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Venture Capital Irony, Bubbles and Booms


Photo by epsos

Late in 2008, after the rest of the economy crashed and burned due to the housing crisis, the tech sector seemed to be fairly resilient. Maybe it’s the nature of the industry… less money at stake, generally, in tech VC deals than other industries. For instance, Biotech.

That all went out the window when Valley-based VC behemoth, Sequoia Capital, gathered a now-infamous meeting of all its portfolio companies and gave them what can only be described as a “the sky is falling” lecture.

In that lecture (that presentation is shown below), they advised their companies to buckle their seatbelts, lay off employees, and get rid of non-essential expenditures. They said it would be a dangerous ride ahead and that only the companies that had enough forward-thinking prowess to survive, would do so.

The presentation opened with an ominous title slide with the words: “RIP Good Times”. The presentation instructed CEOs to look for M&A deals as quickly as possible, raise new cash now (i.e. late 2008) if they were looking to raise a new round, and have at least a year of cash in the bank.

Pretty ballsy move that, frankly, spelled the beginning of the tech sector decline. If Sequoia was instructing their companies in this way, then something must be severe, thought many other VCs who followed suit with their respective companies.

In some ways, Sequoia was correct. It would be a long road to recovery. In other sectors of the economy, the recovery is ongoing or is just beginning.

The tech sector is not that way, however. In the past year, we’ve seen huge investments in 2010. Twitter raised $200M+ on a $3.7B valuation. Zynga, the social gaming company, raised $147M on an estimated $5B valuation. Tumblr raised $30M.

The bubble has been gaining full steam. And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday, you might ask? Yes… yesterday. Yesterday it was announced that Sequoia Capital led a $41M Series A round (Yes, you heard that right… Series A!) for new mobile social photo sharing company, Color.

I’ll let you read about what Color is because, though it’s a bright, shiny object that is interesting in some ways, it’s not, to me, a $41M play.

Sequoia seems to be taking the approach that many smart VCs these days, including Mark Suster from GRP Partners, said last week when describing investment strategy relating to teams and not products.

Whatever you’re working on now, the half-life of innovation is so rapid now that your product will soon be out-of-date. Your existence is irrelevant unless you continue rapid innovation. Your ability to keep up is dependent on having a great team of differing skills. Individuals don’t build great companies, teams do.

And while I fully agree with Mark, I do have to question Sequoia making a $41M play less than three years after they virtually single-handedly drove the nail into the coffin of the tech sector. To me, it seems Sequoia made an opportunistic opportunity to drive the market rates down on valuations, to eventually make a big play like this at lower valuations (Disclaimer: I don’t actually know the terms of the Color deal). With a lower valuation, they can throw more cash and own the lion share of the available stock ownership. You know… waiting for a slam dunk, as it were. Mission Accomplished!

However, it’s notable that the Color team is truly a notable team. The former Chief Scientist at LinkedIn. The guy who sold Lala to Apple in 2009. Five other notable experienced entrepreneurs and successful startup people.

I’m sure Sequoia knows what it’s doing. It’s certainly interesting to watch investors defend them. There’s just very practical questions about how the company that started the tech recession could come out guns blazing on this one.

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