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风投为何不再是“生命周期型行业” |《财富》专访

财富中文网 2018年10月09日

这位风投认为,一些顶尖硅谷公司的成功得益于他们的技术洞察力。

风投商阿施密特·辛达纳认为,一些顶尖硅谷公司的成功得益于他们的技术洞察力。

在2013年和Foundation Capital分道扬镳后,辛达纳决定尝试一种新的投资策略——支持敢于承担技术风险而非市场风险的创业者。

他的公司Engineering Capital为致力于解决软件和核心IT基础设施空间技术问题的公司提供种子轮投资。他为首个基金筹集了3200万美元,第二个基金筹集了5000万美元,第二个基金已经在2018年第二季度开始投资。

“大部分投资公司关注的是市场风险。”辛达纳说。“也就是说,他们擅长的是判断公司什么时候有发展潜力,什么时候应当抓住机会进行投资。而我现在的做法恰恰相反。我的思路是,‘如果我们认为人们会乐于看到有人能够解决这个技术问题,而且仅仅在这种情况下我们才进行投资。’”

Engineering Capital为公司提供的通常是首笔机构投资资金,其投资对象包括Rubrik、Menlo Security、Prismo Systems、Palerra(被甲骨文公司收购)和Netsil (被Nutanix收购)。

辛达纳告诉《财富》杂志什么是拥有技术洞察力、如何在种子投资市场中应对不平衡的市场力量,以及他为什么觉得投资不再是生命周期型的行业。

《财富》:你在寻找投资对象时,希望公司及其创始人拥有哪些具体特征?

辛达纳:我会着重考虑以下几点。第一点是技术洞察力。每家公司都称自己是技术公司,所以我指的是其中一小部分我认为具有“技术洞察力”的公司。按照我的概念,谷歌是这样的公司,Facebook不是。

第二,我希望投资对象能够采用高资本效率的方式解决其问题。我的投资对象都是软件公司,一个五至七人的小团队可以做出一个产品并在种子轮创造营收。这在企业领域并不常见。我相信一个技术水平高、商业能力强的小团队可以在种子轮融资中打造一个企业产品。从风投战略的角度考虑,我的主要投资就是公司资本效率比较高的这个阶段。

公司创始人如何判断自己是否具有有价值的技术洞察力?

辛达纳:技术洞察力本身没有价值。仅仅拥有技术洞察力,不足以建立一家公司。只有当这种洞察力能够使公司为顾客——最好是大批顾客——提供商业解决方案时,才能称之为有价值。比如说,一开始开发VMware只是为了给x86系统生产虚拟机。当我运行VMware ESX服务器时,我们注意到用户想要在新硬件上继续运行他们原来老的Windows NT系统。使用VMware ESX加固这些老服务器立刻带来了投资回报,这是今天VMware大型业务的起源。技术洞察力之所以尤为重要,因为如果企业提供的解决方案中含有这种洞察力,能够赋予创业公司别人难以匹敌的优势。按照我对技术洞察力的定义,这意味着没有其它公司可以提供这种解决方案。这不是实现成功的唯一方法,但许多大公司的发展基础都是技术洞察力。

我们看到,目前一些进行早期阶段投资的基金关闭了,原因是担心种子市场上资本过多、市场力量失衡。作为种子期投资者,你是否注意到了这些变化,准备如何应对?

辛达纳:2015、2016年市场经历了快速发展,我也亲历了当时的发展。我想做个大胆的预测,已经成立的种子基金中至少一半甚至四分之三将不会再建立第二或第三个基金。

现在流行做风投,所以不可避免地,我们会看到因为市场力量使然而出现市场清洗。也就是说,做风投挺难的。风投简单却并不容易,人们经常把“简单”和“容易”的概念搞混。现在很多人觉得风投很容易,他们最后会不幸地发现自己搞错了。

同时,我们看到出现了巨型基金。软银1000亿美元巨额基金愿景基金(Vision Fund)采用的战略是寻找行业领导者,向其倾注上亿美元的投资,解决公司因为资金限制带来的问题。你怎么看这种战略?

