After two years of a dedicated experiment, we’ve decided to stop making new investments via our FG Angels Syndicate. We’ve learned a lot, achieved some of our goals, but ultimately have decided that the effort required to maintain our investment pace on AngelList is too great for us, at least for now. More on that in a bit, but let’s start with some history.
The Monday after AngelList announced their Syndicate product in September 2013 we decided to to jump in with both feet and start FG Angels. As a result, we were one of the very first syndicates and the first VC firm to create a syndicate.
We had several high level goals:
- Understand how AngelList and Syndicates worked by actively participating;
- Be able to experiment with seed investments outside of our themes;
- Extend our network of entrepreneurs and angel investors; and
- Generate additional economic returns for our funds.
It took a few months for AngelList to gear up Syndicates so that they actually worked. As a result our first investment wasn’t made until early January when we invested in OnTheGo Platforms, which was just acquired by Atheer.
Our plan was to make 50 investments, directly committing $2.5m from our funds ($50k from us for each investment) through 2014. When we did a retrospective on our first year of FG Angels, we had invested in 42 companies. Seth did a nice job of summarizing what the deals and the syndicate activity for the first year looked like.
- Total number of investments: 42
- Average syndicate investment amount per deal: $316k
- Largest syndicate investment in any single deal: $785k
- Total number syndicate investors (syndicate members who invested in at least one FG Angels deal): 116
- Total number of investors (all investors who have joined FG Angels in at least one deal): 410
- # of investors who have participated in at least half of FG Angels deals: 30
- Most active syndicate member investment total: $905k across 41 of our 42 FG Angels deals
- % of investments with a female co-founder: > 20%
Our plan was not to generate investment deal flow for us to follow on with our main funds. Instead, we took a one time seed investor approach patterned after an angel strategy that I’ve used for almost 20 years that has now generated a realized return over 10x invested capital and still has about half the money at play.
We’ve ended up investing in three companies through our main funds that we had invested in first with FG Angels (Mattermark, Revolar, and Havenly). However, both Revolar and Havenly went through accelerator programs that we are involved with (Techstars and MergeLane, respectively), which allowed us even more perspective into working with them.
We decided to continue making FG Angels investments through 2015 at about the same pace. By the end of 2015, we had made a total of 65 FG Angels investments. We have 49 funded Backers, a 236 unfunded Backers, a total syndicate backing of $976,653, and an estimated 30 day raise of $171,058.
At the end of 2015, we revisited the goals I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Let’s see how we did and what we learned.
Goal 1: Understand how AngelList and Syndicates worked by actively participating: In addition to understanding in depth how AngelList and Syndicates worked, I’d like to think we helped Naval and his awesome team at AngelList on figuring out the legal, workflow, and UX dynamics around AngelList. We’re fans of both AngelList and Syndicates and it was important to us to give back to the platform and help them work through the dynamics involved in creating and rolling out their Syndicates product.
Goal 2: Be able to experiment with seed investments outside our themes: While we did a lot of investments outside our themes, we generated very little incremental learning on our part. While we could be very helpful in a generic early investor way, the time to value ratio was way off in both directions. While we regularly did short, quick hit help via email, whenever someone wanted to spend an hour or more with one of us, we eventually realized that our investment and ownership in the company was dramatically underweighted. And, this took time away (we each have a finite number of hours each week) from companies we had much larger investments in. We also realized that we were getting the experimentation value and learning at a greater rate from our deep engagement in Techstars.
Goal 3: Extend our network of entrepreneurs and angel investors: As we expected, our network of entrepreneurs was expanded (by about 150 people across the 65 companies.) These founders are active members of our portfolio and our goal is to be helpful to them any way we can, given time constraints. However, we have been disappointed in how we have – or haven’t – been effective at building a broader network of angel investors. We’ve made some new friends and built strong connections with a few angels in the syndicate, but we’ve struggled to build any kind of extended community. The tools for this on AngelList just aren’t there yet and we haven’t committed the resources to do this separately. And, ultimately, some face to face time is likely needed which we haven’t been willing to do.
