VCWatch: Dumb Capital Please Exit Here
[In this guest post Georges van Hoegaerden argues that Limited Partners should take an active role in reforming venture capital investing in the US.]
By Georges van Hoegaerden, Managing Director, The Venture Company
I was reminded again by how dumb capital has destroyed innovation by listening to Paul Kedrosky's interview with TechCrunch, in which he concludes that The Kauffman Foundation (which Paul represents as a Senior Fellow) may get out of Venture Capital altogether and deploy some of its monetary assets elsewhere.
Not an unexpected move, as I predicted a while ago many Limited Partners (LPs) as investors in Venture Capital (firms) would make, but a somewhat presumptuous conclusion from a respectable foundation that is supposed to be at the foreground and chartered to support the proliferation of innovation. Foolishly, I expected more intelligence from an entrepreneurial foundation than the intelligence displayed by a run of the mill pension fund stuck in a product of their own making.
Nevertheless I applaud the move based on how Paul described the foundation reached that impending conclusion. For we need to rid Venture Capital (VC) of Limited Partners who do not understand the foundational principles of innovation the sector depends on, and who do not understand the deployment of its unique risks. Probably for the same reasons why Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital twenty years ago did not want to see pension funds enter the Venture Capital fray.
Take responsibility for you own actions (and in-actions)
First off, the reason why Venture has not and unchanged will not perform (at scale) is because of the financial system Limited Partners in Venture Capital have deployed, one that allows Venture Capital firms to take it for an all too comfortable ride.
With multi-tier bottom-level diversification (as described in 2010: The State of Venture Capital), a grab bag of other alternative investment options and ten additional levels of diversification once a VC firm is ready to invest, it should be no surprise that Venture Capital overloaded with derivatives and diversification has lost the merit it was once founded on.
We can now all easily blame 95% of the VC firms who do not produce any consistent returns for their Limited Partners, or Limited Partners can ask themselves the question why they created and participated in a financial system that enables such systemic underperformance.
We, as financiers of innovation need to take the responsibility of how we enabled a flawed governance of innovation.
Mired in "downstream thinking"
But our observations about Kauffman are based on the activities deployed by them over the recent years. The interview with Paul, the types of programs they support and a recent interview of Carl Schramm, Kauffman's current CEO with Charlie Rose all confirm who they have become. The beachhead for downstream thinking.
The entrepreneurial foundation, driven by the principles and money from a magnificent entrepreneur, seems to have made the mistake of confusing deep consensus driven hindsight with the proper definition of innovation; groundbreaking yet unrecognized foresight.
Perhaps not surprisingly since many of the key figures in Kauffman are economists who could not predict the demise of venture capital until it hit them in the face, and consequently have no idea as to how to fix it - as deep hindsight rarely translates into meaningful foresight. Hindsight and foresight are polar opposites.
Rather than to accept the outcome in Venture as a fait accompli, only a real entrepreneurial foundation would start to wonder what needs to be done to tap into the incredible entrepreneurial capacity in this country and model its financial constructs accordingly. Apparently not the Kauffman foundation.
Financial incompetence chokes our country
Now in the grand schema of things Kauffman is a drop in the Venture bucket, with a potentially side effect of dragging down other Limited Partners in Venture who are similarly clueless about how to reinvigorate the arbitrage of innovation. Such an atrophy of Limited Partners is actually a good thing (as it washes out those without proper investment discipline) as long as it is promptly replaced with new Limited Partners who have a more astute and disciplined interest in Venture aligned with the massive greenfield that lies ahead in technology innovation.
Problem is that beyond the danger that Venture as a scalable asset class could unjustly disappear, the malaise of the financial system in Venture may leave a large stain on the potential of the underlying asset, innovation. Already innovation in the U.S. has suffered from twenty years of subprime VC investing that by design can never scale innovative outlier capacity. The damage we already incur is a significant lack of faith, interest and distrust of technology companies by the public.
Because of the underperformance of the vast majority of Venture Capital firms many financiers now begin to think that the potential for innovation has decreased similarly. And that stain causes further mistrust in the sector, increases fear and catapults whatever is left in Venture even faster down the subprime spiral and our country into the lost leader of innovation.
Subsequently, the demise of VC creates some opportunities for alternative venture strategies, new Angel and micro-VC oxymorons that further perpetuate and fragment subprime investments and on average perform even worse than VC firms. Subprime at its best.
My recommendation to Limited Partners:
- We are at the beginning of the technology evolution. Keep in mind that less than 20% of the world's population has access to meaningful technology innovation to enhance their daily life and improve productivity. A fantastic investment horizon lies ahead and as the youngest asset class in your portfolio, technology Venture has the most attractive economics and if deployed correctly, phenomenal potential for massive returns short term.
- Venture Capital, the way deployed as a financial instrument today cannot support groundbreaking innovation at scale. Not because of a purported "Voodoo" of technology, but because of the systemic improper deployment of risk. Unchanged Venture Capital will continue to create self-induced risk, and therefor consistently produce deplorable returns for Limited Partners.
- You can't teach an old dog new tricks, so don't expect better LP returns from the existing crop of VC General Partners. For twenty years Venture Capital has been given virtually unlimited freedom to deploy their optimal investment thesis, with massive market pull and the ability to control all the strings with regard to the governance of innovation. Tightening financial incentives does not magically turn subprime GPs prime and does nothing but dissuade new prime GPs who want to clear the air (the subprime ones will hang on for dear life as long as possible, even if you tinker with their management fees).
- The deployment of the financial system that drives the deployment of risk in Venture Capital needs to be re-invented (we have). Investing in Venture unchanged is the definition of insanity. The solution is not a deeper understanding of Venture Capital's complexity, but a dramatic simplification and accountability of its foundational principles
- Stick to your knitting. Get out of Venture if all of this is too much hassle for you. You may miss out on the incredible opportunity that lies ahead in technology Venture but your passive presence in the sector does nothing but perpetuate subprime and hurts the performance of our economy in the long run.