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My idle thoughts on tech startups

The Rise & Fall of Great Venture Firms [Part 1]

Lee Hower
July 11, 2012 · 6  min.

I happen to be fascinated by the history of the VC industry, and one of the things we discussed at a recent offsite are the common threads behind the rise and fall of great venture capital firms.  NextView’s still in its infancy… we’re barely two years old and are just part of the way through investing our initial fund.  But we strive and aspire to build a firm that will excel and be around for awhile.

Many of the great VC firms of today have been around for decades.  Firms like Sequoia, Greylock, Bessemer, and others.  One can study some of the factors of their success and of course try to emulate them or integrate their best practices.  I’ll save these for a follow-up post because I think there are some interesting take aways and also some firms that have found hacks to either propel success or avoid pitfalls.

But there are firms that were once great and have declined to various extent with the passage of time.  There are also VC firms that were once among the industry’s elite that no longer exist.  You can learn as much from these cautionary tales as you can from the enduring successes, plus studying a broad sample of firms helps avoid drawing false conclusions due to survivorship bias.  The names of these once great, now defunct firms may not be terribly familiar today but here are just a few examples:

  • American Research & Development [Boston] –> Founded by George Doriot and depending how you count it, either the first or second formal VC firm in the US.  Big success was Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), in which ARD invested about $2.1M in equity & loans which was ultimately worth >170x ($355M) when DEC went public about a decade later.  Some disgruntled younger partners left to go start a new firm in 1965 called Greylock.
  • Brentwood Associates [Silicon Valley] –> Founded in the early 70s and focused primarily on VC, Brentwood had big wins in both IT like Wellfleet Communications (big chunk of what eventually became Nortel) and WebTV (part of Microsoft) and healthcare (various businesses that make up a big chunk of what is now Medtronic and Baxter).  Some disgruntled younger partners left in the 90s to form what is now Redpoint Ventures (IT team) and Versant Ventures (healthcare team).  Brentwood also had a PE/buyout group which has continued on to today, still with the Brentwood name, with notable success in consumer retail businesses.
  • Burr, Egan, Deleage [Boston] –>  Huge wins in the 1980s and early 90s included Continental Cablevision (sold for $5.3B – now a big chunk of what is Comcast), Qwest Communications, Cephalon (biotech IPO, acq by Teva), and Powersoft (Burr, Egan made 35x when it went public and then was acquired by Sybase).  The firm ultimately disbanded after nearly 20 years and younger disgruntled partners went on to spawn Polaris Ventures, Alta Communications, Alta Partners, and Alta Berkeley.
  • Merrill, Pickard, Anderson & Eyre [Silicon Valley] –> Itself an outgrowth of the venture investing arm of the original Bank of America (based in SF), Merrill Pickard backed many startups that ultimately went public.  Some disgruntled younger partners left in the mid-90s… two co-founded Benchmark Capital (Bruce Dunlevie & Andy Rachleff).
  • Technology Venture Investors [Silicon Valley] –> Claim to fame… sole VC investor in Microsoft, which turned out ok.  But eventually some disgruntled younger partners left and two started August Capital (Dave Marquardt & John Johnson) and one co-founded Benchmark (Bob Kagle).

So what are the common threads that lead to a fall from grace?  I don’t mean to pick on the firms above… they each achieved remarkable success in their own right.  But each eventually faded from existence and in studying these and other examples three general themes emerge:

1) Generational Succession / Division of Economics – This is arguably the chief reason why some great VC firms eventually stumble.  It’d be easy to just chalk it up as “the old guys are greedy and the young guys are greedy/impatient” and see this issue as an incurable human failing.  But it’s not quite that simple.  What’s a “fair” split of fee income and carried interest when a partner joins several years/funds after others?  Should there be a notion of “founder equity” for those individuals who put in the hard work to start a firm and build the brand?  How do you deal with a severely uneven distribution of investment success between individuals or groups of partners?

Dividing economic pies and handing leadership off between different cohorts of individuals is rarely easy, but the nature of the VC business makes it particularly tricky.  For example carried interest takes years to accrue and is based on the efforts and decisions of both the individual and the firm that happened 5-10 years ago.  And the economic rewards of VC comes almost exclusively through the carried interest and fee income generated by individual funds.  While ownership and control of the management company matters, these stakes are rarely monetizable at least in the VC business (unlike the buyout world where huge firms like Blackstone, KKR, and Apollo have IPO’d to the great financial benefit of the founders).

