The big venture capital mistake

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When you think about how 99.4% of venture capital firms fail and how currently 80% of the new money raised is doled out by asset managers to only five (5!) venture capital firms, those of us with a pulsating brain and a beating heart combined with a desire and passion for a brighter future have to wonder why an 80% greenfield of innovation that invites progression, is instead yielding the regression of its arbitrage and therefore severely erodes the opportunities for groundbreaking entrepreneurs.

The current (and past 20-year) arbitrage of innovation, venture capital, is simply incompatible with the opportunity for innovation.

Deadly alternatives
And while many alternatives to venture funding are being feverishly spun up (like crowd-funding, government interference, syndication, fragmentation, resales, angel investing) to keep the business of innovation and its karma abuzz, all of those alternatives in actuality promote the deployment of more uniform and subprime risk (by inducing more investor socialism), which by economic principle can only lead to more subprime returns. False positivity abound.

More entrepreneurs will fall into the infamous capital efficiency trap than before, the same one that has yielded -4.6% IRR (Internal Rate of Return) during its prime 12 year vintage “hay days”, that in turn is responsible for many limited partners (the investors in venture capital firms) to flee the asset class and put their money elsewhere.

Real disruptive innovations have a harder time reaching investors (the five) with merit, and more subprime innovations will land the equally subprime money unable to yield any meaningful kind of socioeconomic value.

The definition of innovation has become commoditized as a function of overwhelmingly subprime arbitrage deployed by “the best practices of venture capital”. And with it attracting hordes of opportunistic flies and bottom-feeders cheering on the subprime investment candidates.

To restore the potential of venture capital (and thus innovation) we cannot allow it to be brought back to the direction it is headed today, smaller in effective size than 30 years ago.

We have an economic fiduciary obligation to reverse the 20-year attrition of 20% of GDP (venture contributed to), to build an adolescent version of venture capital into an economic system in which the matchmaker in-between the assets of limited partners (money) and the assets of entrepreneurs (ideas) produces in line with innovation greenfield potential.

That new economic system should not entail an endless plethora of new distributions of the deployment of subprime risk, but a focused pursuit of (non-uniform) prime. Exactly what and how that economic system will look like will not fit in a single blog (my findings are scattered across many blogs already), and instead be distilled into the cohesive subject of my upcoming book.

Broken from the top
In fairness, all of the participants in the venture ecosystem are responsible for its failure. Hence the reason why systems-thinking is the only way to curtail venture capital’s destructive economic outcome. The only silver bullet is the one that forces us all to change.

Entrepreneurs are at fault for taking money from – and submitting to – venture capitalists without verifiable merit proven to yield viable venture-style investment returns. Venture capitalists are to blame for waddling in endless investor socialism to magically yield outlier returns, with their worst downside a cushy retirement from only management fees. But most of all the limited partners at the top of the venture food chain and as the supposed experts of financial risk deployment are to blame, who with their “eyes wide shut” in the deployment of pancake economics should have realized that no deployment of ten levels of bottom-heavy diversification (in any asset class) can ever yield proportionate returns to the potential of the underlying asset.

Venture capital is not private equity
When as an entrepreneur and CEO, having built successful companies and responsible for managing company risk, you have the chance to speak with limited partners (the investors in venture capital), you soon realize that most do not know anything about the business of, and the risk deployed to innovation. Not just because most limited partners contribute only single digit percentages of their total assets under management to venture capital, but also because they confuse risk with money and money with merit. I discovered that limited partner asset management strategies (not just in venture capital) are resembling of what I refer to as pancake economics; wide in circumference and extremely shallow in-depth.

The first and most troubling evidence of limited partner’s limited knowledge of the asset they are investing in, is that they categorized venture capital as a sub-sector to their private equity asset class, and subsequently further tuck that investment strategy in a grab-basket of diverse and uncorrelated investments, often referred to as alternatives.

The problem with that structure is that while both venture capital and private equity invest in private companies, their risk profiles couldn’t be any more different. Limited partners should instead organize their asset management strategies based on similarity in risk (and return) profiles, not types of investable companies.

Unique risk profiles
The risk profile of venture capital is diametrically opposite to the risk profile of private equity. Here is my top 5 of reasons why:

  1. Venture capital investing requires foresight, private equity requires close proximity to hindsight.
  2. Venture capital requires the merit of outlier vision, private equity requires the diligence of operational excellence.
  3. Venture capital drives upstream economic impact to change the world, private equity drives downstream economic impact to benefit from current economic circumstances.
  4. Venture capital requires capital to ignite market-pull, private equity requires capital to drive market-push.
  5. Venture capital is upside investing, private equity is downside investing.

