Venture capitalists must be good stock pickers and builders of young companies. They don’t operate with a margin of safety, but they can learn from the principals of value investing.
Warren Buffett cites Security Analysis as one of his top four favorite and most influential books. Written by Columbia University Professors Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, it was first published in 1934.
The book is a thick tome that articulates the thesis of value investing – the analytical techniques for valuing securities and seeking to invest in those securities in the context of their underlying value. The latest printing, the sixth edition, contains a foreword from the Oracle of Omaha himself as well as a preface from hedge fund investor Seth Klarman of The Baupost Group, who is regarded by many to be one of the modern masters in the art of value investing.
As a venture capitalist reading the book and trying to absorb its investment lessons, I wondered – can VCs be value investors? After all, the philosophy of value investing, in theory, should cut across all asset classes and managers. The precepts and principals therefore should apply to the venture capital business as well.
Sadly, they don’t.
Klarman writes: “Investing in bargain-priced securities provides a “margin of safety” — room for error, imprecision, bad luck, or the vicissitudes of the economy and stock market.”
Unfortunately, VCs don’t operate with a margin of safety, even if they are able to find and negotiate good deals. Later stage investors may have downside protection if they buy smart, but early-stage VCs do not. If a portfolio company goes bad, there is typically barely any salvage value.
As one of my partners is fond of saying, “A good price doesn’t help a bad investment.” That is why VCs tend to emphasize “clean terms,” which are entrepreneur-friendly rather than focus on complex bells and whistles to protect downside. And that is why you will see large loss ratios in VC portfolios, sometimes as high as 20-30%. In fact, if a VC doesn’t have a high loss ratio, one might argue they aren’t taking enough risk. As one Silicon Valley veteran put it to me the other day, “I can only lose 1 time my money.”
Picking stocks vs. building companies
There is a seesaw debate often heard in the hallways of VC firms – does success come from being a good stock-picker or company-builder? In other words, will a VC generate strong returns because they are good at finding the best companies and entrepreneurs to invest in, or will the returns be generated by adding value to companies through shrewd strategic guidance and savvy recruiting and team-building?
The answer appears to be both, but the debate itself is framed incorrectly, I would argue. Entrepreneurship is all about people. The VC business has evolved into a world where the challenge is less about choosing the best entrepreneurs to invest in, but rather convincing the best entrepreneurs to take your money. This dynamic is unique as compared to other asset classes. Imagine a world where the highest quality forests choose which endowment they’d like as their owner; or a public stock chooses which hedge fund they want to own 10% of their outstanding stock.
Sound ridiculous? That’s precisely what is happening when VCs compete with each other and chase after the best entrepreneurs, offering entrepreneur-friendly terms, supportive advice and value-add.
But although the VC business doesn’t lend itself to value investing, VCs would benefit from many of its lessons. For example, placing an emphasis on thoughtful analysis and due diligence of business models and market dynamics rather than pure, instinctual speculation. Further, in a world of multi-hundred million dollar exits and a weak IPO environment, exerting some price discipline makes sense for VC investors, who are often pushed by entrepreneurs beyond their limits (“If you like the deal at $20 million pre, why wouldn’t you like it at $25 million?”). Deal prices must be scrutinized in the context of realistic growth assumptions, future capital intensity and target market sizes.
As Graham and Dodd put it, when an investor is blinded by the pursuit of growth, “Carried to its logical extreme, there is no price too high for a good [company], and that such an issue was equally ‘safe’ after it had advanced to 200 as it had been at 25.”
That’s why, in the end, the VC business is still a blend of art and science. It is part financial asset class, part creative entrepreneurial endeavor. And, under any analysis, is not for the faint of heart.
Jeffrey Bussgang is general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners.