If the latest numbers on venture capital investment are any indication, the VC industry could be nearing the end of an epic run that helped to create some of the most famous technology companies ever.
Companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and all of the other social Internet companies that have gone public over the past few years owe a debt of gratitude to the moneymen of Silicon Valley. These were the people who guided them to stratospheric billion-dollar valuations. Yet, after peaking in 2011, VC investment has been on the decline for the past 18 months. Not only are venture capitalists doing fewer deals for less money, but they’re also having trouble raising those monster billion-dollar VC funds that became legendary in tech circles.
So is the latest downturn in VC investing just a cyclical downturn — or a warning of broader changes afoot in how tech companies get funded?
Of course, it’s easy to buy into the cyclical downturn argument. After all, the social Internet boom appears to have peaked, and it’s getting harder and harder to find truly breakout companies. From this perspective, VC firms are simply re-loading for the next big tech boom. They will continue to shift from the social Internet into new areas – mobile, clean tech or health care – that appear promising. And they will continue to do this until they find something that works, at which point we will experience another tech boom. That’s the way it has always worked.
That is, unless the classic VC paradigm is broken.
And there does appear to be something bigger going on that’s of notice to everyone in the tech world. For one thing, tech companies simply don’t need as much money as they used to. Thanks to the cloud, outsourcing, and the consumerization of IT, it’s much easier to start a company and find customers without the need to raise millions of dollars from venture capitalists. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if something is a company (worth billions) or just an app (worth considerably less). Secondly, the typical VC exit strategy – taking a tech company public via an IPO after several years – seems to be losing ground to another exit strategy – getting “acqui-hired” by a bigger tech company that will pay handsomely for extraordinary tech talent. Before a company even needs VC financing for its next round of expansion, it will simply sell itself to the highest bidder.
That means venture capitalists may not be needed at all – other than as high-priced mentors and consultants. Thanks to the rapid evolution of new crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, it’s now no longer out of the question to raise $1 million or more from total strangers for cool new tech products. If you could raise $10 million without having to give away any equity in your company, would you do it? Better yet, why wouldn’t you do it?
Now, just think what happens when those crowdfunding platforms evolve into “equity crowdfunding” platforms where everyday people investing just a tiny portion of their household assets can help to get an exciting new company off the ground. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson, for example, has been at the forefront of predicting the demise of the VC industry. As Wilson sees it, it’s simply more efficient for entrepreneurs to move to a crowdfunding-type arrangement, in which companies raise money on an ad hoc basis from an online funding platform such as AngelList.
In many ways, the venture capitalists helped to create the seeds of their own destruction – when there’s too much money chasing too few deals, it’s impossible to derive superior investment returns, and that, in turn, makes it harder to raise money later for new funds. 25 years from now, venture capitalists may not have any assets under management at all.
If the Kauffman Foundation, Fred Wilson and others are right, then what we’re talking about is the disintermediation of the financial industry from the high tech industry. That could be an exciting thing. Basic economic theory says removing the middlemen from any industry will only make it more efficient. Capital will be able to flow into emerging technologies more efficiently. Moreover, it could make it less risky to become an entrepreneur. Instead of trying to attract the attention of a limited number of powerful VC firms, you will just need to reach out to your fans, friends, and followers for funding. All you have to do is ask.
Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.