Goal 4: Generate additional economic returns for our funds: We’ve invested about $3.2 million in FG Angels and are excited about the portfolio. However, it’s a very early stage portfolio that will take a very long time to mature. Even when you include the carry we are getting on FG Angels (15%), this total amount represents less than one fund investment on our part (our typical investment size is $5m to $15m, with this growing to as much as $40m when you include our late stage fund.) Even if we generate a huge multiple on our overall FG Angels investment (say 10x), the impact on our fund return is limited given the size of the investments we were making.
Ultimately, we’ve decided that the effort that we are putting into FG Angels is too great for us to continue on in the way that we’ve have been for the past two years. However, by running the experiment, we’ve better understood the leverage points at the angel / seed level that AngelList and Syndicates create, which for some investors, and many entrepreneurs, is very powerful. Finally, we’d like to believe that we’ve contributed to the evolution and dynamic of angel / seed investing through this effort.
While we are no longer going to be actively making FG Angels investments, every now and then we might do something out of FG Angels. We continue to believe that AngelList Syndicates is an effective platform for companies and investors. We simply felt that we needed to better balance the time and effort we were spending on FG Angels relative to the weight it has in our overall portfolio.
It’s important to all of us at Foundry Group to experiment around the edges of our industry and to push the boundaries of the venture model to find new and innovative ways to create value for our investors while supporting as broad a set of entrepreneurs as possible. We’ll continue to look for ways to do that.
This morning my partners at Foundry Group and I announced that we are going to make 50 seed investments of $50,000 each on AngelList between now and the end of 2014. We’ll be doing this via AngelList’s new Syndicate approach through an entity called FG Angel where we will create a syndicate of up to $500,000, allowing others to invest $450,000 alongside anything we do. For now, we are using my AngelList account (bfeld) which I’ve renamed Brad Feld (FG Angel). We are working with Naval and team at AngelList to get this set up correctly so that a firm (e.g. Foundry Group) can create the syndicate in the future, at which point we’ll move the activity over to there.
For years, we have had people ask if they can invest alongside us at Foundry Group at the seed level. We’ve never had an entrepreneurs fund, or a side fund, so we’ve encouraged people to invest in Techstars and other seed funds that we are investors in. As of today, we have a new way for people to invest alongside of us – via AngelList’s syndicate. The minimum investment is $1,000 per deal, so if you make a $1,000 commitment to our syndicate, you are committing to investing $50,000 alongside of us between now and the end of 2014 in the best seed investments we can find on AngelList. Simply go to Brad Feld (FG Angels) and click the big blue “Back” button. Special bonus hugs to anyone who backs FG Angels today (as I write this, the first backer has come in – from Paul Sethi – thanks Paul – awesome to be investing with you.)
This is an experiment. If you know us, we love to experiment with stuff, rather than theorize about things. We are huge believes in seed and early stage investing and through a variety of vehicles, including Techstars and our personal investments in other early stage VC funds, have well over 1,000 seed investments that are active. This has created an incredible network that adds to our Foundry Group portfolio. With FG Angel, we are taking this to another level as we begin a set of activities to amplify this network dramatically.
So there is no ambiguity, the investments come from our Foundry Group fund. All economics, including the syndicate carry, go to our fund. We are calling this FG Angel because we are approaching this the same way we do with any angel investment. I’ve written extensively about my own angel investing strategy in the past – you’ll see this reflected in what we are doing here. Over the years my angel strategy has been very successful financially and our goal with FG Angel mirrors that.
We expect we’ll learn a lot about this between now and the end of the year. When we learn, we’ll share what we learn. We believe deeply that the best way to learn about new stuff is to participate. So – off we go. We hope you join us – both in the syndicate and the ensuing network.
Last night Amy and I had an awesome dinner at Perla with Fred Wilson, Joanne Wilson, Matt Blumberg, and Mariquita Blumberg. Fred and I have been involved in Return Path for a dozen years and this has become an annual tradition for us when Amy and I are in NYC. At 12 years of service, Return Path gives a six week sabbatical and a pair of red Addidas sneakers as a “get ready for your sabbatical” gift. Fred and I got the sneakers, but not the six week sabbatical.
