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We describe Foundry Group‘s behavior as “syndication agnostic.” When we make an investment, we are completely agnostic as to whether or not we have a co-investor. This is true at early stages but also true at later stages. We make our own decisions to invest, or not to invest, independent of what other investors are thinking. As part of this philosophy, we’ll lead follow-on rounds for companies we’ve already invested in, including those making great progress where we will lead an up round that we price. We aren’t looking for outside validation from other investors of any sort – either positive or negative. Because we are syndication agnostic, we are delighted to work with great co-investors and welcome and encourage the interaction and partnership. But we don’t have any dependency on it for our decision making.
I saw two important posts this morning – one by Fred Wilson titled Social Proof Is Dangerous and one by Hunter Walk titled The Death of Social Proof. Both are worth reading along with the comments. Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of AngelList, also has a thoughtful comment on Hunter’s post, although I disagree with some of it.
For me, the essence of the conversation comes back to making your own decision as an investor. As an angel investor, I invested in many things and passed on many things. As a VC investor, I invest in a few things and pass on many things. When I look at what drives my decision to invest, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product. It’s never the existing investors, even if I like working with them. When I look at what drives my decision to pass, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product and occasionally the existing investors if I simply don’t want to work with them.
Within Foundry Group, we use a qualitative process to determine whether we are going to invest in something. Once we are actively engaged exploring an investment, all four of us independently interact with the company (although this may happen in groups of us.) To get to this point, it’s going to be a company we likely would invest in. However, we can only invest in about 5% to 10% of the company’s we see that reach this point based on the size of our funds, our tempo, and our deal flow. So we pass on 90% – 95% of companies that “we’d like to invest in, but for some reason don’t get there.”
The reason is almost always qualitative. If the sentiment from one of us trends down during the evaluation process, we immediately pass. This sentiment is driven by our individual interactions with the entrepreneurs and their product. But we each make our own decision, and a single qualitative negative trend causes us to pass. We make mistakes often – there are plenty of companies we pass on that in hindsight we would have liked to be investors in, and in some cases we get a second change and invest in the next round (Fitbit and SEOMoz are two that immediately come to mind.) We always offer to be helpful to the entrepreneurs if they get to this point – some take us up on this. But regardless, we aren’t looking to other investors, or “social proof”, to drive, or even influence our decision making.
This is especially powerful for follow-on rounds. We leave it up to the entrepreneurs whether they want to go find a new investor or not. We express our opinion early in the process and are supportive with whatever the entrepreneur wants to do. If we are going to invest regardless, we’ll make a commitment before the fundraising starts so the entrepreneur knows it is there, even if he isn’t able to attract an outside investor. And, if for some reason we aren’t going to invest, we are clear about it upfront.
I’ve found this interaction to be fascinating with other VCs who are our co-investors. Some are very comfortable with this approach and, as a result, we are attracted to working with them over and over again. Others aren’t, but aren’t offended by our approach, and, since we don’t need them to commit to co-invest along side of us for us to follow through on our commitment, tend to be thoughtful about what they want to do. And some don’t like this approach, although we rarely find this out until we’ve worked with them at least once. When we encounter this kind of situation, we tend not to seek them out as co-investors in the future.
All along the way, we try to be painfully clear with the entrepreneurs that we are making our own decision, independent of the behavior of other investors. This has come from many years of seeing “the investor syndicate” make bad decisions either in the case of a successful company (where they don’t lean in) or an unsuccessful company (where everyone keeps dragging each other forward to “one more round.”) We’ve evolved a deeply held belief that we need to make our own decisions, independent of everyone else, communicate them clearly, and move quickly one way or another.
I’ve tried to scale this personally to my whole life. I don’t really care what other people think – I just try to do my best all the time and learn from everything I do. I describe that as being intrinsically motivated by learning. Sure – I listen to all the feedback I get, but am mostly looking for content, especially content that I can use to improve what I do (and learn from). Praise and validation go in the same bucket as social proof for me – I appreciate it but ignore it.
Are you making your own decisions?
