Category Archives: Venture Capital

VC value add: trends and challenges

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

In recent years VCs have been rushing to add value by hiring non-investors to help their portfolio companies. I touched on this subject last week when I wrote that Capitalism is being replaced by talentism. This week I want to talk a little more about what VCs are actually doing.

This is a list of the funds that are working hardest to add value beyond capital, strategic advice, and the partners’ contacts. These are just the ones I know. Please shout if you know other examples and I will update. (Note: I haven’t included accelerator programmes or incubators. They do add value, but they are different to venture funds.)

  • Andreessen Horowitz: organise executive briefings where portfolio CEOs meet senior execs at potential customers, have a large talent function to hire for their companies (and have built software to support it), have staff dedicated to helping portfolio companies network effectively
  • Google Ventures: has teams that help portfolio companies with design, engineering, recruiting, marketing and partnerships
  • First Round Capital: built a software platform to help entrepreneurs collaborate, have a talent team, run a large number of events for their portfolio
  • OpenView Partners: has teams to help their portfolio companies with recruiting and sales and marketing
  • Index Ventures: has a ‘platform team’ of nine people, key activities are organising functional support communities for their portfolio execs and running events
  • Greylock: have a data scientist who helps their portfolio
  • NextView Ventures: have a director of platform
  • True Ventures: run an undergrad programme
  • Spark Ventures: have a director of platform, primary activity seems to be events
  • Founder Collective: hired a journalist to help their portfolio with PR
  • Playfair Capital: recently hired a Facebook recruiter to hire for their portfolio
  • Balderton Capital: have a head of PR and content, a data scientist, and a talent and development analyst
  • Frontline Ventures: have a head of platform

And there’s us. Forward Partners has a team of eight to help our partners with product, design, development, customer acquisition and recruitment.

That’s the activity. The major trend is that there’s more and more of it over time.

The challenge is that it’s hard to find ways to make a difference, particularly across a large multi-sector portfolio. Jay Acunzo, director of platform at NextView Ventures recently wrote on Techcrunch:

In the last three months, every frustrated director [of platform, at a VC] I’ve met with (and there have been multiple) had the same complaint about a lack of focus confusing their work and yielding generic-sounding, ineffective projects.

As I wrote last month, focus is one way to address the challenge. We only invest in early stage ecommerce companies so there is a lot of commonality in the problems they face and we have built a team focused on those areas. OpenView partners has done something similar for expansion stage software companies. As Joe wrote in his Techcrunch post, one option for VCs with less focused investment strategies is to build sector and stage focused value add capabilities.

New Mattermark data: late stage investment up 120%

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 10.16.40

Mattermark just released their report on Q1 2015 venture activity in the US (download here). As you can see activity is up across the board but it is only late stage venture that has seen a massive jump. This picture is consistent with what I’ve been seeing and reading generally – if there is a bubble, and I now think there may well be, then it is confined to late stage investments. Activity is heady in the Seed through to Series C sections of the market but year-on-year growth rates in investment of 19-47% aren’t in bubble territory.

The interesting question is: where do we go from here?

I think we will either see a correction in late stage investment or the mania will spread down to the earlier stages. Or, more accurately, the late stage mania will continue it’s trickle down to the earlier stages until we either get a late stage correction or we are in a cross-stage bubble.

Corrections are typically stimulated by events – the last time we had a late stage bubble troubles at Groupon and Facebook’s poor share price performance immediately post-IPO took the heat out of the market. Following that logic, this time round I think the market will keep getting hotter until we see trouble at 2-3 of the leading unicorns – Uber ($40bn valuation), Snapchat ($15bn), SpaceX ($12bn), Pinterest ($11bn), Airbnb ($10bn),  and Dropbox ($10bn).

Are accelerator programmes backing more mature companies?

By | Uncategorized, Venture Capital | 3 Comments

This tweet from YC’s Sam Altman was in my feed this morning:

You can see why he’s pleased. Lots of his companies have got a $1mm revenue run rate which is a sign they are valuable.

It takes a while to get to a $1m run-rate and I’m wondering if YC is trending towards backing more mature companies and fewer true startups.

Here in the UK it seems to me that Seedcamp and Techstars have made a similar shift in strategy. It makes sense, they get similar equity positions in businesses with more proof points that are therefore more likely to be successful. On top of that the introductions these programmes can make to potential investors, customers and advisors are more valuable to companies that have product and revenues.

