Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

A Message To VC's LPs: We're Just At The Beginning Of The Tech Build-Out . . .

Posted by Tom Foremski - June 16, 2009

[Guest post from Georges van Hoegaerden, an accomplished entrepreneur, CEO and venture catalyst "turned conservationist of the technology asset class." His articles also appear at http://venturecompany.com. Here are extracts from a longer essay: How LPs should deal with VC. ]

By Georges van Hoegaerden

Georges van HoegaerdenThe technology sector which is my passion for the last 30-years is at the beginning, not the end of its emergence. Perhaps the top-level indicator of the innovative runway we have ahead of us is the following: more than 5/6 of the world's population does not yet use a computer connected to high-speed/broadband internet today. And all should and will, given the right technology.

That's where technology innovation comes in; not just in connecting people to the internet but in deploying innovation that uses the internet as a distribution mechanism. The way we use the internet today is rudimentary, and many new technology stacks will emerge to improve its impact on everyday citizens.

Given the early days in the life-cycle of the technology sector relative to any other sector or asset-class is; low-cost to produce, low-cost to distribute and because of the internet has immediate customer impact with independently short sales-cycles. That means with relatively little money in, a massive impact can be produced virtually instantly.

Why the VC sector is not producing

In the words of Cesar Millan, the popular dog whisperer on National Geographic, who states that the behavior of the dog is the responsibility of its owner, so should LPs demand control of the behavior of the VCs. Like dogs, VCs exhibit primal behavior that can make them great money-managers, but only when they are controlled. An issue even The Carlyle Group recognizes by including a code-of-conduct in its recently published annual report. LPs should let go of the leash afterVC performance becomes apparent, not before.

-- Risk deflation

VCs sell well upwards to the LP at fundraising time, but they seem to have forgotten that they need to serve the entrepreneurs just as well. In the investment pyramid between the dollars from the LP and the ideas of the entrepreneur, the VC is simply the derivative that should serve both. Today it does neither. The money-tree report further hides the ugly reality under-the-hood as the funding stages have disrupted the equilibrium between entrepreneurs and VCs and steadily turned VC into loan-sharking.

-- Lack of relevant experience

Most VCs in Silicon Valley simply have no relevant operating experience that allows them to service the needs of entrepreneurs adequately. And that in turn creates a massive amount of false negatives and false positives to which no liquidity mechanism (from the NVCA or Tim Draper) will suffice. Beginning in the early 2000s, the VCs have simply consistently invested in entrepreneurs that submit to sub-prime innovation and terms.

-- Lack of vision

No surprise that, according to a conversation with a chinese private equity investor at the AAAIM conference, recently 12 highly successful chinese immigrant entrepreneurs left the U.S. disappointed to go back to China because the VCs did not allow them to take the helm at their own companies. They will in China. Smart entrepreneurs simply won't submit to sub-prime VC, leaving the VC (and therefor indirectly the LP) alone in their spiraling sub-prime demise.

To echo Jessica Reed Saouaf, Managing Partner of Hall Capital Partners (with $17.5B in assets under management) who describes at IBF that the VC business today is too institutionalized with too few visionaries to create promising returns. LPs need to do a better job in sourcing, segmenting, controlling and demanding transparency so the behavior of VCs remains an extension of the LPs investment brand and integrity.

The myths LPs are being told

But the incumbent VCs are not taking this criticism without a fight, a fight to hold on to their cushy management fees and plush existence. From the focus of their rebuttal (by way of pump-and-dump liquidity plans, annex funds etc) you can gleam their true nature, they worry more about protecting their downside than improving their upside.

A welcome exception are the younger VCs like Jason Green (Emergence Partners) and Paul Holland (Foundation Capital) who on the IBF panel proclaim that, unlike the NVCA they do not lie awake at night about the impending increase in capital gains tax on their carry. Instead, just like great entrepreneurs, they worry first about delivering value and returns, trusting that personal wealth will naturally follow.

Here are the most frequent myths I hear VCs attempt to imprint on the LPs that I want to debunk here quickly to prevent a further slide down the sub-prime spiral:

-- It's the economy; new fund - stack fund - annex fund

Nonsense: even the most successful startups do not achieve revenues or market-share above 10% of their total-addressable-market (TAM) during their private funding cycle. That means that 90% of the total-addressable-market is still not served effectively. With a few exceptions it is hard to imagine that a 10% decrease in market will have any affect on the success of the startup. I would argue that in a down-market the opportunities for new technologies improve considering the fact that an early adopter can more effectively compete with 90% of its competitors. So, conversion rates of companies with macro-economic differentiation should improve and so will their market-share and revenues and consequently the opportunities for great exits.