I sat across from Joanne and since the restaurant was noisy our table ended up having two separate conversations going. Joanne is awesome – if you don’t read her blog, you should start right now, especially if you are interested in NY entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs, food, and the thoughts of an amazing woman. I still remember meeting her for the first time around 1995 and thinking how dynamite she was.
Oh – and if you are a seed stage company in NYC looking to raise money, you are an idiot if you don’t immediately reach out to Joanne and try to get her involved. She is one of the most thoughtful angel investors I’ve ever met.
We talked a lot about seed stage investing during our part of the conversation. Joanne has done about 25 investments in the past few years and has a very clear strategy for what she invests in. She works incredibly hard for the companies she invests in, is deeply passionate about the products and the entrepreneurs, and clearly loves what she does.
During the conversation we had a moment where we were talking about feedback. I told her about my approach of saying no in less than 60 seconds. She told me a story about giving entrepreneurs blunt feedback in the first meeting, which I always try to do also. And then she said something that stuck with me.
Joanne will often start a meeting by saying something like I give you permission to hate my feedback. You can decide that you want to tell me ‘fuck you’ after the meeting. But I’m going to tell you what my direct and honest reaction is.
Now Joanne is a New Yorker through and through. Aggressive, direct, and clear. But never hostile. Ever. And a deeply loyal supporter. So this feedback, while direct, is incredibly powerful. It’s often extremely hard for someone to hear, especially if they are in “I’m trying to convince you to fund my company mode.”
I play the same way. At Foundry Group, one of our deeply held beliefs is that we always be intellectually honest, no matter how difficult it may be. At TechStars we pride ourselves on providing direct feedback, but always saying “this is only data”, letting the entrepreneur make their own decision about what to do.
These are versions of Joanne’s permission to “hate her feedback.” It’s a powerful way to frame any discussion. And I know I’ll be using the phrase “I give you permission to hate my feedback” many times in the future.
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.
There have been a number of thoughtful “early warning sign” posts in the past few days including one from Fred Wilson (Storm Clouds), one from Mark Suster (What Angel Investing & Florida Condos Have in Common), and Roger Ehrenberg (Investing in a frenzied market).
The seed investing phenomenon of 2010 has been awesome to watch and participate in. The velocity of activity from individual angels, angel groups, seed VCs (the correct phrase for most of the “super angels” which have now raised actual funds), and even traditional VCs has been on a steep climb throughout the year. When the numbers are tallied up at the end of the year (I’m sure someone will do it – and it won’t be me) I expect there will be all kinds of new records set.
But the warning signs from Fred, Mark, and Roger are worth reading and pondering carefully. I have a few choice quotes to add to the mix that I’ve heard over the past thirty days.
- Prolific Seed VC: I only expect that 30% of the companies I funded this year will raise another round.
- Established VC With A New Seed Program: We are planning to make 30 seed investments out of our new fund. We’ll do follow on investments in 10 of them.
In both cases, when I speculate on the next sentence they would have said if they were being direct and blunt, it would be something like “I expect the balance of them will go out of business after thrashing around for a while.” The optimist would have a different view (e.g. that they would be quickly acquired or they would never need additional capital), but anyone that has been investing for a while knows this isn’t the likely outcome for any but a small number of these companies.
Mid-year I felt compelled to write a post titled Suggestions for Angel Investors. When I reflect on that post, my fear is that most seed investors aren’t implementing a “double down on the first round” strategy. Some percentage of seed deals will quickly raise their next round (30% if you believe the two anecdotes above.) Some percentage of seed deals will fizzle out. But some percentage will get stuck in the middle. They will be interesting ideas with solid teams that realize their first idea out of the gate needs a pivot. Or they’ll be in the middle of a pivot when they run out of cash. In the absence of the existing seed investors stepping up and writing another check (without any new / outside validation) it’s going to be hard for these companies to get to the place where they raise a next round financing.
While all entrepreneurs are optimistic on the day they raise their seed round that they’ll be one of the hot deals that easily raises a significant next round, it’s worth starting to plan from the beginning for the case where you “are interesting, but not unambiguously compelling.” In these cases, you need more time and the only place you are likely to get it is from your existing investors. If they are willing to keep investing on their own without a new outside lead, you’ll at least have a chance to get to the next level. But if they aren’t, you could find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation.