But just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly important.  Firms where there ends up being a material imbalance between which folks are putting in the hard work and generating investment returns versus those that aren’t put themselves at huge risk of decline.  There are some great news stories from the mid 90s like this one in Wired and this one in NYT regarding generational conflict (generally centered around economic disagreements).  And sometimes generational succession fails not because older partners are unwilling to reach equitable economic arrangements with younger ones, but simply because the newer partners they bring in simply aren’t as effective as the old guard.

While this is a key driver to the downfall of great VC firms, there are also small handful of examples of firms that have managed generational succession sometimes many times over.  Greylock is probably the best example of this… there are at least four meaningful transitions of leadership over the firm’s nearly 50 year history that have gone pretty darn well.

2) Falling Behind Innovation Shifts – Strategy drift, i.e. expanding into unfamiliar stages, sectors, and geographies of investment is a real problem (see #3 below).  But separate from mission creep / strategy drift is failure to keep up with changing waves of innovation.  On the IT side of VC investing, we’ve seen countless waves crest and fall… mainframes to minicomputer/workstation, workstation to PC, copper to optical networking, client/server software to cloud, the fabless semiconductor model, magnetic tape to hard drive, etc.  VC firms that have been unable or unwilling to stay ahead and abreast of these waves start to lose their prominence (at best) or go the way of the dodo (at worst).

There are a number of VC firms that had extraordinary success in enterprise software, telecom equipment, and semiconductors in the 1990s.  And while the internet created both tremendous reward and tremendous investment carnage leading up to and after the 2000 tech bubble, it’s created long run disruption of broad sectors of media, advertising, business software & computing, and retail commerce and VCs that missed this shift have faced real struggles.  As a corollary the VC industry has matured in ways that greatly favor sector specialization, so at both an individual and a firm level prior “generalist” models have generally performed less well.

3) Strategy Drift / Over Expansion – Many of the largest and most successful firms around today have become “platforms” in that they are investing in a wide range of stage, sector, and geography whether through a single fund (e.g. NEA, Bessemer) or family of related funds (e.g. Kleiner).  Depending on your POV Bain Capital didn’t start as a pure VC firm, but they’ve been making VC and growth equity investments since the firm’s inception and arguably they’ve been among the most successful “VC” firms at platform expansion over their nearly 30 year existence (buyout, pure VC, mezz debt, hedge fund, international, etc).

But for every firm that’s successfully grown beyond their core strategy into a platform, there are 3-4 that have been unsuccessful at it.  The impulse to expand beyond the strategy that makes you initially successful is powerful.  To a lesser extent the desire for greater industry prestige is a factor.  But primarily it’s the allure of growing assets under management (AUM) by raising larger/more funds since financial reward for VCs is tied to AUM.  The fixed ~2% management fees of course scale directly to AUM but the performance based ~20% carried interest also scales with AUM.

Here’s a slightly perverse scenario… Acme Ventures starts out as an early-stage VC investing in US-based IT companies.  They achieve an excellent fund-level return on their $100M debut fund of 4x gross (i.e. they generate $400M in proceeds from that $100M).  That means the partners of Acme will have $60M in carried interest to divide among themselves (20% of the $300M profit).  But then Acme’s partners say to themselves… “Aha, based on our success at early-stage US IT now we can raise a $500M fund that will do late stage investments, and also do cleantech investments, and maybe some in China.”  Even if they deliver a mediocre 2x gross return on that $500M, they’ll actually generate more absolute dollars of carried interest ($100M in this case) than they did with their much more successful early-stage IT fund in addition to generating more management fees.

But usually what makes a VC partnership great in its early days doesn’t easily translate into other new strategies down the road.  You either start trying to invest in stuff you know less well or you hire a bunch of other partners who you hope know that stuff better than you.  Like any other form of diluting your focus… it occasionally works, but usually doesn’t.

So if these are the factors that lead to the fall of once great VC firms, what are some of the common aspects of their rise to success?  I’ll tackle that question next week in a follow-up post.


Lee Hower
Lee is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has spent his entire career as an entrepreneur and investor in early-stage software and internet startups.