Posts from exits

Let Your Winners Run

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.

#VC & Technology

Who Decides When To Exit?

There's a post on the 37 Signals blog by Jason Fried saying that the Mint sale to Intuit was a bad move for a host of reasons and suggesting that the VCs behind Mint had forced it. It reminds me of similar discussions about the sale of Zappos to Amazon a while back.

I left a comment on that post to the effect that while I have no inside information, I highly doubt that the VCs forced the sale.

But this is a good opportunity to talk about who does decide when to exit. Here are some rules that I've learned over the years:

1) When the founders and management want to sell, the VCs ought to go along (within reason) because blocking a sale and having angry and unhappy founders and management running the business is a bad outcome.

2) VCs often impact the price and terms of an exit but they rarely drive the exit itself when the founder is still actively running the business.

3) When a company is doing really well, the investors rarely want to sell. VCs make all of their money on a few investments per fund. When a company is in that group, they don't like to see an early exit.

4) When a founder owns a large stake in the business and is still running it, it is very likely that the founder drove the decision to sell and the sale process and was advised by the investors and board.

5) If the founders are no longer involved in the business and the management was hired by the VCs, and the VCs control the business, then it is likely that the investors drove the sale process and the decision to sell.

6) If the company is not doing well, then the decision to sell was likely forced by the VCs.

Of course, like all rules, there are exceptions from time to time. But when you see an exit, you can parse the data by this set of rules and you can pretty easily predict what happened, who made the decision, and who drove the process.

#VC & Technology