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I received an email from an entrepreneur today asking me about something that made my stomach turn. It’s a first time entrepreneur who is raising a modest (< $750k) seed round). There are two founders and they’ve been talking to a VC they met several months ago. Recently, the VC told them he was leaving his firm and wanted to help them out. This was obviously appealing until he dropped the bomb that prompted their question to me.
This soon to be ex-VC said something to the effect of “I can easily raise you money with a couple of phone calls, but I want to be a co-founder of the company and have an equal share of the business.”
In my email exchange with the entrepreneur, I asked two questions. The first was “is he going to be full time with the company” and the other was “do you want him as a third full time partner.” The answer was no and no. More specifically, the VC was positioning himself as “the founder that would help raise the money.”
I dug a little deeper to find out who the person was in case it was just a random dude looking for gig flow. David Cohen, the CEO of TechStars, has written extensively about this in our book Do More Faster – for example, see the chapter Beware of Angel Investors Who Aren’t. I was shocked when I saw the name of the person and the firm he has been with (and is leaving) – it’s someone who has been in the VC business for a while and should know better.
I find this kind of behavior disgusting. If the person was offering to put in $25k – $100k in the round and then asking for an additional 1% or 2% as an “active advisor” (beyond whatever the investment bought) to help out with the company, I’d still be skeptical of the equity ask at this stage and encourage the founders to (a) vest it over time and (b) make sure there was a tangible commitment associated with it that was different from other investors. Instead, given the facts I was given, my feedback was to run far away, fast.
Entrepreneurs – beware. This is the kind of behavior that gives investors a bad name. Unfortunately, my impression of this particular person is that he’s not a constructive early stage investor but rather someone who is trying to prey on naive entrepreneurs. Whenever the markets heat up, this kind of thing starts happening. Just be careful out there.
Following is a post on super angels I wrote yesterday for PEHub.
In the beginning, there were angel investors. And it was good. As individual angel investors made more and more investments, they became super angels. One day a super angel woke up and thought to himself, “Gosh, I could do a lot more investments if I had a fund.” And so the super angels became micro-VCs (or “institutionalized super angels”). Everyone was excited and on the seventh day they did another deal instead of resting.
I’m a huge fan of the super angel movement. Some of my best friends are super angels and I’ve put my own money where my mouth is in funds like Chris Sacca’s, Dave McClure’s, Jeff Clavier’s, Roger Ehrenberg’s, and David Cohen’s. Not only am I an investor in these super angels, I love to have them on board with our investments at Foundry Group. And whenever they bring me something they’ve been working on, I always pay attention–as I know they know what I like to invest in.
But recently the super angel mantra of “traditional VCs suck” has reached a fevered pitch. What started out in Silicon Valley as a new wave of angel investors has evolved into a belief that “VCs are lousy seed investors” and “no one needs a VC–just raise your money from super angels and go to town.”
Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures recently wrote an excellent blog post titled “The Expanding Birthrate of Web Startups.” As with many of Fred’s posts, the comment section was as useful as the post, and early-stage investors such as Mark Suster, Charlie O’Donnell, Roger Ehrenberg, and Anonymous Coward weighed in. The comments ranged from the now cliche-ish “VCs suck” to “What happens when super angel-backed companies need a new round” to “Companies will never need more capital. It’s a new world out there.” As I read through the comments, I kept pondering the same thought: “What happens in five years?”
Let’s consider a few situations. Take a typical super angel. Assume success. Investors (LPs and individuals like me) want to invest money with the super angel. The super angel probably creates a fund and raises a lot more money. Now the super angel is a micro-VC. Continue to assume success. More money is able to be raised. Now the micro-VC is a mini-VC. Does this keep scaling, or does the mini-VC succumb to the same challenges that $200 million funds ran into when they turned into $1 billion funds?
Now, take a super angel with a 20-company portfolio. The super angel is hyper-connected and works closely with the entrepreneurs he/she invests in. Suddenly he/she has 100 investments. Are the entrepreneurs getting the same attention from that angel–especially when they enter year three of their life, hit a bunch of speed bumps and need a lot of help? Or does this super angel just turn his/her back and say, “Well, that’s the breaks.”
Finally, take a super angel who is used to making $25,000 to $100,000 per investment. He/she becomes a micro-VC, raises a bigger fund, and now invests $500,000 per deal. Is there a difference in his/her behavior with regard to the $25,000 investments vs. the $500,000 investments?
I think the super angel movement is awesome, but the generalization that all VCs suck at seed investing doesn’t make sense to me. Correspondingly, the idea that entrepreneurs only need super angels doesn’t make sense either. There’s a renewed focus and interest in early-stage investing going on in the United States, and it’s being stimulated by a lot of factors. It’s a powerful thing that will continue to evolve, change and challenge all of the participants.
I attended the second Open Angel Forum in Boulder tonight. Simply put, it was dynamite.
This is an intense week for seed stage stuff in Boulder as TechStars Demo Day is tomorrow where 11 new companies are having their coming out party. The Boulder New Tech Meetup had a special double header (Tuesday and Wednesday) where six teams practiced their pitches to a room of 300+ people on Tuesday followed up by the other five on Wednesday. The streets are crawling with angel and early stage investors – local and from other parts of the country – and the vibe feels great as tomorrow is the big day.
I had high expectations for Open Angel Forum after the first one in Boulder in the spring. Jason Calacanis came up with a great format when he created Open Angel Forum and David Cohen has done an awesome job of hosting and coordinating the two Boulder events.
The format is ideal. 20 qualified angel investors – to qualify you must be active making angel investments (at least three in the past year). Six companies all raising seed rounds ($1m or less). Dinner and drinks paid for by sponsors. No fee to either the entrepreneurs or the angels. Casual setting (we did it in the TechStars Bunker) – some mingling before it got started, followed by five minute pitches + five minutes of Q&A for each company. The whole thing took an hour – just the right amount of time.
All six companies – Pavlov Games, Rapid.io, Adapt.ly, Awesomebox, PlaceIQ, and BrowseAndPay did excellent jobs. They were each high quality and totally fundable and I heard several commitments happen during the evening. I left about 45 minutes after the pitches ended – the event was still in high gear and with Jason leading a table full of angels and entrepreneurs in a game of Texas Hold’em while the beer drinking and discussions continued.
The thing that is so cool to me about this is that it’s a super high signal to noise ratio – all the companies had clear, tight, and relevant pitches and the entire audience was accessible angel investors. No BS, no posturing, no fees for anything – just entrepreneurs and angels doing their thing.
Over two days, 17 early stage software / Internet companies are having high quality exposure to angel and seed investors in Boulder. And on Saturday, we have TEDx Boulder. It’s good to be back in town.
Ah – well – another day passed and there was once again a ton of chatter around angel investing. A lot of it was prompted by AngelConf 2010 which you can watch recordings of on Justin.tv (AngelConf 2010 Part 1 and AngelConf 2010 Part 2). While there continues to be plenty of negative VC tone and “disruptive change is here” (ala traditional VC is over), there were also some great nuggets, including my favorite line from Joshua Schachter of typical VC behavior of SHITS (Show High Interest Then Stall).
But I think the two best posts to come out of yesterday are Lead Investors, Dipshit Companies, and Funding Every Entrepreneur by Fred Wilson and MoneyBall for Startups by Dave McClure. While they come at things from very different angles, they are both very insightful and important. Importantly, they are willing to use words in their posts that Goldman Sachs has apparently banned in email as of yesterday.
We are packing up the Homer house today and I’m looking forward to diving back into the fray next week in Boulder.
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!