What VC Can Learn From Private Equity

It is friday and that usually means a fun friday or a feature friday but I’m stuck on a plane flying back from a week on the west coast and have the time and inclination for a longer post. So we will return to our regularly scheduled friday programming next week.

I spent a week in Europe a few weeks ago with our friend Eric who is a managing partner in a private equity firm. We talked a lot about his business and our business that week and I’ve been ruminating on it since. I’ve also had the pleasure of working on a board of one of our portfolio companies with a private equity investor who is making a few minority investments. I’ve been able to learn a fair bit from watching how he thinks about investments and works on them. Finally, the first venture capital firm I helped start, Flatiron Partners, was backed by and initially housed inside a private equity firm, Chase Capital Partners, and Jerry and I learned a lot from attending their weekly investment meetings and listening to them talk about their business.

Venture Capital and Private Equity are very different investment disciplines. Both are purchasing stock in privately held businesses with the hope that you can sell the stock at higher prices in a merger/sale transaction or a public offering. Both involve investors taking board seats to monitor and manage their investment. That is about where the similarity ends. I’ve seen venture capital firms morph into private equity firms over time so there are clearly some skills that translate from one investment discipline to the other. But even so, I think they are fundamentally different investment disciplines and here are some of the biggest contrasts:

1/ Private equity is control investing. Venture Capital is minority investing.

2/ Private equity can’t afford to lose money on an investment. Venture Capital requires it.

3/ Private equity generates leverage from financial engineering. Venture Capital generates leverage from technology driven disruption and the opportunities that presents.

So what can Venture Capital learn from Private Equity? Here are a few things that have struck me as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks.

1/ Many venture capitalists and venture capital firms go “along for the ride” with the entrepreneur and don’t do much to change the trajectory of the investment. Some VCs don’t even take board seats on their investments. There is a lot of talk about “value add” from VCs but often that is just for show during the process of winning the deal. The number of VCs who actually add a lot of value to their investments is much smaller than you would think. Private equity, on the other hand, is all about adding value to the business. For one thing, the private equity firm owns the business. If the business gets messed up, it’s on them and nobody else. The buck stops there at the partners desk. This mindset is refreshing for me to witness. The level of care and attentiveness to the business is very high in the private equity business. The firms and partners that are good in private equity are fantastic operators and game changers for the companies they work for/on. After my week with Eric, I made a mental note to do more of that for our companies. It’s powerful.

It is easy to cop out and say “well we don’t control the business. we don’t have the ability to change management if we want to. we don’t want to get sucked into operating the companies we invest in.” And I agree with all of that. But you don’t need to control a business to be able to meaningfully impact its management team, its strategy, and its operations. I believe if you are trusted by management, if you are there for them when they need you (and when they think they don’t), and if you have done the work to truly understand the business, the team, the market, and the opportunity, that you can by force of intellect and will have a very substantial impact on the business. I want to do more of that with my time and energy and I think all VCs should do that.

2/ Private equity firms don’t normally invest in syndicates. A single firm makes the investment and takes responsibility for making it work. This one is not so cut and dried for me as the first observation. Syndicates, when they are functional and small, are quite powerful. But many times syndicates are large, unwieldy, and dysfunctional. And then there is a ton of finger pointing, or worse, abdicating responsibility to another director. For the CEO, there is often a question of who to listen to, what to do with conflicting direction from the investors, and how to manage this unwieldy mess. The beauty of one firm calling all the shots makes me jealous of the private equity world at times. It is helpful for everyone to know who is the boss and who is making the calls. Venture capital syndicates and board often suffer from a lack of that clarity and if you have a weak or inexperienced CEO, it is a really bad combination.

3/ Private equity firms make the call when to sell. In VC, entrepreneurs will make the call when they are in charge or the board will when they are not. In any case, a VC firm is rarely in a position to make the call on when to sell. Marc Andreessen makes the claim in the recent Tad Friend profile of him in The New Yorker that Accel wanted to sell Facebook to Yahoo! for $1bn but Mark Zuckerberg really didn’t want to (and that Marc Andreessen urged him not to). I’m not sure if that is accurate or revisionist history (which the startup sector is full of), but in any case it is sometimes for the best that the VC firm doesn’t make the call on when to sell. A lot of big independent public companies would not exist if VCs made the call on when to sell. However, that is really only true when the investment is a breakout success. There are many venture portfolios (ours included) full of good but not great companies that would be best sold to a consolidator so that everyone, the entrepreneurs, the employees, and the investors can move on to other things. That doesn’t happen as much in VC because no one person can make this call all by themselves.

4/ Private equity firms are great at digging into the business and figuring out what is broken and how to fix it. We don’t do so much of that in the VC business. For one, the CEOs feel that we are being disruptive when we do that. And also, VC firms don’t normally have the armies of associates and junior partners who do that work in private equity firms. I’ve watched a private equity partner engage in a minority growth investment and I am impressed by the insights they can provide the management when allowed to do a deep dive on the business. VCs often lose interest as a company grows and turns into a big operating company, when this kind of “consulting” work is most valuable, whereas private equity gets its juices flowing on these sorts of situations.

I’ve come to realize that I need to be more attentive to this phase of a company’s development because our returns mostly come from the big breakout companies and if we can help make them 2-3x more valuable (as a private equity firm would seek to do), that can drive our returns on these big winners from 50x to 150x. And that’s a huge difference. So while I don’t see myself equipping myself with an army of analysts and consultants and doing deep dives on our biggest companies, I do see myself trying to ask harder questions and force more instrumentation into the businesses so that the boards I am on can add more value.

The main thing I’ve come away with from this several week long rumination on private equity is the value of having very clear lines of responsibility, crisp decision making, clarity of who is calling the shots, and, mostly, a deep feeling of ownership and responsibility for the businesses we invest in. It’s not possible for one VC partner to do this for more than about eight to ten companies, and most VCs take on way more portfolio companies than that in an effort to scale their businesses and get to better economics. But I think we can learn a lot from what works so well in private equity. I think we can borrow some of their tactics to produce better outcomes for the entrepreneurs we back and the companies they create.