It’s not that seed investors are smarter – it’s that entrepreneurs are

Paul Kedrosky recently speculated that there might be seed fund “crash” looming. Liz Gannes followed up by suggesting seed investors are a fad akin to reality-TV celebrities:

In many ways, what [prominent seed funds] are saying is that they’re just smarter, and as such will outlast all the copycat and wannabe seed funders as well as the stale VCs with a fresh coat of paint. But then — Kim Kardashian is the only one who can make a living tweeting. At some point it will be quite obvious whether the super angels’ investments and strategy succeed or fail.

Here’s the key point these analyses overlook: It’s not the seed investors who are smarter – it’s the entrepreneurs. Consider the case of the last company I co-founded, SiteAdvisor. We raised our first round of $2.6M at a $2.5M pre-money valuation. After the first round of funding, investors owned 56% of the company. Moreover, the $2.6M came in 3 tranches: $500K, another $500K, and then $1.6K.  To get the 2nd and 3rd tranches we had to hit predefined milestones and re-pitch the VC partnerships. Had we instead raised the first $1M from seed funds, we would have been free to raise the remaining money at a higher valuation. In fact, after we spent less than $1M building the product, we raised more money at a $16M pre-money valuation. We never even touched the $1.6M third tranche even though it caused us to take significant dilution. This was a very common occurrence before the rise of seed funds, due to VCs pressuring entrepreneurs to raise more money than they needed so the VCs could “put more money to work.” When SiteAdvisor was eventually acquired, we had spent less than a third of the money we raised. Compare the dilution we actually took to what we could have taken had we raised seed before VC:

Professional seed funds barely existed back then, especially on the East Coast. And even if they did, I’m not sure I would have been savvy enough to opt for them over VCs. I thought the brands of the big VCs would help me and didn’t really understand the dynamics of fund raising.* Today, entrepreneurs are much savvier, thanks to the proliferation of good advice on blogs, via mentorship programs, and a generally more active and connected entrepreneur community. For example, Founder Collective recently backed two Y-Combinator startups who decided to raise money exclusively from seed investors despite having top-tier VCs throwing money at them at higher valuations. These were “hot” companies who had plenty of options but realized they’d take less start-to-exit dilution by raising money from helpful seed investors first and VCs later.

Will there be there a seed fund crash? Seed fund returns are highly correlated with VC returns which are highly correlated with public markets and the overall economy. I have no idea what the state of the overall economy will be over the next few years. Perhaps it will crash and take VCs and seed funds down with it. But I do have strong evidence that prominent seed funds will outperform top-tier VC funds, because I know the details of their investments, and that their portfolios contain the same companies as top-tier VCs except the they invested in earlier rounds at significantly lower valuations.  So unless these prominent seed funds were incredibly unlucky picking companies (and since they are extremely diversified I highly doubt that), their returns will significantly beat top-tier VC returns.

* Note that we have nothing but gratitude toward the SiteAdvisor VCs – Rob Stavis at Bessemer and Hemant Taneja at General Catalyst. They offered what was considered a market deal at the time and supported us when (almost) no one else would.

Backing out of a term sheet

Venture capital term sheets are not legally binding (except certain subclauses like confidentiality and no-shop provisions). That said, there is a well-established norm that VC’s don’t back out of signed term sheets unless they discover something really, really bad – fraud, criminal backgrounds of founders etc. The best VC in the world, Sequoia Capital, whose companies account for an astounding 10% of NASDAQ’s market cap, has (according to trustworthy sources) only backed out on one term sheet in the last 10 years.

Yesterday, one of the 40 or so startups I’ve invested in (either personally or through Founder Collective) had a well-known VC back out of a term sheet for no particular reason besides that they decided they no longer liked the business concept. It’s the first time I’ve seen this happen in my career.

In later stage private equity (leveraged buyouts and such) it is a common trick to “backload diligence” – you give the company a quick, high-valuation term sheet, which then locks the company in (the no-shop clause prohibits them from talking to other investors for 30 days or more). Then the firm does their diligence, finds things to complain about and negotiates the price down or walks away. If they walk away, the company is often considered “damaged goods” by other investors who wonder what the investor discovered in diligence. This gives the investor a ton of negotiating leverage. In later stage private equity, this nasty tactic can work repeatedly since the companies they are buying (e.g. a midwestern auto parts manufacturer) are generally not part of a tight knit community where investment firms depend heavily on their reputation.

