STILL WOOZY FROM BAD investments in electronics, venture capitalists expect to find relief in specialty retailing.
"I'm besieged by calls from other venture capitalists," says Stuart Moldaw, who started and sold three successful retailing chains before founding U.S. Venture Partners, of Menlo Park, Calif., in 1980. Although retailing doesn't dominate portfolios yet, even high-technology venture capitalists are looking hard at retail investments. At least one firm, McGowan, Leckinger, of Braintree, Mass., is investing only in retailing. And when The Cypress Fund, of Menlo Park, started last July, it cited specialty retailing, along with such trendy high-tech fields as factory automation, as major areas of interest.
A few big public offerings have sparked investor interest. Ross Stores, a clothing chain started by U.S. Venture in 1982, recently went public for $57.8 million. HomeClub Inc., a home-improvement chain backed by four venture firms, went public last October, then was acquired for $147 million in stock by Zayre Corp.
Retailing investments are less risky than high-tech deals. "The main risk that you avoid is the two-year technology project that turns out not to work or that misses the market," says Ray Bank, retailing specialist at New Enterprise Associates, in Baltimore. Stores that go bust at least leave salable assets, like inventory and real estate.
Even so, venture firms may commit many of the same mistakes that plague their technology portfolios. Cloning a few good ideas, they seeded scores of personal computer companies and dozens of disk-drive makers. If they rush to start a dozen home-improvement chains, the same price-cutting and shakeout may follow.
Selling shoes to fickle consumers is a far different game from marketing technology to other companies. Few venture capitalists have any expertise in retailing to draw on. "When this gets hot," says Moldaw, "there are going to be people jumping into deals that they don't understand, and they're going to get hurt."