I met with a group of very experienced and sophisticated investors yesterday who make up the investment committee of a large charitable foundation that is an investor in USV. I gave them a two minute brief on our macro investment thesis (large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets) and then took them on a tour of some of these large networks (Lending Club, Kickstarter, Etsy, Twitter, and Codecademy). Then I took questions.
This group doesn’t spend a ton of time on AVC, Techmeme, Hacker News, or the tech industry in general. And yet the questions they asked me were as good as I ever get. I guess four decades of investing teaches you a lot.
One of the best questions I got was “when do you decide to sell?”. Such a great question and such a hard one to answer. I’ve got scars from this one.
I explained that first and foremost, we generally don’t make that call. The entrepreneur and her management team generally makes that call and the board is asked to ratify it.
But when and if we get to weigh in on the timing of the exit, my view is that you look to exit your weakest investments as soon as you can and you let your winners run as long as you can.
USV 2004 is instructive. Between 2004 and 2008, we made investments in 21 companies. So the youngest portfolio company in that portfolio is four years old now. Most are five to six years old. And a few, like Meetup and Return Path, are ten years old or more. We’ve exited six of the 21 investments, you can see them here, under past investments at the bottom.
We still have fifteen investments active in that portfolio including Zynga and Twitter and we own large blocks of stock in both of those companies. We own stakes in thirteen other portfolio companies most of which we believe are super strong companies that are building large and sustainable businesses. We will likely exit a few weaker investments in that portfolio over this year and next. But there are at least ten companies in the USV 2004 portfolio that we would be happy to own for the rest of this decade.
This does create a bit of an issue in that we raise ten year venture capital funds. So we are supposed to wind things up in the 2004 fund in another two years. But I am fairly sure that my partners and I and our limited partners will be happy to let this fund play itself out over a longer period of time.
I’ve made the mistake of exiting investments too quickly. Back in the middle of 2007, my previous firm Flatiron exited our investment in Mercado Libre at the IPO selling our entire position for about a 10x gain. In the almost five years that MELI has been public, it has gone up 5x. So had we held our position for another five years, we’d have made 50x instead of 10x. That stings. Lesson learned.
When you have portfolio companies that are category creators, category leaders, who are well managed, and growing 50% per year or more and delivering 20-30% pre-tax margins (or more), and who have no existential threats to their market leadership, you might want to hang on to them for a bit. They may be just getting going on the valuation creation thing.