Mar 15 2007 by Brad

Hedge Funds and Early Stage Venture Capital

At AsktheVC, we’ve decided to periodically have guest bloggers take a shot at some of the questions we’ve received.  Today’s guest post is by Will Price from Hummer Winblad. Will writes a popular blog which we enjoy.  Hopefully you will also.

Question: As the alternative asset classes continue to converge, there has been growing evidence of hedge funds looking to be more involved in venture (both passively and actively). As an early stage venture capitalist, what are your thoughts on this? Are you seeing the trend? Have you considered partnering with any hedge funds, and if so do you view hedgies as primarily a source of passive capital or are they demanding/receiving strategic places at the table?

Economic theory can be used to explain the phenomena described above. The theory in question, “economies of scope,” states that a reduction in per-unit costs is possible via the production of a wider variety of goods or services. For platform funds, the incremental cost of the nth fund is significantly less than the cost of establishing and managing the first.

Accordingly, alternative asset platform funds – Carlyle, Bain Capital, Pequot Capital, Blackstone – are aggressively pursuing economies of scope in raising funds that leverage their LP relationships, back office systems, strategic relationships, etc Platform funds are aggregating assets in ways that maximize their resource base and economic interests. Whether the interests of LPs and the platform fund’s principals are aligned remains a more complicated question.

See my earlier post on alternative asset platform companies here. In short, I am not a big fan.

The center of gravity for platform players largely falls into two camps- private equity firms and hedge funds. The question above accurately reflects the fact that hedge funds are increasingly showing up in later stage deals. As an example, see $60m Brightcove financing led by Maverick Capital.

First, this is reminiscent of the late 1990s when the mezzanine market proved to very lucrative. Hedge funds piled into pre-IPO rounds in hopes of buying six to twelve months ahead of the IPO.

Second, one needs to separate the strategic vs. opportunistic players. Carlyle and Pequot, for example, have made long-term commitments to the venture category. The two firms built dedicated venture teams investing dedicated venture funds; not hedge fund managers investing “cross over” funds in one-off private deals. The opportunistic players’ presence in the market is tied to the economic cycle rather than to a secular commitment to the asset class – ie. fast money in, fast money out.

Finally, the decision to consider an investment from a hedge fund needs to be context sensitive. If the company is looking for mezzanine financing, a passive hedge fund investment makes perfect sense. The goal of the round is to raise expansion capital at the highest valuation and most company-favorable terms possible. If the company is several years away from a liquidity event the decision is more complicated – I would suggest weighing the following variables in evaluating a hedge fun investor– will the investment be made from a dedicated venture fund, is there a dedicated venture team, does the fund keep adequate reserves for follow on rounds, does the company need an active net new board member, if so, could the partner in question add value, do they have referenceable portfolio companies and CEOs that can speak to their strengths…? The investor must be judged on their merits as value-added private company investors, not as easy sources of capital.

We would absolutely consider working with a hedge fund in a later stage round, however, we prefer to syndicate A round deals with likeminded investors with a successful history of A round investing and a long term commitment to the early stage venture asset class.