辛达纳:我觉得这种想法非常好。他们想尝试利用现有的市场空白。但是没有第二个软银。市面上有大量基金可以取代我的基金,甚至能找到红杉和格雷罗克(Greylock)的替代者。但没有公司能像软银一样开出如此巨额的支票,甘于冒这么大的风险,试着推动规则向有利于自己的方向调整。而且我觉得软银会成功。我看好他们。

投资界在宏观层面出现了一些新趋势,如风投公司在建立巨型基金、风投资助公司维持私有化的时间更长了,你认为这些趋势会给早期创业公司带来什么长期影响?

辛达纳:这个问题问到了点子上。风投将会从一个生命周期型行业变成只专注于某一个阶段的行业。这将会是其中一项根本性改变。将影响每一家公司的战略,无论是像Engineering Capital一样的种子轮投资公司,还是像红杉或者基准资本(Benchmark)等传统投资公司。所谓“生命周期型行业”,我指的是,以前,创业公司的第一家机构投资者目的是成为公司除创始人之外的头号股东,并且充当公司从创立到离场整个过程的主要投资者——无论是采用并购还是IPO的方式。所谓“只专注某一阶段”,我是指在离场前,企业的主要机构投资者会随着时间推移发生改变。

关于这个概念,一个很好的例子是基准资本和(Uber前CEO)特拉维斯·卡兰尼克之间的战争,最终基准资本卖出了Uber的股份,红杉在同一交易中购入。换句话说,在公司实现IPO之前,一家顶级公司卖出投资,另一家顶级公司买入。这不是个意外。这样的事情还会再次发生。

要知道,基准资本享有创始人友好型投资公司的美誉,被称为全球被适宜合作的公司之一。但它起诉了所投资的一个公司CEO后,这个好名声荡然无存。

【2017年8月10日,基准资本起诉卡兰尼克和Uber,称卡兰尼克隐瞒了“重大管理失误和其它不端行为”,同时在公司董事会又买下了三个位置。】

辛达纳:无论哪种情况,现在我们知道了,最终特拉维斯放弃了原来与其股权不成比例的控制权,基准资本打折出售了股权,软银成为最大股东,红杉在今年早期的同步交易中个买入了股权。也就是说,在公司实现IPO之前,一家顶级风投公司以优惠价格卖出了他们历史上表现最出色的投资,同时另外一家顶级风投公司买入。在以前风投还是生命周期型行业时,很难想象会发生这种事。我相信,创业公司的第一家风投成为公司的最大机构所有者并且在IPO或者并购前一直保持这一地位的时代已经一去不复返了。

一些公司试图通过成立价值几十亿美元的巨型基金或平行成长基金来应对这一变化。从创业者的角度看,他们只是想得到100万美元的种子投资,因而很难从一个10亿美元的基金中得到关注,因此出现了专门的种子基金。

8月29日,Axios报道,风投公司安德森·霍洛维茨基金(Andreessen Horowitz)正在改变其筹资战略,试图不再使用跨阶段、跨行业的手段。这也印证了你所说的风投正在朝向更加专业化的资金方式发展。什么人将从这种战略中获益?

辛达纳:能够快速确定自己在这种新版图中的独特价值并利用它提升企业表现的人能够获益。比如说,将业务重点放在某一个行业领域或者发展阶段的风投公司能够获益。这也是为什么我认为红杉拥有不同的团队负责早期投资和成长阶段的投资。以及Emergence为什么总是关注SaaS业务。

如果创业者也能意识到不是所有的钱都一样,不同公司能带来不同价值,并且在选择投资伙伴时铭记这一点,他们就能获益。而且,这些专业的公司和团队还会带来除资金之外的更多价值,他们也能因此受惠。

风投的市场已经发展得足够大了,创业公司现在实现IPO需要经历足够长的时间,需要大量资本,因此他们足以支撑独立的基金甚至只专注于整个风投市场某一特定细分领域的独立公司实现发展。

你觉得其它公司会如何应对?

