A new breed of more involved venture capital is developing to help support start-ups and growth companies in a more structured and elaborate manner. Some call it ‘operational venture capital’ proving at the very least that venture investors should stay away from new naming conventions.
Where venture capital typically plays an important role is the period in a company’s life when it begins to commercialise its innovation. The vast majority of the money invested by venture capitalists goes into building the infrastructure required to grow the business - in expense investments (manufacturing, marketing, and sales) and the balance sheet (providing fixed assets and working capital).
Venture capital’s niche exists because of the structure and rules of capital markets. Someone with an idea or a new technology often has few other institutions to turn to. Usury laws limit the interest banks can charge on loans, and the risks inherent in start-ups usually justify higher rates than allowed by law. So bankers will only finance a new business to the extent that there are hard assets against which to secure the debt. And in today’s information-based economy many start-ups have few hard assets, while at the same time, few young entrepreneurs can afford to buy a house for the bankers to wrap their somewhat grubby paws around in the glorious name of ‘collateral’.
Venture Capital therefore fills the void between sources of funds for innovation (chiefly corporations, government bodies, and the entrepreneur’s friends and family) and traditional, lower-cost sources of capital available to ongoing, proven businesses. Filling that void successfully requires the venture capital industry to provide a sufficient return to attract private equity funds, attractive returns for its partners, and sufficient upside potential to entrepreneurs to attract high-quality ideas that will generate high returns. The challenge is to earn a consistently superior return on investments in inherently risky business ventures. A challenge that you could argue is a little oxymoronic. But, then again, entrepreneurs do it every day of their life so who’s counting.
The original idea that the entrepreneur is the modern-day cowboy, roaming new industrial frontiers much the same way that earlier Americans explored the west is a vision that is starting to wilt on the vine. At the entrepreneurs side stands the venture capitalist, a trail-savvy, Tonto-style sidekick ready to help the hero through all the tight spots - in exchange, of course, for a not small slug of the pie.
Yet today’s entrepreneurs look more like Harvard MBA’s and venture investors look increasingly like Wall Street bankers. Some think this will lead to more empty suits and fraudsters and Sam Bankman-Fried’s than romances made in money-making heaven.
Others argue that it's more than ever going to lead to quickie divorces rather than investor bromances. After all, venture money is not long-term money. The idea is to invest in a company’s balance sheet and infrastructure until it reaches a sufficient size and credibility so that it can be sold to a larger business or so that the institutional public-equity markets can step in and provide liquidity. In essence, the venture capitalist buys a stake in an entrepreneur’s idea, nurtures it for a short period of time, and then exits with the help of an investment banker faster than you can say “show me the money”.
The problem is that a number of quality entrepreneurs want more than just money as they march tirelessly and lonesomely through the venture building process, so they might not want an empty suit with a hack load of promises and a half open wallet. They might, in this increasingly ESG universe, want something a little deeper, a little more dare I say, ‘meaningful’.
“Remember, investors will offer entrepreneurs all sorts of things and likely deliver none of them. They only have to deliver one thing - a cheque!” The famous words of venture capital legend Bill Draper III rang deep with our editor.
It seems Bill Draper, probably the first venture capitalist, summed up the essence of the venture capital industry by stating that these investors were not, in fact, partners to the entrepreneur but merely private company, early stage fund managers. And like public company fund managers from Fidelity, BlackRock or Schroders they’re more analyst than operator. They are there to make money out of the entrepreneur and not there to ‘buddy up’ Tonto-style or ‘make a goddamned difference’ to the universe aka Steve Jobs.
Unfortunately some of the great entrepreneurs like to make a difference. Call it the Napoleon syndrome or the youngest child syndrome or simply if-I’m-gonna-give-up-my-life-my-sanity-and-my-money-there-had-better-be-some-deeper-meaning-to-it!
Either way, apparently there are a decent number of entrepreneurs that want more than just a number crunching, cash accounting, financial analyst for their venture partner - they want something a little deeper than that. They’re looking for their very own Jerry Maguire. And who wouldn’t want a small piece of Tom Cruise.
As a result a new breed of ‘operational venture capital’ companies have emerged. Firms like Project A, EQT Ventures and others including a16z and GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) in the US. They have a combination of investing specialists and operational consultants that widen the entrepreneurs team in areas such as HR, talent, data, sales and marketing.
These operational VC’s on top of their investment, give you access to their people - often only if it is needed. It’s more like a menu. You know, that sales pitch “if you want to work with us, you can”. Except, an investor that has a large stake in your company and likely a board seat is not necessarily the most passive partner in real life. Pure play VC’s would suggest that if you utilise their ‘no operational strings attached’ money you can go and hire the best specialist advisers in the open market - not just shoe-in the ones that they employ.
In the ‘operational venture’ model the philosophy is that if you genuinely think you’re investing in a groundbreaking company you will need to spend at least 90 percent of the time working for the benefit of the entrepreneur, not the other way around. It sounds easy enough, but it isn't. Unless, of course, you really are Tonto in real life.
It could be that this hybrid ‘operational VC’ approach does not go far enough to really make the difference. The Letts Journal’s mothership, LettsGroup, addresses this with its ‘branded venture group’ approach which combines a new style IP focused conglomerate with an operational venture outfit. They are not afraid to back their own ideas and staff their ventures until the product-to-market fit is more evident and it can attract quality outside capital. It’s like a private equity approach to earlier stage venture building.
The folks at LettsGroup believe that current technology investment models are broken; too much money is wasted on too few innovations reaching either maturity or delivering real impact. They believe that it’s time to change the model to a more predictable, repeatable process that ensures innovation happens faster, and delivers greater social impact. They have their own methodology, resources and technology. Kind of like a Kanban continuous improvement system but for innovation. A counter philosophy to the 1 in 10 high roller casino approach taken by traditional venture capital firms.
Whichever direction the venture capital market is headed the options for finding alternative capital for quality start-ups keep widening - even in these crappy markets. Indeed there are more angels, family offices, alternative debt models and funds than ever chasing the next best idea. And the desire to find and back the newest goldmine is as old and entrenched as the west coast dust fields.
Technology is only getting better at auto-matching pools of money with interesting start-ups. So much so that WALL-E could become your next VC! This means that professional venture investors might have to get better at offering more than just their money. If even McDonald’s can create a full-service, fully automated offering then surely venture capital outfits can up their game.
This article was originally published in the Letts Journal.