I have the utmost respect for groundbreaking entrepreneurs, or better yet all the people who produce great products (or unique services). I love technology and believe we have not even scratched the surface of its macro-economic impact.
And it is those entrepreneurs, with the simple power of their dreams and perseverance, who collectively and unwaveringly hold up the massive weight of an outdated and incompatible financial system eleven times the size of production that keeps this country afloat.
It is for them that I fight to make our financial system more modern and nimble to withstand the test of time.
The writing is on the wall
Unless you have been living under a rock, you should by now be aware that the performance in Venture for the last twenty years has been deplorable. After a fantastic start by people like Bill Draper, and point successes from next generation icons like Vinod Khosla in the nineties, Venture quickly became the stomping ground for anybody with money, not necessarily combined with merit.
Growing numbers of Venture Capital (VC) firms arguably over-invested in their interpretation of innovation that had the majority of even the 90s funds (with vintages in the 2000s) generating no more than 10% IRR on average. Just the last 10 years VCs have generated deplorable public value out of all investments made, or specifically lost about $234B Billion in, mostly public, money from their Limited Partners (LPs). And the performance of the current funds does not look much brighter as witnessed by incoming reports from early 2000 funds and the discontent of many LPs I speak with.
And on the mirror
But even if you are not a fan of numbers, which often become the subject of endless debate and can be excused away since they are lagging, not leading indicators, Venture has produced only a handful of viable companies that ultimately created some sustainable value public markets have faith in. Seven-hundred-and-ninety (790) VC firms in the U.S. chomping at the bit producing no more than a handful successes is the billowing smoke that indicates a raging fire. More specifically it indicates “the system” or “the compass” by which Venture is deployed does not work, its systemic approach is broken and only a few outliers in Venture produce the returns that make the headlines for all.
When doing your best just isn’t good enough
VCs now hold on for dear life, blaming their lack of performance on esoteric macro “windows” of opportunity (irrelevant to startups), and they feverishly add up portfolio revenues to claim they are still producing value and are doing “their best”, all while big corporations frequently beat them to the punch with real innovation that outpaces the market.
VCs attempt to hang on to comparing Venture to 100-year old asset-classes, sectors or segment indices, patting themselves on the back with a relativity theory that is as flawed as comparing apples and oranges. Unlike these old indices that have become somewhat stale because of their age, Venture continues to ride on the information technology platform that continues to grow aggressively (despite the economy) and still leaves a massive greenfield (5/6 of the world’s population) underserved. VCs have not succeeded in tapping into that upswing and their best is clearly not good enough to make us proud.
Venture Capital morphed into Micro-PE
Venture Capital, after the irrational exuberance of the early 90s, has quickly and predominantly turned subprime – or – into micro-Private Equity, with most risks deflated and/or deferred to the entrepreneurs. LPs who thought they invested in Venture Capital, by virtue of how they deployed money, instead invested in a more risk averse Private Equity segment, a different thesis with different risk/rewards associated with it. But we ended up getting what we invested in; micro-PE returns. Nothing Ventured, nothing gained.
Looking good spending money
Now, I see some LPs “blindly” renewing their commitment to Venture, which for LPs that have access to prime VC firms that have still produced healthy returns in the last two decennia makes only nominal sense. If an LP does not have the wherewithal to understand the dysfunction in Venture, it may as well bet on the best horse in the race, even if the race ends up being a Private Equity race instead. Those LPs may make a buck (with a minor part, 10-15% of their total allocation), maybe even outpace other asset classes and care less.
But the wide-open greenfield in technology and the culmination of a fantastic real-time distribution mechanism (the Internet) of technology should have made technology Venture the best performing asset-class, bar none. That is of-course, if one understand the requirements of the sector and deploys the appropriate risk, discipline and market model.
Social Economic Value
Most of the money invested in Venture is (indirectly) public money, such as the endowments and pension funds (CalPERS, ~$17B) which beyond a sheer money-making objective also has a strong socioeconomic value attached to it. CalPERS needs the money, but also needs Silicon Valley to be at the top of its game to produce healthy economic spin-out (driving other asset classes as well). The new funds just deployed by the North Carolina and Florida (coming) treasurers also promise to carry the good karma spawned to aid the most important driver of the economy; innovation.
Yet most meaningful innovation, that has the potential to scale big fast, does not start with or in Private Equity, it starts with the unique risks deployed by Venture Capital. And so the importance of what you as an LP are betting on, with the specific knowledge of what is Venture and what is not, is crucial in establishing a healthy conversion from technology to large socioeconomic value, and subsequently public support and trust.
The Insanity in Venture
The systemic failure in Venture to produce returns in line with the wide-open opportunities in technology is the result of the composition of its incompatible financial system. Venture today is an artificially restricted marketplace to which not the outliers of innovation are attracted, but those who are attracted to the commoditized investment thesis of the predominantly subprime VCs.
But even if one knows nothing about Venture, insanity is the descriptor that belongs to the person who believes in a marketplace where the following attributes can consistently produce outlier returns:
- A marketplace that marries the assets of supply and demand, with the arbiter not having – or earning – verifiable merit
- A marketplace that marries the assets of supply and demand, using a single commoditized investment thesis
- A marketplace that hides behind the performance of hybrid asset classes, sectors, segments and stages
- A marketplace that hides behind ten levels of diversification of risk
- A marketplace in which the arbiters do not compete (but syndicate)
- A marketplace which openly engages in price-setting and operates as an innovation demi-cartel
- An in-transparent marketplace that functions like a black-box to most marketplace participants
- A marketplace that appears extremely sensitive to economic aberrations
- A marketplace that has not produced healthy returns in twenty years
No tinkering with micro-economics in the marketplace such as management fees, carries or other micro-incentives can turn a subprime VC, prime. Just like entrepreneurs are born, not created, so are venture investors with their unique intuition for taking risk born, not created.
The marketplace needs to be rebuilt from scratch and embed free-market principles that allows for healthy competition between all participants in the marketplace. Any LP with $1 Billion committed to Venture can do so independently today, and reap the rewards that lies at the untapped and phenomenal foundation of the growth in technology.
We owe change in Venture to those that produce
We owe it to the producers of groundbreaking products and value, to support them with a financial system that is lean and mean, nimble and modern, competitive and transparent, that dynamically establishes, monitors and corrects the merit associated with all marketplace participants. We will dramatically flatten and simplify the marketplace, remove excessive diversification and fragmentation of risk. We, the marketplace, will establish and expose the authentic merit of every participant.
Venture investors with merit and foresight will thrive by ignoring subprime propositions that cannot re-establish their individual supremacy, and instead focus on those innovations that match their authentic competency and skills. Groundbreaking entrepreneurs will come out of the woodwork again once they see the development of a better custodian than their corporate overlords flourish. Limited Partners will be happy because they reap rewards that outperforms their ancient asset classes by a long shot.
Groundbreaking entrepreneurs are the life-blood of this country and we better start treating them with the care and attention they deserve. We need to lift the weight of this incompatible financial system off their shoulders if we want to remain on the leading edge of innovation.
We still can.