The rise of “micro VCs”
— Mark Suster is a former serial entrepreneur and a partner at Los Angeles-based venture capital firm GRP Partners. This article originally appeared on Suster’s blog “Both Sides of the Table”. The views expressed are his own. —
If you don’t want to read that post, the summary is:
- Open source computing drove computing costs down 90 percent, which spurred innovation in technology
- Open cloud led by Amazon with their AWS services drove total operating costs down by 90 percent. This led to an explosion in startups.
- Amazon in turn led to the formation of an earlier stage of venture capital now led by what I call “micro VCs” who typically invest $250,000 to 500,000 in companies rather than the $5 to $7 million that VCs used to invest.
These trends have put pressure on traditional VCs. Some have done earlier-stage deals and done well. Others have chased earlier-stage but lack the skills or relationships to do this effectively. Some have moved into later stage investments in an effort to “put logos on their websites.”
People are moving into everybody else’s space.
Everybody seems to want what everybody else has. You know the old saying from Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having!” This will continue while we’re in a tech bull market and I predict will wane when we’re not.
The Blurring of Investment Lines
With new micro VC entrants into to early-stage investing plus increased competition from angels, incubators and the like – traditional VCs have taken notice. So VCs spent a couple of years experimenting with earlier-stage investing, which is OK. The best of them: Spark Capital, USV, Foundry Group also understood that how they worked with these management teams was changing and I believe firms like this will continue to excel at early-stage investing. There are also others.
I would put my firm, GRP Partners in with the group working with teams in different ways. But obviously I’m biased.
I believe some VCs have entered the early-stage market as simply an option on future financing rounds. I doubt this will end well for those VCs or for the entrepreneurs they backed. I don’t think purely option-based investing in startups suits the long-term brand of the investor.
The other major trend seems to be pulling in the opposite direction. As some of the last generation of startups have gotten bigger many VCs have also chased later-stage investments that were traditionally dominated by growth equity or mezzanine funds. It is less clear to me that this is a smart strategy but we’ll see over time. It feels more opportunistic than an “investment strategy” to me. It’s one thing to invest in a later-stage (say a C round) to help with growth, it’s another to fund companies who are already valued in the billions. Will public investments come next?
And of course hedge funds and growth-equity funds can’t resist trying to get earlier-stage exposure again. As I said, the traditional investment lines of stage-based investors has blurred.
But all of this is normal and we saw it all in the late 90’s. In a bull market many players see drift in their activities. In a correction the best people focus exclusively on their core competencies. I think micro VCs are best at what they do, A/B round investors ought to be mostly A/B round investors and late-stage investors out to focus on companies that are already profitable and growing rapidly. Hedge funds out to be, well, hedge funds.
The LP Community Hasn’t Yet Caught Up
As I’ve started to get to know the other side of the VC industry lately (the people who invest in VC funds or “LPs”) one thing has occurred to me. As a generalization LPs seem to recognize this general trend requiring less capital to start businesses and are arguing for smaller VC funds. That’s wise. But most LPs don’t seem geared up to fund new entrants in the micro VC category.
Many LPs want to write checks of $10 million or $25 million because they themselves have billions of dollars to manage. And the more “small checks” they write, the more VC managers they have to manage. They also often don’t want to be more than a certain percentage of a fund.
So if a VC wants to raise a $30 million micro-VC fund and if an LP doesn’t want to be more than 15 percent of a single fund, the math collides. Maybe micro VCs will get larger and emulate a multiple-partner strategy like True Ventures or First Round Capital. I think some will do this.
Others will want to stay small. My best guess is that new LP funds will be set up in the future to service micro VCs. So far I only know of one that has set up a focused LP fund to focus on this strategy. Hats off to Michael Kim of Cendana Capital – the first person I’ve spotted who focuses just on micro VC. And no prizes for guessing that he’s getting into some of the best micro VC funds. I think people who invest in LP funds ought to take notice of Michael’s leadership position. (disclosure: I’m an advisor to Michael’s fund. But I only agreed to do this because I know he’s really on to something others haven’t yet spotted.)
The Explosion in Early-Stage Innovation
The Amazon AWS-led revolution of startup innovation has led to a massive increase in the aggregate number of startups. This in turn has fueled incubation programs like YCombinator, TechStars, 500 Startups & many more to help early-stage teams launch businesses led by most technical founders who are getting coaching from seasoned management teams.
In addition it is much easier to get distribution than it was in the pre Facebook, pre-iPhone world. It is not uncommon to see a team out of Utah, Texas or for that matter Finland with 8 to 10 developers build iPhone apps that get tens of millions of downloads and doing hundreds of millions of monthly page views.
All of this innovation is awesome and there have even been new online tools such as AngelList to help entrepreneurs raise money more easily from angels or early-stage funds. Much credit for the mindset of keeping companies lean, having them launch and experiment on products and trying to “find product/market fit” goes to Steve Blank (author of the much respected Four Steps to Epiphany) and Eric Ries, spiritual leader of the “Lean Startup” movement.
The explosion of startups coupled with lower costs to build in the early days and the freely available capital at the sub $1 million funding level has led to a lot of talk about whether the old venture-capital model is still relevant. It’s my judgment that VC is as relevant to helping today’s startups become large businesses as it was 20 years ago but perhaps the skills of VCs themselves have to adapt.
I believe that most companies can exist in the experimentation mode for 3-4 years. They should start “lean.” If they hit a product/market fit (meaning you suddenly see a massive uptick in usage and/or revenue) then these companies need to go “fat.” If they don’t the industry titans around them will eat their lunch.
Enter VC. You can’t scale a large business quickly on your $500,000 alone. The Venture Capitalists can help these young founding teams scale their engineering departments, develop business development relationships, deal with onslaught of PR, handle executive management challenges, etc.
Not to mention providing the capital for growth. People who believe that you can easily build a huge company quickly for just $500,000 are mistaken.
The other argument against venture capital is that all of these new startups can exist on their own without ever raising venture capital and they can build meaningful, but small businesses. I acknowledge that is true for some segment of the market and there’s no shame in having a $15 million / year, 15-percent growth business churning out 20-percent annual profits. In fact, that’s pretty awesome. But that will be the minority of these startups.
For those that do survive without VC because they figure out how to make enough revenue, many of them will be “ramen profitable.”
Ramen profitable is good while you’re in search of a more scalable business model but is not sustainable for most companies in the long term. Most ramen profitable businesses achieve profitability because the founding team is paying themselves very little and hiring almost no staff. This can be sustainable for a young team for 3 to 4 years but beyond that the teams start to fracture. Some people get married, have kids, want to buy a house or simply get lured away by the next hot idea.
In either case, venture capital will remain an attractive option for teams who want to pursue their business ideas and scale.