Several days ago, Paul Graham, co-founder of noted Silicon Valley accelerator Y-Combinator (YC), wrote an exceptional post, “Black Swan Farming,” observing how crazy difficult it is to predict success in the startup space, and noting that just two companies – Airbnb and Dropbox – account for about 75% of the total value created by all YC-associated companies.
Yesterday, Dave McClure (the white-hot seed-stage Silicon Valley investor, familiar to readers of this column – see this discussion of his small bets style in connection with digital health) responded in a post titled (what else?) “Screw the Black Swans” that his investment model (at 500 Startups) is slightly different.
While most VCs are looking for the big score, McClure said, he’s deliberately seeking singles and doubles, which he basically expects will result in a similar expected value for his portfolio but reduce the chances of getting shut-out. He anticipates and is hoping for a greater number of successes (albeit more modest ones) than achieved by other VCs.
This will be a familiar dialog not only to investors but also to those in biopharma (who perhaps should be thought of as investors as well), as they continuously need to decide whether to go for a risky potential blockbuster or more of a sure-thing that ostensibly may be associated with a smaller market.
I’ve been fascinated with this exact question for a while (see here and here), and I’ve always looked at the problem a bit differently than McClure – which, if I’m right, may actually be good news for him.
In any market where the number of new businesses triples in the course of two years, you know that something unusual is going on. (And make no mistake—most venture incubators are businesses, founded and funded by people hoping for real returns, whether social, financial, or both.) You naturally begin to wonder whether a bubble is forming, in the classic sense of an episode of vertiginous growth disconnected from economic fundamentals such as market demand. And since bubbles are, by definition, unsustainable, you wonder what’s going to happen when they pop.
If you ask me, there is clearly an incubator bubble. Whatever your opinion about the existence of a bubble in the larger world of Internet startups—Sarah Lacy and Dan Primack offered interesting, opposing views on that this week—it’s hard to imagine that today’s tepid consumer and business markets have room to absorb all of the products and services offered by the hundreds of new startups that the incubators are now churning out each year.
It’s a given that only a few of the startups going through the incubators will strike it rich while the rest languish or die—that’s the nature of the startup game. What I’m saying is that without higher-than-normal success rates, many of the incubators themselves could find it difficult to stay in business.
Here’s why. Most of these operations are organized along the Y Combinator model: they provide startups with $15,000 to $25,000 in seed funding and about 12 weeks of mentorship and product development assistance, and in return they take an equity stake, usually around 6 percent. They profit when incubated startups get big and successful enough to be acquired. (As far as I know there isn’t a single example of an incubated company going public.) Doing the math, let’s say you’re the founder of an incubator and you fund 20 companies a year at $25,000 each, in return for a 6 percent stake. To achieve respectable returns on that $500,000 you laid out—let’s say a 3x return, not even figuring in your operating costs and the value of the time you put into mentoring the companies—you need one of your alumni companies each year to achieve an exit in the $25 million range (or two at half that, and so on). And that’s assuming your stake isn’t diluted by later funding rounds. It’s quite a gamble, and I just can’t see the economics being very compelling for any but the largest, best-funded, most prestigious incubators—i.e., Y Combinator and TechStars.