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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Why The SBIC Doesn’t Work For Venture Capital Anymore

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I woke up to an article in Daily Camera today titled Small Business Administration trying to bring SBIC funds to Colorado.

There are so many things wrong in the article I felt compelled to write about it. This isn’t a knock on the writer (Alicia Wallace) – I like Alicia and think she does a good job. Rather, it’s an example of the difference between signal and noise in any kind of reporting around the VC industry.

I’m an investor in over 40 VC funds around the world (mostly in the US) and three of them are SBIC funds. Each of the SBIC funds were raised in the 2000 – 2002 time period. On paper, only one is in positive return territory as a fund, but the SBIC leverage is a substantial negative factor for the LP investors in that particular fund. And, in the other two, I don’t expect to ever see any of my capital back because of the SBIC leverage. Furthermore, I don’t believe any of the GPs in any SBIC-backed fund would ever take money from the SBIC again.

So I’m speaking from at least a little experience – albeit indirectly – with the SBIC, as I’ve never been a GP in a fund that had SBIC leverage.

The article starts off saying that “Matthew Varilek has traveled across the state, proselytizing the potential benefits of the Small Business Investment Company Program.” As a partner in one of the most visible VC firms in Colorado and an LP in many of the Colorado VC firms, I’ve never heard from Matthew or anyone from the SBIC. Matthew, if you really want to have a deep discussion about why the SBIC program isn’t effective for VC funds anymore, feel free to give me a shout. I’d be happy to meet with you.

Next, there is the wonderful PR quote about the SBIC that says “Since the program’s inception, SBIC “success stories” include the funding of companies such as Apple, Costco and FedEx when they were burgeoning small businesses.” The SBIC was instrumental in the creation of the venture capital business. The Small Business Investment Act of 1958 helped catalyze many of the VC firms created in the early 1960s. When I first heard about VC firms in the late 1980s, and my first company (Feld Technologies) started writing portfolio management software for some Boston-based VC firms, many of them had funds with SBIC leverage, although even by the late 1980s this was changing and many of them had shifted away from the SBIC. If you want to see a fun quote on it, read A History of Silicon Valley which quotes:

“ …many venture capital pioneers think the SBIC program did little to advance the art and practice of venture investing. The booming IPO market proved the model of investing in new companies, as some SBICs cash out at attractive levels. SBICs did give a boost to early venture firms, and some like Franklin “Pitch” Johnson, profiled below, thought the new law made the US “see that there was a problem and that [venture investing] was a way to do something… it formed the seed of the idea and a cadre of people like us.” Bill Draper, the first West Coast venture capitalist, has been more blunt: “[Without it] I never would have gotten into venture capital. . . it made the difference between not being able to do it, not having the money.” Many believe SBICs filled a void from 1958 to the early 1970s, by which point the partnership-based venture firms took off. The US government, however, lost most of the $2 billion it put into SBIC firms.”

So, while Apple, Costco, and FedEx benefited, the PR would be more credible if the SBIC was trumpeting iconic companies created after 1990 or even 2000, especially where the lead investors (rather than follow on investors) had SBIC capital.

Peter Adams, head of Rockies Venture Club, is quoted a few times. I like and respect Peter, so this isn’t aimed at him, but rather at the clear lack of understanding of the capital dynamics around VC funds.

“It looks really great on the surface,” said Peter Adams, executive director of the Rockies Venture Club, a nonprofit aimed at connecting investors and entrepreneurs. “Then when you dig into it, there were some problems.” Adams, who has been involved in many of the meetings with the SBA and members of the investment community, said the greatest concerns voiced by investors and venture capitalists involved management team qualifications, investment track records and the addition of debt to the equation. No. 1 for us is they want a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before,” he said. “I can see where they’re going with it, but the VC industry in Colorado has been fairly decimated through the economic downturn.”

Peter is right about the context, but has two fundamental things wrong here. First, the VC industry in Colorado wasn’t decimated through the economic downtown. It was decimated because of lack of performance between 2001 and 2009, just like much of the rest of the VC industry around the US. There’s nothing special about Colorado in this mix, and it has nothing to do with the economic downtown. This dynamic has been reported thousands of times so I don’t need to go through it again, but we don’t have to look back very far to hear the drum beat from the media, LPs, and everyone else about how “VC is dead.” And if you’re curious, it wasn’t too long ago that Silicon Valley was also dying.

