Archive for the ‘VC Board Best Practices’ Category

VC Governance FAQ: (7) How should institutional investors contact VC funds?

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This is the seventh in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

Question; How should institutional investors contact VC funds? Directly or via an investment consultant? Do the traditional investment consultants have the background to conduct due diligence on the VC fund(s)?

Answer: First, nothing beats direct contact with managers.  I think the VC industry conferences in specific industry sectors provide a great forum for institutional investors to meet directly with VC funds.  Historically the two largest conferences have been sponsored by IBF and DowJones.  There are also sector specialty conferences, such as the IT Security Entrepreneurs Forum held annually on the Stanford campus, the bring out domain experts.I think that it also makes sense for institutional investors who don’t have the resources to do a full search to work with consultants—however, I will say that, in my experience, many consultants become gatherers of statistics and information—meaning paper pushers—and few of them actually bother to have a deep and current understanding of what is really going on in the market. I’ve actually been shocked at how clueless some consultants are about what is really going in the VC industry. I think the evidence supporting this point is in the fact that, because of the long term nature of the VC business, consultants will choose to back a certain fund and then assume that they can sit back and wait for five or ten years to see if they made the right choice.  This is a big mistake, and one of the root causes is because there is a low probability that the same analyst or partner in the firm that made the original “commit” decision is still going to be at the consultant even four years after the original decision to recommend the fund was made.  So I am suggesting that a lot of the “standard” recommendations by the consultants in VC are stale.  So you need to do research on the consultant’s process as well as directly meet with the venture firms.  Any venture firm that won’t meet with you probably doesn’t need your money and won’t give you the kind of respect in a relationship that you should expect, so that’s a great first cut in your process.images-13

VC Governance FAQ: (6) Are contract terms in partnership agreements shifting in favor of institutional Limited Partners?

images-10This is the sixth in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

Question: You had some thoughts about contract terms. Do you think the trend is shifting in favor of institutional LPs to receive better terms?

Answer: Certainly as the sources of capital have become more  selective and scarce, the GPs have had to become more aware of LP concerns over terms. While  the GPs in top tier funds will still be able to maintain favorable terms (and  LPs will always want to get into their funds), even these GPs have made some  concessions to maintain a supportive investor base. For example, recent press  reports have indicated that at least two prominent funds had lowered their  “premium” carry structures, and made the payment of a 30% carry rate subject  to the return of a multiple of the investors’ capital. For those other funds  that are not oversubscribed, there will undoubtedly be some pressure on  terms. Though there has been a lot of talk about the terms suggested in the  recent guidelines published by the ILPA, these guidelines have not fully  caught hold (and some proposed terms –like joint and several liability  on clawbacks — may be seen as too extreme). Still, in the current fundraising  environment, there will certainly be some movement to provide an  alignment of interests between LPs and GPs, while trying to maintain the  appropriate incentives for the GPs.

VC Governance FAQ: (5) How are VC funds governed differently from the governance standards applied to their portfolio companies?

images-8This is the fifth in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

Question: Please differentiate between the governance of a VC fund versus the governance of companies in a VC fund’s portfolio? Is one more important than the other?

Answer: This is a very important question, and it starts with recognizing that VC funds, as partnerships, are governed very differently from portfolio companies, which are corporations.  The VC fund may have one managing partner that sets the tone and controls the entire firm, or it may have a collegial distribution of governance among several senior partners.  The best way to understand how a VC fund is governed begins with an analysis of the fund’s investment committee, its deal due diligence process, and the specific allocation of the fund’s investment capital among the individual partners.  An important question to ask is, do the partners evaluate themselves and each other on an annual basis or at all? You might be surprised to learn that many VC funds lack an internal feedback loop, that the partners may not communicate openly among each other, and that the partners themselves may lack a formal measure of accountability among each other, even though the economics are divided formally in the management company agreement.images-9

Turning to portfolio companies, the board of directors is responsible for the governance of the company, and here we have a very interesting dynamic which often leads to board dysfunction—the VC directors have inherent conflicts of interest as representatives of their funds and as fiduciaries who must act in the best interests of all of the shareholders.  In addition there is a major tension and conflict between the management team and the VC directors—the management wants more share ownership, and the common equity is at the bottom of the seniority stack behind the various series of preferred equity rounds.  The VCs want capital efficiency, which means they want management to do more with less.  Compounding the complexity is the fact that most VC-backed companies replace their CEOs twice between the founding and the liquidity event.  So you can imagine that the VC boardroom governance equation is very complex and rife with opportunities for problems.

