You'll hear it at every accelerator and startup meet-up: VCs aren't investing like they used to. As a founding partner at an Atlanta venture capital firm, this topic dominates many of my conversations--especially with worried entrepreneurs. The latest report from Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association didn't mince numbers. It confirmed that for five consecutive quarters, venture capital has invested in fewer, and fewer, companies.
This news is received with all the enthusiasm reserved for zombies at the door. Another chill wind? The decline in IPOs from venture backed companies. IPOs overall are down 43% from last year, and most of the IPOs aren't venture backed anyway.
The plot behind the venture capital downturn
The venture capital downturn is just part of a bigger story. The actual plot is about professionalizing the value chain for innovation. The story is just getting good. The current reality is, venture capital is a bit of a cottage industry--and it knows it. Its current growing pains are part of its own internal attempt at scaling, because investors and stakeholders of all shapes increasingly want it to work at a scale it never imagined. If you realize how many more startups there are today than there were ten years ago, you start to get a feel for one of the issues. Compounding it, many of the new starts are building features--not firms. While you could argue a case for either approach, venture capital is wrestling with finding the playbook that will provide best value.
So in this dynamic landscape, here are some of the upward trends to track as venture capital tames its growing pains.
Focus on where the value is--acquisitions
The five largest venture-backed acquisitions (Jet, Afferent, Dollar Shave Club, Telogis and Quip) provided double the value of the five largest IPOs last quarter (Nutanix, Apptio, Talend, Protagonist and Everbridge). Corporate acquisition, or companies buying smaller companies, accounted for over 90% of the exits last quarter.
If you can do a deal like Jet for $3.3 billion or Dollar Shave Club for a billion--both headlines last quarter--who needs an IPO? The venture industry is playing true to where the value is--strategic buyers are often prepared to out pay public markets.
Less bust, more boom
Venture capital is not an old profession. While pooling wealth and investing for a management fee and a split of profits is an ancient model, the way we do it now harkens back to just the 1940s.
Since then, the story of the venture and private equity industry is a series of boom and bust cycles. One of the less visible influences on the venture capital industry is the pressure from its growing list of stakeholders--the family offices, pension funds, endowments, foundations and trusts--to enjoy a smoother ride with risk. Through organizations like ACG, Folks Marques Group, Kayo, ILPA and NVCA, the industry is wrestling with taming its venture frontier roots. One possible positive trend behind the venture capital downturn is the industry is professionalizing to the point that it is self-regulating away from its own bust cycle--no one wants another 2008.
Go faster, further
Another positive trend shaping the venture capital industry today is the flight from Silicon Valley for deal flow. Silicon Valley is a singular beacon for entrepreneurs seeking early capital, so it attracts a significant portion of deals from other places anyway.
Even so, last quarter's performance indicates where venture capital is heading.
Just in the U.S., there were twice as many venture deals done outside of the Valley than in it last quarter.
That's easy to say. It's hard to operationalize in the venture capital industry itself, which has traditionally been exclusive, tough to break into, slightly paranoid, and more than a bit of a boy's club. Some of the choosey approach to deals these days, which is reflected in the venture capital downturn these last quarters, falls directly on the flight from the Valley for value. Venture capitalists are hiking out of their cottage more, and learning to diligence and collaborate over deals that weren't bred in their backyard.
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together," quips Nasir Qadree, a friend of mine who heads investing in edtech with Village Capital. His quoting that African proverb reveals the situation in a nutshell--venture is disrupting itself to go farther, faster, but it hasn't traditionally learned enough about practicing "together." It's likely much of the downturn comes from the internal stretching the venture capital industry is doing. Just consider--
Openness. The industry known for innovation is actually brought to its knees by the challenge of incorporating women and minority decision makers. It knows it has to in order to sustain growth in value--most entrepreneurs will be minority as early as 2040, according to demographers. "If you're not including what will be the majority demographic in our country at the table in positions of leadership, your company just could not be destined for the level of success it should be destined for," entrepreneur and investor Tristan Walker shared with NPR.
The march of the microfunds. Over 100 funds under $50 million have launched each of the last four years. These hundreds of new funds aggressively pursue niche opportunities missed by fat funds that can't fit into the first growth phase of lean startups.
Standards and best practices. Of course, as mentioned above, the increasingly united voice of investors in venture capital for transparency and standards that help them manage risk is feathering a compliance and legal nest that venture capital is trying to get comfortable with.
Light on the path to value
Perhaps the best trend of all is that the hunt for value is clarifying for everyone. Customers of this industry--investors--are increasingly coming back for more in the last five years, putting 2016 on track to the best years for dollars invested in venture capital since the crash of 2008.
Cambridge Associates, an independent analyst, reported this month that VC funds have been paying out more capital than investors put in every quarter since 2012. This July, Cambridge urged investing institutions to move their minimum allocation for private equity and venture capital to at least 15%--which is 10% more than many typical allocations. They, "conclude with confidence that higher allocations to private investments resulted in higher returns over the long term, once a program was fully implemented, and achieved this benefit with remarkable consistency year after year." A previous report shared that early stage investing is driving much of the value in venture while simultaneously disrupting venture.
Venture capital today: defined by disruption
A focus on where value is created, smoother boom/bust cycling, greater collaboration and inclusion, and clear signals for sophisticated investors are all promising trends driving the venture capital downturn today. Can you think of any other ways the venture capital industry is disrupting itself on the adventure of better value?