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The Secret Trick of Portfolio Effect Dominance

Smart-as-a-whip VC Sim Simeonov did some math and some simulations and came up with the conclusion that a large “portfolio effect” has a major, almost overwhelming, effect on the financial returns of e.g. angel and seed VC portfolios.

English translation: make a LOT of small bets in order to win. (Even if most of those bets are losers.)

Now, this sounds somewhat counter-intuitive to a lot of folks who have been trained to “think like investors:” after all, the more deals you do, the less of a special snowflake you must be, right? (And we all know, Private Equity Professionals are the Specialest Snowflakes of All.) Furthermore, doing more and more “losers” in order to scrape together more winners (rather than trying to avoid losers altogether) just grates the wrong way at the investor mindset.

Well, Sim Simeonov has rejected that mindset with his Simeonov sim. (Forgive me.) But the point of my post isn’t just an emulation of Sim’s simulation. It’s that he’s right despite his simulation math. Rational VCs should be doing as many deals as possible, true, but it’s not due to portfolio IRR; it’s in spite of IRR.

No, the real reason that rational VCs should be doing as many deals as possible is that, to a large extent, VC firm survival has been dependent more on appearance than on financial reality. Specifically, assume two similar firms on their 2nd or 3rd funds, and assume they both, 5 years in, go out to raise funds with a 20% IRR. However, Firm A has earned that IRR through a risk-averse, lower-beta type strategy, while Firm B earned that IRR with a much larger “shotgun” portfolio chock-full of duds, but with a tiny sliver of a Google or similar mega-hit. Which firm is going to be able to raise the next fund with more certainty?

How things have worked to date is that LPs fall in love with great stories, and so it’s more important (in general) that you have one great story in the portfolio (even if it’s for a small investment) than that you have a bunch of sleepy, boring stories that average out to the same return.

Now, I’d love to see what savvy upstream investors like the Super LP, for example, think of this theory: it’s certainly not very flattering to the LP community if you suggest that they make investments solely on “stories” and not on “math.” In the LPs’ defense, I don’t think they’re being lazy or stupid; on the contrary, for the first several decades of the VC industry’s life, the market was so inefficient, and the data were so very sparse, that “stories” were the only reasonable data to look at.

However, we now have a VC (and super-angel, and micro-VC, etc.) industry that is chock-full of history, overflowing with data, and crowded with participants in the marketplace who will (relatively) quickly compete for new niches (especially as the squeeze of a denominator effect and general anti-VC enantiodromia are felt). I no longer feel as strongly as I once did that we’d soon have algorithmic VC decisions, and I doubt that we’ll see a “robot uprising in venture capital.” But I do hope and believe that we will see a more disciplined industry, and one where VCs’ incentives get rearranged to align better with actual financial returns (rather than with “stories” that drive fundraising).

(I do happen to know that there are institutional investors who realize the “great story bias” and are seeking to exploit the inefficiency it creates… let’s just say that if you were going to exploit it, you might look quite hard at Revenue-Based Finance as the way to do so 😉

One Comment

  1. An interesting post and much food for thought here. I’ve been working on a post of my own that chastises all of us for not integrating “risk-adjustment” into the “risk-adjusted returns” calculus. But, alas, we didn’t need to – as an industry – because, given the sparse and opaque historical data set you describe, people could comfortably “tell the stories” and other asset class constituents around the table at a given institution would let the PE guys slide because they were providing “portfolio octane” or pure return enhancement, without regard for risk.
    Now that institutional investors have been shocked into a more complete understanding of the cost of certain risks (e.g. illiquidity,) I was hopeful that we collectively could move towards a more thoughtful dialogue that might integrate thoughtful portfolio construction into our VC activities, but the problem is taht we just don’t have the language for it. And in the absence of such language, we revert to the empty promises of moonshots that will deliver “top quartile” results, whatever that means. And, because people are anchored in that mindset, it’s not the risk-adjusted return-oriented funds that get the most attention, it’s the ones that are selling lottery tickets.

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