One View of the Future of VC Allocations

So I'm working on a blog post with some fundraising tips for PE and VC pros that are making the rounds.  The thesis is: you've got to come to meetings armed with better rhetoric, as many institutions have become wildly cynical about private equity strategies after feeling the acute sting of illiquidity during the downturn.  Said another way, people realized that the cost of illiquidity was much higher than they had estimated and many asset allocators are now (re)asking the questions: "are we getting adequately compensated for the risk and illiquidity of privates?" and, more importantly, "why bother?"  Talking about being top quartile will get you nowhere when the person across the table reports to a CIO who's obsessed with the opportunity costs of their capital. 

But before I finished that post, I thought I'd put up a slide deck that I pulled together a few months ago; I've presented variants of this storyline to a few different groups since the beginning of the year.  It's a review of some dynamics that impact institutional investor attitudes towards VC, but I think several of the thoughts are generalizable across private equity. 

Now, I don't think there are necessarily any earth-shattering insights embedded in the slides; it's more of a refresher of first principles.  On the other hand, I continue to be surprised at the number of GPs with whom I speak that think LPs will return en masse with open checkbooks at any moment.  I didn't want to be all gloomy and doom-y, so I tried to end the presentation on a optimistic note, but I do hope that people understand that we've crossed over to a new paradigm that's different from the illiquidity bull market that marked the better part of the last 15 years.  This isn't just a "get-a-mulligan" detour on the way back to 2006; instead, I think the fundraising equilibrium we find over the coming quarters and years will feel a lot more like the tough slogs of the late 80s and early 90s.

I sometimes teach "The Yale Case" (insert reverent pause here,) at business schools and I always open by asking the students what they think the key lessons are.  "Diversification!"  "Equity Bias!"  "Asset Allocation!" come the cries from the well-scrubbed students.  "Nope," I tell them.  "the real lesson of the Yale Case is: don't try this at home . . . "  I fear that many institutions have now learned that lesson the hard way and may be reluctant to return for some time.  And, as always, people will return when they see money being made, but, as with the lottery, the worst time to buy a ticket is typically just after somebody else has won the big jackpot . . .

VC Presentation May 2010

Fat Startups, BMI and The Lorax

So, there I was hanging out in Denver airport again, reading the back-and-forth between Ben Horowitz and Fred Wilson on fat versus thin startups.  They’re both cats that I respect and I think they both make carefully reasoned, nuanced arguments that have far more depth than a quick summary can articulate. 

But all this talk of heft got me thinking about the Body Mass Index; those hip to the BMI calculation know that it's a measure of weight relative to height.  Doctors tend to be fans because it's a decent indicator of body fat which correlates with increased risk of morbidity and mortality.

And BMI tends to work pretty well, except when it doesn't.  For example, serious athletes tend to have more muscle per unit of height than the rest of us and thus have unusually high BMIs: Arnold Schwarzenegger's BMI clocks in at 33 (the "ideal weight range" runs from 18.5 to 24.9).  Even George Clooney clocks in at 29, just shy of the "obese" cutoff of 29.9.

The beauty of muscle, though, is that it's so much more metabolically active than fat.  That's why one can be heavy, but fit; the two are not mutually exclusive.  And  neither, necessarily, are capital efficiency and cash abundance in the startup world.  Indeed, while I do find myself more firmly in Fred's "lean" camp, I am sympathetic to the notion that sometimes a
company with a lot of dollars on hand can pivot more quickly as business
conditions change, or scale faster to
discourage new
entrants or
build competitive advantages
that give them a leg up on existing rivals.  Companies can be well-funded but hungry.  I get it.

But here's my question: sure, bigger companies can earn bigger exits, but if they burn more cash on the way to a big outcome, isn't it almost inevitable that return multiples will be depressed?  Indeed, there can be some positive externalities associated with a big outcome, but as an LP — the money behind the money — what I care most about is multiple on investment.  I'm focused on the numerator and the denominator.

