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:
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.
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.
We recently funded Blinkfire Analytics using our FG Angels Syndicate. The CEO and founder, Steve Olechowski, was co-founder / COO of FeedBurner, which Google acquired in 2007. I was an investor and on the board of FeedBurner, which is how I got to know Steve.
If you don’t know the FeedBurner story, there were four FeedBurner founders – Dick Costolo (now CEO of Twitter), Eric Lunt (now CTO of BrightTag and until recently a board member at Gnip, which Twitter just acquired), Matt Shobe (now at AngelList), and Steve.
In addition to bootstrapping his new company forever (since he’s a multi-time successful entrepreneur), Steve could easily raise an angel round any time he wanted to. So, we were psyched he was willing to do an FG Angels Syndicate with us.
Steve had some unsolicited comments for me, AngelList, and angels as a result of the process. I asked him if I could post them – he said yes. Following is a thoughtful set of reasons AngelList is so powerful, along with some constructive feedback for us to consider.
1) Some of your backers are really good citizens. When it was oversubscribed they kept their syndicate commitment, but offered a much bigger investment outside the syndicate. When 50% of the money didn’t close, they went back and put it back into the syndicate.
2) You have a bunch of “shadow backers” who seem to follow your investments, and then try to go direct to invest to avoid paying your carry.
3) There are some backers that request an awful lot of due diligence for a $1000 investment. If they are that worried about losing $1000, perhaps AngelList isn’t the right place for them to be investing.
For us, the benefits of the syndicate are:
1) Access to capital we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to raise on angel list, and offline
2) Keeping the number of entries on our cap table relatively small
3) Though #2, we still have the transparency of knowing who the “LPs” are, and can mine them for help if needed
For the investors, the clear benefits are:
1) Access to deal flow they wouldn’t otherwise get
2) Ability to diversify their funds without a huge minimum ticket
3) Piggybacking on an investment thesis without having to do the research
The only negatives so far are the days of uncertainty where do you don’t know how much is going to get filled and if you need to generate more demand or turn people away on a daily basis.
I woke up to a bunch of VC related things in my twitter stream this morning. I had a nice digital sabbath yesterday so I was a little surprised by how much there was. I tried cranking out a #tweetstorm of them using Little Pork Chop but I found the tweetstream experience to be very unsatisfying and very inauthentic feeling. The links are good, so here they are if you want to get in the headspace for what I really want to talk about.
1/11 Things I Read About VC This Morning I Think You Should Care About In A Compact Little Tweetstorm
2/11 Start with @fredwilson thinking about tweetstorms – https://avc.com/2014/06/tweetstorming/
3/11 Then @msuster on why VC is so much more compelling now – https://bit.ly/1mvIE5C
4/11 and @pmarca on why the IPO is not what it used to be – https://bit.ly/1ljhzlV
5/11 and congrats to @jeff on raising his new fund – https://bit.ly/1m0h6cD
6/11 thx @joshelman to the pointer to the @yoapp hackathon – https://bit.ly/1x0MhbQ
7/11 the #premoney conference recordings will be online soon – https://www.livestream.com/500startups/folder
8/11 the 2nd seed round trend @Mattermark by @DanielleMorrill – https://bit.ly/1iQTCI2
9/11 I end with Haiku
10/11 Tweetstorms perplex me a lot
11/11 Do you enjoy them
The response to 11/11 was generally “no” although a few people suggested that tweetstorming while a soccer game was going wasn’t a particularly useful test.
After I thought I was done I ran across a really interesting set of articles which didn’t make it into the tweetstorm. The first article, In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together, was a summary that let to the second article, The Cost of Friendship, which led to the actual article behind the annoying SSRN paywall. After reading the abstract, I decided to buy and read the article, especially since Paul Gompers, one of the great academic researchers on the VC industry, was the lead author.
