Hacking the system: How Naval Ravikant brings greater transparency to venture capital
Most young startups face the same challenge on their path to success: Navigating the murky waters of Silicon Valley finance. Of course, two geeks in a basement can invent a radical new platform, but to grow that into a real business, they will often need financing, team-building skills, and intelligent execution.
The same goes for artists. We share 99 percent of the same traits and challenges as entrepreneurs, which is why I evangelize the need for us to study and learn from the hoodied-coders-turned-global-influencers to our north. There is the long-fermented saying, "Don't throw good money after bad." It can be just as important to know who to trust with your baby when you hit the fundraising or acquisition stage and venture capital predators circle you like prey. It can be a guessing game, with sound advice free from entangling alliances in short supply.
That's where AngelList co-founder and CEO Naval Ravikant comes in. He has accomplished a seemingly impossible mission, which was inspired by his once being on the other side of a bad deal. He and co-founder Babak Nivi have tipped the scales back in the favor of the entrepreneur by pulling back the veil on the VC process. “I didn’t like how this system, and how these private markets, are very inefficient and how entrepreneurs were at an information disadvantage,” he says. From doing battle in the boardrooms Silicon Valley to lobbying in the halls of Washington D.C, Ravikant has earned both the reputation of a dark horse and the respect of entrepreneurs.
For Naval, it began in India. Ravikant’s family moved to New York City when he was nine to chase the American Dream but they could never have imagined how Naval would change the shape of his new country. He studied math and science at Stuyvesant, an elite New York City high school. As a kid he didn’t entertain the notion of becoming an entrepreneur. His mother, on the other hand, was more certain. She picked up on Naval’s sophisticated analysis of the opening hours, store lighting, and product options of pizza parlors and other small businesses in their neighborhood and called his potential future.
At Dartmouth, Ravikant fell in love with the design aesthetics of Apple computers. After college, he dabbled in consulting before changing course and heading to Silicon Valley to seek his destiny. It was the heady days of the dot.com version 1.0, and Naval quickly got a taste of the roller-coaster highs and lows of Silicon Valley. He got a job for @Home Network, a company valued at $20 billion before it plummeted to zero during the crash. Ravikant went on to design Intrinsic Graphics, which later became Google Earth.
It was his next venture, however, that eventually led to the formation AngelList. Epinions.com was an online review network for restaurants and movies which pre-dated Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes. Epinions was eventually acquired for more than $600 million by eBay, but Ravikant and his co-founders Ramanathan Guha and Mike Speiser didn’t see any of the spoils, losing out on a roughly $40 million windfall. The powerful venture capital firms that originally backed him, along with one of his other co-founders, had convinced his team their company was worthless.
Ravikant sued, walking away with a settlement. His experience in the ruthless world of venture capital inspired him to use part of the settlement funds to start Venture Hacks with long-time colleague, Babak Nivi. Venture Hacks was an online guide to educate and advise the startup community on the byzantine term sheets and thorny legal issues that have tended to define the arcane aspects of fundraising. Meanwhile, Naval’s sharp eye for startups led him to become an early investor in Twitter.
In 2010, Naval and Nivi took it to the next level by launching AngelList. What began as a simple mailing list of reputable angel investors rapidly transformed into a sophisticated online community where startups could raise equity or debt investments.
More than 800 companies have made a hire on AngelList since 2010, and 1300 startups have raised an estimated $184 millions via introductions on the site. AngelList itself recently raised $24 million in financing from Google Ventures, Atlas Ventures, and the Kauffman Foundation.
Yet, Ravikant was still frustrated by the back room deals and obtuse rules that defined raising capital in the Valley.
“All investments used to happen as a black art behind closed doors," Ravikant says. "We had to force transparency into the system.”
It was time for Mr. Ravikant to go to Washington. Rallying a group of industry leaders and moguls, Ravikant headed to the nation’s Capitol to lobby legislators on the JOBS Act on behalf of startups. For six months, he built his argument, made his case, and networked with lawmakers to allow entrepreneurs to protect and better grow their businesses. He organized an online petition that included more than 5,000 investors and entrepreneurs.
Earlier this week, Title II of the JOBS Act went live, lifting the ban on the General Solicitation rule. This means that startups and small businesses can openly advertise to the general public that they are fundraising. Perhaps the most exciting part deal with Equity Crowdfunding. Meanwhile, Title III is expected to be voted on and passed in early 2014. It would allow companies to solicit investments in small amounts from all kinds of people -- not just accredited investors like venture capital firms.
Ravikant's hope is for the JOBS Act to become a powerful engine of capital for small businesses that have been shut out by banks since the financial crisis. Artists can also go about funding independent projects by allowing fans that qualify above the financial threshold to become investors. That threshold is $2,000 (or 5 percent) for people earning or worth up to $100,000 and $100,000 (or 10 percent) for those earning or worth more than $100,000.
“Unlike Kickstarter," Ravikant says, "you’re actually buying an equity stake in their business. So if they’re successful or if they make money, you can make returns.”
Watch the full interview below:
Photo: Ondi Timoner