One of the major themes of the evolution of the private equity industry for the past decade has been the growth of internal groups focused on enhancing the value of portfolio companies. Twenty years ago, the great majority of the people working in private equity came out of investment banking, i.e., a deal background. Today, it is far more common for a private equity fund to employ people with an operational/consulting skill set, e.g., Bob Nardelli at Cerberus. I predict we’ll see the same phenomenon among venture capital funds. The latest example: Union Square Ventures announced that they are hiring for a newly created position as General Manager of the Union Square Ventures Network.
Within private equity, these groups are often called "portfolio operations", sometimes "portfolio resources groups", or what Riverside Company calls its Toolkit. At larger funds, "operations" may be distinguished from governance, talent selection, pre-investment involvement, or even strategy, partly because "operations" is a term that management may infer to mean backseat driving.
By definition, these groups focus on improving the operations of the existing portfolio, not on diligencing potential deals or on deal structuring. Just a few of the many major private equity funds that have well-developed private equity operations groups: 3i (Business Leaders Network); Cerberus; Irving Place Capital; Bain Capital; TPG; General Atlantic; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.
A Bain study found that "as much as 80% of private equity returns [going forward] will come from real performance improvement, rather than [ ] financial structuring." According to a 2006 KPMG study of 100 private equity exits (below), 48% of the value-add during private equity ownership came through organic revenue growth, as opposed to capital structure changes and multiple arbitrage.
Source of Gains in Private Equity-Backed Companies
I see six major reasons why limited partners now expect that private equity funds will have a formal operating strategy, minimally an operating partner and/or a formal portfolio resources group. I should mention my thinking throughout this blog post and especially in the list of factors below is shaped by a number of presentations I’ve seen by Jon Weber, who has run portfolio resources groups at three major private equity funds.
1) Global economic crisis. Particularly in 2008-09, most portfolio companies required operating changes to survive. In most cases, the existing management teams were hired for their ability to grow revenues, not their ability to restructure. The funds had to supplement and/or replace the existing teams.
2) Commoditization of financial engineering. The classic question Michael Jensen asked is: if leveraging is so wonderful, why don’t companies do it themselves instead of waiting for an LBO fund to buy them out? Since Jensen first began researching this area, larger companies increasingly chose to lever themselves, and there has been a massive boom in the private equity industry—thousands of funds all of whom can offer leverage. It has become much harder for a private equity fund to make high returns simply by borrowing some money and taking advantage of the interest tax shield.
3) Investors seek differentiation. Building a formal portfolio resources group has been a way that private equity investors can differentiate themselves and ease the capital-raising process.
4) Maturing private equity industry. According to the Parthenon Group, the larger size and greater complexity of funds has led to greater role specialization. As one investor said to me, "We’ve moved from the ‘great man’ to the ‘great team’ model."
5) Risk mitigation. The deal team tends to have a strong incentive to do a deal, and then move on to the next deal. An operational perspective adds a counter-balance to the deal team.
6) Strategy driven. Certain strategies — deep value investing, turnarounds, mid-market focus, and industry-specialized funds — require a hands-on approach.
I remember speaking at a Capital Roundtable Private Equity Portfolio Operations conference back in June 2008, and I was struck at the number of attendees who commented publicly on how they felt like "second-class citizens" at their funds, both in status and in compensation. However, when I spoke at the IIR PE Ops conference in October 2009, in the midst of cleanup from the economic crisis, the mood of the operating professionals was much more buoyant (despite the challenges they faced in their portfolio.) On a relative basis, they knew that their professional contribution had become much more apparent at their firms.
We have not yet seen a similar boom in portfolio resources teams in the venture capital industry, but it’s coming. I recently had a conversation with Chris Farmer about this, which sharpened my thinking considerably (he is the coauthor of my forthcoming study on "Best Practices in PE/VC Deal Origination"). According to the NVCA and PWC Moneytree, the average VC round has doubled in the last 12 years with the growth of the industry (from $4m to $8m). At the same time, the cost of starting a company and proving concept with a new product has declined dramatically in many sectors.
