This is the third in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.
Question: Given recent instances of VC-backed company fraud and questions about the management team, how can institutional investors protect themselves from key person risk?
Answer: You are asking a fundamental question here about trust, which relates to your prior question. I could restate your question by saying, how do I know that I’ve backed someone as a GP who is trustworthy? The answer is, you have to do your homework on that person, which means that you have to make a full range of reference calls to people who are not on the person’s reference list. This takes resources and time. If you are not equipped with the resources to do the work, then you need to rely on someone else’s process—but again that has to be an independent third party whose due diligence credentials are also trustworthy.
Let me turn the table on you a little bit because I sit in your shoes all the time– as a venture capitalist who bets on entrepreneurs, my greatest challenge is to sit across the table from a very enthusiastic person and judge their credibility—will they actually do what they say they are going to do? Will they work 24/7 to get the job done? How will they behave when unforeseen challenges occur—which they always do? Institutional investors have to do the same thing because they are betting on people, and they need to establish a considerable measure of trust if they are going to sign on to a 10 year commitment to invest in illiquid assets. This is the toughest part of our jobs—as I look back over my the 14 years I have spent in venture capital as part of my 29 year finance career, the biggest mistakes I have made have always been related to key person risk, as opposed to picking the “wrong” technology.
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