Category Archives: Venture Capital

The (Recent) Impact of Venture Capital on Startups

I have regularly been puzzled with the (real) impact of venture capital on startups, their growth or even their success. A few days ago, I received an email from a friend with a very interesting table.

The measure of capital productivity is given by the ratio a/b where a is the startup revenue at the time of IPO and b is the amount of venture capital raised by the startup before going public. The 4 big tech companies are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google, 4 companies founded before 2000. The ratio a/b is greater than 10. The recent VC or IPO deals give ratios below 1 and closer to 0.1.

So it was easy for me to look at my usual cap. tables (check here if you do not know what I talk about). I have now 880 companies and I sorted this a/b ratio over time. Here is the result:

I have 272 biotech startups and 361 in the Software and Internet fields (the others are hardware, semiconductor, energy, medtech companies mostly). I have the a/b ratio (which I call Sales to VC) by period of 5 years (the years of foundations of the startups). I also pu the PS ratio (the famous Market Capitalization to Sales or “Price to Sales” ratio). Indeed the ratio is “collapsing” from above 5 before the 90s to below 1 after 2000.

I have also separated biotech which is known to have startups going public with low revenue and the group of Software and Internet. The curves which follow are probably better illustrations. Quite striking!

I also looked at the profits (or losses) of the startups and computed the Profit to VC amount ratio. Here it is:

Biotech is different as companies were rarely profitable when going public and the ratio is quite stable since 1990. But overall, companies were profitable at IPO before 2000 (and sometimes highly profitable, so that I could not find a good axis scale for my figure). They are losing money since 2005 and apparently losing more and more.

All this is no real surprise. Mallaby in his recent book The Power Law has described the new trends in venture capital. Funds like Softbank Vision or Tiger Global are pouring tons of money in startups which try to capture market dominance, whatever the cost. So the capital productivity is decreasing at IPO with the hope of huge gains in the future. A very, very risky bet…

PS (dated April 22, 2022) : I was asked a question about startups in the energy / greentech field. This is indeed interesting. Couple of comments before providing an answer from my data. Greentech has never been a stable or profitable segment. Kleiner Perkins or Khosla Ventures, early entrants in the field, seem to have suffered a lot. In addition I have only 21 companies in my DB. You are right, it is stable but from the low range, with low sales to VC ratios and negative profits…

La question était : On a different note you have data only on Energy/green tech? what would you expect to see? I was wondering if for capex intensive businesses the trend is more weak as they already needed to raise a lot of capital.

The Power Law (part 5) – Sequoia Capital

Sometimes I publish posts which may be unreadable, they might be more for myself, not for other readers. In a way, this blog is my second memory… so I am not sure this post is worth reading…

There have been two major venture capital firms in history. So important, I have created hashtags for them: Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins. So not surprisingly Mallaby covers them both in his great book, but in different manners. According to him, Kleiner Perkins (KP) has lost its leadership. Both Sequoia and KP were #1 and #2 from 1980 to 2005, but since, Sequoia has kept its ranking and KP is not even in the top 10 partnerships (see page 413). KP is covered in the last part of Chapter 11, with subtitle The decline of Kleiner Perkins. The full chapter 13 is entitled Sequoia’s strength in numbers.

Mallaby has a lot of convincing arguments, from the team strategy to the diversification of the firm activity: Sequoia has now large growth funds, a hedge fund, even an endowment, and a presence overseas in Israel, China, India and even recently in Europe. And Sequoia’s performance looks impressive: Taking all its U.S. venture investments between 2000 and 2014, the partnership generated an extraordinary multiple of 11.5x “net” – that is, after subtracting management fees and its share of the investment profits. In contrast the weighted average for venture funds in this period was less than 2x net. (Data from Burgiss). Nor was Sequoia’s achievement driven by a couple of outlandish flukes: if you took  the top three performers out of the sample, Sequoia U.S. venture multiple still weighed in at a formidable 6.1x net. Deploying the capital it raised in 2003, 2007 and 2010, Sequoia placed a grand total of 155 U.S. venture bets. Of these a remarkable 20 generated a net multiple of more than 10x and a profit of least $100M. (Proving it was not afraid of risks, Sequoia lost money on nearly half of these 155 venture bets.) The consistency across time, sectors, and investing was striking. “We’ve hired more than 200 outside money managers since I came here in 1989”, marveled the investment chief at a major university endowment. “Sequoia has been our number one performer by far”. [Page 320]

So I had a look at my own data. Here what I found about their fund history.

