New Yorker pokes into the venture capital world

“Tomorrow’s Advance Man” is a New Yorker story (May 18, 2015 issue) about the world of Marc Andreessen, NCSA Mosaic browser programmer turned venture capitalist.

The story explains how the top firms get consistently better returns than the less-known ones: “The imprimatur of a top firm’s investment is so powerful that entrepreneurs routinely accept a twenty-five per cent lower valuation to get it.” (i.e., they are buying at a lower price than competitors)

The market-clearing price for a competent venture capital partner is not very high: “[A16z] general partners make about three hundred thousand dollars a year, far less than the industry standard of at least a million dollars, and the savings pays for sixty-five specialists in executive talent, tech talent, market development, corporate development, and marketing.” Presumably the partners get some kind of boost when a portfolio company is sold, but $ 300,000 per year is what a senior programmer at Apple or Google could expect to earn (and more evidence that Ellen Pao would have made more money by getting pregnant than by working as a VC).

What would be a fair price for the job? Maybe $ 0:

The dirty secret of the trade is that the bottom three-quarters of venture firms didn’t beat the Nasdaq for the past five years. In a stinging 2012 report, the L.P. Diane Mulcahy calculated, “Since 1997, less cash has been returned to V.C. investors than they have invested.” The truth is that most V.C.s subsist entirely on fees, which they compound by raising a new fund every three years. Returns are kept hidden by nondisclosure agreements, and so V.C.s routinely overstate them, both to encourage investment and to attract entrepreneurs. “You can’t find a venture fund anywhere that’s not in the top quartile,” one L.P. said sardonically. V.C.s also logo shop, buying into late rounds of hot companies at high prices so they can list them on their portfolio page.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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