VCs love to invest in technology and business models that disrupt the old established way of doing things. The irony that VC is now an old established way of doing things has not been lost on many people and the disruption of VC has been much forecast for many years (and as cynics will point out, this has not yet happened). This post explores the thesis that this is finally about to happen thanks to the confluence of investor demand, technology and tax change.
”Your fat margin is my opportunity” (Jeff Bezos). 2% AUM fee on a $1bn fund is $20m a year. That is not a lean, mean operation – that is a fat margin. That is before delivering any result to Limited Partners (LPs). That is $20m out of investors pockets before they see a dime from the profit share. That is incentive to raise a big fund and research shows that big fund size is a contrary indicator to fund performance. Who cares about profit share when you can earn $20m a year without earning any profit for your investors? Of course that cannot last and that is why change is coming to the VC business, enabled by the technology innovations that VCs funded in the past.
Investing in startup funds is as risky as investing in any other startup
Two data points from that Ivey report will make investors pick up that Vanguard brochure selling low cost Index Funds:
•For two-thirds of the VC firms, the first fund is their last fund.
•Only 10% of the VC Firms Launch More Than Four Funds.
You cannot invest in those 10% of top tier Funds, unless you happen to be lucky/smart enough to invest in their first fund and have the right to invest in future funds. Yes, it is like the old Groucho Marx joke: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”.
VC Has become part of the asset management business
It did not use to be like this. Finding a young and unproven team and backing them all the way with everything (money and contacts and advice) is still done by a few real Innovation Capitalists but a lot of what we call VC has become Momentum Capital, chasing hot deals.
The preferences that some VC load onto deals make it almost a debt instrument and create fundamental misalignment with entrepreneurs.
Late stage deals are like investing in public companies.
The 2 and 20 model is at risk across the whole private equity business. VC may simply be the canary in the coal mine.
From gather then invest to invest then gather
If you wanted to be a VC GP (General Partner), you first approached investors (Limited Partners or “LPs”) and persuaded them to invest for about 10 years while you as the GP invested in and exited from the next Facebook. This model is flawed for both LPs and GPs:
- LPs have to invest in a startup fund and like most startups, it is possible that the startup fund will become the next Sequoia Capital, but read that Ivey Report to see why this is statistically unlikely.
- GPs have to spend a lot of time gathering assets (which gets harder as the data points described here get commonly accepted) when they could be investing in startups or doing something else more lucrative.
From 2 and 20 to 0 and 40.
Investors are quite happy paying 20% as a profit share compensation (called “carry” in VC land). Heck, they will pay 30% or even 40% (particularly if it is 40% over some nominal risk free hurdle such as US Treasuries) if the GP will drop that 2% AUM fee.
The job of finding and nurturing tiny, young companies that turn into great big mature companies is hard. The people who know how to do it should be well rewarded. Most business are usually happy to share a big % of the profits on something if the other party takes a big risk as well. Paying 2% of AUM is zero risk to the GP and total risk to the LP. If you took away that zero risk 2%, most investors would be willing to increase the carry/profit share % from 20% to 30% or 40%.
If we stayed in the mode of gather assets then invest, the 2% fee will stay – it is the only game in town and it is a game that rewards skills in asset gathering more than skills in investing. However, the new crowdfunding services using syndicates such as Angel List and Syndicate Room change this dynamic to invest then gather assets. This post on Angel List describes how this works.
This matters more now than ever now that software is eating the world
Many investors have studied that Ivey Report and simply decided to stay away from VC as an asset class. Instead they focus on companies that have already reached maturity. The problem is that if software really is eating the world, this “safe strategy” is increasingly risky because it is more of a zero sum game than the venture business likes to talk about. If AirBnB scales, it does so at the expense of the traditional Hotel business. If Fintech ventures scale, they does so at the expense of the traditional Financial Services business. If Cleantech ventures scale, they does so at the expense of the traditional carbon fuel business – and so on. Investors looking to the long term – such as Family Offices and Foundations – need to invest on the right side of this disruption.
Many VC will follow Hedge Funds to become Family Offices
Masters of the Universe don’t die, they just fade from the headlines. VCs that already made $ billions don’t need AUM fees. They can simply invest their own money, without the hassle of managing somebody else’s money. Many Hedge Funds have already done this. The tax law in America that taxes carry as if it is risk capital (i.e at the lower capital gains tax rate) not fee income has a high likelihood of changing no matter who becomes President. These VC turned Family Office can then invest in Syndicates who invest first and then gather assets. This is where the confluence of technology, business drivers and tax law change creates the tipping point.