Spotlight

The curse of subprime VC

It continues to amaze me how VCs point to the economic downturn as a reason for sluggish investing. We all know that at this point they should do exactly the opposite (and a few good ones do).

Information Technology is here to stay as we clearly have not reached the saturation point of its practical implementation, even though short-term M&A and IPO windows have pretty much closed – for now.

But I am especially dismayed by the fact that VCs seem to completely ignore responsibility for the fact that their investments strategies can’t seem to weather the storm and how they continue to hide behind the economic downturn to avoid the disclosure of their bad choices. Reminds you of anyone?

I don’t believe the VC model is broken, in the same way I don’t believe mortgage lending is broken. We will continue to buy new houses – and technologies. Both represent sizable investment returns for years to come. But the risk profile associated with lending money for a home has been miscalculated and I conclude the majority of VCs are fundamentally miscalculating the risk of early-stage investing. Birds of a feather.

Here are some of the similarities:

1/ The sheer number of lenders entering the mortgage arena forced an artificial expansion into the low-end. In the technology industry about 790 US investors force a similar artificial expansion down into the low-end. Most entrepreneurs are forced to comply to the “capital efficiency” rule-book or, as I call it, subprime VC.

2/ The majority of people working at the mortgage bank cannot accurately assess the risk profile, neither can the majority of people working at a VC firm. The associate in a VC firm (or worse the General Partner), fresh out of school is simply not able to detect disruption. Schools are, by design, setup to teach students about white-swans, not the black swan that usually spawns real innovation.

3/ The lenders took advantage of uneducated buyers, without sufficiently reminding them that buying a house yields a debt, not an asset. Similarly, entrepreneurs are often made to believe they are successful when they land a round of funding, mistaking that for an asset (instead of a liability) and subsequently not paying enough attention to the acquisition of its real assets; new paying customers.

4/ The majority of home-buyers should not have qualified. Similarly, most technology ideas should not. Innovation is only meaningful when it monetizes ideas. So investing based on technology classifications is the wrong qualification of innovation.

As the included chart attempts to depict, the investment strategies in the 1990s and even the exuberance in 2000 produced better variance and returns than the atrophy created by the current VC rule-book. Now, too many investors herd (syndicate) around the same investment strategy, diminishing its returns and making it increasingly less attractive for smart entrepreneurs who refuse to submit themselves to subprime investment rules.

An artificial VC rule-book, subprime valuations, lower founder salaries, fewer M&A and zero IPO makes for a very unattractive entrepreneurial playground. If we don’t throw the VC rule-book out of the window, we should expect nothing more than sub-prime M&A and subprime IPOs, even when the economy recovers.

The concern is that we are creating fewer companies that someday have the financial wherewithal to acquire its smaller innovative brethren and like the lending market, are stuck with “innovation” that no-one wants to buy. I wrote about that starting more than 3 years back (here, here, here). We need VCs with the ability to spot disruptive business opportunities rather than perpetuate technology gimmickry.

Perhaps we can put the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) to work on something better than mindless self congratulating statistics of the past and misleading videos of the actual workings of venture capital today. It could instead create more transparency of its members, to stave off tougher selection and regulation from the Limited Partners (pension funds etc.) that are otherwise unavoidable.

We, as collective contributors to the technology ecosystem – not the elusive economy – are responsible for the performance of our industry and our ability to produce real value that can weather any storm, and that means we need to get out of subprime VC quickly.

 

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