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I got a note from Nivi, the creator of AngelList, over the weekend saying that he’d put up a special page for angel investors in Boulder. He’s looking for the local Boulder angels to add their names to the list. Gang – let’s get ‘em up – if you are an angel investor and based in the Boulder area, sign up!
There’s been an enormous about of blog and news chatter about angel investors, especially seed investors and the emergence of super angel / micro VCs, in the past few months. I’m a huge fan and supporter of the super angel / micro VC phenomenon and have watched with delight as it has built momentum.
However, in the past few weeks I’ve started to see a rant start to emerge that I’ll simplify as “VCs suck as seed investors – the only path to happiness are angels or super angels or micro VCs.” This rant bugs me as I think it’s incorrect and isn’t very helpful to entrepreneurs. While I know many VCs that I would categorize as terrible seed investors, I know plenty that are excellent seed investors. And while I know many angels who are terrific seed investors, I also know some who are abysmal.
The thing that started to bug me last week wasn’t the discussions about the characteristics of what makes a VC a bad seed investor, but that the comments, including some from super angels, were becoming generalizations that all VCs were bad seed investors. As I read through them, they started feeling like statements of “hey entrepreneur, trust me, I’m just trying to save you from Mr. Evil VC and here’s the answer, the answer is me.”
As a VC who has been a very active angel investor (I’ve made over 75 angel investments), an active seed investor as a VC (I just counted and 7 of the 25 investments we’ve made out of Foundry Group since we started our fund in Q4 2007 are seed investments), a co-founder of a “mentorship-driven seed stage investment program” (TechStars), and an investor in several super angel / micro VC funds, I believe both angels and VCs can be excellent seed investors.
There is a lot more transparency than there ever has been, the structural dynamics of early stage investing are moving around a lot, and entrepreneurs have more clarity on their choices, ways to figure out who is good and who is bad, and ways to get access to great choices than ever before. Fred Wilson wrote two excellent posts on this over the weekend titled Angel vs. VC and The AngelList as well as an earlier post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon. Until last week I didn’t feel like I had a ton to add to the discussion, but I felt like it was time to weigh in as I saw the tone shifting to “VCs are bad seed investors.”
While I completely agree with the phrase “many VCs are bad seed investors” especially around VCs simply trying to create option value for themselves or the issues around signaling risk, I felt like there wasn’t enough discussion about why and when VCs were effective seed investors. So I thought I’d take some of this on over the next few weeks. Hopefully my perspective and examples will be additive to the conversation and helpful to early stage entrepreneurs, especially first time ones.
In the mean time, if you are a Boulder angel (or seed) investor and you are still reading, sign up on AngelList already!
The second Boulder Open Angel Forum event is happening on August 4th at 7pm. In case you aren’t familiar with the Open Angel Forum, the organization is dedicated to providing entrepreneurs with access to the angel investor community based solely on merit and without any fees.
The first Open Angel Forum in Boulder was dynamite. David Cohen, the founder/CEO of TechStars drove the event and is also hosting this one. He has scheduled it the night before the TechStars Boulder 2010 Demo Day with the hope of having some out of town angels that are here for Demo Day attend.
I’m on an Acela train between Boston and New York (listening to Boston’s More Than A Feeling – how recursive) on my way to the TechStars Boston 2010 Investor / Demo day. I wasn’t able to make it to Boston yesterday for the Angel Boot Camp as I was running around NYC with the CEO of a company I invested in last week introducing him to a bunch of potential customers and partners.
It sounds like Angel Boot Camp rocked. My long time friend and co-angel investor Will Herman wrote a post titled Angel Investing that summarized some of his advice. Will is finishing up his 31st angel investment (we’ve done a bunch together – including my very first one – NetGenesis in 1994) and he walks through what he’s learned from 16 years of angel investing. Don Dodge also has a great post up titled How to be an Angel Investor…and make money.
