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Why Didn't Fred Wilson (& Other VCs) Invest in 2012?

A handful of prominent tech VCs didn't make any early-stage start-up investments in 2012. Is it time for founders to worry?
Fred Wilson
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Not every entrepreneur needs the money a venture capital firm can pour in. But if you're in tech and have big ideas, then watching the investment patterns of VCs can tell you a lot. And there's something odd afoot that should catch the attention of everyone looking to burst onto the high-tech scene.

Dan Primack at Fortune noticed that venture capitalist Fred Wilson hasn't done a deal in 2012. What's notable is that Wilson and his New York firm, Union Square Ventures, have always taken an interest in start-ups. In fact, they were early investors in Twitter, Zynga, Foursquare, and Etsy.

However, this year most of its investments have been additional rounds in existing businesses, not first-stage start-ups. And, tellingly, Wilson, who has been a champion for the Internet businesses he's backed, has apparently not found anything that has grabbed his interest:

Wilson typically invests in two or three companies per year, and last year backed four of them. When asked what has changed in 2012, he didn't really provide an answer. Just seems like the right opportunity hasn't presented itself (although he apparently is working on a new deal that may or may not close before January).

It's not just Wilson and Union Square, either. Neither Matt Cohler at Benchmark Capital nor Roelof Botha at Sequoia Capital, who both have focused historically on Internet start-ups, has led an A round on a new company this year. And according to Primack, there may be other big names in venture capital who haven't done an A round.

Some of the data from the PricewaterhouseCoopers and National Venture Capital Association Q3 MoneyTree report on VC investing would seem to reinforce this. In the third quarter, for example, funding of Internet-specific firms fell 12% year-over-year. Seed-stage investments fell 22%, while early-stage investments were down 21%.

This suggests any or all of three things:

  • In uncertain economic times, the VC firms are putting their money into businesses that are further along in development, reducing investment risk.
  • The VCs are changing their strategic approach, as happens periodically with venture investors.
  • Individual VCs have cut back their schedules after a number of years of hard grinding.
  • Nothing new has jumped out as being compelling enough to overcome other factors and demand an investment.

For an entrepreneur, the last factor is the most important. Just as you must show customers that they want to buy your product, you must show investors that they want to put money into your business. If you're just another Internet wannabe, you'll get in line--and wait... and wait--with all the other indistinguishable companies.

Either come up with an idea that will have attraction for a VC, which means something that people will really want and that has a way to eventually make money, or go back to the drawing board. And remember, too, that going back to the drawing board should include working on a shoestring for a while and demonstrating that there is real appeal for your service by getting real customers.

IMAGE: Lachlan Hardy/Flickr
Last updated: Dec 13, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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