I also looked at my cap. table and found where Sequoia was an investor. When the data was available, I looked at how much the firm invested and what was the stake value at the IPO or acquisition. Indeed impressive.

PS (May 3rd, 2022): I just read a very interesting account of Mallaby’s book by Bill Janeway : The Forgotten Origins of Silicon Valley. Janeway likes the book and adds interesting criticism. Two points are not new, that is
– the role of government would be underestimated by Mallaby,
– East Coast VCs and the field of biotechnology are not analyzed well enough.
But a third point was newer to me: technology became open in the 70s and 80s (the PC, the operating systems, the networks including the internet) and this created huge opportunities for new companies. I have never been fully convinced by the first two points, motsly because the funding of research brings no guarantee to great innovations. But the third point is more intriging.

The Power Law and Venture Capital (part 4), China’s rise

In the part 1 of my post about The Power Law, I had embedded my own visual history of venture capital. There was a missing element which is China’s rise, that Mallaby adresses in his 27-page Chapter 10. Before 2010, venture capital in China was behind Europe, but today it’s challenging the USA:


Source: Mallaby’s The Power Law, appendix, page 413.

Mallaby convincingly explains that it developed not with the support of, but bypassing the Chinese government and surprisingly thanks to a combination US venture capitalists and Chinese people who had been in close contact to the American entrepreneurial culture. I knew nobody from the people below but one entrepreneur (you can check their names at the end of the post).

I had heard about the BATX which are nowadays compared to the GAFA and I loved Jack Ma’s video which could have been given by many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Here it is again:

I had a few Chinese startups in my 800+ cap tables and they are mostly internet and ecommerce companies. Mallaby seems to have similar views. I extracted them all (see below) and here are a few interesting characteristics:

Not only are they mostly internet/ecommerce companies, but they are recent, went public quickly, their founders are younger than average, keep more equity than others, and they have many more founding CEOs than the average. Interesting…

Equity List China

In the image above are the:
Funders: Gary Rieschel (Qiming), Neil Shen (Sequoia China), JP Gan, Hans Tung (ex-Qiming), Kathy Xu (Capital Today), Syaru Shirley Lin (ex-Goldman Sachs)
Founders: Jack Ma, Richard Liu, Wang Xing

The Power Law and Venture Capital (part 3), planners and improvisers, betting big or diverse

Mallaby is a marvelous storyteller – thanks to his team probably as he mentions at least 15 collaborators in his acknowledgments. This is part 3 of my posts about the Power Law, following part 2 and part 1.

You will discover so many figures of venture capital and entrepreneurship that it would be impossible to mention them all. But here are illustrations. If you do not know them, chek their names at the end.

What is really impressive in Mallaby’s book, is that whatever the strategy of the investors – for example being improvisers or planners, betting big or small in a small or large number of opportunities, replacing or mentoring the founders, the power law prevails.

