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How 6 top VCs are adapting to the new uncertainty

By Arman Tabatabai

As the global economy grinds to a halt, every business sector has been impacted, including the linked worlds of startups and venture capital.

But how much has really changed? If you read VC Twitter, you might think that nothing has changed at all. It’s not hard to find investors who say they are still cutting checks and doing deals. But as Q1 venture data trickles in, it appears that a slowdown in VC activity is gradually forming, something that founders have anecdotally shared with TechCrunch.

To get a better handle on how venture capitalists are approaching today’s market, TechCrunch corresponded with a number of active investors to learn how their investment selection process might be changing in light of COVID-19 and its related disruptions. We wanted to know how their investing cadence in Q1 2020 compared to the final quarter of 2019 and the prior-year period. We also asked if their focus had changed, how valuations have shifted and what their take on the LP market is today.

We heard back from Duncan Turner of SOSV, Alex Doll of TenEleven Ventures, Alex Niehenke of Scale Venture Partners, Paul Murphy of Northzone, Sean Park of Anthemis and John Vrionis of Unusual Ventures.

We’ll start with the key themes from their answers and then share each set of responses in detail.

Three key themes for raising in 2020

The VCs who responded haven’t slowed their investing pace — yet.

There’s likely some selection bias at work, but the venture capitalists who were willing to answer our questions were quick to note that they wrote a similar number of checks in Q1 2020 as in both Q4 2019 (the sequentially preceding quarter) and Q1 2019 (the year-ago quarter). Some were even willing to share numbers.

‘A perfect storm for first time managers,’ say VCs with their own shops

By Connie Loizos

Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.

It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.

Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.

What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, buut I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground,” says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.

It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.

Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based shop Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges. Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.

Know it’s hard, even in the best times

As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.

Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, ‘Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.

Hudson suggests he may have overestimated interest in his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other investors. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”

Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.'”

Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (Its now raising its third pre-seed fund).

Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.

Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instill confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.

She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be? Learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?'”

Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can

In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options, either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.

Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.

“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”

Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.

Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too

Senkut started off with certain financial advantages that many VCs do not, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.

Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds instead of search engine giants. In the end, it took him “50 no’s before I had my first yes” — not hundreds —   but it gave him a taste of being an outsider in an insider industry, and he seemingly hasn’t forgotten that feeling.

Indeed, according to Senkut, anyone who wants to crack into the venture industry needs to get into the flow of the best deals by hook or by crook. In his case, for example, he shadowed angel investor Ron Conway for some time, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.

“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow, because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”

Adds Senkut, “The danger in this business is that it’s very easy to make a mistake. It’s very easy to chase deals that are not going to go anywhere. And so I think that’s where [following others] things really helped me.”

Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time. The companies that Felicis has backed and been acquired include Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit; Plaid, sold in January to Visa; Ring, sold in 2018 to Amazon, and Cruise, sold to General Motors in 2016, and that’s saying nothing of its portfolio companies to go public.

That probably gives him a kind of confidence that it’s harder to earlier managers to muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to ask the right questions of potential investors, who will sometimes wittingly or unwittingly waste a manager’s time.

He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken. They did this so they don’t find themselves in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that venture backers have been writing out checks to new funds at a faster pace than they’ve ever been asked to before.

In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”

It’s a “little bit of an eight ball to figure out what are your odds and the probability of getting money even if things were to turn south,” he notes.

Given that they have, the questions look smarter still.

Proposed amendments to the Volcker Rule could be a lifeline for venture firms hit by market downturn

By Jonathan Shieber

In the wake of the financial crisis, Congress passed regulations limiting the types of investments that banks could make into private equity and venture capital funds. As cash strapped investors pull back on commitments to venture funds given the precipitous drop of public market stocks, loosening restrictions on the how banks invest cash could be a lifeline for venture funds.

That’s the position that the National Venture Capital Association is taking on the issue in comments sent to the chairs of the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Commodities Future Trading Commission.

The proposed revisions of the Volcker Rule would exclude qualifying venture capital funds from the covered fund definition.

