Corporate Venture Capital

The news this morning is that Google is seriously considering entering the venture capital business. They bring a lot to the table for sure.

But as Jessica Vascellaro points out in here WSJ piece (which is what I linked to):

Their [corporations who invest directly in venture deals] track records have been mixed. Corporate
venture-capital arms have been hampered by challenges that traditional
venture-capital businesses don’t face. Venture capitalists invest in
private start-ups at an early stage, usually in hopes of a big payout
if the company is sold or if its stock goes public.

Many start-ups fear that taking corporate money limits
their options and comes with strings that could turn away other
potential investors — such as a right to buy the company at a later
date. Some funds with less competitive compensation have struggled to
retain managers, and corporate venture funds often don’t allow senior
employees to invest personal money in their funds, while other venture
funds typically do.

Corporate venture capitalists’ share of overall
venture-capital dollars invested in U.S. companies fell to 7% in the
first half of 2008 from 8.4% in 2007, according to
PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.
Corporate venture capitalists were involved in roughly 20% of the
venture-capital deals signed during the first half of 2008, compared
with 21% in 2007.

All businesses are about talent and the best talent in the venture industry doesn’t work in large companies and won’t work in large companies. So corporate venture investors start with a big talent handicap and eventually face employee churn in their venture groups.

And to make matters worse, corporate investors don’t really share the profit motive with the entrepreneurs. Let’s say Google (or any other corporate VC) invests in a startup and buys 20% of it for $3mm. Let’s say that startup is a huge success, sells for $1bn and Google (or any corporate VC) makes $200mm on the deal. None of the employees who made that investment get rich. The founders of Google and the CEO of Google don’t get rich (they are already but that’s not my point). The company "gets rich". But Google makes $1.5bn of pre-tax profits every quarter. So this big win generates another 12-13% to the bottom line, but just once. It’s not a recurring gain.

And that’s the big problem with corporate structures for venture investing. One time gains in corporations don’t make anyone rich. Wall Street ignores the gain. The company can’t put the gain into the pocket of its management. So it just doesn’t matter very much.

Corporations have other motives for doing venture capital. But those motives aren’t particularly well aligned with the founders, managers, and financial investors. So there’s always tension in a corporate venture investment and it’s not always healthy.

Please don’t get me wrong. There are corporate investors in many of our portfolio companies. Six of our eighteen active and announced portfolio investments have corporate investors in their capital structures. That’s one in three, well above the 20% number cited in the quote from Jessica’s WSJ piece above. We like working with corporate investors in the right situations and we’d certainly love to work with Google considering all that they bring to the table.

But I do think that venture investing is not the best use of a corporation’s capital and that it is inevitable that it will produce sub-par returns at best and significant losses at worst. And as a Google shareholder, I’d prefer to see them do something else with all that money they are making.

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