That leaves a gap for true startups. Which is where we play :-)

The emotional off-switch

By | Venture Capital | One Comment

I was talking with another investor last week about what it takes to be successful in this industry and made the point that it takes a certain type of person to be able to remain human whilst repeatedly saying ‘no’ to entrepreneurs who are asking you to join them in pursuing their dream, and, even more difficult, occasionally saying no to the follow-on funding that would allow existing investments to keep going. This investor is a successful investment banker turned VC and he replied that all the most successful bankers he has known have an ’emotional off-switch’. Most of the time they are great people fully engaged across a range of emotions, but when the occasion demands it they say ‘this is business’ and proceed with what they think has to be done without emotion. We agreed that without an ’emotional off-switch’ it’s hard for people in senior roles to make consistently good decisions.

I’ve been dwelling on this since and have had three further thoughts:

  • Whilst it’s important to assess the pros and cons of big decisions without emotion it is important to understand the impact the decision will have on the emotions of others (and yourself). If a course of action will cause emotional damage that should be on the list of cons.
  • Flicking the ’emotional off-switch’ can’t be an excuse for bad behaviour. The responsibility to behave well remains unchanged.
  • It isn’t just bankers and investors that need an ’emotional off-switch’. Entrepreneurs (and possibly everyone who takes big decisions) needs one too. Times when entrepreneurs need their ’emotional off-switch’ include when team members aren’t working out, when folks need to be hired in over the heads of the founding team, when customers are difficult and when new initiatives aren’t working out. It’s interesting to note that all of these examples are when things aren’t going well. That’s because letting go is emotionally challenging. Correspondingly, one of the most common laments I hear from successful founders is that they wish they had moved more quickly on difficult decisions instead of holding off in the hope that things would get better.

I suspect that many people wouldn’t like to have an emotional off-switch, but then leading companies and investing isn’t for everyone. For those of us who choose these vocations finding that switch and knowing when to use it are pre-conditions for success. Following this post I will be more mindful about how and when I use mine.

The two reasons early stage investors should be active investors

By | Uncategorized, Venture Capital | One Comment

I’m on a panel at an investor conference tomorrow discussing the merits of active investing, which will be a debate about how much investors should do above and beyond the provision of cash. I’m writing this post to get my thoughts straight.

As you probably know, Forward Partners bundles help from our startup team, our proven methodologies and office space with our cash investment so I will be talking my own book tomorrow and hence here. Forgive me for that, but I do think we are in the vanguard of a trend towards ever more active investing.

This is, in fact, a trend that has been underway for some time. Twenty years ago 3i dominated venture capital in the UK with a very low touch model. I’m told their sell at that time was ‘here’s some money and we won’t bother you as long as you hit your numbers’. Then, when I joined the industry in 2000, people started talking about ‘The Silicon Valley model’ of venture capital where partners took board seats and actively hustled for their portfolio companies. Over the last fifteen years that has become accepted best practice.

Now we are part way into the next change, which is to an even more active form of investing where investors employ teams of people to help their investments, as we do.

The first reason for this change is that the investment world is increasingly competitive. It used to be that access to money was restricted to a few privileged individuals and simply getting money was an achievement, even for the best companies. That’s still true in less developed parts of the world, but in San Francisco and increasingly in London there are multiple sources of venture capital working very hard to find good investments and entrepreneurs sitting on quality opportunities have lots of options. Transparency provided by the internet makes this true at all stages, but it’s especially true at the earliest stages where capital requirements have declined precipitously. If you need less money there are more people you can get it from.

The second reason is that entrepreneurs looking to rapidly build traction without raising much money need more help. In the 1990s when companies needed £2-5m to get a product to market they had money to hire a team of people to help them. These days most startups need only a fraction of that to launch – our idea stage partners get to significant traction within a year on a £250k investment – which means there isn’t much money to hire a team and the founders have to cover a lot more of the bases themselves. Big picture this increased capital efficiency is great for entrepreneurs because they suffer less dilution, but it does mean they have to do things they aren’t skilled at.

The opportunity for investors is to help fill the gaps. For example, if an entrepreneur is skilled at marketing but not design then if the investor has a good designer who can help the entrepreneur doesn’t have to spend hours reading blogs and having coffee with friends to figure out what good looks like and hire a freelancer. Moreover, if that designer is very good the result for the company will probably be be better. The company will eventually need to bring design skills in-house and if the investor’s designer is smart she will combine a focus on the job in hand with helping the company build a strong capability in design. That’s partly about educating the founder, partly about helping her employ a great designer when the time is right, and partly about supporting the new hire when he starts.

The gaps that we most often fill are product, development, design, marketing, recruitment and fundraising.

In summary, early stage investors are becoming more active to differentiate themselves from the competition and win the best deals, and because their investments need more help. Most of the best funds are embracing this trend and hiring dedicated teams so they can add more value. This post is long enough already, so I won’t list examples here beyond saying that Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures have taken this strategy further than other funds in the US and I think we have taken it the furthest here in the UK.