Unique skills
Because limited partners have grouped venture capital along with the private equity asset class, limited partners have logically deployed identical skill sets, processes and expectations (often tucked away into “multi-strategy” fund-of-funds). A big mistake.

While you can hire Ivy League graduates to effectively drive operational excellence in private equity, venture capital requires the merit of foresight which one will not learn or acquire in business school. The private placement memorandum (the “business plan” of a fund) from private equity fund, built to provide confidence in the deployment of rather uniform operational excellence, should look completely different from a private placement memorandum of a venture capital fund, built to provide confidence in the deployment of non-uniform (outlier) risk.

Hordes of general partners have benefited from this lack of understanding by limited partners and in the slipstream of venture capital’s early success raised significant funds, that are now responsible for the ball-and-chain of false positives that created the mistrust of innovation with the public, and the wall of false negatives that keeps real entrepreneurs disenfranchised (or submitting to more daring arbitrage).

Unacceptable misconceptions
Experienced entrepreneurs know their chances of success are higher than 50%, or otherwise they would not bet their life savings, relationships, time away from loved-ones, a cushy paycheck and many other conveniences on it. So, no limited partner should accept the performance of a venture capital fund to be out of step with that success rate, especially not when venture capital already bathes in ten (10!) levels of bottom-heavy diversification that allows them to smooth out investor returns.

A general partner at a venture capital firm who wants limited partners to believe investments in groundbreaking innovation are a crapshoot, is simply not successful in identifying successful entrepreneurs who know different. Only subprime entrepreneurs are foolish or greedy enough to gamble on success and reputation.

Fixing venture capital
To solve the problems of venture capital so that it again performs in step with the massive greenfield opportunity for innovation, requires us to educate limited partners on the qualitative and quantitive elements of groundbreaking innovation and the trail of risk and money required to support it. We need an economic systems that promptly punishes and eradicates the failing arbiters of innovation and promotes the successful arbiters. We need a meritocracy of innovation arbitrage that will severely reduce the fog of false-positives and false-negatives that clouds the potential for venture capital today. An economic system that by design promotes and builds the deployment of prime risk-and-returns across the board.

Given the past 20-year performance of venture capital (in which the damage of bull and bear arbitrage are equally destructive to innovation), limited partners should not expect the new dawn of venture capital to be provided by the protectionists who benefit and are responsible for its current attrition.

Start fresh
The deployment of a new and modern economic system (with its fundamentals proven elsewhere) that each limited partner can implement independently or in a syndicated venture capital focused fund-of-funds, will not only serve the allocation and returns of money to venture capital, but become a foundation upon which the investments in any asset class will transition from a mindless hedging “strategy” to a sustainable investment strategy with an accurate representation of the value of the underlying asset.

The answers to improving investor returns lie in rudimentary economics we can all understand and appreciate. And I can’t wait to share those with you.

If only writing an all-encompassing book that challenges stale economics was as easy as building great innovation.


We encourage comments that are relevant to our observations, conclusions and the specific topics discussed in this blog, either in agreement or disagreement. Leaving your insightful comments here will ensure others can learn from them too.  Keep in mind however this is not a place to spew your own theories (go write your own blog), but the best place to question or approve our observations.

About Georges van Hoegaerden

Georges is a serial entrepreneur, venture catalyst, 4x CEO, board director turned innovation economist (by fate). His ideas have raised $14M in venture capital and produced over $100M in returns. More.

  • John A. Ward

    Thoughtful points, I presume you get some negative feedback from your views, but when we have money following the ‘next online thing’ without seemingly any thought behind it, your point may be well made.


    • Georges van Hoegaerden

      I would certainly publish counter arguments here if I get any, and debate them veraciously. However, the antithesis of 99.4% failure rate of Venture Capital does not leave a lot of room for counter arguments. (You may notice I pull some blatant mischaracterizations from people in the VC industry into my blogs on occasion and argue them here).

      Let’s not forget: Venture Capital as an asset class to deploy unique (non-uniform) risk can have tremendous catalytic value. But not when the deployment of Venture Capital waddles in excessive investor socialism that by economic principle is incompatible with the outliers of innovation.

      We need to be smarter in this country. To build systems that encapsulate a certain desired behavior, and promote the most effective economic outcome of the incredible entrepreneurial resources we have available. Therefore the arbitrage of innovation needs to be held accountable in the same way innovation itself is. Because if we want to remain (to be seen as) the leader of the free world, we better set a shining example of what inspires others.

      And a Venture Capital marketplace that is in violation of the most rudimentary free-market principles is the economic infancy that puts us all to shame.

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