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With yesterday’s announcement that early-stage VC Greycroft has raised a $200 million growth fund, this type of fund has officially become a trend. But before we dig into the dynamics of it, let’s pay homage to the originator of this concept, Union Square Ventures.
In January 2011, USV raised what I believe was the first “opportunity fund.” Prior to this, plenty of VC firms invested across the early stage to late stage spectrum from the same fund (e.g. Battery, General Catalyst, Sequoia, Greylock, Bessemer). Others had separate early stage funds and late stage funds, often with separate teams and economics (e.g. Redpoint, DFJ, North Bridge) typically aimed at different opportunities. But the USV Opportunity Fund was the first time, at least in the post 2001-Internet bubble cycle (or last decade, if you want to put it that way) where an early stage firm created a separate fund to invest in late stage rounds of their existing early-stage portfolio companies. In USV’s case, Fred Wilson explains the strategy extremely clearly in the post The Opportunity Fund.
Greycroft is the latest firm to raise this type of fund. In the last week I’ve talked to two other early stage VC firms who are raising similar opportunity funds. In one case they referred to it as a growth fund. In the other case they referred to it as an opportunity fund.
In the fall of 2013, we raised a similar type of fund called Foundry Group Select. It was a $225 million fund, just like our other three $225 million funds raised in 2007, 2010, and 2013. But we called it “Select” instead of “Growth” or “Opportunity” for a specific reason – we only use it to invest in existing portfolio companies of ours.
USV has done a magnificent job of investing in later stage rounds of their existing portfolio companies as well as later stage rounds of companies that fit tightly within their investment thesis. We decided to drop the second half of that strategy as we didn’t want to spend time being late stage investors. It’s not natural for us as an entry point and we didn’t want to add anyone to our team since keeping our team size exactly the same is a deeply held belief of ours.
The decision to raise this fund came out of a combination of desire and frustration. We have a well-defined fund strategy, based on a constant size of each of our funds. Our goal is to make about 30 investments in each fund (2007 has 28, 2010 had 31) that range between $5m and $15m over the life of the company. Part of this strategy is that we are syndication agnostic – we are happy to go it alone through two or three rounds of a company if we have conviction about what they are doing. We are equally happy to syndicate with one or two other VC firms. Either way, while we focus on being capital efficient (we’d rather not overfund the companies we are involved in early), we are interested in buying as much ownership as we can at the early stages.
As a result, when a company begins to accelerate dramatically, we weren’t in a position to contribute meaningfully to the later stage rounds since we’d likely already have something in the $10m to $15m range invested. That’s the desire part of the equation – we knew we could make money off a later stage investment, but when we were talking about investing an incremental $1m or $2m it didn’t really matter much.
The frustration part was more vexing to us. In a number of our successful companies, we saw a long line of financial investors lining up to follow. None of them would engage as a lead, but all want to participate when a round came together. If a company was raising $30m, we’d have $50m+ of “followers” waiting to take whatever was left. We didn’t find that particularly helpful.
So we raised Foundry Group Select. We explicitly limited it to only companies we were already investors in and on the boards of. As a result, it is literally zero incremental work for us since we are already deeply involved in the companies we are investing in. This led us to an interesting decision – since we recycle 100% of our management fee, why would we charge a management fee on this fund if we are doing no incremental work? The conclusion was easy – we don’t charge a management fee. We only make money when the investments make money, resulting in very tight alignment with our LPs.
To date, we’ve invested from Foundry Group Select in Fitbit, Sympoz, Return Path, Gnip (acquired by Twitter), and Orbotix. It’s been a powerful addition to our strategy without creating any extra overhead on us.
I’ll end where I started – by paying homage to our friends at Union Square Ventures. They’ve led the way on many elements of early-stage investing post-Internet bubble, dating back to 2004 when Fred and Brad raised the first USV fund. As the “opportunity fund” becomes a trend, they’ve once again created something that, in hindsight, looks brilliant.