On the eve of the graduation of the TechStars Boston 2010 class, I thought I’d weigh in with some additional advice to anyone who either is or wants to be an angel investor. Some of this repeats what Will and Don said, but I’ll try to be additive (and specific). For context, I’ve made over 75 direct angel investments primarily in two time periods – 1994-1996 and 2006-2007. I’m out of the angel business as all of my investments go through Foundry Group (the VC fund I’m a partner in) but I’m an investor in a number of “super angel funds” as well as a co-founder of TechStars and I continue to regularly make seed investments from Foundry Group alongside of angel investors.
So – here’s the advice:
1. Be promiscuous: To be a successful angel investor, you have to make a lot of investments. I generally made about one investment a month when I was active as an angel. While this pace may not be right for everyone, if you are doing less than four investments a year, I don’t think you are making enough. Play the field – it increases your chance of hitting a monster and it’s a lot more fun.
2. Have a long term financial strategy: Early on I decided that I was going to write the same size initial check in every angel investment. In the first phase (1994-1996) this was $25k. In the 2006-2007 phase this was $50k (although I broke this rule by occasionally doing $25k or $100k and in several cases, even more.) I always assumed I’d double down on each investment before the company either raised a VC round or was acquired (so – when I put $25k in, I was really allocating $50k to the company.) Then, I decided how much I was going to invest over a particular time period. In the 1994-1996 time period I decided to invest $1m in angel investments. So – that gave me capacity for 20 investments (I did more – oops.) In 2006-2007 I allocated more (and did more). However, since I had a time frame and an amount per company, I had a baseline pace that I could go at before I got uncomfortable with how much I was investing.
3. Understand the difference between 0x and 100x: I’ve had two of my angel investments return over 100x each. Since I had a strategy of investing the same amount in each company, all I needed was one 100x to allow me to have 99 companies completely flame out and return 0 and I’d still break even. With two investments at over 100x, I now have a built in gain of significantly over 3x across all of my investments since I’m made about 75 of them and I’m now deliciously “playing with house money” on all of the rest.
4. Choose people over ideas: I have never regretted making new friends through an angel investment that failed. I have always hated working with people I didn’t like, or didn’t think were A+. It’s an easy filter – use it.
5. Decide quickly: My best investments as an angel were made after one meeting and I’ve often committed in the meeting. Sometimes it has taken me longer – usually a second meeting or a long meal. But there’s no reason for an angel investor – especially an individual one – to drag the entrepreneur through a long, protracted due diligence process.
6. Don’t torture entrepreneurs: Remember, you are supposed to be an “angel investor”, not a “devil investor.” If you really want to be a great angel investor, decide quickly and then help the entrepreneur get their financing done! Be a force for good in the universe.
7. Run in a pack: The best angels run in packs. They share deals. They love to work together. They don’t feel obligated to invest in each others stuff, but they often do. And they communicate with each other. If you run in a pack, different people will take the lead role in different cases – sometimes I’d be the lead investor in an angel deal and – with a $25k check pull together a $500k round. Other times I’d just be one of the $25k checks in the $500k round and pawn off the work on one of my friends. Either way, I have a lot more fun playing with others – especially when the companies win!
I’m sure some of these don’t work for everyone so I’d love to hear any criticism from other angels out there. And – feel free to add your own tips, especially about – ahem – working with VCs.
Jon Pierce of BetaHouse has decided to organize an Angel Boot Camp in Boston on June 1st. The idea is that anyone interested in learning more about how to get started with angel investing can attend and learn from some people who’ve been there and done that.
David Cohen at TechStars wrote about why he thinks it’s important. Jon Pierce also wrote about why he’s doing Angel Boot Camp as well as listing some of Boston’s Best Angel Investors.
While June 1 is still several months away, sign up and put Angel Boot Camp on your calendar now.
I know I owe everyone a follow up to my post from last week titled The Proliferation of Standardized Seed Financing Documents. To the many of you out there that emailed me in response, thanks for all of the thought, ideas, suggestions, and offers of help. More on that soon.
In the mean time, I noticed today that Dow Jones is running a seminar titled Negotiating an Angel Deal: What Angels, Entrepreneurs & VCs Need to Know. My partner Jason Mendelson is one of the panelists, along with several other notable lawyers and angel investors. If you are interested in this particular topic, I expect there will be a “robust” discussion as I know that the opinions between a few of the folks on the panel vary pretty widely. If you are interested, sign up here.