“The loss of banking entities as limited partners in venture capital funds has had a disproportionate impact on cities and regions with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems — areas outside of Silicon Valley and other traditional technology centers,” NVCA president and chief executive Bobby Franklin wrote. “The more challenging reality of venture fundraising in these areas of the country tends to require investment from a more diverse set of limited partners.”

Franklin cited the case of Renaissance Venture Capital, a Michigan-based regionally focused fund that estimated the Volcker Rule cost them $50 million in potential capital commitments resulting in the loss of a potential $800 million in capital invested in the state of Michigan.

“This narrative unfortunately repeats itself, as we have heard firsthand from investors about how the Volcker Rule has affected venture capital investment and entrepreneurial activity across the country,” wrote Franklin. “The majority of these concerns about the Volcker Rule have come from members located in regions with emerging ecosystems, including states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Virginia, to name a few.”

It’s not only small states that could be impacted by the decision to reverse course on banking investments into venture firms in these uncertain times.

There’s a growing concern among venture investors that — just like in 2008 — their limited partners might find that they’re over-allocated into venture investments given the decline in markets, which would force them to pull back on making commitments to new funds.

“Institutional LPs will run into the same issues they had in 2008. If you used to manage $10B and the market declines and you now manage $6B, the percentage allocated to private equity has now increased relative to the whole portfolio,” Hyde Park Ventures partner, Ira Weiss told a Forbes columnist in a March interview. “They’re really not going to look at new managers. If you’ve done really well as a manager, they will probably re-up but may reduce commitment amounts. This will bleed backwards into the venture market. This is happening at a time when Softbank has already had a lot of trouble and people had not really modulated for that yet, but now they will.”

Some of the largest investment funds have already closed on capital, insulating them from the worst hits. These include funds like New Enterprise Associates and General Catalyst . But newer funds are going to have a harder time raising. For them, giving banks the ability to invest in venture firms could be a big boon — and a confidence boost that the industry needs at a time when investors across the board are getting skittish.

“Fundraising for new funds in 2020 and 2021 might prove to be more difficult as asset managers think about rebalancing their portfolio and/or protecting their assets from the current volatility in the market,” Aaron Holiday told Forbes . “This means that VC investing could slow down in 12 – 24 months after the most recent wave of funds (i.e. 2018 and 2019 vintages) are fully deployed.”

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Leading VCs discuss how COVID-19 is impacting real estate & proptech

By Arman Tabatabai

Several months ago, we surveyed more than 20 leading real estate VCs to learn about what was exciting them most in the real estate tech sector and hear their opinions on proptech trends like co-working, flexible office space and remote office space.

Since we published our survey, COVID-19 has flipped the real estate sector on its head as more companies move toward mandatory remote work, retail businesses are forced to temporarily shut their doors and high-traffic properties thin out. Suddenly, the traditionally predictable world of real estate is more chaotic and unclear than ever.

What are the short and long-term impacts of pandemic-induced volatility? Does this open up opportunities for proptech startups or shutter them? What does this mean from an investing point of view? We asked several of the VCs that participated in our last survey to update us on how COVID-19 is impacting real estate startups, non-proptech companies in general and the broader real estate market overall:

Christopher Yip, RET Ventures

Despite its banner year in 2019, proptech will not be immune to the pressures venture-backed companies face in a market pullback, and we are preparing ourselves and our portfolio companies for a bumpy year.

South Korea passes one of the world’s first comprehensive cryptocurrency laws

By Danny Crichton

The South Korean National Assembly passed new legislation today that will provide a framework for the regulation and legalization of cryptocurrencies and crypto exchanges.

In a unanimous vote during a special session of the legislature convened amidst the country’s worsening novel coronavirus situation, the representatives passed an amendment to the country’s financial services laws that would authorize Korea’s financial regulators to effectively oversee the nascent industry and develop rules around anti-money laundering among other processes.

South Korea has been on the forefront of the cryptocurrency boom and bust over the past few years, and it’s one of the few countries with wide-scale adoption of the technology. Surveys at the height of the crypto craze in 2017 showed that more than a third of the country’s workers were active investors in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other systems. The country’s largest city Seoul led a government initiative to introduce its own cryptocurrency — S-coin — that was designed to capture the zeitgeist of the frenzy.

