That Was Fast: Betaworks Returns All Capital... And Then Some

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 28, 2012

From The News Desk

The New York tech scene has certainly received a lot of hype, but a lot of people are waiting for results that prove it's more than just that. Proof that New York is really a tech ecosystem that is here to stay, no matter what may happen to Foursquare and Gilt.

This letter to shareholders from Betaworks Founder and CEO John Borthwick is one of the first pieces of evidence I've seen that New York is for real. The letter was sent out on Friday, and leaked to us by a source.

There's some interesting news in there. The money shot, so to speak, is this:

"Since we began this journey we have produced eight companies; among these, three have become category leading social tools, three were acquired, and two are just taking off. We raised $26 million from terrific investors. Our exits last year gave us the capital to return all invested capital, and then some, and still retain capital on the balance sheet. Two weeks ago we closed a note that permitted investors to put returned capital back into betaworks."
Those exits included selling Twitterfeed to another Betaworks company, bitly, selling TweetDeck to Twitter and GroupMe to Skype. Betaworks also sold its shares in Groupon to the public market in November and in December, sold the majority of its stock in Twitter. That's some pretty serious ka-chingfor a four-year-old company.

The letter continues:

"We have reached the point where beta works can operate as an evergreen vehicle-- a true company, not a fund. Any future capital raises will be based on strategic opportunity and geared towards scaling the value of the betawork platform."
Interesting as those companies are, Betaworks as a startup itself is more fascinating to me. It's not a fund, and it's not an incubator. It's a company that takes ideas and develops them in hyper-speed to become other companies that are put out into the world. It's analogous to how a movie studio puts out films. In Borthwick's words:
"Betaworks is a platform that accelerates early-stage company building. Our "secret sauce" is not easy to replicate, as it comes from an intensive hands-on approach to studio companies, deep knowledge of social media from many years of experience, and leverage gained by a network of investments in the space. We believe we are entering a new era in on-line innovation and, as is so often the case, the companies and the structures that led the last round of innovation will not lead this round. We believe beta works is uniquely positioned to build assets that define the next chapter of the Internet."
Bold words, no doubt. It reads like yet another gauntlet thrown down to the old VC establishment. And no doubt, it'll get it's fair share of critics from this coast, particularly people who decry companies that are built to flip. But a lot of us-- me included- leveled the same complaints at Y Combinator several years ago. And Y Combinator has since proven that incubators do work.

This studio model Borthwick describes has long been an alluring one in the Valley, but no one has really proven it can work. For former entrepreneurs, it captures a lot of the fun part of starting new things and allows them to share their experience, but avoids the drudgery of operating and scaling. Sort of like being a grandparent. "Oh the baby has a cold, well, here he comes back to you..."

It's alluring from an investor point of view, because it's more hands-on than typical venture capital. It's a model that a lot of very famous entrepreneurs have tried. Back in the dot com days there was idealab and CMGI and more recently Evan Williams' Obvious and Kevin Rose's Milk.

There are plenty of reasons why this approach has failed in the past. idealab and CMGI were victims of nearly everything bad about the dot com bubble-- greed, over-spending, half-baked business models with high burn rates. Obvious-- the first time around-- succeeded too well. It yielded Twitter, which sucked the whole company into its orbit. It'll be interesting to watch how Obvious does this time around. Milk is off to a good start with Oink-- its first app.

But out of all of these examples Betaworks is the one who seems to have come closest to nailing the operational model so far. It hasn't let any of the successes suck up all of the company and the founders' energy, but it's had enough medium-hits to very quickly return capital and secure its future.

And like a lot of concepts that failed in the dot com days, Betaworks benefits from dramatically lower costs to company formation and a more iterative startup landscape.

As word of these results seeps out into the startup ecosystems expect a lot of Betaworks copycats to start popping up, particularly in parts of the country that have struggled to get their entrepreneurial mojo going.

The whole letter is embedded below. It's well worth being your weekend reading, for Borthwick's views on the Internet and where its going.

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