I was once a Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan School studying innovation. Specifically, my doctoral advisor was Eric von Hippel. Eric was very kind to me, but I was a horrible Ph.D. student because I was also running a company at the time and had no interest in being an academic. Eventually I got kicked out well before I got my Ph.D.
Nonetheless, I learned how to more or less read an academic paper and some social science rubbed off on me. Actually, a lot rubbed off on me – enough for me to know that the headlines written about academic papers and studies rarely capture the essence of what is going on in the paper. Instead, reading the abstract and the carefully reading the non-analysis part of the paper, with a goal of putting yourself in the researchers’ shoes to understand what they are trying to figure out, will help you understand the punch line.
So when I read the first article, it was easy to conclude “VCs who are like each other do less well investing together.” Or, “VCs who like each other perform more poorly when investing together than those who don’t like each other.” This is consistent with the callout from the first article which says “The more affinity there is between two VCs investing in a firm, the less likely the firm will succeed, according to research by Paul Gompers, Yuhai Xuan and Vladimir Mukharlyamov.”
I read the summary, which is kind of the “PR piece” for the article, but I didn’t find it satisfying. It generalized too quickly and I kept wondering how affinity was defined. The hint was that it had to do with ethnicity, educational background, and employment history, which wasn’t how I was defining affinity when reacting to the title “In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together.”
Next, I read the executive summary of the paper. This was clear and felt fine to me. It separated affinity and ability. The punch line of the paper is:
“Collaborating for ability-based characteristics enhances investment performance. But collaborating due to shared affinities dramatically reduces the probability of investment success.”
Much different than the marketing piece about the paper that I read first. Basically, if you choose your co-investor because you think she is a great investor, that’s good, but if you choose your co-investor because you like him, that’s bad. But that felt too simple to me – no way that’s the basis for a HBS academic study. So I bought and read the paper, which was pretty easy until I got stuck in analysis stew on p.22. I hung in there and got through it, but once again was reminded of another reason I was a shitty Ph.D. student – I dislike reading academic papers.
I learned that affinity was narrowly and precisely defined, but not in the way I thought it was. Affinity to me meant that the two VCs liked each other, or had an “affinity” for one another, but instead affinity was based on biographic data, specifically gender, ethnicity, educational background, and employment history.
“The education dummy variables Top College, Top Business School, Top Graduate School, and Top School equal one if a venture capitalist holds, respectively, an undergraduate, business, graduate, or any degree from a top university and zero otherwise. Ethnic Minority takes the value of one if a venture capitalist is East Asian, Indian, Jewish or Middle Eastern. Dummy variables East Asian, Indian, Jewish and Middle Eastern pin down a venture capitalist’s ethnicity; the dummy variable Female identifies an individual’s gender.”
Also, success was defined as a company having an IPO (the data range for the study was 1975 – 2003). Now, I’m not going to argue the performance variable, but as someone who has had a lot of financial success with exits that were not IPOs, I’d be curious what happens when the analysis is done where success is defined by “at least 10x return on capital for the VC.”
The big reveal is buried in the middle of p.18.
“On one hand, people display greater inclination to work with similar others. Similarities may be in terms of ability (e.g., whether individuals hold degrees from top academic institutions) or affinity (e.g., whether individuals share the same ethnic background). On the other hand, these two sets of pairwise characteristics affect performance in opposite ways. Teams with more able participants are more likely to result in a successful investment outcome. On the contrary, investments are more likely to fail when groups are formed based upon similarities between members along characteristics having nothing to do with ability.”
Go read that again. If you pair up two people based on ability, they have better results than if you pair them up on affinity, where affinity is defined by “each went to the same school, each are the same ethnic minority (including Jewish), or each worked together in a previous company.”
Unless I missed something (and it’s entirely possible that I did), the message is “choose to work with people who have ability.”
I kind of feel like this applies to life in general!
It’ll be interesting to see how this paper gets interpreted, or misinterpreted over the next few weeks, assuming anyone else goes beyond the summary and reads the paper, no thanks to SSRN.