I’ll end with Fred’s money quote:
“Anything that is unsustainable will eventually stop happening. And when it stops happening, there will be a dislocation event that will cause people to change their behavior. ,,, When will it stop? Who knows? But be prepared for it to end. And when it does, things will be different. And we should all be prepared for that time.”
Having worked alongside Fred for a long time in a number of companies through several cycles, I can assure you these words come from a place of wisdom, experience, and shared pain.
Earlier this week I did a one hour interview on “Meet the Angels” sponsored by Tech Coast Angels (one of the LA Angel groups.) It was supposed to live but for some reason there were some problems getting into the webcast. It’s now up on the web – if you were trying to watch it and couldn’t, it’s posted below.
I was thinking more about my post from yesterday titled Addressing The VC Seed Investor Signaling Problem. There were a bunch of good comments that caused me to realize that I wrote the post from the perspective of a VC, not an entrepreneur. As I mulled the comments over, I realized something very specific.
If a VC invests in a seed round but then doesn’t invest in the next round, there is a signaling problem, regardless of what the VC does with their investment.
When I read the post carefully, I realized that I implied that the VC firm’s strategy of selling back their seed investment might address part of the signaling problem. In hindsight, it doesn’t address this at all. It addresses a different problem – the free rider problem.
Most VC’s hate when other VC’s act as free riders. A free rider is defined as someone who invests in an early round but then doesn’t participate in future rounds. Note that I explicitly said “other VCs” and not angel investors. Most VCs expect that angel investors will only invest in the first round or two, so they get exempted from free rider status. I also exempt “super angels” / “seed-only VCs” from this – if you clearly define your role as an investor in the first round or two, and you never participate in later rounds, then you won’t end up being classified as a free rider. But, once you start participating in later rounds, the expectation of your financial participation changes.
Early stage VCs are often expected to play at least pro-rata in following rounds. When companies are successful, the early investors often (but not always) back off their pro-rata. But, when companies go sideways or struggle, the early investors are often expected, by their co-investors – to continue to participate pro-rata until the company either succeeds or fails. In many cases, the consequences for not participating are significant and you can get a taste for this from the post on the term Pay-to-Play that my partner Jason and I wrote in 2005.
The firm that I mentioned in the previous post addresses the free rider problem by saying “look, we’ll make it easy, we don’t support going forward so we’ll sell back our equity to the company, entrepreneurs, or angels and get out of the way for new VC investors.” While this doesn’t address signaling, it does eliminate the free rider – in this case the VC that is not going to participate going forward.
When things are going great, none of this matters. But when things aren’t, they matter a lot. If I shift from the perspective of a VC to the perspective of an entrepreneur, I would only want VCs as seed investors who have a proven track record of consistently following their seed investments with future investments. This will never happen 100% of the time – there are definitely seed investments that don’t make it. In addition, there are often cases where the entrepreneur doesn’t have choices and has to work with whoever shows up with a check. But to hand wave over the issue is illogical.
Now, as a VC, I don’t want to co-invest with free riders. I’m exempting angels, super angels, and “seed-only VCs” from this. But if I co-invest with someone, I want to know that they are going to work with us to continue to fund the company, not walk away 50% of the time “because” – well – whatever “because” means.
The collision between signaling and free riders is what creates a lot of dissonance. In the current wave of seed and angel investing activity, we haven’t hit a hard down cycle yet. We will. When we do, these two issues are going to pop to the forefront. Anyone who participates in the early stage investment ecosystem (entrepreneurs, angels, and VCs) should make sure they spend some time thinking about this and incorporating it into their own strategy, before it is upon them.
One of the most common criticisms of VC investors making seed investments is something that has become known as “the signaling problem.” The explanation of this problem is that VCs create a “negative perception” about a company if they make a seed investment but then don’t follow through and make a next round investment. Another way to say this is that a VC creates a “signaling situation” with their seed investment – if they don’t follow on in the next round they are “sending a signal” that something is wrong with the company (hence the label “signaling problem.”)
