Playing the Volume Investing Game

Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to a number of investors who work in the early stage startup space. It seems that many of them have come to the same conclusion I had in my earlier blog post, Angel Odds vs. Venture Odds, which was that they really had to go broad in investing to try to find those few Google super-investments to generate the bulk of the fund’s returns.
The numbers they propose are staggering: 50-100 investments over the life of a fund! If 100, that’s 20 investments per year if spread out over 5 years (typical life of fund). Some of them may even try to front load the investments, exceeding the 20 and perhaps going up to as much as 30-50. That’s about 1 investment accepted, negotiated, gone through due diligence, lining up a wire, and docs signed and delivered every 2-3 weeks. If you’ve ever invested, you know how difficult that process can be.
Some thoughts on this, from the perspective of working on the measly 16 investments I’ve done over the last 3.5+ years:
1. Investor management of this number of startups will be challenging. What will it mean to have 20+ startups emailing you for help, meetings, introductions, advice, etc? Time management will be very difficult.
Entrepreneurs will have to be prepared to find ways of capturing dwindling time slices of the investors, and working hard to deserve more time. By deserving more time, I mean it is natural that the more successful startups will get more time as they have the best chance to return the most money to the fund.
2. Investor teams will need to increase, but paying for them may be difficult as early stage funds are typically smaller in size, and thus management fees collected will also be proportionally smaller.
3. It will be interesting to see how the money being moved around can be optimized. Typically capital calls are made to limited partners when an investment happens. If there are a lot of capital calls, making and collecting a huge volume of capital calls can be a lot of work on the fund personnel and limited partners. Capital calls may work differently for these early stage funds.
4. In this world of proliferating me-too products, it may be impossible to not invest in startups which overlap in plan. Many investors and entrepreneurs worry about their plans being discovered by competitors or near competitors. This is why we don’t like investing in startups who are competitive to one another. But if they are investing in 50-100 startups, I wonder how they avoid competitive conflicts? Or should they even care?
5. Can 50-100 quality startups be found in one area even if it is in the Bay area, the startup capital of the world? It may be that going far afield will need to happen in order to find quality startups. This will strain time commitments for investors to travel and keep tabs on investments far away. It will also mean entrepreneurs may only get as much help as they can remotely.
6. Entrepreneurs should be prepared for what I call “survival of the fittest” and “ruthless culling”. Given the limited attention time of the investor in the face of overwhelming numbers, entrepreneurs need to work extra hard to prove they deserve more investor time. The best will get more help, and get follow on investment. Those that do not get follow on investment may find this is a detriment to them getting more money.
Entrepreneurs will have to get over the fact that while they think they are the coolest kid on the block, in the face of being in group of cool kids, their own coolness will be the norm and therefore commonplace and they will have to find ways to be even cooler than their peers. Being commonplace in a group of equally cool kids could mean neglect as the even cooler kids get more attention and help.
Despite all this, I firmly believe this is the way to play the early stage startup game from an investor point of view. It is the only way to raise the probability that they will find the Google super-investments that will create the oversized return of the fund.