UK venture investment up 57% to £1.5bn

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 16.02.24

I’ve written before that over the last year or so it has felt like we are approaching critical mass in the UK startup ecosystem. This data from corporate finance firm Ascendant shows why: investment grew a whopping 57% to £1.5bn last year.

The true test will be whether we are able to sustain this level of activity in 2015 and beyond. Absent a big macro-economic shock I think that we will. It certainly seems like there is more money coming into the market – viz the Google Ventures UK team making their first investment with a $60m injection into Kobalt.

Seed is the new Series A, but who’s supporting founders pre-launch?

By | Forward Partners, Venture Capital | 7 Comments

Jason Calacanis just published a good post on the changing definitions of Seed, Series A, and Series B investment. I’m going to quote his definitions in full:

2004 definition
— Pre-funding: You talk about your idea & write a business plan.
— Seed Round: You build a prototype of your product.
— A Round: The funding necessary to launch your product.
— B Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— C Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.

2014 definition
— Pre-funding: You build a prototype of your product.
— Seed Round: The funding necessary to launch your product.
— A Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— B Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.

2015 definition
— Pre-funding: You talk about your idea, you build a prototype & launch an MVP.
— Seed Round: The funding necessary to get product traction.
— A Round: The funding necessary to scale your product.
— B Round: The funding necessary to get founder liquidity, build groovy headquarters, and make competitors give up (or not start in the first place).

You’ve seen the pattern here, what used to be Series C is now Series A, what used to be Series B is now seed, and what used to be Series A is now ‘Pre-funding’. All this is being driven by increased capital efficiency. In 2004 it took until Series C to scale your product because it took a lot of money. Now you can do that with Series A. (There has been some inflation in round sizes, but the main story is definitely capital efficiency).

In his post Jason goes on to give advice to founders and angel investors and talk about his incubator The Launch Incubator and the consistent theme is that there is no support for pre-launch companies anymore. Founders who can’t launch an MVP will struggle to get funded, angels shouldn’t invest in pre-prototype companies, and The Launch Incubator is looking for companies with an MVP to take into their 12 week programme.

I think this leaves a massive opportunity to support founders who are pre-launch. There are lots of great entrepreneurs with big ideas that don’t have the technical talent to build a prototype or MVP. Investing at that stage is tricky because the company needs to quickly and cheaply build product and get traction, but the key is having the people in-house who can help the founder make that happen. That’s what we do at Forward Partners.

Presentation on the future of funding

By | Venture Capital | No Comments

I was scheduled to give the embedded presentation in one minutes time to the London School of Economics SU Alternative Invesments Conference but they are running late, which gives me a chance to put it online. You saw it here first :)

This will be the second time in a week that I’ve presented to an audience of students. It’s good to see such a high level of interest in startups and venture.

Great investing comes down to betting on new markets

By | Venture Capital | 2 Comments

Over the last couple of days a lot of people have been linking to Jerry Neuman’s great essay on the history of venture capital. It’s US focused, starting when the venture industry started in the 1970s and analysing all the up and down cycles of investment and returns since then. It’s a long read, but highly recommended if you are a student of the industry.

What follows from here leads on from what I see as Neuman’s two main conclusions:

  • when investors stop taking risks returns plummet
  • the best returns have come from taking market risk rather than technology risk

That chimes with my experience. When I’ve seen VCs go after ‘safe’ 3x deals rather than chase 10x deals it hasn’t worked because the success rate doesn’t go up enough to compensate for the reduced returns, and investing in technology is difficult because it’s hard to ascertain whether progress is being made and it’s too easy to invest good money after bad.

You may now be thinking that venture should be about taking technology risk, but when you look at history that’s not been the case. Neuman discusses this in a bit of detail, but the headline is that the majority of great venture winners took market risk not technology risk. When VCs invested in Apple the technology already worked they just didn’t know if anyone wanted computers. Similarly with Google and another search engine, or Facebook and another social network, and so on. If this feels counter-intuitive it’s because as an industry we are guilty of romanticising the idea of big technology bets, I think because they sound more exciting than bets on new markets.

Neuman doesn’t go into this, but perhaps the defining feature of startup financing over the last decade is that it’s become much cheaper to assess market risk. That’s partly because of declining costs and partly because we’ve developed new and better techniques. I’ve written about both these developments at length on this blog before so won’t go into them now but the end result is that companies can now eliminate a lot of risk from their business plans and hence generate a lot of value for shareholders with their first £250-500k investment. That’s why we choose to play at these very early stages.

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