roughly what Google paid for YouTube). That’s livin’ la vida loca!

The situation above is exacerbated by the fact that not all
firms invest 100% of their capital because they reserve up to 15% of capital for
fees. Also, you could make the argument
that the firms most likely to earn the above returns will charge premium
carries, making the hurdle higher for compelling net returns. To be fair, firms have a few levers to pull –
maintaining higher ownership percentages
(!) in companies and recycling capital – that can make the challenge less
daunting. They could also deploy less
capital per company, but that’s tough to do with a larger fund.

Like I said, though, I do still believe that some firms will
be the exceptions that prove the rule; some will be good while some others will
be lucky.

In the meanwhile, a lot of LPs will be serenading their GPs
with the line from that old Madonna song (cue the sensuous and moody bass line):
“I’m just wanting, needing, waiting for you to justify my love. Hoping, praying for you to justify my love .
. .”

2 thoughts on “Justify My Love

  1. There’s nothing like numbers to screw up a good story. Welcome to the blogosphere Chris!


  2. Thoughtful post… I second Josh’s point, glad to hear the LP perspective in the blogosphere 🙂
    I curious about your POV on a firm’s track record of past investments vs. forecasting a particular VC investor or a firm and their liklihood of generating returns in the future. Posted a few months back on a broader question related to size of funds and well known challenges for new/emerging funds http://www.leehower.com/2008/05/bold-vcs-and-structural-limitations-to.html.


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