And then I started thinking about some of the cleavages of interest that may arise from fatter startups.  Most directly, the dollar value of carry to a GP of 2x outcome on a $100 million investment is greater than that of a 5x on $10 million.  I know which outcome I would rather have, but I'm not sure that a random GP's answer would be the same.  Then you get into non-economic motivations: having big outcomes can help build a brand, almost regardless of the profits.  Few people know what multiple Sequoia, for example, generated on Cisco's IPO twenty years ago, It could be a 100x, or it could be a 2x.  Most likely, it's somewhere in between, but either way it's an awfully spiffy logo to have on the web page.  Entrepreneurs, too, can get a lot of jazz from landing a big round of funding; it's an endorsement of their idea and the vote of confidence that makes for good press releases and generates respect.

Further, aiming to build a large enterprise fundamentally changes a startup's optionality profile.  No longer are a wide range of exit scenarios compelling; suddenly, a happy outcome for all becomes limited to one of the handful of large exits that take place in a given year.  With expectations of a modest number of IPOs (which I fear is a structural thing,) and a few dozen M&A transactions in excess of $250M, all those fat startups are like so many well-prepped high school seniors looking to land a spot at Top College.  It's just tough arithmetic.  It may be a fun ride for the entrepreneurs and GPs, but it can be nerve-racking for us LPs at the tail end of the whip.

And the risks are different, as well.  "Fatter" startups imply either fewer portfolio investments or larger funds (or perhaps even imbalanced funds where a few large bets compete for GP time with many small ones).  None of these are particularly positive outcomes for fund investors. 

I could go on, but it would start to stress me out.  And one of my sources of stress is that entrepreneurs and GPs are pretty well represented in these discussions, but we LPs tend to be distant observers.  Who speaks for us? I wondered out loud.  And just at that moment a little man appeared out of the breeze:

[With apologies to Dr. Seuss]

“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
“I am the Lorax.  I speak for LPs
I speak for LPs for LPs have no tongues.
And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs” –
He was extremely upset as he warned retribution –
“What’s that THING they have done with our cash contribution?”

“Look, Lorax,” I said, “it's easy to get crotchety.
GPs deploy billions; it sometimes still bothers me.
In fact,” I continued, “some think it’s a lottery.
A lottery whose tickets can be a new social network,
A diversion to give cube-dwellers ways to shuck work.
But it has other uses.  No, we’re not out of the woods.
You can use it to serve ads or sell virtual goods.
Or crowdsource a date or find homes in new ‘hoods.”

The Lorax said,
“Sir! You are crazy from drinking the potion.
There is no one on earth who would buy that fool notion!”

But the very next moment we were shown to be wrong.
For, just at that moment, a ‘tween came along.
And she thought that the club we’d just ridiculed was great.
She happily subscribed for thirty-three ninety-eight.

I laughed with the Lorax.  “You poor stupid guy!
You never can tell what some people will buy.”

“I repeat,” cried the Lorax,
“I speak for LPs!”

“All GPs are top quartile,” I told him.
“Those marks are a tease.”

The Suburban in the Garage, Or Big Investors and Their Funds

About 15 years ago, I learned a lesson I’ve carried around ever since: when I was a rookie consultant visiting an industrial firm in the Midwest I got in a discussion with our client-side project leader about why people sometimes buy things that don’t make obvious sense.  “For instance,” my client asked rhetorically, “why do you think the Chevy Suburban [the only extra-large SUV at the time] annually tops the owner loyalty and re-purchase rankings when there are so many great cars out there?  You'd think every once in a while some other car would topple the 'Burban, no?  And who wants to drive such a behemoth, anyhow?"  Before I could whip up a smart-sounding, yet hollow textbook answer about key buyer purchase criteria or some such noise, he answered his own question, “what the heck else are they going to buy, though?  If you've got four kids or three dogs or a snowmobile you have to tow, there's just no other choice.  What’s the alternative?  Buy two cars and split up the family when you go out?"  

