Venture capital is a form of private equity and a type of financing that investors provide to startup companies and small businesses that are believed to have long-term growth potential. Venture capital generally comes from well-off investors, investment banks and any other financial institutions. However, it does not always take a monetary form; it can also be provided in the form of technical or managerial expertise. Venture capital is typically allocated to small companies with exceptional growth potential, or to companies that have grown quickly and appear poised to continue to expand.
Though it can be risky for investors who put up funds, the potential for above-average returns is an attractive payoff. For new companies or ventures that have a limited operating history (under two years), venture capital funding is increasingly becoming a popular – even essential – source for raising capital, especially if they lack access to capital markets, bank loans or other debt instruments. The main downside is that the investors usually get equity in the company, and, thus, a say in company decisions.
Obtaining venture capital is substantially different from raising debt or a loan. Lenders have a legal right to interest on a loan and repayment of the capital irrespective of the success or failure of a business. Venture capital is invested in exchange for an equity stake in the business. The return of the venture capitalist as a shareholder depends on the growth and profitability of the business. This return is generally earned when the venture capitalist “exits” by selling its shareholdings when the business is sold to another owner.
Venture capitalists are typically very selective in deciding what to invest in, with a Stanford survey of venture capitalists revealing that 100 companies were considered for every company receiving financing. Ventures receiving financing must demonstrate an excellent management team, a large potential market, and most importantly high growth potential, as only such opportunities are likely capable of providing financial returns and a successful exit within the required time frame (typically 3–7 years) that venture capitalists expect.
Because investments are illiquid and require the extended time frame to harvest, venture capitalists are expected to carry out detailed due diligence prior to investment. Venture capitalists also are expected to nurture the companies in which they invest, in order to increase the likelihood of reaching an IPO stage when valuations are favourable. Venture capitalists typically assist at four stages in the company’s development:
Ramp up; and
Because there are no public exchanges listing their securities, private companies meet venture capital firms and other private equity investors in several ways, including warm referrals from the investors’ trusted sources and other business contacts; investor conferences and symposia; and summits where companies pitch directly to investor groups in face-to-face meetings, including a variant known as “Speed Venturing”, which is akin to speed-dating for capital, where the investor decides within 10 minutes whether he wants a follow-up meeting. In addition, some new private online networks are emerging to provide additional opportunities for meeting investors.
This need for high returns makes venture funding an expensive capital source for companies, and most suitable for businesses having large up-front capital requirements, which cannot be financed by cheaper alternatives such as debt. That is most commonly the case for intangible assets such as software, and other intellectual property, whose value is unproven. In turn, this explains why venture capital is most prevalent in the fast-growing technology and life sciences or biotechnology fields.
If a company does have the qualities venture capitalists seek including a solid business plan, a good management team, investment and passion from the founders, a good potential to exit the investment before the end of their funding cycle, and target minimum returns in excess of 40% per year, it will find it easier to raise venture capital.
There are typically six stages of venture round financing offered in Venture Capital, that roughly correspond to these stages of a company’s development.
Seed funding: The earliest round of financing needed to prove a new idea, often provided by angel investors. Equity crowdfunding is also emerging as an option for seed funding.
Start-up: Early stage firms that need funding for expenses associated with marketing and product development
Growth (Series A round): Early sales and manufacturing funds. This is typically where VCs come in. Series A can be thought of as the first institutional round. Subsequent investment rounds are called Series B, Series C and so on. This is where most companies will have the most growth.
Second-Round: Working capital for early stage companies that are selling product, but not yet turning a profit. This can also be called Series B round and so on.
Expansion: Also called Mezzanine financing, this is expansion money for a newly profitable company.
Exit of venture capitalist: VCs can exit through secondary sale or an IPO or an acquisition. Early stage VCs may exit in later rounds when new investors (VCs or Private Equity investors) buy the shares of existing investors. Sometimes a company very close to an IPO may allow some VCs to exit and instead new investors may come in hoping to profit from the IPO.
Bridge Financing is when a startup seeks funding in between full VC rounds. The objective is to raise smaller amount of money instead of a full round and usually the existing investors participate.
Between the first round and the fourth round, venture-backed companies may also seek to take venture debt.
