How Venture Capital Works

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Invention and innovation drive the U.S. economy. What’s more, they have a powerful grip on the nation’s collective imagination. The popular press is filled with against-all-odds success stories of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In these sagas, the entrepreneur is the modern-day cowboy, roaming new industrial frontiers much the same way that earlier Americans explored the West. At his side stands the venture capitalist, a trail-wise sidekick ready to help the hero through all the tight spots—in exchange, of course, for a piece of the action.

As with most myths, there’s some truth to this story. Arthur Rock, Tommy Davis, Tom Perkins, Eugene Kleiner, and other early venture capitalists are legendary for the parts they played in creating the modern computer industry. Their investing knowledge and operating experience were as valuable as their capital. But as the venture capital business has evolved over the past 30 years, the image of a cowboy with his sidekick has become increasingly outdated. Today’s venture capitalists look more like bankers, and the entrepreneurs they fund look more like M.B.A.’s.

The U.S. venture-capital industry is envied throughout the world as an engine of economic growth. Although the collective imagination romanticizes the industry, separating the popular myths from the current realities is crucial to understanding how this important piece of the U.S. economy operates. For entrepreneurs (and would-be entrepreneurs), such an analysis may prove especially beneficial.

From a venture capitalist’s perspective, the ideal entrepreneur:

  • is qualified in a “hot” area of interest,
  • delivers sales or technical advances such as FDA approval with reasonable probability,
  • tells a compelling story and is presentable to outside investors,
  • recognizes the need for speed to an IPO for liquidity,
  • has a good reputation and can provide references that show competence and skill,
  • understands the need for a team with a variety of skills and therefore sees why equity has to be allocated to other people,
  • works diligently toward a goal but maintains flexibility,
  • gets along with the investor group,
  • understands the cost of capital and typical deal structures and is not offended by them,
  • is sought after by many VCs,
  • has realistic expectations about process and outcome.

Venture Capital Fills a Void

Contrary to popular perception, venture capital plays only a minor role in funding basic innovation. Venture capitalists invested more than $10 billion in 1997, but only 6%, or $600 million, went to startups. Moreover, we estimate that less than $1 billion of the total venture-capital pool went to R&D. The majority of that capital went to follow-on funding for projects originally developed through the far greater expenditures of governments ($63 billion) and corporations ($133 billion).

Where venture money plays an important role is in the next stage of the innovation life cycle—the period in a company’s life when it begins to commercialize its innovation. We estimate that more than 80% of the money invested by venture capitalists goes into building the infrastructure required to grow the business—in expense investments (manufacturing, marketing, and sales) and the balance sheet (providing fixed assets and working capital).

Venture money is not long-term money. The idea is to invest in a company’s balance sheet and infrastructure until it reaches a sufficient size and credibility so that it can be sold to a corporation or so that the institutional public-equity markets can step in and provide liquidity. In essence, the venture capitalist buys a stake in an entrepreneur’s idea, nurtures it for a short period of time, and then exits with the help of an investment banker.

Venture capital’s niche exists because of the structure and rules of capital markets. Someone with an idea or a new technology often has no other institution to turn to. Usury laws limit the interest banks can charge on loans—and the risks inherent in start-ups usually justify higher rates than allowed by law. Thus bankers will only finance a new business to the extent that there are hard assets against which to secure the debt. And in today’s information-based economy, many start-ups have few hard assets.

Furthermore, investment banks and public equity are both constrained by regulations and operating practices meant to protect the public investor. Historically, a company could not access the public market without sales of about $15 million, assets of $10 million, and a reasonable profit history. To put this in perspective, less than 2% of the more than 5 million corporations in the United States have more than $10 million in revenues. Although the IPO threshold has been lowered recently through the issuance of development-stage company stocks, in general the financing window for companies with less than $10 million in revenue remains closed to the entrepreneur.

Venture capital fills the void between sources of funds for innovation (chiefly corporations, government bodies, and the entrepreneur’s friends and family) and traditional, lower-cost sources of capital available to ongoing concerns. Filling that void successfully requires the venture capital industry to provide a sufficient return on capital to attract private equity funds, attractive returns for its own participants, and sufficient upside potential to entrepreneurs to attract high-quality ideas that will generate high returns. Put simply, the challenge is to earn a consistently superior return on investments in inherently risky business ventures.

Sufficient Returns at Acceptable Risk

Investors in venture capital funds are typically very large institutions such as pension funds, financial firms, insurance companies, and university endowments—all of which put a small percentage of their total funds into high-risk investments. They expect a return of between 25% and 35% per year over the lifetime of the investment. Because these investments represent such a tiny part of the institutional investors’ portfolios, venture capitalists have a lot of latitude. What leads these institutions to invest in a fund is not the specific investments but the firm’s overall track record, the fund’s “story,” and their confidence in the partners themselves.

How do venture capitalists meet their investors’ expectations at acceptable risk levels? The answer lies in their investment profile and in how they structure each deal.

The Investment Profile.

One myth is that venture capitalists invest in good people and good ideas. The reality is that they invest in good industries—that is, industries that are more competitively forgiving than the market as a whole. In 1980, for example, nearly 20% of venture capital investments went to the energy industry. More recently, the flow of capital has shifted rapidly from genetic engineering, specialty retailing, and computer hardware to CD-ROMs, multimedia, telecommunications, and software companies. Now, more than 25% of disbursements are devoted to the Internet “space.” The apparent randomness of these shifts among technologies and industry segments is misleading; the targeted segment in each case was growing fast, and its capacity promised to be constrained in the next five years. To put this in context, we estimate that less than 10% of all U.S. economic activity occurs in segments projected to grow more than 15% a year over the next five years.

The myth is that venture capitalists invest in good people and good ideas. The reality is that they invest in good industries.

In effect, venture capitalists focus on the middle part of the classic industry S-curve. They avoid both the early stages, when technologies are uncertain and market needs are unknown, and the later stages, when competitive shakeouts and consolidations are inevitable and growth rates slow dramatically. Consider the disk drive industry. In 1983, more than 40 venture-funded companies and more than 80 others existed. By late 1984, the industry market value had plunged from $5.4 billion to $1.4 billion. Today only five major players remain.

Growing within high-growth segments is a lot easier than doing so in low-, no-, or negative-growth ones, as every businessperson knows. In other words, regardless of the talent or charisma of individual entrepreneurs, they rarely receive backing from a VC if their businesses are in low-growth market segments. What these investment flows reflect, then, is a consistent pattern of capital allocation into industries where most companies are likely to look good in the near term.

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