A rare defense of venture capital classic

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 30, 2013

From The News Desk

One of our most popular stories this week was about the future of venture capital. It traced the asset class's history from its boutique roots to the age of mega-brands to the rage around international expansion and into the last few years of microVCs, super angels, and accelerators. The article argued that "platforms" were the future of venture capital. Indeed, we've written before about efforts that Andreessen Horowitz and First Round Capital are undertaking to be more service oriented -- through armies of people or software, respectively.

I grant a lot of the points Erin made in that post -- particularly relating to the necessary change the industry has gone through as a result of startups becoming dramatically more capital efficient. As evidence of big systemic changes, she cites a lot of people more experienced than I.

But as an entrepreneur, I couldn't help but groan at the concept of venture firms becoming "platforms." Respectfully, I need a venture capital "platform" like I need a hole in the head.

You know what works in venture capital? A group of incredibly smart, connected people who have the financial wherewithal and risk appetite to make multi-million dollar bets on unproven ideas and inexperienced founders. People who can make decisions quickly, and who spend their time trying to help entrepreneurs make the most of that cash.

That's it. I don't care what decade we are in or what wave of technology we are talking about. That's it.

Watch "Something Ventured," PBS's excellent documentary about the earliest VCs. You'll see pretty much the same qualities that make up the best investors today also made Arthur Rock the man who helped fund Fairchild Semiconductor and Apple. They are the same qualities that encouraged Don Valentine to take a risk on weirdo Atari back when the idea of playing video games at home was scoffed at by nearly everyone else. These qualities epitomize Tom Perkins' bet-the-firm risks on Tandem and Genentech.

Yes, things have changed about venture capital since those halcyon days of silicon assembly lines and fruit orchards. Typical venture firms invest later and get far smaller stakes than they did 50 years ago. Deal flow is far less proprietary in an age of demo days, tech blogs, and AngelList. And we've learned that many people are just awful at the job of venture capital. We're in the middle of a decade-plus long incredibly slow shake-out of zombie firms that have chronically underperformed the market. The dramatically low costs of starting a company have given new access to entrepreneurs of all skill sets, geographies, ages, and risk-appetites that the industry certainly didn't see 50 years ago.

All of this is mostly good for entrepreneurs, and has forced VCs to prove that elusive "value add" they always talk about.

But VCs who perform well aren't doing it, because they are jumping on the bandwagon of new marketing trends. They are doing it because they are good VCs the way Arthur Rock, Don Valentine, and Tom Perkins were good VCs. They take risk. They coach entrepreneurs. The respect an entrepreneur's plan, even if it deviates from their own. And most of all -- they have millions to invest in each company.

No matter how much we want to go on and on (and on) about how cheap it is to start a company these days, actually building a sustainable company has never been more expensive. Venture studies show the time and money it takes to get public are longer and higher than ever before.

It's no wonder that the flood of accelerators and seed funds and angels on that chart we published earlier this week immediately predated the so-called Series A crunch. Did these firms revolutionize how many people could raise seed capital? Yep. But ultimately the vast majority of those efforts still need good old fashioned venture capital to keep going. And that's still in short supply. Indeed, it's in decreasing supply.

I'm not arguing that recruiting partners and marketing partners and new ways to leverage other members of a given portfolio aren't good things. But at best, they are icing on the cake. If you are deciding between two great firms, perhaps it tips the scales. And in terms of returns, that's not trivial. This is a home run business, and the difference between almost getting Facebook and getting Facebook is a multi-billion "almost."

But entrepreneurs wouldn't (or shouldn't) go with a firm they get a bad vibe from simply because they have someone in house who can help you hire people. They should go with a firm, because they trust that partner to stand by them and give them the unvarnished truth and material support in good times and bad.

And, by the way, as is almost always the case when it comes to Silicon Valley, it bears noting that none of this is new. The late 1990s saw talk of keiretsus and marketing partners and accelerators and incubators. Likewise, a desire to go international has come and gone a few times in the venture business. Even crowd funding had roots in Draper Fisher Jurvetson's ill fated "meVC" fund.

Sure a lot of these trends are being explored today in more sober and sustainable ways. But the ideas aren't new, just as the idea of classic risk capital isn't an anachronism.

At our July PandoMonthly, Bill Gurley said that every time a venture capitalist opens his mouth these days, he's marketing himself and his firm and how they are different. How much more entrepreneur friendly they are than the next guy. Ignore the marketing -- just pick a good partner.

[Disclosure: Mentioned in this story are First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Josh Kopelman of First Round and Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz are investors in PandoDaily.]

[Image courtesy dullhunk]