The other problem here is the need of the SBIC to invest in “a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before.” Any VC firm that fits this qualification is unlikely to have difficulty raising money in today’s environment, and subsequently has no need for the SBIC leverage. And, more importantly, the only firms that will look for SBIC leverage are one’s that don’t have this, which is a classic adverse selection problem.

Then there’s this:

The recession also then plays into requirements that the management team members have been involved in a meaningful number of successful exits during a four- to six-year period. “From 2008 to 2013, that was not a good time for exits,” Adams said.

Huh, what? At Foundry Group, our significant exits (at least 10x capital returned) since we raised our first fund in 2007 include AdMeld, Zynga, MakerBot, and Gnip. We’ve had plenty of other exits, but these are the big ones. One of those companies, Gnip, is Boulder-based and another from our older funds (Rally Software) also generated a greater than 10x return for us. Techstars (which we helped start) have also had a steady stream of significant exits, including local Boulder companies like Filtrbox, GoodApril, and SocialThing. And then you’ve got plenty of Boulder / Denver monsters on paper – some in our portfolio (like SendGrid and Sympoz) and others like Zayo, Ping, Logrhythm, and Datalogix. Finally, if you look across the country, the exits have been awesome the past three years.

It keeps going. There’s talk about the “angel cliff” (e.g. we need funds to invest between angels and VCs – nope, been there – remember “gap capital” – not so effective) and the SBA rules and regulations (which I believe are toxic and inhibiting to a successful VC fund.)

One of the other problem is SBA and SBIC’s behavior in governance of the fund. The paperwork is silly and the overhead is non-trivial. The control over distributions and negative incentives to hold or distribute capital often generates bad decisions when companies go public. And at least one close friend who is a partner in an SBIC fund has now found a new LP to buy out the SBIC so they could actually invest capital in their winners, rather than be limited by the SBIC’s constraints on the amount of capital you can invest in any particular company.

The SBIC could be a powerful force for good in the venture capital industry. But it has to approach things very different and based on my experience with the SBA over the past decade, I don’t see it happening unless there is real leadership somewhere in coordination with leaders in the VC industry. I’m certainly willing to help, if only someone bothered to reach out to me.

UPDATE: It turns out my partner Seth Levine had met with Matthew a while ago. Seth said “Your blog was right on and much of the type of thing I related to Matt and some senior guys he brought in. The gist of my conversation with them was pushing them to consider a different model – that the current one basically led to lowest common denominator GPs and sub-optimal returns. Plus the SBIC leverage could be crushing. I don’t think they have a ton of flexibility around this but they at least listened to the feedback. I’m going to see a bunch of them in a few weeks – I agreed to help judge a business plan competition they were hosting. Like you I’m not a huge fan of the program as it has existed but I give the new guys some credit for both reaching out and trying to be proactive about thinking through this.”

UPDATE 2: Matthew Varilek reached out to me and we are setting up a time to talk.

Use Your Competitors’ Products All The Time

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I was sitting with the founders of a company we’ve funded the other day talking about their competition. I love this product and I use it every day. It doesn’t yet have widespread adoption, but it as extremely actively used by the early adopters.

This company has several competitors – long time incumbents with somewhat stale, but useful products, and several new competitors, including well-funded and noisy ones. I use several of these products regularly in different situations and have encouraged the founders to use them also.

During our conversation, we started off by talking about pricing and go-to-market strategies. As part of this, we were talking through a strategy to change the current game being played in the market, both from a product and pricing perspective. We had clarity on the product side (we have several fundamental architectural differences that enable a powerfully different approach at scale) but thrashed for a while on the pricing perspective.

I realized I wasn’t very clear on the pricing strategies of the competitors so we went through them on-line. While this was sort of useful, our knowledge of their products, how they work, and what the current limitations of them are was more enlightening. Ultimately the product differentiation drove the pricing differentiation discussion, which resulted in our hypothesis about how to change the game which we are now testing.

If we hadn’t all be active users of these competitors products, we would have had a stupid conversation. While we have limited visibility into the competitors’ product roadmaps, we know how hard it will be for them to change several dimensions of their products. Sure, we should assume they can and will do this, but as we enter the market in a serious way, I think we can carve out a unique and very significant position for ourselves by leading with the product differentiation and supporting it with a pricing strategy that undermines theirs. In the absence of the product information we have from our experience using their products, we wouldn’t have been able to tie these two constructs together, and our resulting approach would be weak.

