Entrepreneurs Dislike Signaling, VCs Dislike Free Riders

20 September, 2010

I was thinking more about my post from yesterday titled Addressing The VC Seed Investor Signaling Problem.  There were a bunch of good comments that caused me to realize that I wrote the post from the perspective of a VC, not an entrepreneur.  As I mulled the comments over, I realized something very specific.

If a VC invests in a seed round but then doesn’t invest in the next round, there is a signaling problem, regardless of what the VC does with their investment.

When I read the post carefully, I realized that I implied that the VC firm’s strategy of selling back their seed investment might address part of the signaling problem.  In hindsight, it doesn’t address this at all.  It addresses a different problem – the free rider problem.

Most VC’s hate when other VC’s act as free riders.  A free rider is defined as someone who invests in an early round but then doesn’t participate in future rounds.  Note that I explicitly said “other VCs” and not angel investors.  Most VCs expect that angel investors will only invest in the first round or two, so they get exempted from free rider status.  I also exempt “super angels” / “seed-only VCs” from this – if you clearly define your role as an investor in the first round or two, and you never participate in later rounds, then you won’t end up being classified as a free rider.  But, once you start participating in later rounds, the expectation of your financial participation changes.

Early stage VCs are often expected to play at least pro-rata in following rounds.  When companies are successful, the early investors often (but not always) back off their pro-rata.  But, when companies go sideways or struggle, the early investors are often expected, by their co-investors – to continue to participate pro-rata until the company either succeeds or fails.  In many cases, the consequences for not participating are significant and you can get a taste for this from the post on the term Pay-to-Play that my partner Jason and I wrote in 2005.

The firm that I mentioned in the previous post addresses the free rider problem by saying “look, we’ll make it easy, we don’t support going forward so we’ll sell back our equity to the company, entrepreneurs, or angels and get out of the way for new VC investors.”  While this doesn’t address signaling, it does eliminate the free rider – in this case the VC that is not going to participate going forward.

When things are going great, none of this matters.  But when things aren’t, they matter a lot.  If I shift from the perspective of a VC to the perspective of an entrepreneur, I would only want VCs as seed investors who have a proven track record of consistently following their seed investments with future investments.  This will never happen 100% of the time – there are definitely seed investments that don’t make it. In addition, there are often cases where the entrepreneur doesn’t have choices and has to work with whoever shows up with a check.  But to hand wave over the issue is illogical.

Now, as a VC, I don’t want to co-invest with free riders.  I’m exempting angels, super angels, and “seed-only VCs” from this.  But if I co-invest with someone, I want to know that they are going to work with us to continue to fund the company, not walk away 50% of the time “because” – well – whatever “because” means.

The collision between signaling and free riders is what creates a lot of dissonance.  In the current wave of seed and angel investing activity, we haven’t hit a hard down cycle yet.  We will.  When we do, these two issues are going to pop to the forefront.  Anyone who participates in the early stage investment ecosystem (entrepreneurs, angels, and VCs) should make sure they spend some time thinking about this and incorporating it into their own strategy, before it is upon them.

 


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Entrepreneurs Dislike Signaling, VCs Dislike Free Riders

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