Last week I spoke with a partner at a large VC firm whose firm has been around for a long time. They have a new seed program (as of a few years ago) after eschewing seed investments from 2002 to 2008. The partner that I talked to told me that they are doing 30 seed investments out of their newest fund.
I was surprised on two levels – the first is that they have a very visible anti-seed reputation. I pointed out that their market reputation was that they didn’t do seed investments nor did they do many Series A investments. He said “we changed that a few years ago.” I suggested that their web site didn’t talk about their seed program; he responded “yeah, we need to work on our web site.”
The second, more important thing, was that I couldn’t make the math work on their fund. I asked them how many of the seed investments they expected to follow with regular first round investments. He said “half of them”. So – 15 of their investments in the fund would come from their seed program. I asked how many other investments they’d have in the fund. He said 30. So they’ll end up with 45 active investments in the fund (high for their fund size) of which 33% came from seed investments.
I then asked how they were going to deal with the “signaling problem” for seed investments they didn’t follow on with. Here he said something that made me pause: “We’ll sell them back to the founders, the company, or the angels at somewhere between $1 and our cost.” I probed on this (as in “seriously, can you give me some examples?”) Without naming names he explained three situations in the past two years where they’ve done this. And, in each case, his firm had decided not to follow on, took themselves out of the cap table, and the three companies were able to raise additional financing (in one case from a different VC firm.)
I thought this was a pretty clever way to deal with this issue. While it doesn’t eliminate the problem created by the signaling issue, it addresses part of it. I don’t know if this firm will follow through on unwinding their positions in 15 of the 30 seed investments they make. I also don’t know how they’ll feel when one of the 15 they decided not to follow goes on to be massively successful and their seed piece, if they had kept it, would have returned a meaningful amount of money to them. But if they do take this approach it seems like they should shout it from the rooftops as part of their VC / seed positioning statement.
I’m not a fan of this “spray and pray” seed investing strategy for VCs. Instead, when we make a seed investment, we don’t treat it any differently than our non-seed investments. Rather than repeat our approach here, take a look at the post How I Think About Seed Investing As A VC that I wrote a month ago. That said, I found the approach of selling back the seed investment at $1 to be an interesting way to address part of the signaling problem.
My partner Seth Levine has a detailed post up today titled Trada – from the beginning that describes the creation and financing of Trada. Foundry Group is the seed investor in Trada and Seth’s post describes one example of what I think is effective VC seed investing.
The meat of the funding story follows:
“Of course coming up with the idea is the easy part. Executing against that idea is another matter. In this case neither Niel (nor I) had any interest in creating a traditional syndicate to fund the company. Instead we quickly put our heads together about a financing (we like to say it was over beers, but the truth is more mundane – we hammered out the details in a 10 minute conversation in the conference room of the Foundry office). We decided that we wanted to bring in some experts to help us with the business and together flew around pitching the business to a small handful of strategic angel investors to pull together a small syndicate that became the initial Trada investor base. Niel and I hammered out a second financing in similar fashion (again around the Foundry conference table, this time without the need for an angel roadshow). It’s a great example of how we like to work with entrepreneurs – especially those that we have a long history with. We like to be involved early (in this case before an idea for a business even existed) and we think of our angel investments as a down payment on a subsequent investment in the business (we’ realize that we need to give early businesses some time to develop).”
The short version is that the seed round was figured out in ten minutes – this was the “Series A”. A few strategic angels were added to this round. We did a second financing by ourselves at an increased valuation – this was the “Series B”. Recently Google Ventures led the a $5.75m “Series C” round.
The terms on the Series A and B were straightforward as Niel Robertson, the founder/CEO of Trada is a sophisticated entrepreneur (Trada is his third company) so he had no patience (nor did we) for silly, complex early stage terms. More importantly, the two key aspects of any deal – price and control – we able to be negotiated quickly between Seth and Niel, partly because of their long history working together which was built on mutual respect and trust.
When we funded the Series A (the seed round) of Trada, we fully expected we were at the beginning of a multi-round journey. Seth does a great job of explaining how it got started – I encourage you to read his post for an example of one of the financing cases where I think a VC can be an excellent seed investor.
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.