Question: What do pickle-makers, bakers, and venture capitalists have in common?

(This is not a joke.)

Answer: They are artisanal.

You read that right. Artisanal, as in hand-crafted, all-natural, maker-faire approved.

Think I'm making this up? Here is an excerpt from a column by Robin Vasan, managing director of Mayfield Fund, which ran on re/code.

There is a curiosity on the part of some VCs to focus on being a part of fewer, higher-quality, handcrafted companies …. So, what does an artisanal VC approach look like? Often, it looks a lot like being an integral member of the core team, deeply involved in product development and finding product-market fit.

This is interesting on several levels, but first, it’s alarming. The yearning for “higher-quality, handcrafted companies” implies that at least some VCs believe they’re investing in schlock. Whose interest that serves, exactly, is unclear. Vasan seems to be hinting that the “too much money chasing too few deals” phenomenon has reached new levels, and we can be pretty sure that the long-debated startup bubble is upon us.

Vasan’s comments also speak to one of the great ironies of the venture industry. Venture capitalists only want ideas, or teams, that have the potential to produce a billion-dollar company. That's not a figure of speech. If your company can't be worth a billion dollars (within seven to 10 years, please), you're better off seeking funding elsewhere. Your idea has to scale. Otherwise--nothing personal--venture capitalists don't want you.

The Irony of VC

As a business, venture capital, ironically, does not scale.

All those VCs, talking about how important scale is, work in a business that emphatically does not scale. Companies that can scale become not only bigger, but more efficient, more profitable, and more formidable as they grow. If you're running a consulting company, there is only so much you can do to serve more clients before you need to hire more people.

If a venture firm wants to make and manage more investments, and do it well, it needs more staff. There is no magic formula that will allow a partner to sit on dozens of boards and do just as good a job as a partner who sits on only five.

One response has been for VCs to offer portfolio companies a wide range of useful services--services that don't have to be provided by the partners themselves. Firms such as Andreessen Horowitz, Polaris Partners, and OpenView have in-house recruiters working full-time for their portfolio companies. They also employ market researchers, finance pros, and communications veterans that individual portfolio companies would be hard-pressed to afford on their own.

Other firms rely on their own version of big data (although given the relative scarcity of home-run investments, this is medium data at best). Google Ventures reportedly brought on three full-time statisticians to help it weed through data related to startup success or lack thereof.

Back to Basics

But if you're not going to become a "full services firm," and you're not going to let data rule the day, where does that leave you? Isn’t it enough to just be a reasonably-sized partnership that finds great entrepreneurs, gets them the money and contacts they need, and keeps the limited partners happy? That's a heck of a job description right there. Does it really make sense for VCs to try to become virtual founders as well? Especially when a report from Startup Genome suggests hands-on help from a VC firm has little impact, if any, on a company's ultimate success.

Given that 10-year returns from the average venture capital fund are barely beating the S&P 500 and trailing the Russell 2000, maybe a little extra juice is in order. Maybe even storied VC firms like Mayfield and Benchmark, which is also adopting the "artisanal" descriptor, need a bandwagon to hop on, a nifty booster for their brand. At least if you believe it’s not enough to have invested in Marketo, Solar City, and Jawbone, as Mayfield has, or Instagram and Twitter, as Benchmark has done.

So Mayfield and Benchmark are trumpeting the benefits of going back to basics. They are not going to scale, because they are not meant to scale. They are joining the ranks of such uninvestable companies as the producers of distilled spirits, cheese, and yes, pickles.

Published on: Mar 27, 2014