The problem with venture capital investments 

Recently I read this book called Chaos Monkeys which is about a former Goldman Sachs guy who first worked for a startup, then started up himself, sold his startup and worked for Facebook for a number of years. 

It’s a fast racy read (I finished the 500 page book in a week) full of gossip, though now I remember little of the gossip. The book is also peppered with facts and wisdom about the venture capital and startup industries and that’s what this blogpost is about. 

One of the interesting points mentioned in the book is that venture capitalists do not churn their money. So for example if they’ve raised a round of money, some of which they’ve invested, liquidating some of the investment doesn’t mean that they’ll redeploy these funds.

While the reason for this lack of churn is not known, one of the consequences is that the internal rate of return (IRR) of the investment doesn’t matter as much as the absolute returns they make on the investment during the course of the round. So they’d rather let an investment return them 50x in 8 years (IRR of 63%) rather than cash it one year in for a 10x return (IRR of 900%). 

Some of this non churn is driven by lack of opportunities for further investment (it’s an illiquid market) and also because of venture capitalists’ views on the optimal period of investment (roughly matching the tenure of the rounds). 

This got me thinking about why venture capitalists raise money in rounds, rather than allowing investors continuous entry and exit like hedge funds do. And the answer again is quite simple – it is rather straightforward for a hedge fund to mark their investments to market on a regular basis. Most hedge fund investment happens in instruments where price discovery happens at least once in a few days, which allows this mark to market. 

Venture capital investments however are in instruments that trade much more rarely – like once every few months if the investor is lucky. Also, there are different “series” of preferred stock, which makes the market further less liquid. And this makes it impossible for them to mark to market even once a month, or once a quarter. Hence continuous investment and redemption is not an option! Hence they raise and deploy their capital in rounds. 

So, coming back, venture capitalists like to invest for a duration similar to that of the fund they’ve raised, and they don’t churn their money, and so their preferences in terms of investment should be looked at from this angle. 

They want to invest in companies that have a great chance of producing a spectacular return in the time period that runs parallel to their round. This means long term growth wise steady businesses are out of the picture. As are small opportunities which may return great returns over a short period of time.

And with most venture capitalists raising money for similar tenures (it not, that market fragments and becomes illiquid), and with tenure of round dictating investment philosophy, is there any surprise that all venture capitalists think alike? 

VC Funding, Ratchets and Optionality

A bug (some call it a “feature”) of taking money from VCs is that it comes in with short optionality. VCs try to protect their investments by introducing “ratchets” which protect them against the reduction in valuation of the investee in later rounds.

As you might expect, valuation guru Aswath Damodaran has a nice post out on how to value these ratchets, and how to figure out a company’s “true valuation” after accounting for the ratchets.

A few months back, I’d mentioned only half in jest that I want to get into the business of advising startups on optionality and helping them value investment offers rationally after pricing in the ratchets, so that their “true valuation” gets maximised.

In a conversation yesterday, however, I figured that this wouldn’t be a great business, and startups wouldn’t want to hire someone like me for valuing the optionality in VC investments. In fact, they wouldn’t want to hire anyone for valuing this optionality.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, startups want to show the highest valuation possible, even if it comes embedded with a short put option. A better valuation gives them bigger press, which has some advertising effect for sales, hiring and future valuations. A larger number always has a larger impact than a smaller number.

Then, startup founders tend to be an incredibly optimistic bunch of people, who are especially bullish about their own company. If they don’t believe enough in the possible success of their idea, they wouldn’t be running their company. As a consequence, they tend to overestimate the probability of their success and underestimate the probability¬†of even a small decrease in future valuation. In fact, the probability of them estimating the latter probability at zero is non-zero.

So as the founders see it, the probability of these put options coming into the money is near-zero. It’s almost like they’re playing a Queen of Hearts strategy. The implicit option premium they get as part of their valuation they see as “free money”, and want to grab it. The strikes and structures don’t matter.

I have no advice left to offer them. But I have some advice for you – given that startups hardly care about optionality, make use of it and write yourself a fat put option in the investment you make. But then this is an illiquid market and there is reputation risk of your option expiring in the money. So tough one there!

The Problem with Smaller States

I’m a fan of smaller states. I think our states are currently way too large and we could do with more states since that could lead to greater administrative efficiency and federalism. So yes, I’m fully in support of the Telangana movement – only because I think AP is too huge and unwieldy a state (42 parliamentary constituencies) to be managed from one place.

I have one concern, however. I was thinking of the case of Karnataka and the possible demand by areas of North Karnataka for a separate state. While I support this demand (Karnataka again I think is too huge and unwieldy to be managed from Bangalore which is in a corner of the state) I was suddenly worried about power supply.

From what I last remember, Karnataka’s biggest source of power is the Raichur Thermal Power Station in Shaktinagar. Assuming that it breaks away from “Mysore” as part of a new “north Karnataka” state, what will happen to the energy security of Mysore (the smaller southern portion)? I guess there might be some agreements and long term power supply contracts put in place, yet the loss of this massive captive power source would significantly hurt Mysore.

My concern is that if the demand for a separate North Karnataka grows, the government of undivided Karnataka would be loathe to invest much in any area that may fall under a part of the state that wants to “break away”. And this could lead to concentration of investment in areas that are close to the seat of power, and further skew the development of different parts of the state. Power supply is just one example that I took here – it could be any other massive government investment – say SEZs or large industrial plants and so forth.

There is another issue with smaller states but I think this is a problem for which a solution has been found and is under implementation. The problem with having too many states is that we will end up with too many inter-state boundaries and thus too many “checkposts”. However, the proposed Goods and Service Tax regime (if/when it were to get implemented) will ensure that India would become a common market and inter-state commerce would become more seamless. Nevertheless it is important to get the GST regime in place before we get too many more new states – for it also means less stakeholders to deal with!