Venture capital gets disrupted (in a good way)

March 7, 2011, 8:07 PM UTC

AngelList — an online bulletin board that matches cash-hungry startups with prospective investors — has been getting lots of attention. And it’s deserved.

A couple months back, I pitched a magazine story about AngelList – the online bulletin board that matches startups with prospective investors. Editorial consensus was that it would work better on the web, so a plan was formulated whereby I would write a general interest piece and my colleague J.P. Mangalindan would write from a startup’s point of view.

While that plan percolated (i.e., J.P. working diligently, me procrastinating), it seems that everyone and their dentist wrote about AngelList. Dave McClure even contributed some rhetorical violence – complete with amusing obscenities and CAPS, natch – after Bryce Roberts declared that he was quitting AngelList over its emphasis on social influence/peer pressure.

Through it all, I kept returning to a single profound thought: Crap, my story is being nibbled away like a loaf of bread outside a lobster pound.

The final straw came last Friday, when Business Insider did a Q&A with AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant. Not only was it fairly comprehensive, but Naval gave some of the exact same quotes that he had given me a day earlier. I suggest you go read it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait…

Back already? Great, I’ve obviously given up on the “What is AngelList?” plan. Instead, let me explain why it’s the most disruptive VC industry innovation in at least the past decade (beating out “office hours” and SecondMarket/SharesPost).

AngelList is diminishing “deal-flow” as a key differentiator between venture capitalists. This is an open system – well, open to accredited/vetted investors – which means that virtually everyone gets to see the same deals. And we’re talking about thousands of startups. What separates the wheat from the chaff is deal-picking, negotiating (when applicable) and execution.

The khaki boys’ network will never disappear entirely, of course, and repeat entrepreneurs always will return to VCs with whom they are comfortable. But AngelList has an opportunity to become the venture capital industry’s primary deal-sourcing network. Three reasons:

1. AngelList scales very easily. Investor participation begets other investor participation, and also increases the number of vetted startups in the system. In fact, one could argue that it’s viral (albeit within a finite investor universe). Since AngelList launched last year, 248 startups have raised funding from 380 investors – without spending a single dollar on marketing (save for a small event at SXSW).

“There has never been a true air traffic controller of startup financings, but AngelList has now filled that role by helping startups and investors navigate multiple variables in a safe, orderly manner,” says Rafael Corrales, whose educational startup LearnBoost raised just under $1 million via AngelList. “As they continue creating value for startups and investors, more financings get routed through them, which becomes a virtuous cycle where their value continues increasing for startups and investors.”

2. AngelList is not artificially restricting itself to a particular industry, geography or stage of company life. This is why what Naval and Nivi have done is far more important than what Paul Graham did with YCombinator. Seed-stage Internet companies in Silicon Valley are a vital part of venture capital but they still are only a part. For example, VCs invested $3.68 billion into U.S.-based biotech companies last year, compared to $3.96 billion for U.S.-based software companies.

Many of the AngelList companies would be right up YCombinator’s alley, but about 10% of its current offerings are either for life sciences or consumer startups. It also takes companies from all over the world – for example, both Chile and Estonia are currently represented – and its New York City listings represent 50% of its Silicon Valley listings. It also has a couple of Series A deals in process, and Naval sees no reason why Series B or Series C deals can’t be next.

3. AngelList is non-profit (at least for now). AngelList currently doesn’t attempt to generate revenue, and promises that it never will charge either startups or investors. There is a chance that it will eventually make some money off of marketing or advertising arrangements, but it’s not an immediate concern. Instead, AngelList is really a labor of love by two guys who want to help other entrepreneurs.

Not only does this mean that AngelList can legitimately claim a white hat, but also creates a barrier to entry for anyone else who wants to gain traction with a similar system (note: Naval actually tried this twice before, but says he failed on the execution). In other words, if this model proves as disruptive as I think it will – there won’t be a slew of copycats that dilute the AngelList pool.

To be clear, AngelList is a movement in the making – not one that has yet been solidified. And there probably are contrarian arguments to each of the above. But if the system continues to rapidly expand its diversity of issuers – and if it stays true to its no-charge promise – then I believe we are witnessing the placement of a cornerstone to the VC industry’s future.