As a side and unimportant comment, Mallaby is great at story-telling, he is less good with numbers. But valuations of startups can be tricky when you mix pre-money and post-money, dilution and stock options. Page 155-6 : “The founders tentatively suggested a valuation of $40million up from just $3million when Sequoia had invested eight months earlier. […] Son duly led Yahoo’s Series B financing providing more than half of the $5million […] In a bid without precedent in the history of Silicon Valley, he proposed to invest fully $100million in Yahoo. In return he wanted an additional 30 percent of the company. Son’s bid implied that Yahoo’s value had shot up eight times since his investment four months earlier.” I am not sure all this is correct. I let you check. Or page 147 : “Rather than merely doubling in power every two years, as semiconductor did, the value of a network would rise as the square of the number of users. Progress would thus be quadratic rather than merely exponential; something that keeps on squaring will soon grow a lot faster than something that keeps on doubling.” As Etienne Klein has often said, the “exponential function” is heavily mistreated in the media and now abusively assimilated to a function whose only characteristic is to grow very quickly…

The founders:
Nolan Bushnell, Jimmy Treybig, Bob Swanson, Sandy Lerner, Bob Metcalfe, Mitch Kapor, Jerry Kaplan,
Rick Adams, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Max Levchin, Elon Musk.

The funders:
Don Valentine, Mike Moritz (Sequoia), Tom Perkins, John Doerr (KP), Jim Swartz, Arthur Patterson (Accel),
Bill Draper, Masayoshi Son (Softbank), Bruce Dunlevie, Bob Kagle (Benchmark), Peter Thiel, Paul Graham.

The Power Law and Venture Capital (part 2) Fairchild and Rock

Following my previous post about the book The Power Law and Venture Capital, I can only confirm it is a fascinating book about the history of Venture Capital. I have now read chapters 2 & 3 which covers the sixties mainly through Arthur Rock and his funding of Fairchild and the Traitorous Eight.

About Fairchild

Coyle pulled out crisp dollar bills and proposed that every man present should sign each one. The bills would be “their contracts with each other,” Coyle said. It was a premonition of the trust-based contracts – seemingly informal, yet founded, literally, on money – that were to mark the Valley in the years to come. [Page 35]


Source : https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Tracing-Silicon-Valley-s-roots-2520298.php

Each of the 8 founders put $500 for 100 shares ($500 was two to three weeks of salary), Hayden Stone (through Rock and Coyle) 225 shares at the same price per share and 300 reserved for future managers. Fairchild put $1.4M as a loan to be compared to the initial $5,125, with an option to buy all the stock for $3M. It happened making the founders rich but not as rich as if there had not been that option. Fairchild had made a profit of $2M at the time of acquisition and price to earnings were easily 20x to 30x. SO I had to do my usual cap. table from foundation to exit. Here it is:

What VCs such as Rock looked for

I just scanned pages 48-49 and this is very similar to what you could find in slideshare slides in the previous post.

“Some winning venture capitalists claim to look almost exclusively at the backgrounds and personalities of the founders; others focus mostly on the technology involved and the market opportunity the venture addresses” from The New Venturers, Wilson (1984)

“They look for outstanding people without worrying too much about the details of product and marketing strategy. The right people have integrity, motivation, market orientation, technical capability, accounting capability and leadership. The most important is motivation.
Rock’s style was supportive of entrepreneurs with an implacable will.”
from Wilson (1984)

In 7 years, the Davis & Rock $3.4M fund would return $77M or a 22.6x multiple… [Page 50].

If you do not fully understand what I talk about read Mallaby! And of course watch Something Ventured.

Venture capital by Bill Janeway (part II)

In a remarkable new series of videos, Venture Capital in the 21st Century, Bill Janeway describes the value and challenges of technology innovation. I mentioned in my last post the perfomance of venture capital, his third video.

The first video, Investing at the Technological Frontier, describing the radical uncertainty of innovation and how it contributes to economic development.

In the second video, What Venture Capitalists Do, he further develops his thoughts that I summarize through a few screenshots below. (They are self explanatory and you should certainly listen to Janeway if you are curious or intrigued).

The 4th video, The Failure of Market Failure, opens the debate of state intervention and private speculation. This important topic has been largely debated by Mariana Mazzucato and you will find additional posts under tag #mazzucato.

Evaluating Venture Capital Performance by Bill Janeway

I must admit I did not know Bill Janeway. I should have, given his long expertise in venture capital. His recent contribution was mentioned by many including Nicolas Colin and on a personal note, friends from IMF. They just mentioned to me 8 videos which seem absolutely brilliant: Venture Capital in the 21st Century.