Yesterday I sent emails out passing on participating in two seed rounds for companies I really like. They had lots of investors trying to invest and each company was competitive with two other seed stage companies we’ve seen in the past 30 days. All are exciting, all are working on something that we like, and all of them are at the starting line with different strengths and weaknesses.
So far this year the number of high quality seed investments we are seeing in themes that are relevant to us is overwhelming. This is an awesome situation – for us and for entrepreneurs – and something I’m extremely excited about. But it forces us to think about our strategy, especially at the seed stage, and make sure we are comfortable with it. We are, but it occurred to me that it’d be worth putting it out there both so it’s known how we are thinking about seed investing and to get feedback on how we are approaching it.
First, some background. We’ve made a conscious decision as a firm never to grow – either number of partners or size of fund – so we are limited to the number of new investments we can make a year based on our approach. This translates into about a dozen new investments a year plus or minus a few.
Our strategy is “early stage” – so we are comfortable with seed investments, first round investments, and what might in the past have been called Series B investments if the company hasn’t raised much money to date (less than $3m). We summarize this as saying to entrepreneurs that if you’ve raised less than $3m so far, we are a target for you; if not, we aren’t. We are willing to invest as little as $375k as our first investment (e.g. Next Big Sound) or $15m as our first investment (e.g. SEOMoz).
We only invest in companies in our themes and only invest in US-based companies so we can say no in 60 seconds to 99% of the companies we see. Our goal isn’t to invest in all of the great companies; it’s to invest in around a dozen great companies a year. We are geographically agnostic – anywhere in the US – about 33% of our investments are in Colorado, about 33% are in California, and the rest are spread around the US. We are syndication agnostic – happy to invest alone and equally happy to invest with firms we like to work with. And we are very patient – we’ll lead our own follow-on rounds (at markups if warranted), are willing to invest up to $10m in a company before we declare “the moment of truth” as we’ve seen many companies break out in year three or year four of their life, and play for many years with the goal of building meaningful companies.
Finally, we believe strongly in active engagement as a seed investor. It’s not natural to us to make a bunch of passive seed investments or to toss $100k directly into a company without engaging with the company at the seed stage. We don’t have a seed program, nor do we expect to – if we invest, we are in for the long term.
So – what do we do?
1. Pass on the cluster: Per the intro to this post, if we see a cluster of seed investments in an area that we like, we are passing on all of them and trying to engage with them with the goal of leading the next round for one of them. Our belief is that we have to earn the right to invest and we want the entrepreneurs to choose us. At the same time, we want to invest in entrepreneurs who want to work with us and view us as a unique resource for them rather than just another check. In almost all cases like this, the seed round is easy to raise right now, which is awesome for the entrepreneur and gives her more choices downstream. We hope to earn our way in as one of these choices, while at the same time getting to know the entrepreneur better over a reasonable period of time. Of course, part of this is keeping the individual entrepreneurs plans confidential so we are very careful not to share any information between companies, although we’ve found several clusters where all of the entrepreneurs know each other and are already friends.
2. Support accelerators – especially TechStars – to create more seed opportunities: We co-founded TechStars and are investors in the program. Last year we helped put together (and invested in) Star Power Partners, which invests $100k in a convertible note in every TechStars company. As a result, we are tiny indirect investors in all of the companies that go through TechStars. Many of these companies raise less than $3m coming out of TechStars – all of them are subsequently in our zone for the next round financing.
3. Support other seed stage VCs: We’ve actively supported (as investors in their funds – individually, not through Foundry Group) many seed stage VCs including Jeff Clavier (SoftTech), David Cohen (Bullet Time), Manu Kumar (K9), Chris Sacca (Lowercase), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Eric Norlin (SK), and David Beisel (NextView). We don’t expect anything for this other than a role as a typical LP, but we view it as increasing the seed ecosystem.
4. Stay firmly focused on our strategy: We’ve seen strategy drift destroy VC returns, create chaos within VC firms, and make a mess of many VC / entrepreneur relationships. We know what we do well and are intent on continuing to do it for a long time.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re always thinking hard about how we do things and would love any feedback.
When Jason and I started AsktheVC, one of our goals was to have a place where entrepreneurs could ask us questions and get direct answers. We did this for a while, getting to most of the questions which has created a very nice corpus of answers to several hundred questions easily searchable by Lijit.