辛达纳:大公司会扩张,以涵盖不同的业务。他们会成为平台型公司。在我看来,A16Z、红杉、Lightspeed正在朝这个方向发展。扩张不会给大公司带来风险,但对于其它公司而言,可能会出现过度扩张,导致他们不得不重新寻找自己的信念价值、回归根本。一些公司会认识到自己的特长所在,并专注于该领域的业务。基准资本目前采取的战略似乎是保持根基、不再扩张。而且,风投行业不是赢者通吃,也不是一刀切,所以我看到很多不同的商业模型都取得了成功。(财富中文网)

译者:Agatha 

Venture capitalist Ashmeet Sidana believes that some of the best Silicon Valley companies owe their success to a technical insight.

After parting ways with Foundation Capital in 2013, Sidana decided to try out a new investing strategy — back founders taking technical risk, not market risk.

His firm, Engineering Capital, leads seed rounds in companies solving technical problems in the software and core IT infrastructure space. He raised $32 million for his first fund, and $50 million for his second, which he just began investing out of in Q2 of 2018.

“Most venture firms focus on market risk,” Sidana said. “In other words, they’re good at sussing out when a company has traction, and when it makes sense to invest in that opportunity. Whereas what I’m doing now is the exact opposite of that. The thinking is, ‘We know that people would love this if, and only if, someone had a way of solving this problem technically.”

Engineering Capital typically provides the first institutional money in a company, and its investments include Rubrik, Menlo Security, Prismo Systems, Palerra (acquired by Oracle), and Netsil (acquired by Nutanix).

Sidana spoke with Term Sheet about what it means to have a technical insight, navigating the imbalanced market forces in the seed market, and why he believes venture is no longer a lifecycle business.

TERM SHEET: What are some of the specific characteristics you look for in a founder and company before investing?

SIDANA: I look for the following key elements. First, a technical insight. Every company claims to be a technology company, so I’m talking about a particular subset of that, which is what I define as a “technical insight.” By my definition, Google would fall into that category, but Facebook would not.

Second, I’m looking for a business problem which can be solved in a highly-capital efficient way. In my case, these are all software companies, where a team of five to seven people can build a product and bring it all the way to revenue within the seed stage itself. This is unusual in the enterprise space. I believe that a very small, technically-astute, business-savvy team can actually build an enterprise product with a seed round of financing. From a venture strategy perspective, I have bet heavily on this capital-efficient stage of the company.

How can a founder evaluate whether they have a valuable technical insight?

SIDANA: A technical insight by itself is not valuable. It is not sufficient to build a company. It becomes valuable if it enables a solution to a business problem for a customer, and ideally a lot of customers. For example, the original VMware technical insight was how to build a virtual machine for the x86. When I was running VMware ESX Server, we noticed that customers wanted to keep running their old, primarily Windows NT applications, but on new hardware. Using VMware ESX to consolidate these old servers created an immediate return on investment — which became the genesis of the massive business VMware has today. The reason technical insights are so important is that if a solution includes a technical insight, it gives an unfair advantage to a startup. By definition, no one else can do it. It is not the only way, but many massive companies have been built on the back of a technical insight.

We’re seeing early-stage funds shutting down, citing concerns of excessive capital supply & imbalanced market forces in the seed market. As a seed investor, are you seeing some of these dynamics and how are you navigating them?

SIDANA: We saw a tremendous run up in 2015 and 2016, and I was a part of that. I would go so far as to predict that at least half, and potentially three-fourths of the seed funds that have been raised, will not raise their second or third fund.

It’s fashionable to be a VC right now, and we will inevitably have to see a cleanup of this, which will happen because of market forces. That said, venture is a hard business. Venture is very simple but not easy, and people often confuse “simple” and “easy.” A lot of people right now think it’s easy, and they’ll be sadly mistaken.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing the emergence of mega-funds. The strategy behind Softbank’s mammoth $100 billion Vision Fund is to identify a market leader, pour hundreds of millions of dollars in it, and remove the constraint of capital. What is your view on that playbook?

