A few weeks ago, I was invited to Cendana Capital’s & SVB’s annual “LP/GP Summit” at the Bloomberg offices in San Francisco. I asked the head of Cendana if I could briefly summarize my takeaways of the event (without ascribing any comments made on stage to anyone in particular), and Michael graciously agreed. As I am new to the investing game and the smallest player by every standard, these types events are really impactful for me. Please note, Cendana is focused on early-stage VC or microVC, and less so on the bigger funds. I’m like a sponge trying to soak up everything I hear. So, here are “The Big Takeaways” for me:
[Before I do this, a few big disclaimers as inevitably people will read this with all different perspectives and points of view. What’s below does not necessarily apply broadly — rather, it’s based on what I’ve observed. Many funds have different relationships with their LPs. Therefore, these are my observations, and only that — my perspective on what I’ve noticed, and it’s likely to be at odds with what others may have seen.]
Today, everyone wants to invest directly. / This was the biggest theme of the day, and as I’ve been mentioning on Twitter, everyone and their parents want to invest directly into private companies. Crowdfunding, AngelList, Kickstarter, and so on. By now, we all now private companies can stay private longer, so as the opportunity set in the private sector grows, money on the sidelines is getting hungry. And, I mean HUNGRY. LPs increasingly want to not just follow-on into their GP investments, they want to co-invest at the time of the original check. // The inverse of “everyone wanting to invest directly” is that what people are saying is: “I don’t want to pay fees.” This can cause tension between LPs and GPs, and brings up all sorts of issues around which LPs are shown opportunities from which GPs, and so forth. There’s something broken in the VC fund model (fees or carry, or both) that’s aggravating LPs at a time when the real growth of new companies is captured by private investors.
LPs expect GPs to design their funds to be ahead of the curve. / It’s 2014. Venture has been through a few industry corrections and every smart person I talk to about this expect a few more. In a somewhat similar fashion as GPs scout the landscape for founders to back, so to do LPs scout for GPs to invest with (and alongside of). What does this mean in reality? It means larger funds (over $100M) might be expected to have budgeted fees instead of fees based on a percentage of total capital managed. Some larger firms have done this a while ago, and we should expect more will. LPs are looking for GPs to commit even more of their own capital to the fund. // On top of this, LPs seem to be digging into just “who” are GPs they’re partnering with, how they interact, how long they’ve known each other. One LP said that a common mistake in meetings was to notice GPs talking over each other. I chuckled at that one.
***A few other observations***
A dollar travels far before it reaches a founder. / Overall, now a week or so after the event, I find myself still thinking about how far a dollar travels to reach a founder. This stuff is all over the Internet in detail if someone wants to dig into it, but I’ll offer up a basic example to illustrate: Consider back to when you were in high school, working over the summer to earn some money toward college tuition. Those tuition dollars (along with other university revenues, like donations) go into the school’s endowment, which in turn hires sophisticated investment professionals to manage the endowment and grow it. One of the ways an endowment management team can grow the pie is by allocating a portion of its assets into riskier categories, such as venture capital. From there, they allocate funds directly to VC firms whose names you’d recognize and/or into “Fund of Funds” (FoF) which in turn invest those dollars (for a fee and carry rights) to VC firms. The VCs take fees on the money they manage and then allocate that pool to founders — though “some” also invest in smaller funds, if you can believe it. // In the previous example, you can replace a university’s endowment with a range of institutions or organizations which manage big sums of dough — corporations, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, hedge funds, governments, wealth families, and so forth. However the dollar reaches these funds, it then is allocated and depleted a bit with fees every time new hands touch it. In the event a single dollar isn’t returned, it’s OK because it’s usually a small portion of the overall cash the original lender manages; but, when a single dollar put into Facebook when it was worth $100M is returned, it’s the type of money multiplier rarely seen.
Given that context, here are few things I’d point out that happen in the world of venture that may not be totally obvious to folks who observe, especially the founders who are busy team-building, product-building, and growing the company:
- It’s easy to assume VCs are just investing other peoples’ money. There’s some truth to it, but in most funds, the LPs have the GPs also commit their own money to the fund, and that number seems to be increasing.
- When there’s a big exit or uptick in the price of a company, the press and chattering class can easily latch on to what the estimated stake of a fund’s rake is. For instance, when Facebook was creeping up to $50Bn in the private markets and equity shareholders were selling some stake, people may have thought Fund X owned $Y because of some estimate of percentage ownership. That’s only part of the story — those proceeds are mainly sent to the LPs, usually 80%, and the GPs can take home the remaining 20%, give or take.
- Investing is definitely easier than founding and/or building a company, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cushy or easy job. Yes, there are perks, but there is a lot of pressure, uncertainty, long feedback loops, and if someone doesn’t do well, the post-VC career options can taste a bit overripe. I don’t think anyone needs to feel sorry for a VC, but saying it’s an easy job doesn’t match reality.
- Historically, lenders aren’t viewed favorably. In today’s climate, investors have become more public to share their thinking but also to help differentiate their offering beyond the same dollar everyone else has. That, combined with all new classes of early-stage investors and more diverse pools of financing available to founders combine to put a bright spotlight on VC firms that are not performing and/or not behaving well and/or who can’t raise future funds. There’s probably a ton of legacy stuff that still needs to shake out, a lot of which likely originated way before I became interested in this stuff. And, while I would welcome things getting better, I do find the chatter online against investors to be different from the reality I’ve seen firsthand. Yes, there are unsavory actors and plenty of time-crunched distracted VCs, but overwhelmingly I see professional investors who work basically around the clock to help their companies, to help out people in the ecosystem, and to advance the careers of the executives and recruits around them. That story isn’t often told, but maybe that will change as time carries on.