I’ve thought a lot about that story lately, as it offers an important metaphor for investors.  After all, like large SUVs, big venture and private equity funds have been getting kicked around a lot lately.  (And I think I can credibly say that I’d been an early and consistent (and sometimes unfair?) fist-shaker in the direction of some large funds.  Sure, there are some big funds out there that will be successful — and to be clear, I don’t root against anyone; that’s bad karma — but the arithmetic facing sizable funds is daunting.)  Yet, despite my ever-mounting cynicism and some good research and analysis that bolsters the small-fund argument, I’ve actually started to feel some sympathy for big funds and their investors and I’ll (not-so) secretly express a hope that larger investors stay focused on bigger funds.  After all, they’re like the Suburban buyers of the story: if they must go out for a spin, it just makes sense for them to find larger vehicles.

See, if you have a gazillion dollars to put to work, it’s actually pretty hard to execute a smaller fund-oriented program, even though many large investors are currently fetishizing such a strategy.  And to those investors thinking about jumping on the small fund bandwagon, I’ll note that such funds tend to be hard to find, challenging to diligence, difficult to “sell” internally, expensive to monitor (at least in terms of time), and catalytic of insomnia.  Indeed, I love my managers like I love my children — all equally but differently — yet the younger ones tend to keep me up more at night.  For sure, the rewards can be great and I’ve got high hopes for all the kiddies, but people never let me forget that I’ve taken a lot of career risk . . .

And then you get to the practical challenge: if an institution is deploying a ba-jillion bucks a year, it’s hard to do it in $10 million chunks.  Even if one could write a bigger check to a smaller (sub-$200M?) fund how much more would you want to do?  Would you want to be 25% of the fund?  40%?  Would the GP want you to be that big?  And if an institution is writing a bunch of $10 million checks, are they writing too many of them and seeding a whole bunch of competitors in a space?  Are they ruining the experiment by participating in it?  Stretching our tiring metaphor, if everyone’s trading in their Suburbans for a pair of roadsters and taking two cars out on family trips instead, all those incremental cars on the road will snarl traffic, no?

So let’s raise a glass to big funds with a toast of sincere best wishes for their success . . . of course, I’ll be explicit about my ulterior motive: keeping the small fund space the preserve of the nimbletons.  If big players continue to focus on big funds, it’ll be more beer for us.

The Gatsby Funds

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I must have read The Great Gatsby a dozen times.  Maybe more.  And I loved and identified with the humble narrator, Nick Carraway.  His thousand mile journey to New Haven from Minnesota was much further than my hundred mile one from Brooklyn, but we shared the same occasional outsider's bewilderment at the antics of the eastern elite.

And yesterday, as I sat out on the deck of the Rosewood Sand Hill gazing up at the thin wafer of the moon rising out of the verdant hills and ascending the sanguine sky I wondered what Nick would've thought of this place.  Because sometimes I wonder if Silicon Valley is the modern version of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age playground.  Call it East Egg 2.0.  

But there are days on which it feels like there's a hush about the place; the raucous energy is muted and the punchbowls seem to have gone missing.  Sure, the future's still under construction here; the quiet is punctuated by the staccato tap-tap of programmers and designers working on the new new thing as cooling fans whir in the distance.  But there's a whiff of introspective stillness like that to be found on crisp autumn evenings after the grand shore places have closed for the season.

And maybe that stillness is the melancholy realization that the receding tide will beach some of the dinghies in the harbor.  Some even suggest that the venture business should shrink by half.  But which half?  There's a pandemic of bellyaching about "the venture asset class" among LPs, but I suspect that most investors will keep coming back . . . remember, most Americans hate Congress, but love their Congressman.  I think the venture business is the same way.  

