The Power Law of Venture Capital

  • What is Venture Capital
    • Venture capitalists aim to identify, fund, and profit from promising early-stage companies. They raise money from institutions and wealthy people, pool it into a fund, and invest in technology companies that they believe will become more valuable.

    • If they turn out to be right, they take a cut of the returns—usually 20%. A venture fund makes money when the companies in its portfolio become more valuable and either go public or get bought by larger companies. Venture funds usually have a 10-year lifespan since it takes time for successful companies to grow and “exit.”

    • But most venture-backed companies don’t IPO or get acquired; most fail, usually soon after they start. Due to these early failures, a venture fund typically loses money at first. VCs hope the value of the fund will increase dramatically in a few years’ time, to break-even and beyond, when the successful portfolio companies hit their exponential growth spurts and start to scale.

    • The big question is when this takeoff will happen. For most funds, the answer is never. Most startups fail, and most funds fail with them. Every VC knows that his task is to find the companies that will succeed.

  • Venture returns do not follow normal distribution
    • However, even seasoned investors understand this phenomenon only superficially. They know companies are different, but they underestimate the degree of difference.

    • The error lies in expecting that venture returns will be normally distributed: that is, bad companies will fail, mediocre ones will stay flat, and good ones will return 2x or even 4x. Assuming this bland pattern, investors assemble a diversified portfolio and hope that winners counterbalance losers

  • Two rules for VCs
      1. Only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund.
      • This is a scary rule, because it eliminates the vast majority of possible investments. (Even quite successful companies usually succeed on a more humble scale.)

      1. Because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules.
    • Whenever you shift from the substance of a business to the financial question of whether or not it fits into a diversified hedging strategy, venture investing starts to look a lot like buying lottery tickets. And once you think that you’re playing the lottery, you’ve already psychologically prepared yourself to lose.

  • The power law is important to everybody
    • The power law is not just important to investors; rather, it’s important to everybody because everybody is an investor. An entrepreneur makes a major investment just by spending her time working on a startup. Therefore every entrepreneur must think about whether her company is going to succeed and become valuable. Every individual is unavoidably an investor, too. When you choose a career, you act on your belief that the kind of work you do will be valuable decades from now.

      • Our schools teach the opposite: institutionalized education traffics in a kind of homogenized, generic knowledge. Everybody who passes through the American school system learns not to think in power law terms. Every high school course period lasts 45 minutes whatever the subject. Every student proceeds at a similar pace. At college, model students obsessively hedge their futures by assembling a suite of exotic and minor skills. Every university believes in “excellence,” and hundred-page course catalogs arranged alphabetically according to arbitrary departments of knowledge seem designed to reassure you that “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it well.” That is completely false. It does matter what you do. You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.

  • People who understand the power law are hesitate more to start new ventures
    • For the startup world, this means you should not necessarily start your own company, even if you are extraordinarily talented. If anything, too many people are starting their own companies today. People who understand the power law will hesitate more than others when it comes to founding a new venture: they know how tremendously successful they could become by joining the very best company while it’s growing fast. The power law means that differences between companies will dwarf the differences in roles inside companies. You could have 100% of the equity if you fully fund your own venture, but if it fails you’ll have 100% of nothing. Owning just 0.01% of Google, by contrast, is incredibly valuable (more than $35 million as of this writing). iting).