I just watched the third: Evaluating Venture Capital Performance | #3 | Innovation in the 21st Century. Here are the slides.


Janeway reviews the performance of Venture Capital firms and recent changes in the venture capital market. He starts by summarizing the stylized facts of venture capital returns (highly skewed, very persistent, and correlated with the stock market). VC capital increased rapidly in the late 1990s, peaking in 2000. VC returns have since settled down, with longer holdings and fewer IPOs. But with the climate of zero real interest rates since 2008, new unconventional investors (private equity, hedge funds, etc.) have waded into venture financing directly, hunting for the high returns of the next big tech giant. A “Unicorn Bubble” has developed as a result, where dubious firms have been financing their growth by selling illiquid securities at inflated prices to deep-pocketed investors with little expertise or control over the entrepreneur. This may have implications on the long-term link between venture financing and technological innovation.

I just copied a few screenshots:

Venture capital is highly skewed and follows a power law, just like startup success models.

Venture capital returns are highly correlated to those of Nasdaq as shown above and below, so… ?

Good VCs are good and bad VCs are bad.

So…

“The message here to limited partners is very clear.
A blind allocation to venture capital, just allocating a fixed proportion to venture capital runs the major risk of what’s known as adverse selection.
The funds you want to invest in, the persistently successful ones, don’t need your money.
The ones who want your money are the ones you want to avoid.”

How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism

This is the title of a great article from the not less great New Yorker, dated November 23, 2020 and written by Charles Duhigg:

How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism,
Even the worst-run startup can beat competitors if investors prop it up. The V.C. firm Benchmark helped enable WeWork to make one wild mistake after another—hoping that its gamble would pay off before disaster struck.


Illustration by Golden Cosmos (from the New Yorker article)

I am infringing copyright here and hope the magazine and author will forgive me. But the illustration says so well what the author describes! Yes, for a few years now, venture capital has become a crazy money spending machine.

I already posted blog about VC crises as over time the activity as evolved. From frugal investors in technology in the 60s and particularly in the 70s (Apple, Microsoft,..) and 80s (Cisco, Sun, …) The internet “bubble” was not the first period of hubris, there was one in the early eighties with tons of PC clones. But the real hubris came with the social media. Today, startups raise hundreds of millions of dollars before going public and experience huge, huge losses even at IPO as you may want to check in my 600 startups analysis (and it will be probably even worse in my 700 startups analysis to come). Here are past articles:

September 2020: Theranos, the (not so)-Silicon Valley biggest scandal ever – https://www.startup-book.com/2020/09/12/theranos-the-not-so-silicon-valley-biggest-scandal-ever/

April 2016: Is the Venture Capital model broken? – https://www.startup-book.com/2016/04/26/is-the-venture-capital-model-broken/

January 2016: Is Silicon Valley crazy (again)? – https://www.startup-book.com/2016/01/28/is-silicon-valley-crazy-again/

January 2011: Is there something rotten in the kingdom of VC? –
https://www.startup-book.com/2011/01/27/is-there-something-rotten-in-the-kingdom-of-vc/

At this point read carefully what venture capital was according to the author of the article: From the start, venture capitalists have presented their profession as an elevated calling. They weren’t mere speculators—they were midwives to innovation. The first V.C. firms were designed to make money by identifying and supporting the most brilliant startup ideas, providing the funds and the strategic advice that daring entrepreneurs needed in order to prosper. For decades, such boasts were merited. Genentech, which helped invent synthetic insulin, in the nineteen-seventies, succeeded in large part because of the stewardship of the venture capitalist Tom Perkins, whose company, Kleiner Perkins, made an initial hundred-thousand-dollar investment. Perkins demanded a seat on Genentech’s board of directors, and then began spending one afternoon a week in the startup’s offices, scrutinizing spending reports and browbeating inexperienced executives. In subsequent years, Kleiner Perkins nurtured such tech startups as Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems, and Compaq. When Perkins died, in 2016, at the age of eighty-four, an obituary in the Financial Times remembered him as “part of a new movement in finance that saw investors roll up their sleeves and play an active role in management.”