Some such as Marc Andreessen argue that costs have dropped as much as 100x over the last couple of decades since the current venture capital model was created. As a result, many innovative venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are creating new fund models from Andreessen-Horowitz to Betaworks to Founders Collective and Floodgate. Fred Wilso
n wrote, "The venture capital asset class does not scale . . . . I think ‘back to the future’ is the answer to most of the venture capital asset class problems. Less capital in the asset class, smaller fund sizes, smaller partnerships, smaller deals, and smaller exits. The math works as long as you don’t put too many zeros on the end of the numbers you are working with."
A corollary of Fred’s point is that the small number of portfolio companies which do hit hypergrowth need more support. Chris and I think that one logical new model is: seed a large number of companies with quite modest amounts of capital. Then, double down with follow-on rounds on those concepts that do take off. For those companies that experience rapid growth, it makes sense for a fund to bring extra support, since those companies can’t hire good people fast enough to do everything they need to do. In addition, a portfolio resources group can share learnings across the portfolio. This is much easier in venture than in private equity, because VC funds are much more likely to specialize in tightly defined industries. In addition, the portfolio companies are smaller and so it’s easier for a VC to shape their growth according to the fund’s beliefs in best practices.
In the case of companies that do not reach hyper growth, the companies will have raised modest amounts of capital and can be sold for much smaller amounts while still resulting in a win for entrepreneur and VC alike. Of course, failing to provide a follow-on investment is a signal that can hurt the company, but that has always been a part of the business and we are confident that models will evolve to minimize the negative effects.
Here are some models of VCs Chris and I identified which are building out portfolio resources groups:
- Andreesen Horowitz has said very explicitly that their model is to be able to invest at a wide range of capital levels in the 10-20 companies per year which have true potential to scale. They have built out a small value augmentation group: Ronny Conway (point person on business development for the portfolio) and several recruiters (1 for college-level talent, and 1 for experienced talent).
- Insight has the "Insight Onsite team" which is particularly focused on sales, SEO, and SEM.
- Accel has a Venture Development group and firms like Oak Investment Partners and Bessemer have Operating Partners to lend added support to companies. Charles River Ventures had a similar approach during the bubble.
- Bessemer also has a Designer in residence (showing the increasing importance of design for internet companies, e.g., Mint.com).
- Highland Capital Partners, Union Square, and numerous others have "Thought Summits" with noteable guest speakers. These events usually are organized by portfolio functional role, e.g., a portfolio CTO summit, portfolio CEO summit, etc.
- As I mentioned above, Union Square Ventures announced that they are hiring a General Manager of their portfolio.
- There has been a boom in accelerators: Boostphase (Atlanta, GA); Bootup Labs (Vancouver, BC); Capitalfactory.com (Austin, TX); Charles River Ventures QuickStart (Boston, MA); DreamIT Ventures (Philadelphia, PA); Iaccelerator.org (Bangalore, India); Launchboxdigital.com (Washington, DC); Nextstart.org (Greenville, SC); seedcamp (London, UK); Shotputventures.com (Atlanta, GA); SeedStart (New York); Summer @ Highland (Lexington, MA and Menlo Park, CA); Techstars.org (Boston (MA), Boulder, CO, and Seattle, WA; The Difference Engine(Sunderland, UK); Y Combinator (Mountain View, CA); and Y Europe (Vienna, Austria). For more information on how to build a replica of Y Combinator, read Jed Christiansen. For a comparative listing and more background, see Readwriteweb and Dan Veltri. TechStars recently released very positive data on the success of their incubated companies.
This approach differs from the incubator and acceletor trend (e.g., cmgi, antFactory) of a decade ago. That model was often criticized for selection bias: the less-competent entrepreneurs found the incubators more attractive. In addition, too much of the core competency of the company was driven by the incubator instead of in the company itself, creating ambiguity in attribution of value between the two entities. The new model looks more like the VC as consigliere instead of a bacteria splitting off new progeny.
I’ve had a front-row seat to this phenomenon, since I’ve done a lot of work in the past with portfolio resources groups at some of the major private equity funds. I’ve presented in the past on "Finding New Deals and Improving Portfolio Company Valuations by Working with Operating Executives," which covers some of the structural options private equity funds have in working with their portfolio.