-- We are in a down-cycle, we will bounce back; new fund - stack fund - annex fund

Nonsense: the barrel of a downward spiral is cyclical too, be sure to recognize the difference. Sub-prime investments have no exits and will yield valuable fund returns, no matter what the liquidity structure is. VC portfolio choices that cannot withstand the test of time simply have no fundamental differentiation and independent future. And a GP that cannot distinguish between prime and sub-prime will never be successful.

-- Companies are cheaper to build; new fund - less money

Nonsense: I have heard LPs echo the term "Capital Efficiency", and it is a trap. Not just for the entrepreneur but for everyone in the technology ecosystem. Unlike in the past, no product can withstand the scrutiny and the power of social networksunless it is really well built, offers fundamental and disruptive value and delivers authenticity and trust. Only then will users adopt it. And since distribution is virtually immediate, more competitors will spring up to provide the noise that makes life harder. So products are actually more expensive to build and requires a different ecosystem makeup and funding trajectory for the company. VCs that look for smaller funds demonstrate further misalignment with reality and therefor exits.

-- There are not enough great ideas; new fund - less money

Nonsense: but sub-prime VC behavior and terms turns off great entrepreneurs. Only idiot CEOs and unsuspecting entrepreneurs submit to terms that hands control and destiny to underperforming VCs. Other forms of artificial arbitration such as geographic distance of 20 minutes moves the VC even further from the meritocracy it should be looking to embrace. The institution on Sand Hill Road is severely limited by its lack of peripheral vision of technology and the world.

-- New (government) regulation is strangling exits; new fund elsewhere

Nonsense: the bar has been raised for technology companies as it should. No longer can public markets be fooled by valuations that have no value. Real value jumps the hurdles of regulations with ease (as witnessed by OpenTable and Rosetta Stone). The current startup inventory, that was subject to sub-prime investment tactics to begin with, may not be able to get to the finish line. Such is the punishment for lack of independent differentiation and value.

-- The grass is greener in green; new fund - hot market

Nonsense: I have witnessed the rush to these "hot-pockets" before but hot-on-supply does not equate to hot-on-demand. Or as Julian Robertson says; "there is a difference between having a bakery and baking bread". Contrary to technology, greentech is expensive to produce, expensive to distribute, relies on long sales cycles and arbitration (subsidies, politics etc. ) that is beyond the control of the startup (and much more complicated in its regulative risk than, for example, healthcare). A dependency on government is very dangerous in meeting the time-to-money milestones for early stage companies and fund returns. I believe in the value of green-tech and energy-tech to create a greener planet, but I don't believe the current VC funding models with former technology GPs looking for greener pastures can support its early financial success within the current funding vintages. It is ironic to see VCs use the capital-efficiency slogan under the same roof as their capital intensive strategies for energy-tech.

-- The grass is greener global; new fund - new fund elsewhere

Not yet: as we move up the technology stack and specifically the investments in software, the origination becomes less relevant, I will yield to that (although I see still see an entrepreneurial quality difference), but startup investments should reside where the execution is, regardless of origination. While other geographies score well on low-cost manufacturing (and programming), real disruptive ideas and the majority of early adopter markets (driven by the frantic pace of unbridled capitalism) still reside in the U.S. So VC funds should be equipped to handle international deal sourcing (and be the first investor in) and only become truly international once the remote exits prove to justify an independent local operation. For that to happen, creation, execution and exit values need to yield appropriate dynamics. Remote execution and exit values remain sporadic today, but that may change as those markets develop and emerge as prominent technology visionaries and consumers...

... Conclusion

Crucial to the success of the technology sector is to do the opposite of what most VC funds are currently setup or guided to do. To follow Warren Buffet's advice: when everybody is investing using sub-prime tactics then now is the time to do just the opposite. Venture Capital is a sector that can produce great returns when it takes great risks, not when it becomes risk averse, and fragments and commoditizes investment dollars. Deflating the risk through sub-prime investment tactics has killed the want to innovate, and may lead to an accelerated intellectual exodus that will hurt our economy as a whole.

Apart from fixing what is broken I think the time is right to fundamentally restructure early stage innovation and make its financial support just as innovative as the inventions themselves. Facebook sets a good example of how it taunts with the institutionalized "rules of Silicon Valley".

LPs who cannot see the massive opportunity in technology should simply exit from Venture Capital. But continuing to support sub-prime VC funds is a sure way to continue down the spiral of suboptimal returns we have been stuck with for the last ten years and damage the innovative ecosystem our economy depends on.

So dear LP, go big or go home. And when you plan to go big I will make myself available to put words into action. I cannot wait to turn this page.

[You can read the full essay here: How LPs should deal with VC. If you'd like to send a guest post please contact Tom at Foremski.com]

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