SIDANA: I think it’s brilliant. It’s a thoughtful attempt at taking advantage of a gap in the market. I mean, there is no other Softbank. You can name many other alternatives to my fund, you can even name alternatives to Sequoia and Greylock, but there is no alternative to Softbank. There is no one else who can write checks of that size along with that type of risk appetite and willingness to bend the rules in their favor in a way that Softbank has. And I think it will succeed. I am not pessimistic on Softbank.

How will some of these macro-investing trends, such as VC firms raising mega-funds and venture-backed companies staying private longer, affect early-stage startups in the long-run?

SIDANA: That is the golden question. Venture will change from being a lifecycle business to a stage-specific business. That is one of the fundamental changes that will happen. This will affect the strategy of every firm — whether they’re focused just on seed like Engineering Capital or whether they are traditional investors like Sequoia or Benchmark. By “lifecycle business,” I mean the first institutional investor aims to be the largest non-founder owner and is the lead investor from inception through exit, whether by M&A or IPO. And by “stage-specific,” I mean that the lead institutional investor will change over time, prior to exit.

The great example of this is the battle that was fought between Benchmark and [former Uber CEO] Travis Kalanick with Benchmark subsequently selling and Sequoia buying Uber in simultaneous transactions. In other words, one top-tier firm sold and another one bought, prior to IPO. That was not an accident. It will happen again.

Remember, Benchmark is a firm that had a reputation for being founder friendly — for being one of the best firms on the planet to work with. It blew that entire reputation after it sued one of its CEOs.

[On Aug. 10, 2017 Benchmark sued Kalanick and Uber, alleging that Kalanick concealed “gross mismanagement and other misconduct” while procuring three additional seats on the board.]

SIDANA: In either case, as we now know, eventually Travis gave up disproportionate control, Benchmark sold at a discount, SoftBank became the largest shareholder, and Sequoia bought in simultaneous transactions earlier this year. In other words, a top-tier VC firm sold a portion of their all-time best performing investment at a discount, simultaneously while another top-tier VC firm bought, prior to IPO. This was hard to imagine when venture was a lifecycle business. I believe the days when your first VC became your largest institutional owner and stayed that way all the way through IPO or M&A are gone forever.

Some firms have tried to counter this change in the venture business by raising billion dollar mega-funds or parallel growth funds. From an entrepreneur’s perspective, it is difficult to get attention for a $1 million seed investment from a $1 billion fund — hence the emergence of specialized seed funds.

On Aug. 29, Axios reported that VC firm Andreessen Horowitz is changing its fundraising strategy by moving away from multi-stage, multi-sector flagship vehicles. This supports your point that venture is trending toward a more specialized fund approach. Who stands to benefit from this strategy?

SIDANA: The benefit will accrue to whoever can quickly identify their own unique value in this new landscape, and leverage that to enhance their business. So, for example, a VC firm could build a practice with a focus on a particular sector or stage will be served well. This is why I believe Sequoia has separate early stage and growth teams. Or, why Emergence has always had a SaaS focus.

Founders who recognize that all money is not equal — different firms bring different value — will benefit if they choose their investor partners keeping this in mind. They will also benefit because such focused firms and teams will bring more value than just money to them.

Venture has evolved into a big enough market, startups now take long enough, and need so much capital to IPO, that it supports standalone funds, and even standalone firms focused on sub-parts of the overall venture market.

How do you foresee other firms responding?

SIDANA: Great firms will expand and grow to include different offerings. They will become platforms. From my vantage point, it looks like A16Z, Sequoia and Lightspeed are following this strategy. Not a risk to these great firms, but the danger for other firms may be to over-expand and then they will have to find their religion again in order to get back to basics. Some firms will recognize their specialty and stay focused on that. It seems like Benchmark is staying true to its roots and not expanding. Venture is also not a winner-take-all, nor is it a one-size-fits-all market, so I can see many different models being successful.

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