But some famous experts of innovation are quoted about the current situation:

Steve Blank: “I’ve watched the industry become a money-hungry mob. V.C.s today aren’t interested in the public good. They’re not interested in anything except optimizing their own profits and chasing the herd, and so they waste billions of dollars that could have gone to innovation that actually helps people.” and his answer to the crisis is quite strong: “The first time you see a venture capitalist prosecuted for failing to uphold their duty as a board member, you’re going to see Silicon Valley transform overnight. All it takes is one V.C. doing a perp walk and everyone gets the message—you’re responsible, you have a legal duty, and if you do things that are bad for society you’ll be called to account.”

Martin Kenney, the professor at the University of California, Davis, said, “Obama loved Silicon Valley and V.C.s, and Trump craved their approval.” He went on, “Regulators have been totally defanged from doing real investigations of venture-capital firms. I think people are finally waking up to the damage the tech industry and V.C.s can do, but it’s slow going.” Today’s V.C.s, “money-losing firms can continue operating and undercutting incumbents for far longer than previously.”

Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School: “Proclaiming founder loyalty is kind of expected now.”

A Harvard Business School professor, Nori Gerardo Lietz, noted that the document exposed WeWork’s “byzantine corporate structure, the continuing projected losses, the plethora of conflicts, the complete absence of any substantive corporate governance, and the uncommon ‘New Age’ parlance,” the S-1 was “misleading, and probably fraudulent.”

I will finish my post with a quote mentioned by Bruce Dunlevie, the partner from Benchmark who was one the WeWork boardmember, a task he did not handled perfectly even if not that badly. Nothing to add. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton and the rest of the quote (not mentioned in the article) is “Great men are almost always bad men…”

Apple and its first investors : hilarious!

This morning, I was participating to a workshop about startups and one question came about the relationships with investors entrepeneurs are trying to attract and invest in their company. I told them it could be frustrating for many reasons, often because VCs never say no but decline too often to invest too. The best illustration comes from Something Ventured, a documentary movie I never stop celebrating. The Apple case is close to being hilarious. You find the extract beginning around minute 51 in the video:


and here is the text: [Narrator] In 1976, the computer was about to get personal. […] For venture capitalists, this represented the opportunity of a lifetime.

[Perkins Chuckles] We turned down Apple Computer. We didn’t – We didn’t even turn it down. We didn’t agree to meet with Jobs and Wozniak.
[Reid Dennis] Oh, that would have been a fabulous investment if we had made it, but we didn’t. We said, “Oh, no, we’re not really in that business.”

[Pitch Johnson] “How can you use a computer at home? You’re gonna put recipes on it?”

[Bill Draper] I sent my partner down to look at Apple. He came back and he said “Guy kept me waiting for an hour, and he’s very arrogant.” And, of course, that’s Steve Jobs! I said, “Well, let’s let it go.” That was a big mistake.

[Narrator] In 1976, the only people who believed in the personal computer… were the geeks and nerds who gathered at Homebrew Computer Clubs.

[Bushnell, founder & CEO of Atari] They needed an investment, and, uh, they offered me a third of Apple Computer for $50,000… and I said, “Gee, I don’t think so.” I could have owned a third of Apple Computer for $50’000. [Sighs] A big mistake. But I said, “Call Don Valentine.”

[Valentine] So we had our meeting. I went to Steve’s house. And we talked, and I was convinced it was a big market… just embryonically beginning. Steve was in his Fu Manchu look, and his question for me- “Tell me what I have to do to have you finance me.” I said, “We have to have someone in the company… who has some sense of management and marketing and channels of distribution.” He said, “Fine. Send me three people.” I sent him three candidates. One he didn’t like. One didn’t like him. And the third one was Mike Markkula. Mike Markkula worked for me at Fairchild before he went to Intel.

