VC’s New Math: Does Less = More?

Friday, January 18th, 2008

VC's New Math: Does Less = More?

Mr. Thiel, the former CEO of online-payment company PayPal, is making waves in Silicon Valley with an investment strategy that differs significantly from the traditional approach. His company invests only modest amounts of money, sometimes just a few hundred thousand dollars, and focuses on entrepreneurs Mr. Thiel and his partners often know personally. He also takes an uncharacteristically hands-off approach to company management.
Mr. Thiel, who based Founders Fund in San Francisco rather than the traditional VC hotspot of Sand Hill Road in suburban Menlo Park, Calif., is structuring deals differently from how traditional venture capitalists do. Significantly, the fund often buys only a 5% or 10% stake in a company and sets up a special class of stock that start-up founders can sell while they are building their companies — and before venture-capital investors see profits. That way, the thinking goes, the company founders can reap some financial reward and stay motivated to build the company before an IPO or company sale, which can take years.

Some traditional investors don’t think founders should make money before backers do, since early paydays might distract them from the task at hand.

All of this is causing traditional VC firms to re-examine the way they invest in tiny tech start-ups. VC concerns including Trinity Ventures, for example, are now letting a few of their entrepreneurs “take money off the table” early on by selling stock.

Many big venture firms have also started looking at much smaller deals. Accel did six deals less than $1 million this year, although the company says that was in response to increasing valuations for larger-sized investments.

About a year ago, Charles River Ventures announced a program to offer $250,000 loans to fledgling Internet start-ups, far smaller than its usual investment size. Charles River is now also making equity investments in companies through its QuickStart program.

Partner George Zachary said his company launched the program because it was encountering many companies that didn’t need a traditional, multimillion-dollar VC investment and the attendant hand-holding.

Just how successful Mr. Thiel’s investing tactics are remains to be seen; Founders Fund hasn’t yet seen any payout from the Facebook stake. However, it recently collected a big return when one of its investments, computer-security and antispam concern IronPort Systems Inc., was sold to Cisco Systems Inc. for $830 million.

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