VC Governance FAQ: (4) How do you manage risk when backing serial entrepreneurs?

images-7This is the fourth in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

Question: Are there ways to mitigate the team risk when in fact VC funds often back a particular team or particular CEO?

Answer: When we back serial entrepreneurs, it is critical to assess where they are today in their lifetime achievement and performance potential curve.  By that, I am reminded of the fundamental risk in looking at track records—“past performance is not indicative of future returns.”  It amazes me how many investors chase performance and don’t pay attention to the current team composition at the VC manager, to the current dynamics of the partnership.  Ideally you want to back a proven winner who is still hungry enough to deserve a seat at the table.  Venture capital is totally a hits- driven business, but there are very few hitters, either VCs or entrepreneurs– who are able to hit multiple home runs.  When you look at VC’s, you want to find VC’s who are magnets for great entrepreneurs, whether they are first timers or veterans, and rely on the VCs’ pattern recognition ability to make that judgment call in picking a winner.  One way to mitigate risk is to assess how deep the team is in the VC organization—remember that you are making a 10 year bet on a team, and few teams stay together through an entire cycle.questionnaire

VC Governance FAQ: (3) How can investors protect themselves against key-person risk from fraud in VC-backed portfolio companies?

images-4This is the third in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

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.

VC Governance FAQ: (2) Especially now, when transparency is so important, why is limited financial information available from a private company?

images-3This is the second in our series of ten frequently asked questions from investors in venture capital partnerships.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance’s Fiduciary X, asked me the following:

Question: At a time when transparency is so important to institutional investors, how can fiduciaries reconcile that there is limited information available with a private company?

Answer: Actually there is plenty of financial information available from private companies, but that does not mean that it is available to institutional investors as passive investors who are Limited Partners in venture capital or other private equity partnerships.

Putting that point aside, for a moment, what is absent is a quoted liquid market in their equity and debt securities, which means that the determination of the book value of those private companies is necessarily subjective. Institutional, or any other investors, for that matter, who choose to invest in illiquid securities, presumably do so because they expect to obtain superior returns from the illiquid securities at the end of the investment period than they would from liquid securities over the same period—otherwise it’s not worth giving up the liquidity and taking the risk of the longer holding period. To get to the core of your question, providing passive institutional investors with more financial information about illiquid securities isn’t going to make them more liquid.  They key is whether you can rest assured that the general partner who is responsible for managing your investment is honoring the trust that you have placed in that manager.

There has been a multi-year move among auditors, driven by demand for greater transparency in understanding the process behind the book valuation of private, illiquid investments, to bring more of a “mark to market” approach in the way the general partners of private equity partnerships value their portfolios.  Before I discuss this in more detail, I should fully answer your question:  the main reason why general partners, particularly in venture capital, should legitimately limit the amount of information they disclose to their investors about their private investments is (1) competitive considerations, particularly for disruptive emerging technologies where protecting intellectual property and market competition from large companies are defining elements in the company’s potential for success.

Having said that, if a sophisticated institutional investor insists on having the right to inspect the details about specific private investments, see business plans, and otherwise get details about the company, if they are prepared to sign a confidentiality agreement and have a good reason for wanting to see this information, it certainly exists and can be made available.

To address the broader point about accuracy in book valuation, I am concerned that the developing industry standard for venture capital is at risk of going too far while providing no real benefit to investors. I see the auditors forcing excessive quarterly compliance burdens on the general partners, and this trend has been developing since the institution of 409a valuations for common stock.  The reason I feel this burden is unnecessary is because, in my view, the additional information may be very precise without being accurate.

The fact remains that you don’t know the value of a private asset unless you actually intend to sell it.  And in venture capital, the second you become a forced seller of a company, you have given it the equivalent of the kiss of death.  For many emerging companies, the moment that you become a bona fide seller and are perceived to have to sell the asset, the value will be diminished—so you can imagine why the lack of an IPO market is the single greatest source of distress for venture capital in the U.S.  To conclude on this question, I’d like to emphasize that, in my view, for early stage companies with little or no revenue, valuation models driven by public equity or option inspired equity models simply make no sense.

VC Governance FAQ: (1) How much information are limited partners (pensions, endowments, foundations, etc.) entitled to receive from a VC fund?

images-2It’s that time of the year again– time to send out audited financial statements and K-1’s to your limited partners– which means it’s also a great time to address some of the common questions that investors raise about VC partnership governance and disclosure issues.