[Markkula] I said, “Okay.” ‘Cause that’s what I did on Mondays. I was retired. [Chuckles] I think I was 32 when I retired from Intel. But one day a week, I would help people start companies and write business plans. I did it for free, just for the interaction with bright, uh, people… So I went over and talked to the boys. [Laughs] The two of them did not make a good impression on people. They were bearded. They didn’t smell good. They dressed funny. Young, naive. But Woz had designed a really wonderful, wonderful computer. […] And I came to the conclusion that we could build a Fortune 500 company in less than five years. I said I’d put up the money that was needed.

[Narrator] Mike Markkula came out of retirement, becoming the president and C.E.O. of Apple. And the first call he made was to Arthur Rock. Arthur would have missed Apple if it weren’t for Mike Markkula.

[Rock] Jobs and Wozniak came up to see me, and they were very unappealing. Goatee, long hair [Muttering] Markkula said, “Well, before you make up your mind, there’s a computer show. You ought to come down and see what’s going on.” And he did. He thought somethin’ was happenin’. He wasn’t quite sure what. And there was this booth with everybody around it. I couldn’t even get next to it. And it was the Apple booth.
Then I got a call from Don Valentine. [Chuckles] “I want to put some money in that company” I said, “Okay, you gotta come on the board then.”
You know in the venture capital business, if you look at 200 deals, and you, you might do 10 of’em, and you will think they’re all great, and if one of’em is great, then you’re in the hall of fame.

Just in case, a little more about something ventured from my blog in 2012: https://www.startup-book.com/2012/02/08/something-ventured-a-great-movie/.

Finally, let me remind you of other “missed deals” in another recent post: The amazing challenge of finding great startups.

Return on Investments – IRR & multiples

In venture capital, returns on investments is the ultimate metric and although it is not very difficult to understand, there are many little tricks worth knowing about!

The reason of this short post is a recent article my friend Fuad advised me to read from the Financial Times : The parallel universe of private equity returns by Jonathan Ford. If you are not a subsciber to the FT (and I am not), you may not be able to read the article so here are short extracts: “Ever wondered about the extraordinary performance figures that listed private equity firms trumpet in their official stock market filings? […] Not only do the firms generate stratospheric numbers — far higher than anything produced by the boring old stock market — but they can apparently do it year in, year out, with no decay in returns. […] The reality is that these consistent IRRs show nothing of the kind. What they actually demonstrate is a big flaw in the way the IRR itself is calculated.”

When I looked at venture capital (VC) returns in the past, I learned you must carefully look at what IRR means. It looks simple at first sight as the next table shows, just simple math:

So the first question you care about is what matters: IRRs or multiples? And my simple answer is “it depends”. Up to you!

Secondly, measuring returns makes a lot of sense when you have your money back. Of course! But IRR and multiples can also be measured while you are still invested and when your investment is not liquid, which is the case for private companies in which invests private equity (PE) – venture capital belongs to PE. You can have a look at a former post of mine, Is the Venture Capital model broken? and among other figures look at this:

VC2016-1-IRRs
The VC performance according to the Kauffman foundation

The peak IRR is measured when your assets are not liquid whereas the final IRR is when you have your money back… A fund as usually a 10-year life (or 120 months) and you can check the peak IRR month.

Even more tricky, the money is called by periods to make the holding as short as possible: basically, when the money is needed to invest, though you commit to it for the full life of the fund. Measuring the real IRR begins to be complicated but what matters to me is the multiple from the day of commitment to the finaldah when the money is back… And to you?

A final point I love to mention all the time is that VC is not so much about a portfolio of balanced investments. In the same post mentioned above, I added two links, and one of the best quote is “Venture capital is not even a home run business. It’s a grand slam business.”

Have a look at The Babe Ruth Effect in Venture Capital or In praise of failure. VC statistics are not gaussian, they follow a power law: