In early seed stage investing, there are thousands of startups, few early breakout performers, and little data that can be analyzed. But early stage investing can be highly profitable, and three distinct strategies have evolved: boutique firms, index funds, and hedge funds.
A boutique seed approach best describes the typical angel investors. They make few investments, and try to leverage some special insight to increase the probability of success. The underlying assumption of a small fund is that the investor can pick the top of the seed stage startups. In private markets, that seems like a very tall task. In fact, the vast majority of angels lose money using that approach, just like most VCs don’t make money for their investors.
Superangels, seed investors and small incubators fall between the boutique seed approach and an index fund. They invest in about 10-20 startups every year and over time create a portfolio that is large enough to increase the likelihood of having one or more outsize winners.
The seed investing index funds are represented by accelerators and incubators such as Y Combinator, 500 Startups, Alchemist Accelerator and others. By investing in a large and broad number of early stage startups, they are increasing the likelihood of having outsize winners in their portfolio. If the number of startups is large enough and the investor is a decent picker of talent, there will likely be some outsized returns in the portfolio. Y Combinator is a perfect example for that approach.
Dave McClure of 500Startups and others postulate that a portfolio of 100 companies is required to capture the outliers that generate 50X returns. The good news is that unicorns are not even required to generate returns for a seed stage fund: Exits on the order of $100 million are enough. An exceptionally well connected angel investor such as SV Angel has 16 unicorns among their 628 investments.
Traditional angel investors make an initial investment only. Some are putting money aside for follow-on rounds, but the increased capital requirements limit the ability to participate.
An alternate approach has been pioneered by Chris Sacca: The hedge fund. After making an initial investment in Twitter, Sacca realized that the company was a rocketship on the way to unicorn status. Initially he took the typical super angel path of raising a small fund, but when we had the opportunity to buy $400 million worth of Twitter shares in a secondary sale he realized he wanted to play in the bigger leagues. Within 30 days we was able to raise commitments from institutional investors and put in place vehicles for successive investments . By the time Twitter filed for its IPO, entities affiliated with Sacca held the largest positions in the company. As Jim Collins wrote in From Good to Great: “The most effective investment strategy is a highly un-diversified portfolio when you are right.”
All three seed investment strategies assume that an investor gets into the right deals. Even the index fund investment strategy requires 1 out of 50 investments to end up in a $100+ million exit. But an investor will not ‘see’ all startups with that exit potential in their deal flow, and may not recognize them. Attractive deals may be oversubscribed and the investor may not be able to participate. So regardless of the strategy, an investor needs to attract the ‘best deal’.
Picture credits: Time Inc, Money Q&A, Forbes