I recently spent some time answering a series of such questions posed to me by Susan Mangiero, the founder and CEO of Investment Governance, Inc., whose site Fiduciary X, is an emerging “one-stop best practices information portal for investment decision-makers and their service providers.” Fiduciary X, on whose advisory board I serve, combines peer networking, research, productivity tools, proprietary data sets,  and a governance-focused knowledge base with a documents archive to serve fiduciaries and risk managers.

In the interests of sharing this interview with a broad group of interested readers, I am going to be posting one question and my answer each day for ten days, including today.  For access to the full interview, which will be published March 15, please go to the Fiduciary X Ezine registration site.logo

Question:  How much information are limited partners (pensions, endowments, foundations, etc.) entitled to receive from a VC fund?

Answer: Section 17-305 (b) of the Delaware Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act, which governs LP information rights according to DE law, specifically allows the GP to withhold from LPs “any information the GP reasonably believes to be in the nature of trade secrets or other information the disclosure of which the GP in good faith believes is not in the best interest of the Fund or could damage the Fund or its business or which the Fund is required by law or by agreement with a third party to keep confidential.”  This would include the GP’s fiduciary duties and confidentiality obligations with respect to not disclosing portfolio company information without the consent of such company.  The Act provides for a specific list of information that LPs are entitled to, and funds historically disclose that same information to their LPs—the top law firms in Silicon Valley model their LP agreement forms to be pretty consistent with Delaware law.

images-1Specifically, Section 17-305 of the Act provides for the following:

(a) Each limited partner has the right, subject to such reasonable standards (including standards governing what information and documents are to be furnished, at what time and location and at whose expense) as may be set forth in the partnership agreement or otherwise established by the general partners, to obtain from the general partners from time to time upon reasonable demand for any purpose reasonably related to the limited partner’s interest as a limited partner:

(1) True and full information regarding the status of the business and financial condition of the limited partnership;

(2) Promptly after becoming available, a copy of the limited partnership’s federal, state and local income tax returns for each year;

(3) A current list of the name and last known business, residence or mailing address of each partner;

(4) A copy of any written partnership agreement and certificate of limited partnership and all amendments thereto, together with executed copies of any written powers of attorney pursuant to which the partnership agreement and any certificate and all amendments thereto have been executed;

(5) True and full information regarding the amount of cash and a description and statement of the agreed value of any other property or services contributed by each partner and which each partner has agreed to contribute in the future and the date on which each became a partner; and

(6) Other information regarding the affairs of the limited partnership as is just and reasonable.

The current state of the art for Agreements of Limited Partnership in venture capital allows the GP to override the information rights LPs have pursuant to the Delaware Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act (the “Act”) as permitted pursuant to the Act and allows the GP to “adjust” identifying information given to the LPs in order to protect the identity of the Fund’s portfolio companies, which often is an issue in the case of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) LPs.  In addition, the partnership agreement allows the GP to restrict / withhold information from LPs if “the General Partner reasonably determines [such LP] cannot or will not adequately protect against the [improper] disclosure of confidential information, the disclosure of such information to a non-Partner likely would have a material adverse effect upon the Partnership, a Partner, or a Portfolio Company.”  Other elements of the well drafted agreement do provide the LP’s with disclosure rights to their advisors, equity holders, etc. and provide remedies and protections to the GP with respect to GP withholding rights and improper LP information disclosure.

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A Wake-Up Call for America– Free Webcast Discusses Systemic Market Failure in U.S. Equities and Formal Release of New Grant Thornton Study, November 9th 12:30 PM EST

Join Grant Thornton for a free Webcast on A Wake-Up Call for America, the greatly anticipated study demonstrating how market structure changes over the past 10 years have had a profound negative effect on the number of publicly listed companies in the United States – ultimately inhibiting economic recovery, worsening the job market and undermining U.S. competitiveness.

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Date: Monday, November 9, 2009

Time: 12:30-2:00 EST

Note: Register now,  Company pass code – 710004, Course code – 11738


The Webcast will feature a lively discussion among the study’s contributors and other industry-leading capital markets executives, and will include an in-depth look at the steep decline in U.S. listings, the macroeconomic implications, and recommendations for attainable solutions. A Q&A session will conclude the event, and all participants will receive a copy of the study.

