Back when Spark Capital launched in 2005, sources in the Boston venture community whispered to me that they worried that Todd Dagres might be having a mid-life crisis.
In general, the world wasn’t super hot on consumer Internet companies back then. And the original premise of his new venture firm Spark Capital was to combine the Internet and old media to unlock new opportunities. That seemed even crazier after the botched experiments of the late 1990s.
Add to it that Dagres didn’t seem particularly crazy. Dagres came from Battery Ventures — a successful but very traditional Boston-based firm. His biggest hits had been networking and telecom companies. Before that he was an analyst for Montgomery Securities. If the Valley wasn’t even wild on consumer Internet and new media back in 2005, Boston certainly wasn’t. And Dagres was — before this moment — an archetypal Boston VC.
Well, Dagres and Spark have had the last laugh on any haters. It’s announcing tonight that it’s raised a fourth fund at $450 million — roughly in line with the size of its previous funds.
And those previous funds — while young — are putting together a solid track record. Fund one features one of the earliest investments in Tumblr; fund two included early investments in OMGpop and Twitter and is definitely the hottest of them so far. Fund three is young, but has certainly benefitted from strong deal flow based on the first two funds’ successes.
A key coup was hiring Bijan Sabet who did the all three of those deals mentioned above and is the blogging, Tweeting face of the firm to many young consumer entrepreneurs — particularly in New York’s budding tech scene where Spark is one of the most active investors.
Still, if that track record is the result of a mid-life crisis, bring on the corvettes and toupees.
Spark has evolved with the market from its original disruptive premise — in part it had to, because the rest of the venture world piled in. Its biggest hits have been in social media, not bringing old media into the modern age. And it’s now exploring some enterprise-like deals as spaces like healthcare, education, and financial services are getting disrupted by the same social media trends that made it money in the consumer world.
Its structure is notable for entrepreneurs raising a seed round now who are paranoid about the new Series A crunch reality. Like a lot of venture firms, it does seed deals. But it doesn’t do a lot of them. It’s avowedly not of the spray and pray school, and does a Series A deal in some 75-80 percent of its seed deals.
The firm’s East Coast roots may have helped here. Spark set out to move faster and be more risk-taking with its seed portfolio, like a lot of venture firms, but had a hard time not subjecting these deals to the same Series A due diligence. It couldn’t quite move at Valley pace. “We found it’s just not in our nature,” Dagres says.
That means they do fewer of these deals, and may well miss out on some of those hot Y Combinator deals that tend to move faster. But they’re more invested — figuratively and eventually literally — in the ones they pick. “If you are going to be be passive in a seed deal, what’s the point of doing it?” Dagres says. That’s certainly not the thinking of most of the seed world who invests a little in a lot of companies and hopes for the best.
Spark has done a few late stage deals, but very few new investments in the Series B to C range. That’s generally the no man’s land of venture capital, where the prices to invest are higher but companies aren’t yet clear winners. Expect more of the same with this fund.