Friday, November 2, 2007

An Alternate Investment Philosophy, Finding the Disruptive Deals

As I have mentioned in an earlier posting, I believe the nature and scale of many startup deals is changing. While VC funds are generally getting larger and the amount they need to invest in every deal is also getting larger, startup deals are generally requiring less capital to get off the ground. There is a disconnect here. I’ve noted that this is opening a window for angels. And I’ve just blogged that it may not all be good for entrepreneurs.

The Holy Grail for VCs is the big, hairy, disruptive deal --- an idea that completely upsets the playing field in a market area and allows for huge scaling and a big win for the investor. Think Skype, or Google (the ad company). How do you find “disruptive” deals, i.e. ones that can create 100x returns?

I am inspired by comments made by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his most recent book, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He describes an investment philosophy where 80% of your capital is in lower risk, more conventional investments, and 20% is in smaller high risk investments --- trying to expose yourself to lots of possible positive Black Swans.

Now admittedly, he is talking about an overall investment philosophy from the perspective of a fund manager in NYC. But there is the kernel of a good advice here, I believe.

I’m suggesting that a VC fund should consider such an investment philosophy. The VC fund should set aside a specific seed-fund that is used explicitly to look for positive Black Swans. This seed-fund should invest in earlier stage or riskier investments, or to simply play hunches. The partner group should loosen their normal criteria when evaluating these deals. They should focus more on how disruptive the idea is. There may even be an opportunity to allow an individual partner to play a personal hunch. The decision can be made by just that partner, subject only to the outright veto by one of the other partners. I am proposing that that partner does not necessarily have to convince everyone to agree with their vision. And critically, in all cases, such a seed investment would have to be made with the expressed provision, at the fund’s option, to subsequently invest more, up to some limit.

Some Justification and Comments:

It is increasingly apparent that IT deals often need less capital to get off the ground. Also entrepreneurs are growing wiser about delaying a traditionally-scaled venture round until they have more traction. And angels are increasingly filling that gap. Early stage VC funds are prone to being "jumped" by deals that go from an angel round to a larger VC round.

Setting aside an explicit subsidiary seed fund and committing to try to invest it in more, smaller, more speculative deals will focus a VC’s attention on playing some educated hunches. I believe that the rational consensus-oriented approach VC funds currently rely on almost exclusively, leads to a more mundane set of moderate return deals and misses on the individual investment hunches of each investment professional.

One can assume the fund will see a larger attrition in these smaller seed deals, but even if they all fail the total amount lost would collectively only be equal to one or two failed conventional deals. On the up side, the fund may get a large piece of a more disruptive deal by grabbing a piece earlier. The result would likely more than offset these speculative losses, and maybe even “make the fund”.

Such deals would require some time commitment to mentor. Such mentoring and early support will build the fund’s reputation in the entrepreneurial community. More early deals may also come the fund’s way. It can be synergistic to their investment goals. And they learn by immersing themselves in some leading (bleeding?) edge deals that they otherwise would miss. The selection criteria for these deals might include a requirement that the team is clearly identified as “coachable”.

To put it simply, making seed investments from an explicit seed fund allows the fund to bet on more horses than they otherwise would and increases the chance that they’ll get a big winner.

This does not necessarily represent a relaxation of the fund’s investment decision standards. I believe that some of the best returning, most disruptive deals a VC may see do not lend themselves to classical due diligence and risk minimization. Sometimes it is a matter of connecting the right idea to the right people that unlocks big value. Doing more seed deals will allow the fund to possibly unlock more of these big opportunities.

Some deals are execution deals while some deals are big idea deals. I believe the current VC process tends to favor the former, but the big, hairy, disruptive deals with >10x return potential are more likely in the later category. Big idea deals don’t lend themselves to classical diligence.

Finally I want to acknowledge that Charles River Ventures has prominently taken a position that is similar to this idea. I’ve seen it stated that they are addressing the smaller deal demand issue with this plan. My point here is there may also be a greater yield in big idea, disruptive deals by making more smaller investments.


packerman said...

Couldn't agree more. And such "out of the box" thinking includes the fact that a lot of the gems will be found in caves outside one's area code. That, and flat world technologies such as true virtual collaboration (at something less than enterprise-class pricing) should connect more funding to more "order of magnitude" ideas wherever situated. (Thomas Keller has large plasma flat screens with live links between the kitchens at the French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in Manhattan so that he can see in real time what's going on).

sechrest said...

It is a very interesting proposal. There does seem to be growing Angel investment in these spaces. I hope that you know about the work of Dr Rob Wiltbank at Willamette University, he is a professor studying Angel investment and who is a venture Partner. He has data that validates several of the things you are saying.

easydjr said...

Thanks for both these comments. I don't know Wiltbank but will look him up. -Ted