My general approach to competition is to “obsess about their products while completely ignoring the company.” If you can identify competitors, use their products continually, if only to have that knowledge when the moment comes that you have the conversation about how you are going to change the game.

Second Order Impact of FG Angels

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If you’ve been following along at home, you know that we recently created an AngelList Syndicate called FG Angels. Our goal is to make 50 investments through AngelList before the end of 2014. We’ll contribute $50k to each investment; our FG Angels Syndicate will contribute up to $450k.

Shortly after doing our first few investments, I got a really nice email from a member of Impact Angel Group, a Colorado-based angel group that organized an investment in the FG Angels syndicate. It shows a second order effect of what we are trying to accomplish with FG Angels. I thought it was worth sharing.

I just wanted to say thank you for all of your work in breaking through the red tape to put together FG Angels. I believe all of our committed members have completed their investments as individuals and we have made our first investment through the LLC we put together.

We really appreciate the time you spent to answer our questions and work through the details. I thought it might be helpful for you to see the positive impact you are making for our small group, which I’m sure can be multiplied a hundred times over. As you all know, herding angels and getting new angels to actually pull the trigger is not an easy task. FG Angels has helped us address all of our major angel-herding challenges through the following:

  1. FG Angels increased the amount of capital our group has committed since our official founding in 8/13 by 103% which will certainly help us with deal flow, member acquisition etc.
  2. 18 of our 37 angels pledged to participate and 14 are actually participating. Our members have a variety of different backgrounds and interests, so this is the largest participation rate for one deal that we’ve seen to date. 
  3. 15 of the 18 had never visited AngelList prior to researching FG Angels.
  4. 6 of the 18 who pledged and 4 of the 18 who participated are never-ever angels. 
  5. 7 of the 18 are making their first investment as Impact Angel Group members.
  6. 2 angels are considering creating their own AngelList syndicate as a result of their experience.
  7. We created an LLC of 145k to allow some of our newer angels to participate at smaller amounts. 1% of the carry will go to the Entrepreneur’s Foundation of Colorado. 1% of the carry will go back to us to help us support angel investing in Colorado.
  8. I learned an incredible amount about SEC regulations, crowdfunding and the logistics of AngelList.

 

Foundry Women’s Exec Summit

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A few weeks ago we had a summit for the women execs in our portfolio. About 40 women attended. Overall we identified about 70 women in our portfolio in leadership positions, which I estimate is about 15% of the exec positions in our portfolio.

The event was organized by three of the women – Joanne Lord (until recently CMO at BigDoor, now at Porch), Nicole Glaros (Techstars Boulder Managing Director), and Terry Morreale (NCWIT Associate Director). Like many of our internal summits, the agenda was organically developed and the event was a lightly structured, high engagement day. It was an all female event until 4pm, when I joined for a 75 minute fireside chat followed by a nice dinner at Pizzeria Locale.

This morning I’m heading over the NCWIT annual employee retreat and participating in the first session, which is a retrospective on the past year and current state of NCWIT. I’ve been chair of NCWIT for nine years and am amazed and what Lucy Sanders and the organization has achieved. Personally, I’ve learned an incredible amount about the issues surrounding women in technology and have a handle on what I think are root causes of the challenges as well as long term solutions.

Last night I gave a talk at Galvanize on failure for Startup Summer, one of the Startup Colorado programs. About 10% of the people in the room were women. After almost 90 minutes of talk and Q&A, the last question was an awesome one about the women in the room and what we could do to encourage more engagement by and with women in the startup scene.

About a year ago, we realized that none of our active companies had a female CEO. Today, three of the 58 do: Moz (Sarah Bird), littleBits (Ayah Bdeir), and Nix Hydra (Lina Chen). If you are looking for a percentage on that, it’s 5%.

5%, 10%, and 15% are low numbers. But at least we are looking at them, measuring them, talking about gender dynamics in tech, and taking action around it.

Oblong NYC Event on 7/24

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If you are in NY on 7/24 and want to have your mind blown by one of my favorite companies ever, go to the Oblong NYC Open House to see their new demo center.

In addition to an amazing demo and good food, Christopher Walsh (Director of Product Effectiveness for McGraw Hill Financial S&P Capital IQ) is going to be talking about how his organization uses Oblong’s Mezzanine to change the way they work.

It’s Thursday, July 24th from 5:30-8:30pm EST. Register here.

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