Just another reminder to look beyond the headlines. And don’t co-invest with someone who has no ability just because you went to the same school, are the same ethnicity, or once worked together.
When the JOBS Act was finalized, one of the rule changes that had a lot of fanfare around it was the increase in the number of shareholders a private company could have. Prior to the JOBS Act, it was 500, after which point the company had to register and report to the SEC just like it was a public company (even if it hadn’t gone public.) This was a major issue for many fast growing companies that either went through strange contortions not to have 500 investors, or filed with the SEC to get no-action letters. There were plenty of nuances around this rule and I was in the middle of several situations that structured around it legally. Each time it was a lot of overhead for the company in question, none of which added anything to the system except fees to the lawyers.
Lifting the number of investors to 2000 seemed to make sense. In the situations I was involved in it would have immediately solved the specific problem. So that’s good.
But ever since we started working with AngelList on FG Angels, we’ve been wrestling with something called we’ve been referring to as the 99 Investor Problem. We structure our investment in companies via an LLC that has all the individual FG Angels syndicate members in it. This simplifies life for the company as they only end up with 1 investor – the FG Angels syndicate LCC – rather than a bunch of individual investors. At this point we have 217 backers in our syndicate, so with us each company would end up having 218 separate investors if we didn’t use the LLC.
If everyone was on the cap table, the company would have to chase down 218 signatures for everything. Instead, using our approach, they have effectively two investors – our FG Angels syndicate (one investor) and Foundry Group (another investor). Two signatures. Much easier. We handle the Foundry Group signature. AngelList handles the syndicate signature.
Except it doesn’t work that way. The SEC limits an LLC to having 99 investors. So we can only have 99 of the 217 syndicate members participate. Now, there’s a nuance that excludes “qualified purchasers” (QPs) – individuals with $5M in assets and firms with $25M in assets – from the 99 investor count. Overall our QPs + the top 99 investors in our syndicate represent $321,000 based on committed amounts to FG Angels. If you include the balance of the 237 members, we end up at a syndicate of $439,000. The company then gets our commitment of $50,000 on top of that.
As a result of this 99 investor limitation, we have two disappointing problems. First, we have over 100 investors who would like to invest in our syndicate with us who get excluded because of the 99 investor rule. Next, there is $118,000 per investment that we’d like to include in each syndicate that the companies we are investing in won’t get. Bad for the companies and bad for the investor.
We’ve spent lots of time over the past 60 days trying to solve the 99 investor problem. At this point, we’ve run into a dead end. We’ve tried multiple LLCs – that doesn’t work as they end up getting viewed as a single entity. We’ve tried other structures – that doesn’t work. We’re certainly open to ideas at this point.
In the mean time, until we solve this, AngelList is making the following changes to their Syndicates product.
– Qualified Purchasers: AngelList will include all Qualified Purchasers (individuals with $5M in assets and firms with $25M in assets) in each syndicated deal as they are exempt from the SEC’s 99-investor limit. We will soon email your backers to determine if they are Qualified Purchasers (QPs) and we will update your syndicate management interface to indicate the QPs.
– Top 99 Backers: The next time you syndicate a deal, we will include all QPs and the top 99 non-QPs by commitment amount. You can override this default to include specific backers who are not in the top 99. The top 99 backers will change dynamically as backers adjust their backing amounts.
– Funds: We are working on new funds products to allow additional investors who are not in your top 99 backers or QPs to participate in your syndicated deals.
– Notifying Backers: Finally, we will notify your backers of the SEC’s 99-investor restriction this week and give them the opportunity to change their backing amounts.
We are bummed about this because part of our goal is to build a very large angel network as a result of the FG Angels activity. The 99 investor rule directly undermines this, and limits the amount of investment and support for the companies we are investing in. It’s another example of the challenges of the JOBS Act and another discovery on our part of the “miss” between the goal of the new law and the implementation.