Firms and funds
A venture capitalist, or sometimes simply capitalist, is a person who makes capital investments in companies in exchange for an equity stake. The venture capitalist is often expected to bring managerial and technical expertise, as well as capital, to their investments. A venture capital fund refers to a pooled investment vehicle (in the United States, often an LP or LLC) that primarily invests the financial capital of third-party investors in enterprises that are too risky for the standard capital markets or bank loans. These funds are typically managed by a venture capital firm, which often employs individuals with technology backgrounds (scientists, researchers), business training and/or deep industry experience.
A core skill within VC is the ability to identify novel or disruptive technologies that have the potential to generate high commercial returns at an early stage. By definition, VCs also take a role in managing entrepreneurial companies at an early stage, thus adding skills as well as capital, thereby differentiating VC from buy-out private equity, which typically invest in companies with proven revenue, and thereby potentially realizing much higher rates of returns. Inherent in realizing abnormally high rates of returns is the risk of losing all of one’s investment in a given startup company. As a consequence, most venture capital investments are done in a pool format, where several investors combine their investments into one large fund that invests in many different startup companies. By investing in the pool format, the investors are spreading out their risk to many different investments instead of taking the chance of putting all of their money in one start up firm.
Venture capital firms are typically structured as partnerships, the general partners of which serve as the managers of the firm and will serve as investment advisors to the venture capital funds raised. Venture capital firms in the United States may also be structured as limited liability companies, in which case the firm’s managers are known as managing members. Investors in venture capital funds are known as limited partners. This constituency comprises both high-net-worth individuals and institutions with large amounts of available capital, such as state and private pension funds, university financial endowments, foundations, insurance companies, and pooled investment vehicles, called funds of funds.
Venture capitalist firms differ in their motivations and approaches. There are multiple factors, and each firm is different.
Venture capital funds are generally three in types:
1. Angel investors
2. Financial VCs
3. Strategic VCs
Some of the factors that influence VC decisions include:
Business situation: Some VCs tend to invest in new, disruptive ideas, or fledgling companies. Others prefer investing in established companies that need support to go public or grow.
Some invest solely in certain industries.
Some prefer operating locally while others will operate nationwide or even globally.
VC expectations can often vary. Some may want a quicker public sale of the company or expect fast growth. The amount of help a VC provides can vary from one firm to the next.
Within the venture capital industry, the general partners and other investment professionals of the venture capital firm are often referred to as “venture capitalists” or “VCs”. Typical career backgrounds vary, but, broadly speaking, venture capitalists come from either an operational or a finance background. Venture capitalists with an operational background (operating partner) tend to be former founders or executives of companies similar to those which the partnership finances or will have served as management consultants. Venture capitalists with finance backgrounds tend to have investment banking or other corporate finance experience.
Although the titles are not entirely uniform from firm to firm, other positions at venture capital firms include:
General Partners or GPs
They run the Venture Capital firm and make the investment decisions on behalf of the fund. GPs typically put in personal capital up to 1-2% of the VC Fund size to show their commitment to the LPs.
Venture partners Venture partners are expected to source potential investment opportunities (“bring in deals”) and typically are compensated only for those deals with which they are involved.
This is a mid-level investment professional position, and often considered a “partner-track” position. Principals will have been promoted from a senior associate position or who have commensurate experience in another field, such as investment banking, management consulting, or a market of particular interest to the strategy of the venture capital firm.
This is typically the most junior apprentice position within a venture capital firm. After a few successful years, an associate may move up to the “senior associate” position and potentially principal and beyond. Associates will often have worked for 1–2 years in another field, such as investment banking or management consulting.
Entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs) are experts in a particular industry sector (e.g., biotechnology or social media) and perform due diligence on potential deals. EIRs are hired by venture capital firms temporarily (six to 18 months) and are expected to develop and pitch startup ideas to their host firm, although neither party is bound to work with each other. Some EIRs move on to executive positions within a portfolio company.
Structure of the funds
Most venture capital funds have a fixed life of 10 years, with the possibility of a few years of extensions to allow for private companies still seeking liquidity. The investing cycle for most funds is generally three to five years, after which the focus is managing and making follow-on investments in an existing portfolio. This model was pioneered by successful funds in Silicon Valley through the 1980s to invest in technological trends broadly but only during their period of ascendance, and to cut exposure to management and marketing risks of any individual firm or its product.
In such a fund, the investors have a fixed commitment to the fund that is initially unfunded and subsequently “called down” by the venture capital fund over time as the fund makes its investments. There are substantial penalties for a limited partner (or investor) that fails to participate in a capital call.
