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Sunday
Jun062010

Falling Start-up Costs and Seed Investing

When you listen to and read about what is being said about the state of the venture industry you hear a lot of people throw out opinions, often misconstrued, about why venture capital is doomed. One argument that seems to be surfacing a lot recently is that venture capital is no longer needed (or not needed in the same capacity) because the costs associated with starting companies has fallen dramatically. While it’s true that the cost of starting an internet company has dropped dramatically (due to advances in areas such as development, storage and virtualization), it’s important to remember that internet-related startups only account for a fraction of venture capital investment.  It seems as though when people think of venture they immediately think of internet startups – a mindset probably resulting from the dot-com bubble era and the fact that startups in the internet sector are (and have to be) more publicized. As a result, venture investments sectors such as healthcare, media, mobile and cleantech don’t receive as much attention, even though they receive the most venture capital. To put things in context, according to PwC Moneytree data, companies fundamentally reliant on the internet for their business accounted for just 17% of all venture capital dollars invested in the first quarter of this year. So while dropping startup costs for internet companies definitely impacts venture investment, it’s hardly a development that is going to doom the venture industry.

But the role of venture investment in early stage internet startups is an interesting topic. It is absolutely true that as startup costs are in decline and because of this, the role venture capital plays is in flux. The value that a venture firm brings diminishes when capital isn’t the main concern. As a result, we’re starting to see increased angel investment activity at the seed investment level for internet startups, and it seems as though these angles either have access to, or are great at identifying, the best companies. Angles appeal to internet startups because they often have better networks and come with less bureaucracy. Plus, the smaller check sizes now required are a better fit for both parties. It’s also worth nothing that seed investments have much more flexible exit options. Interestingly, we’re seeing some angel investors, such as Ron Conway or Mike Maples (often dubbed “super angles”), building up large portfolios which essentially makes them a seed fund of sorts. This is how I think venture capital firms can still play in the early-stage internet startup space – through dedicated seed investment pools and staff.

Seed and early stage investments have historically performed very well while capturing the true essence of venture capital – early-stage risk taking. Because of this, a venture firm, even if it is raising huge funds, should consider dedicating a portion of their funds to seed investments or even raising separate side seed funds. A great example, even though it has a dual cleantech and IT focus, is Khosla Ventures. When they raised $1 billion last year, it was split between a $750 million main fund, Khosla Ventures III, which invests in early to mid-stage companies, and a $250 million seed fund, which seeks out smaller investments in very young companies. What would be even better is if such dedicated pools had a dedicated staff able to develop a good rapport with the technology community, much like angel investors. I know this essentially amounts to having an in-house angel investing platform, but if venture firms want to play in the most dynamic stage of internet investing, and capital requirements come down, it may be the only way to have access to such investments. I’m guessing we’ll see more of this as the venture model evolves.

As a side note, since I hit on the topic of leaner capital requirements for startups, I thought I would bring up a post Vivek Wadhwa made this weekend on TechCrunch. The post is titled “Startups: Poverty is Underrated. Be Glad That You’re Not Rich.” Wadhwa contends that when a company is running on a tight budget, it will usually perform far better than a company that is well capitalized because it won’t develop the bad habits that come with outside money. These “bad habits” include a shift of focus to revenue and keeping the board of directors happy instead of focusing on profitability, sustainability and keeping customers happy.

The lean vs. fat startup debate has been going on for some time, with the lean side arguing that lean is the only way to go, while the fat side believes capital is a requirement for success. I take caution picking sides on this debate because the argument should really be made on a situational, case by case basis. What is clear though is that more and more attention is being given to the idea of startups operating in a lean manner, which means we’ll probably continue to see more of them, and that the venture industry will have to adjust. 

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