Investing In Thick and Thin

A few weeks ago at Le Web, I participated on a panel made up of VC investors. There was a really good discussion about what next year holds for venture investing.

The moderator Ouriel asked if we would be cutting back our investing in 2009 and I replied that we did not plan on doing that

I went on to explain that the venture business is very cyclical and that I’ve seen at least three and possibly four cycles in the 22 years I’ve been in the venture business. But I don’t feel that its possible, or wise, or prudent to attempt to time these cycles

Our approach is to manage a modest amount of capital (in our case less than $300 million across two active funds) and deploy it at roughly $40 million per year, year in and year out no matter what part of the cycle we are in

That way we’ll be putting out money at the top of the market but also at the bottom of the market and also on the way up and the way down. The valuations we pay will average themselves out and this averaging allows us to invest in the underlying value creation process and not in the market per se

Eric Archambeau of Wellington Partners was on the panel and he described some research work he and some associates did a while back. They went back to the 1970s and charted for each year through the late 1990s the number of venture backed companies started that year and the number of $1bn revenue companies and $500mm to $1bn revenue companies that emerged in each ‘vintage year’. The result of that work, he explained, was that the number in each category was relatively constant year after year with no discernable pattern and certainly not correlated with or against market or economic cycles. Interestingly, the data was not correlated with innovation and technology cycles either

This says to me that, like the lottery, "you got to be in it to win it" and staying on the sidelines is not a wise approach in any market environment

Mike Moritz was quoted in an SF Gate piece today making a similar point (which inspired this post and its title).  He said:

"We’ve always invested through thick and thin. In fact, we prefer to invest in thin"

It is easier to invest in thin times. The difficult business climate starts to separate the wheat from the chaff and the strong companies are revealed. With many investors on the sidelines (particularly corporate buyers/investors and ‘momentum’ investors like hedge funds and the like), there is less competition to invest in these ‘winners’ and the prevailing valuation environment means you get more equity for your dollar invested. That’s quite a recipe for success.

But its not a lot of fun to be operating in the ‘thin times’ even as an investor. Most good firms have a portfolio full of companies that will be struggling to stay afloat and the VCs will spend more time working with their companies in this environment. And when we get an opportunity to put more capital to work in a portfolio company we know and love in this kind of market, well that is often the best investment of all. Note that SF Gate piece mentions that Sequoia just led a big new round in AdMob which if I am not mistaken is an existing Sequoia portfolio company that is a top mobile ad company. Look for more of that sort of thing in this market.

As I’ve written here recently, I see no signs that the venture market is drying up. Its changing, for sure, and if you aren’t running a company that’s emerging as a clear winner, its going to be tough to raise money in 2009 from anyone other than your existing investors. And look for them to be more cautious, more diligent, and less generous than they may have been in the past few years.

There’s money out there in venture land and its going to get invested in 2009 and its going to get invested wisely for the most part. At least that’s our plan and I’m confident we can execute on it.

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