It can take anywhere from a month or so to several years for venture capitalists to raise money from limited partners for their fund. At the time when all of the money has been raised, the fund is said to be closed, and the 10-year lifetime begins. Some funds have partial closes when one half (or some other amount) of the fund has been raised. The vintage year generally refers to the year in which the fund was closed and may serve as a means to stratify VC funds for comparison.
From investors’ point of view, funds can be: (1) traditional—where all the investors invest with equal terms; or (2) asymmetric—where different investors have different terms. Typically the asymmetry is seen in cases where there’s an investor that has other interests such as tax income in case of public investors.
Venture capitalists are compensated through a combination of management fees and carried interest (often referred to as a “two and 20” arrangement):
Management fees an annual payment made by the investors in the fund to the fund’s manager to pay for the private equity firm’s investment operations. In a typical venture capital fund, the general partners receive an annual management fee equal to up to 2% of the committed capital.
Carried interest a share of the profits of the fund (typically 20%), paid to the private equity fund’s management company as a performance incentive. The remaining 80% of the profits are paid to the fund’s investors Strong limited partner interest in top-tier venture firms has led to a general trend toward terms more favorable to the venture partnership, and certain groups are able to command carried interest of 25–30% on their funds.
Because a fund may run out of capital prior to the end of its life, larger venture capital firms usually have several overlapping funds at the same time; doing so lets the larger firm keep specialists in all stages of the development of firms almost constantly engaged. Smaller firms tend to thrive or fail with their initial industry contacts; by the time the fund cashes out, an entirely new generation of technologies and people is ascending, whom the general partners may not know well, and so it is prudent to reassess and shift industries or personnel rather than attempt to simply invest more in the industry or people the partners already know.
Because of the strict requirements venture capitalists have for potential investments, many entrepreneurs seek seed funding from angel investors, who may be more willing to invest in highly speculative opportunities, or may have a prior relationship with the entrepreneur. Additionally, entrepreneurs may seek alternative financing, such as revenue-based financing, to avoid giving up equity ownership in the business.
Furthermore, many venture capital firms will only seriously evaluate an investment in a start-up company otherwise unknown to them if the company can prove at least some of its claims about the technology and/or market potential for its product or services. To achieve this, or even just to avoid the dilutive effects of receiving funding before such claims are proven, many start-ups seek to self-finance sweat equity until they reach a point where they can credibly approach outside capital providers such as venture capitalists or angel investors. This practice is called “bootstrapping”.
Equity crowdfunding is emerging as an alternative to traditional venture capital. Traditional crowdfunding is an approach to raising the capital required for a new project or enterprise by appealing to large numbers of ordinary people for small donations. While such an approach has long precedents in the sphere of charity, it is receiving renewed attention from entrepreneurs, now that social media and online communities make it possible to reach out to a group of potentially interested supporters at very low cost. Some equity crowdfunding models are also being applied specifically for startup funding, such as those listed at Comparison of crowd funding services. One of the reasons to look for alternatives to venture capital is the problem of the traditional VC model. The traditional VCs are shifting their focus to later-stage investments, and return on investment of many VC funds have been low or negative.
In Europe and India, Media for equity is a partial alternative to venture capital funding. Media for equity investors are able to supply start-ups with often significant advertising campaigns in return for equity. In Europe, an investment advisory firm offers young ventures the option to exchange equity for services investment; their aim is to guide ventures through the development stage to arrive at a significant funding, mergers and acquisition, or other exit strategy.
In industries where assets can be securitized effectively because they reliably generate future revenue streams or have a good potential for resale in case of foreclosure, businesses may more cheaply be able to raise debt to finance their growth. Good examples would include asset-intensive extractive industries such as mining, or manufacturing industries. Offshore funding is provided via specialist venture capital trusts, which seek to use securitization in structuring hybrid multi-market transactions via an SPV (special purpose vehicle): a corporate entity that is designed solely for the purpose of the financing.
In addition to traditional venture capital and angel networks, groups have emerged, which allow groups of small investors or entrepreneurs themselves to compete in a privatized business plan competition where the group itself serves as the investor through a democratic process.
Law firms are also increasingly acting as an intermediary between clients seeking venture capital and the firms providing it.
Other forms include venture resources that seek to provide non-monetary support to launch a new venture.