Participants include:

  • David Weild – Former vice-chairman and executive vice president of the NASDAQ Stock Market, and current Senior Advisor at Grant Thornton LLP and founder of Capital Markets Advisory Partners.
  • Edward Kim – Former head of product development at the NASDAQ Stock Market, and current Senior Advisor at Grant Thornton LLP and Managing Director of Capital Markets Advisory Partners.
  • Pascal Levensohn – Founder and Managing Partner of Levensohn Venture Partners, and Director of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), where he is chairman of the education committee.
  • Barry Silbert – Founder and CEO of SecondMarket, the largest marketplace for illiquid securities.  SecondMarket was named the top start-up in the entire Northeast by AlwaysOn Media and one of the Top Fifty Startups You Should Know by Businessweek.

Space is limited. Register today. <http://university.learnlivetech.com/gtt>

Follow the steps below to register. You will receive an email confirmation with instructions for attending the Webcast. If you need assistance with registering, please call 206.812.4700.

  • Go to http://university.learnlivetech.com/gtt and choose “New Student Registration” to create your account, then enter company pass code 710004.
  • If you have attended a Grant Thornton Webcast within the past year, simply log in to your account.

Locate the Webcast in the catalog and sign up for A Wake-up Call for America, course number 11738.

New Study: Market Structure is Causing the IPO Crisis

imagesI’ve been speaking publicly for over one year about the disastrous impact of the capital markets crisis in accelerating the demise of small emerging company IPO’s.  To be clear, this process began over eleven years ago and, in my view, it is the single most important issue for the venture capital community because it jeopardizes an entire generation of innovative American companies. In addition to revitalizing America’s slipping global competitiveness, restoring emerging company IPOs in the U.S. will efficiently create new jobs and drive a new, sustainable economic growth cycle in our country.

Grant Thornton LLP’s Capital Markets Group today announced the release of Market Structure is Causing the IPO Crisis, a white paper examining the demise of initial public offerings in the United States, and offering remedies to resurrect the IPO market.  The paper is a follow up to Grant Thornton’s original study, Why are IPOs in the ICU?, which was published in November 2008.

The new white paper provides fresh market data and incorporates additional insight gleaned from discussions with a wide range of key market participants, including former senior staffers at the SEC and senior executives at “bulge bracket” and “major bracket” investment banks.

Co-authored by David Weild, Senior Advisor at Grant Thornton, founder of Capital Markets Advisory Partners and former NASDAQ vice-chairman, and Grant Thornton Senior Advisor Edward Kim, the updated study continues to focus on how technological, regulatory and legislative changes have combined to chisel away at the U.S. IPO market.  Although conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. IPO market has been going through a cyclical downturn exacerbated by the recent credit crisis, the paper points out that in reality, the market for underwritten IPOs, given its current structure, is closed to 80% of the companies that need it.

“Despite the recent uptick in IPO activity, over the last several years, initial public offerings in U.S. have nearly disappeared,” noted Mr. Weild.  “Our findings since publication of the original white paper have served to reinforce our thesis that the loss of the IPO market in the United States is due largely to changes in market structure.  By killing the IPO goose that laid the golden egg of U.S. economic growth, the combination of technology, legislation and regulation undermined investment in small cap stocks, drove speculation and killed the best IPO market on earth.”

The white paper proposes  a solution to this crisis – an issuer and investor opt-in capital market that would make use of full SEC oversight and disclosure, and could be run as a separate segment of NYSE or NASDAQ, or as a new market entrant.  It would offer:

  • Opt-in/Freedom of Choice – Issuers would have the freedom to choose whether to list in the alternative marketplace or in the traditional marketplace.
  • Public – Unlike the 144A market, this market would be open to all investors.
  • Regulated – The market would be subject to the same SEC corporate disclosure, oversight and enforcement as existing markets.
  • Quote driven – The market would be a telephone market supported by market makers or specialists, much like the markets of a decade ago.
  • Minimum quote increments (spreads) at 10 cents and 20 cents and minimum commissions – 10-cent increments for stocks under $5.00 per share, and 20 cents for stocks $5.00 per share and greater, as opposed to today’s penny spread market.  These measures would bring sales support back to stocks and provide economics to support equity research independent of investment banking.
  • Broker intermediated – Investors could not execute direct electronic trades in this market; buying stock would require a call or electronic indication to a brokerage firm, thereby discouraging day-traders from this market.
  • Research requirement – Firms making markets in these securities would be required to provide equity research coverage that meets minimum standards.

To view the full paper including updates, please visit: www.gt.com/ipo.