I learned the basics of VC when I apprenticed under Jeremy Levine and Rob Stavis at Bessemer.  It was at Bessemer that I learned you never back out on a term sheet except in cases of fraud etc. I never saw them back out on one nor have I heard of them doing so. In fact, I remember one case where Rob signed a term sheet and while the final deal documents were being prepared (which usually takes about a month), the company underperformed expectations. The CEO asked Rob if he was going to try to renegotiate the valuation down. Rob said, “Well, if you performed better than expected I don’t think you would try to renegotiate the valuation up, so why should I renegotiate when you performed worse than expected.” That’s how high quality investors behave.

Besides simply acting ethically, firms like Sequoia and Bessemer are acting in their own interest: the early-stage tech community is very small and your reputation is everything. Word travels fast when firms trick entrepreneurs. What happened yesterday was not only evil but will also come back to haunt the firm that did it.

20×200: democratizing art

Founder Collective has already made a number of investments. Some are listed on the Founder Collective companies page and some aren’t yet. I thought it might be interesting to explain the rationale behind our investments from time to time.

One recent investment we made is in a website called 20×200 (“20 by 200″). I first became a fan of the site when I read about an artist who created a New Yorker magazine cover with the iPhone app Brushes. I thought it was so cool that I bought one of the artist’s prints on 20×200. Only later on did I meet the founder – Jen Bekman – and learn that there might be an investment opportunity.

1211_artworkimage

Apple I (from 20×200)

As with all early-stage investments, the main reason we invested is that we really love the founding team.  Most of Founder Collective’s investments are seed investments so the founding team is pretty much all we have on which to base our decision.  20×200 was unusual insofar as they already had a successful, sustainable business and just needed capital to accelerate their growth.

True Ventures (the lead investor in 20×200) eloquently characterized the company’s vision as the “the democratization of art.”  Here’s what that means to me.  Today, the art market is highly polarized. At one end, there are Manhattan socialites going to fancy openings and multimillionaires bidding at exclusive auctions. At the other end, there are generic landscapes, portraits, dogs playing poker, etc. purchased at, say, Walmart or Art.com mostly just to fill up wall space.  20×200 envisions creating a vast middle market, where anyone with an interest and a reasonable budget can become an art collector.  Since 20×200 splits revenues 50-50 with the artist, it also strives to create a new way for artists to get funded that doesn’t involve groveling to Upper East Side socialites.

Anyways, if you are interested, 20×200 prints make great gifts. Here are some of my favorite prints, and here’s a Hunch topic “20×200 art” to help you choose one.

Presenting Founder Collective

As readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of the startup and venture capital world but also a sometimes critic of how the venture capital industry works. For a long time I’ve wanted to do more than talk about this and actually start a new kind of venture firm, designed the right way from the ground up.

Last year two friends of mine who are both very successful, serial entrepreneurs — Eric Paley and Dave Frankel — were brainstorming ideas for what to do next when the thought occurred: why not make their next startup a new kind of venture firm, the kind we had wished existed back when we started our first companies?

So this is what we, along with a bunch of other serial entrepreneurs, decided to do. We call our new firm Founder Collective. Joining us are Mark Gerson (founder of Gerson Lehrman Group), Zach Klein (co-founder of Vimeo/Connected Ventures), Bill Trenchard (co-founder of LiveOps), and Micah Rosenbloom (co-founder of Brontes). We expect to add more founders over time.

We think of ourselves as part of a new wave venture firms led by Y Combinator, First Round, Maples, Ron Conway/Baseline, and Betaworks, among others, that have adapted to a world where venture capital is abundant but authentic seed capital and, more importantly, mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs, is scarce. We have many similarities to these firms and also some differences:

1) We have a small fund – approximately $40M – and intend to keep it that way. This means seed investments are our entire business — they are not options on future financings. Hence our interests and the founders’ interests are aligned. This also means we are happy with smaller exits if that’s what the entrepreneur wants to do.

2) Each person involved in Founder Collective is an entrepreneur, most of them currently running startups full time (my full-time job is CEO/co-founder of Hunch).

3) We believe the best people to predict the future — and create it — are fellow entrepreneurs, not former bankers drawing graphs and developing abstract theses.

4) We try to be respectful. We’ve all sat in countless meetings where VCs show up late, email while you are presenting, and generally act arrogant and dismissive. We try really hard not to be like that.

5) We’ll make investments anywhere in the world but tend to favor our home turf – New York City and Cambridge, MA. New York is a hotbed for online media and advertising startups. In Cambridge, there is a constant flow of ideas coming out of places like MIT that just need a little capital and guidance.

We realize the word “Collective” sounds a bit radical, even socialist. This is deliberate. While we have an actual fund — we are not just a group of angel investors — we also have a unique structure where active entrepreneurs lead investments, work hard to help their investments succeed, and share in the profits when they do.

Think of it as peer-to-peer venture capital.