Over the course of the last week, Fred Wilson has been writing about "Venture Fund Economics" at the newly-redesigned AVC. Fred has tackled topics like how venture capitalists are measured, the impact of management fees and carry on net returns, and the impact of big winners on venture returns. What's more, Fred has done the unthinkable -- he has described venture economics in the context of his own fund's specific economic terms. While he hasn't posted the economic performance of his fund to date (that is probably more naked than even Fred is willing to get), he has posted the model he and his partner Brad built when assessing the attractiveness of raising a hundred million dollar fund. The model is fascinating and brings to light the challenges venture funds face to achieve index returns, let alone the outsized returns associated with top tier venture firms. (Great stuff, Fred!)
Given the challenges faced by venture investors to drive market returns, one reasonably might ask the question, "why do limited partners continue to flock to the asset class?" Who better to answer that question than a bona fide Limited Partner. Enter Chris Douvos. Chris is the co-head of private equity investing for TIFF (The Investment Fund for Foundations). Before that he was with the Princeton Investment Company. Chris is a wildly smart, experienced investor who I always love chatting with. Give one read of his new blog and you'll understand why. In the course of discussing the intricacies of the LP business, Chris makes analogies to baseball, the lottery, greek tragedy and uses classic Chris words and phrases like "horseplay," "impish," "hotties," "livin' la vida loca!" and "Caliente!" Chris's blog is just plain fun to read. And that is saying a whole lot when you consider that Chris is talking about investing in VC and PE firms -- not exactly scintillating material by its nature.
Interestingly, in one of his first posts, like Fred, Chris addresses the challenge of venture economics. Only instead of discussing venture fund economics in the context of a $100M fund, Chris talks about the more daunting $500M fund (Chris prefers the smaller funds -- he says he likes being "long idiosyncrasy and short momentum"). According to Chris's math, a $500M fund needs to create between $12B and $17B in company market capitalization in order to deliver a 3X return (the bar Fred set for himself as well). In Chris's words:
"Here's where it gets dicey for the masses, though (and I'll make some gross simplifying assumptions): if you're an LP and investing in an run-of-the-mill $500 million fund hoping to get a 3x net return, that fund has to generate $1.75 billion in returns ($1.25B in profit less 20% carry equals two turns of profit). Of course, that's just the capital that accrues to the firm's ownership stake. Since a lot of firms end up owning only 10-15% of their companies at exit, you've typically got to gross the $1.75 billion up by a factor of between 6.67 and 10. That suggests that those firms need to create between $12 and $17 billion of market cap just to get a 3x fund-level net return to their LPs. Caliente!
Let's unpack that box a bit more: at the $15 billion midpoint of the exit range above, a firm that invests in 25 early-stage companies will have to get, on average, $600 million exit valuations for each and every one of them. That's a pretty daunting number when you consider that the typical M&A valuation has hovered in the high double-digit millions for quite some time."
It is a daunting task for sure. To deliver those returns it almost assuredly requires a huge hit or two in your portfolio. So does that mean VCs need to swing for the fences? I don't think so. As Fred rightfully points out, "There are hitters in baseball, the best hitters in fact, that hit balls out of the park when they are just trying to make good contact." (Fred and Chris share a love of the baseball analogy). The power hitters are the guys Chris is trying to back. And those are the guys who will deliver the best returns.
For more great insights into the VC and Private Equity markets, you should definitely check out Chris Douvos's blog. This is stuff no one has blogged about before, and certainly not in such an entertaining way -- another fantastic addition to the blogosphere.