Barron’s Article on Tech IPO’s Misses the Importance of the Extinct Sub-$50 million IPO

On Monday, August 10, Barron’s ran a story “Does the IPO Market Shun Smaller Companies?”, written by Mark Veverka, asserting that “venture capitalists want to widen the playing field for the underwriters.” The story includes quotes from former National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) chairman Dixon Doll of DCM and investment banker Paul Deninger, who is the vice-chairman of Jefferies & Co. It accurately points out that, when it comes to IPOs, many venture capitalists have mistakenly defaulted to choosing the large investment banks (such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse) as lead underwriters for their portfolio companies.  This practice has created “a near oligopolistic hold on tech IPOs” by these large investment banks.  Such market power allows bankers to shapes the profile of those companies worthy of going public to favor the natural demand from their largest clients: short-term trading focused hedge funds and large institutional investors that demand highly liquid public securities.

The collateral effect of this market reality is that the vast majority of emerging VC-backed companies are effectively barred from going public.  To be clear, there are plenty of strong venture-backed companies today that should be public but that do not meet the valuation or liquidity criteria of the three large remaining investment banks (more on this below).  Unfortunately, outside of the IPO-syndicate-bias and the much-maligned Sarbanes Oxley, the article does not address far more serious systemic regulatory consequences that further exacerbate the problem– such as the combined impact of decimalization and the Spitzer decree (taking trading commissions down from $0.125 per share to $0.01 or $0.02 per share and requiring that equity research be paid for by commissions ) which have effectively gutted both the after-market trading and research support that emerging company IPO’s need.

While the article notes that “the objective is to get back to late-80s, mid-90s practices, allowing more start-ups access to capital so they can remain indepenedne tand create more opportunities for venture capitalists to cash out”, the emphasis on who is cashing out is misplaced.  More accurately stated, the institutional investors who fund the venture capital partnerships need more opportunities to cash out– and these institutions are largely public pension plans, college endowments, and other true long-term investing financial institutions.  Why do they need to cash out?  Because they are also the main players who have historically reinvested in the next generation of innovation.

Sadly, the article completely ignores the implications of this systemic liquidity crisis.  If we look at the historic record, the most important point overlooked by this story is that smaller companies need to go public because they are the engines of growth that drive the U.S. economy– both in terms of job creation and GDP growth.  The IPO chasm that exists today is the result of the death of the sub $50 million IPO.  For a clear example, see the following list of 17 companies that went public and raised $50 million or less between 1971 and 1996:

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These companies only raised $367 million in the public markets and they account for 470, 000 U.S. jobs today. Adjusted for inflation andmeasured in 2009 dollars, the $367mm in total dollars raised by this group equals$670mm, and only 2 of these 17 companies’ IPOs (EMC $80mm; and Oracle $70mm) exceed $55mm in 2009 dollars.  While today these companies are household names, when they went publicthey were largely unknown. How many companies are unable to go public today  because they aren’t big enough to merit the attention of the large investment banks who cater to short-term traders?  How many future engines of U.S. GDP growth and job creation will be still-born and be forced in to a merger?  Should they be starved of liquidity because they need to cash out investors, build working capital, but it is unavailable to them because they need less than $50 million?

Deninger points out in the article that “In recent years, VC firms have become too dependent on mergers and acquisitions as the exit strategy of choice. . .. In fact, most tech-start-ups are ‘built for acquisition’, as opposed to being built to become the next publicly held Microsoft or Oracle.” An addendum to his quote should be that merger synergy is code for firing peopleMergers trigger job losses; IPO’s create jobs.

In my view, it is wholly inconsistent with the Obama administration’s economic growth objectives for the current systemic liquidity crisis in our equity capital markets to be strangling our emerging technology growth companies while they are still in their venture capital cribs.  We need to raise awareness of this severe problem because it threatens an entire generation of American innovation.  Venture capitalists only make money if their investors make money, and many of their investors are the stewards of America’s pension plans.  VC’s need to build companies that are cash flow positive as private companies, not only so that they can improve their negotiating leverage in the event of an acquisition but, more importantly, so that they can wait to go public until the regulatory constraints that have killed the sub $50 million IPO are lifted.

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In closing, the article incorrectly asserts that “ironically, the tech IPO market is re-awakeining just as the NVCA prepares to roll out its initiative.”  The few IPOs so far this year are drops of water in the desert, and those that are in the queue, while they represent outstanding companies, do not represent a sufficient number of companies to make a material difference for the institutional investors and the many entrepreneurs who have the most at stake.  Let’s not misinterpret false positives at the expense of the future of the American economy.