During that period, South Korea’s government moved quickly to push new regulations and clamp down on the spread of blockchain, which caused large gyrations in the price of Bitcoin as investors observed how the country’s investors would react.

Today’s vote in the legislature just a few years later is a relatively quick turnaround for regulators, and shows the increasing acceptance of blockchain and more specifically cryptocurrencies in the context of financial services both locally and across the world. One of the country’s largest technology companies, Kakao, has continued to invest in blockchain initiatives, and the local ecosystem remains relatively robust in innovation in the sector.

The passage of the cryptocurrency legislation is a victory for the Korean startup ecosystem, but other major questions remain about the sector.

Among the most heated topics today is the fate of Tada (타다), the indigenous ride-hailing startup that competes with the traditional and regulated taxi industry. Since the company’s launch in late 2018, the company has faced constant threats of shut down by regulators, before a reprieve a few weeks ago by the country’s top constitutional court approved its operations.

Yet, in the same special session that saw the cryptocurrency bill pass, the National Assembly a day ago approved in committee a bill that would effectively ban Tada and mandate that it receive an operating license from the government. Expect further action on Tada in the weeks ahead.

As for the cryptocurrency law, it’s passage and presumed signing by South Korean president Moon Jae-in starts a months-long rulemaking process that will also provide time for existing startups and exchanges to transition into the law’s new regulatory apparatus.

Korea’s parliamentary elections are coming up in just a few weeks on April 15th, and while the situation around the novel coronavirus is taking a lion’s share of the local headlines, votes on tech measures are a way for representatives to position themselves on other salient issues before voter’s decide.

Nigeria is becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital

By Jake Bright

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets and Nigeria is becoming its unofficial capital.

While the West African nation is commonly associated with negative cliches around corruption and terrorism — which persist as serious problems, and influenced the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on Nigerian immigration to the U.S.

Even so, there’s more to the country than Boko Haram or fictitious princes with inheritances.

Nigeria has become a magnet for VC, a hotbed for startup formation and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley. As a frontier market, there is certainly a volatility to the country’s political and economic trajectory. The nation teeters back and forth between its stereotypical basket-case status and getting its act together to become Africa’s unrivaled superpower.

The upside of that pendulum is why — despite its problems — so much American, Chinese and African tech capital is gravitating to Nigeria.

Demographics

“Whatever you think of Africa, you can’t ignore the numbers,” Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote told me in 2015, noting that demographics are creating an imperative for global businesses to enter the continent.

Last day for early-bird tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

By Emma Comeau

Today’s your last day to score early-bird pricing on tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020, which takes place on March 3. If you want to keep $150 in your wallet, beat the deadline and buy your ticket here before the clock strikes 11:59 p.m. (PT) tonight!

Our one-day conference dedicated to robotics and AI — the good, the bad and the challenging — features interviews, panel discussions, Q&As, workshops and demos. Join roughly 1,500 experts, visionaries, creators, founders, investors, researchers and engineers. Rub elbows, network and engage with current and aspiring leaders, as well as students poised to drive future innovation.

We have a stellar line up, and just because we’re biased doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I mean come on — assistive robots, ethics and AI, the state of VC investment and robot demos. And that’s just for starters. Here are a couple of specific examples (peruse the full agenda right here):

  • Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots: The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields, respectively. Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.
  • Building the Robots that Build: Join Daniel Blank (Toggle), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) as they discuss whether robots can help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper. Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete and Dusty Robotics builds robot-powered tools. We’ll talk with the founders to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

And in case you haven’t heard, we’ve added Pitch Night, a mini pitch-off, into the mix this year. We’re accepting applications until tomorrow, February 1. This is no time for fence-sitting! Apply to compete in Pitch Night now. TechCrunch editors will review the applications and choose 10 startups to pitch at a private event the night before the conference. A panel of VC judges will select five teams as finalists. Those founders will pitch again the next day — live from the Main Stage. It’s awesome exposure that could take your startup to the next level.

If you love robots, you need to be at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 on March 3. And there’s no point paying more than necessary. Today’s the last day to buy an early-bird ticket. Buy yours before the deadline expires at 11:59 p.m. (PT) and save $150.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

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