But I'm always asking myself, "what do I need to believe to believe that a particular fund will be successful?"  There are a lot of good investors out there with compelling stories; in fact, there are probably more than I could invest in if I had three lifetimes.  But there's a whole other swath of the business for whom heroic leaps of faith are necessary; the arithmetic of their funds doesn't quite work, or they need too many outcomes to come out just-so, or the IPO market needs to be bubble-icious once more.  Like Jay Gatsby's, their reality is an idealized and stylized rendition of a sloppy present; it's not necessarily a false rendition . . .  just a hopeful one.  And it occurred to me as I pondered the imponderable future that the last few paragraphs of the book capture the challenge facing these funds, The Gatsby Funds, better than I ever could:

And as I sat there brooding on the old,
unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out
the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to
this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could
hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind
him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the
dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the
orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then,
but that's no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our
arms further . . . And one fine morning – 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Founder Visas: A Good Idea

hate to admit it, but I'm not a fan of Indian food. 
And it’s not just Indian food, it’s almost any ethnic cuisine.  You
see, my immigrant parents aimed to fully assimilate: I’m named Chris, because that was the most popular boychild
name at NY Hospital in 1972, I was encouraged to play baseball because it was the
National Pastime, and nobody likes apple pie as much as me.  Nobody. 
And since my parents emigrated from different countries – thrown together by fate in Bryant Park on a sunny afternoon in 1970 – there was no
"local cuisine" at home.  F
or better or worse, my tastes were more influenced by the cuisine of Oak Brook, or Northfield, Illinois than by the food of anyplace else.

But there I was, eating lunch at Saravana Bhavan in Sunnyvale (ahh, the things we endure on our spouses' birthdays!) when I started noticing the t-shirts from local start-ups and NASDAQ 100 companies that stood out like a dense chain of barren, monochromatic islands among a colorful, undulating sea of saris.  I wondered
how many of these foreign-born tech-sters would still be here in one year's time?  Three
years?  Five years?  Because in case you haven't noticed, America is
facing a brain drain
unlike any in our history. 

America?  With a brain drain?!?  Whoa!  Now, there are a ton of reasons for it, but a
key one of them is the byzantine complexity of our immigration
laws.  (Check out
Manu Kumar's compelling success story to get an idea of the challenges faced by immigrant-entrepreneurs.)  But hey, immigration laws are complex because people bemoan the loss of jobs to immigrants; that's a debate that's been going on since the earliest days of the Republic and it's not one that I'll get into here.

But I will say that I'm a huge fan of Paul Graham's Founder Visa idea.  Why not allocate 10,000 of today's existing visas specifically to people who want to come here to start companies?  I get the whole H-1B controversy, but if someone's here to plant and nurture an entrepreneurial seed in the most fertile soil in the world, let's let them try before they go do it elsewhere and we find ourselves in a Dust Bowl.  Anyhow, if someone is trying to start a business, they won't be competing for jobs; the Founder Visa envisions prohibiting these cats from working for existing companies.

And indeed, the impact of these immigrant-founders on the economy is profound.  If entrepreneurship is as American as apple pie, then it's got a coconut burfi, a fortune cookie, some strudel, and a maybe a cappuccino or Tim Hortons double double on the side.  Some estimate that a quarter of all US start-ups are founded by people born elsewhere while over half of Silicon Valley's are launched by immigrants.  These companies aren't just creators of hundreds of thousands of jobs; they're part of the very idea of America, the America where anything is possible.

And that very idea of limitless possibility animated prior generations of immigrants as they helped forge a mighty nation.  Their memorial was the New Colossus that stands in New York Harbor.  And like those immigrants of yore, this generation of nation-building immigrants deserves a monument.  Wouldn't it be fitting for their symbol to be a virtual one, not a physical one?

So, you Twitter-heads among the readership: send a tweet using the #StartupVisa hashtag and include @2gov (or register on – see Eric Ries's post here for instructions).  Lend your voice to the clamor seeking to preserve one of the pillars of American entrepreneurship.