Monthly Archive for August, 2010

Why the seed investment bubble is exactly that

Jed Christiansen wrote a thesis on the rise of Y-combinator and other seed-accelerators. He also released the data behind his research, which gives an insight into the success of the seed-accelerators. It’s fascinating to look at these numbers, because Silicon Valley is seeing a bubble emerge — and unlike the previous ones like the Dot Com boom when people realised the potential of websites, or the Web2.0 bubble where shiny AJAX and social was the new black — now we are seeing a bubble emerge on the ‘backend’ through the capital investors.

Why is it a bubble? Well first of all, the hype. Last March at SxSW, I met Mark Nathan who told me he was helping yet another seed accelerator. He told me that 44 of them had been created to date in the US. That and the recent success of Angel List by the Venture Hacks crew — which is effectively commoditising the seed market — is seeing a mini revolution occur in the tech sector.

But as I sit here with my buddy Stephen Weir: a serial entrepreneur who’s invented the spoon-less yoghurt cup, licenced super model of the world for a reality TV show, tried the tech startup thing (like launching the biggest online invitation website in Japan and a reward based mobile gambling application on all three carriers in Japan) but now works in property — we asked, are the returns actually supporting this hype?

How good a business is it

Christiansen says the following:

Y Combinator and TechStars are two of the oldest seed accelerators, and are the only two to have had substantial exits. The TechStars exits have likely already generated a profit, and there are several companies that may still exit at some point in the future. The Y Combinator company exits have likely already brought Y Combinator to break-even, even after having funded over 100 companies. More impressive is that there are a good number of companies in the portfolio that could reach substantial exits at some point in the future. (And potentially a handful that could reach the vaunted $1billion+ exit.)

Y Combinator for example has funded 206 companies to date. At an average $10k in capital as well as $600 in travel costs (applicant companies can get up to $600 in reimbursement costs), they’ve put at least $2m in seed capital and assuming 10-20% of companies get accepted (an assumption by us), then reimbursed travel costs are between $450-900k.  (Note: this is extremely conservative to the point of unrealistic, as companies receives $10k per person so the cost is actually  closer to double or $4m in seed investment — but we’re doing this to prove a point.)

And what’s the return? According to Christiansen, of the 206 companies invested in Y Combinator there has been $89,008,000 in exist value generated. Y Combinator claims the average stake in each company is 6-7%, so the group made $5,340,480 on a 6% return. But we think the companies that actually exited would have been able to negotiate a lower rate, as well as the fact Y Combinator would have got diluted by some of the companies that took additional funding. If we use 4%, then the return is $3,560, 320.

After five years, that’s a gross profit of between anywhere between 500k (assuming 900k travel costs, and 4% return) to $3m (assuming 450k travel costs and 6% return). That means on a conservative back-of-envelope guess, the operational side of Y-Combinator gets about $600k a year, which is what a fund manager would make.

Our conclusion

When paying out salary costs and other admin expenses, break-even seems very likely. Or at least, the profits are very ordinary right now. Put a more realistic capital base of 20k per startup, and you’ve got a terrible loss making business in the medium term. Now to be fair, this is doing it over only a few years. For this analysis to be really accurate, it needs to take into account that the window for a return is ten years – you can’t do dollars-in dollars-out in just three years. Otherwise, how would firms like Sequoia have existed so long. And Y Combinator has got some super-star startups that are the talk of the town now, like Dropbox and Airbnb — an exit on either of those will make a huge difference.

But that said, looking at this at a  high level, we’re not sure if the hype is justified. Paul Graham may emerge a wealthy man, but we don’t know how the other 43 seed accelerators will.

How the super angels are saving Silicon Valley

Michael Arrington has written about the current bubble in Silicon Valley: the angel investor. He suggests a war is occurring with this new class of investor, and that entrepreneurs need to pick their faction. I don’t doubt the politics is real, and I’m sure it exists between the angels themselves – let’s hope they realise that united they stand, but divided they will all fall.

But I think this “conflict” is really about a change in times. Much like how the traditional gatekeepers of information – the newspaper industry – are battling the process-journalism innovators that we call ‘bloggers’. (Like, ahem, TechCrunch.) No one appointed the Venture Capital industry as the gatekeeper for technology innovation, which is similar to the arrogance of the newspapers that think they ‘own’ the news and deserve special protection because of it. Maybe these over-sized funds should take a lesson from the newspapers and realise the times have changed and their model needs to change as well.

But where I differ with Arrington’s perspective is his prognosis that this is bad for innovation. Conflating this with ‘bigger ideas not getting funded’ is wrong. The point is, is that more innovation can get funded, more veterans are being developed, and more value is being created in the long run. This should be analysed not by the growth of a single tree, but the overall development of the entire forest.

We need more seed-accelerators, more super-angels, and more incubators – because inevitably, it will lead to more startups. And whilst not all will hit a home run, the odds of ‘the next big idea’ happening will improve dramatically.