Fifth, there’s Y Combinator: While there seems to be an incubator popping up weekly nowadays, the system, network, and brand built by the partners at Y Combinator has, in a relatively short period of time, captured significant power in the early-stage ecosystem by attracting, vetting, and training technical entrepreneurs on the ins and outs of how to start technology companies. Each class in Y Combinator prepares for their Demo Day, and each company has the option to accept $150,000 in convertible debt — and not just from anyone (more on this below). Having this cash on hand affords these companies a bit more time and runway should they need it, and gives them some negotiating leverage when talking to larger investors who are keen to invest, sometimes resulting in higher valuations that venture capitalists have to compete against.
Sixth, is “New” Venture Capital: The money given to these YC companies isn’t just normal money — it’s in part from a new style of venture capital pioneered by firms like Andreessen Horowitz (A16Z) and DST. While DST has made big bets and partnered with YC, A16Z has also raised large funds with a relatively small partnership, choosing instead to challenge the traditional venture capital personnel structure by operationalizing services across functional areas such as business development, recruiting, public relations, and sales. For a founder, the services offered in this model are strong, and this has motivated some other venture capital firms to change their own structures in an effort to provide more services to their companies. Additionally, the A16Z investment thesis, which seems to be designed around a belief that this is a particularly unique period of opportunity for transformation both on the web and in mobile and that a small share of winners in these categories will produce outsized returns. As a result, they seem to be willing to pay higher prices, which either forces traditional venture to compete or wait for the next thing.
And, finally, seventh are secondary markets: Now that early-stage shareholders (investors, founders, employees) of certain companies can sell their shares on these secondary markets, such as SecondMarket or SharesPost, they are able to access liquidity much earlier in the past. On the flip side, larger venture capital funds that may have missed out on the next big thing because the new company was incubated, or crowdfunded, or funded via a social network or small or large angel investors may have a chance to own a piece of the entity through these markets. In some cases, venture capital firms have been quite opportunistic to buy and sell shares of larger web companies in a short period of time, making a quick flip and marketing to the world that they, too, have invested in a particular company. While these markets provide venture capital with access, they also have to compete with a larger number of firms for these deals, a factor that could drive up prices and thereby affect returns.
All of these forces combined, and each individually in their own way, have altered the landscape for traditional venture capital in software. It is on average significantly more difficult to for traditional firms to find early-stage opportunities because there is more competition for those investments, and once a company does breakout and require more institutional funding, the prices for those rounds may not look like they have in the past. Some of this is reflective of the competitive forces that set market prices for private companies, or, depending on where you sit, is simply the new price to pay in order to own a piece of these coveted assets.
And while we’re able to analyze what has happened so far, I have no clue what the next few years will hold. Will the next big breakout originate from an incubator, will it be funded by software platforms, or will it be discovered by a small set of angels and venture capitalists, as it has for so many years to date? In the great race to find incredible talent before others, and the great race to own shares in private companies, there are more questions here than answers, but there’s no denying that it will be fascinating to see unfold.