- How Did We Get Our Idea For Our Startup?
- How Much Equity Should an Early Stage COO/CFO Get?
- How Do You Negotiate a Carve Out With Investors?
Of course, these are our answers and opinions, and many of the questions are subjective, but they form a starting point for any entrepreneur looking for answers to a bunch of random questions from a VC.
Now that we have relaunched AsktheVC with the publication of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, we’ve started answering questions again at AsktheVC. You’ll notice a “Have A Question” link just above the Do More Faster image on the right sidebar. We’ll try to answer them within a few days of them coming in. And, if you have a different opinion to any of our answers, please weigh in on the comments.
As a VC who has been blogging for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the VC Blogger phenomenon. I’ve been subscribing to, reading, forwarding, occasionally commenting, and setting up networks of feeds for a while.
With the relaunch of AsktheVC we’ve resurrected something we used to do periodically which is highlight a great VC post. However, we are taking a different tact this time around with our new motto.
“We read all the VC Bloggers so you don’t have to.”
It’s not quite the gray lady, but hey, we are just VCs and bloggers, not real journalists. Jason and I already have some great posts up from guys like Jeff Bussgang (Flybridge), Mark Suster (GRP), Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures), Roger Ehrenberg (IA Ventures), Charlie O’Donnell (First Round Capital) and 500 Startups. We’ll provide a little additional insight, or at least a pithy comment.
We’ve also got a full list of known VC bloggers (at least to us) on the sidebar of AsktheVC. If we are missing anyone (I’m sure we are), please email me and I’ll add them.
On my run today I was thinking about GP – LP interactions. This line of thought was prompted by a contrast between two interactions, or rather one interaction and one non-interaction, that I’ve had in the past few days.
The interaction was I had with one of my LPs over the last 24 hours. They emailed asking for a reference on someone who indicated they knew me and had invested with me. I didn’t know the person, but knew a few people who did, and quickly sent emails getting addition info for my LP. With a small amount of effort I was able to generate some useful feedback, including triangulating on the deal he was suggesting we were investors in together (it was a true statement prospectively as it’s something I’m working on.) I was also able to get some specific one degree of separation feedback for my LP.
I contrasted that with the non-interaction that I’d recently had. I’m an investor in about 30 VC funds (so, in addition to being a GP in my funds, I’m an LP in a bunch of other funds.) I’m a very easy LP – I basically try to be available for the GP whenever they want, be supportive, make my capital calls on time, and be low maintenance. I invest in VC funds for several reasons, including my belief that long term it’s a good investment (and my overall performance across this category of investment bears this out.)
In the case of the non-interaction, I made an intro between an entrepreneur and the GP. I do this sparingly (per my Don’t Ask For A Referral If I Say No policy) – I’ll only do this if I think the fit is a good one. I think most of the people I’ve invested in and work with know this, but who knows. Anyway, in this case I haven’t heard anything back from the GP. When I thought about this, I realized there were several GPs I’ve invested in that are terrible at responding to me. Now, this might just be me, and not their LPs in general, but my guess is that the dynamic is a typical one given my knowledge of their individual tempo and work patterns.
I realized as I was thinking about this that I have very little respect for this type of behavior. I think you should treat your investors with the upmost respect, be extremely responsive to them, and to go out of your way to try to be helpful when they interact with you. When I reflect on the interactions I’ve had with my investors over the last 25 years, I always tried hard to be responsive, even if we had a disagreement, difficult conversation, or difference of opinion.
I tried to come up with a rationale for blowing off an LP. None of the obvious ones – I’m too busy, it’s not a priority, it’s not what I’m paid to do, I’m not interested – made any sense. And I couldn’t come up with any non-obvious ones that did either.
In every GP / LP relationship I’ve ever been involved in, there comes a moment in time when the GP needs something from the LP. This is true at the beginning of the relationship when the GP is asking the LP for an investment. It seems incredibly short sided to me for GPs to forget that they will once again need something from the LP and, instead of being responsive through the life of the relationship, only pay attention when the GP needs something.