Sunday, May 2, 2010

Angel Renaissance at Nantucket Conference 2010

I just returned from the 2010 Nantucket Conference. The prevailing theme was that the "traditional" model of venture capital does not work for software any more, and this creates a golden age for angel investing.

In the 90's, you needed millions to get a software company to market. Today, software startups might need 5 figures to prove a market, 6 figures to launch the 1.0 version. On the other hand, software startups do require a lot of operational help. Traditional VC firms have an impedance mismatch for software startups: they don't need the large amounts of capital that VC firms need to deploy. And since they don't need the capital, a VC partner cannot justify making a large investment of time. So angels (and small vc funds) can step into this void. Angels can invest 5 figures in a true seed round to prove the market, and can spend the time required to provide operational guidance to the team. The challenge for angels (besides coughing up the cash) is picking winners, and cultivating your picks. This was the basic message at a number of panels and side conversations. There is also an angel bootcamp in a month that will hopefully help grow the population of potential angel investors.

A critique of this message is that it doesn't address the concerns of angels. It's all well and good to talk about how angels should take a chance on young entrepreneurs, and how entrepreneurship is our best chance to avoid economic decline in the US. But, unlike a VC, an angel's concerns in priority order are (1) not losing money, (2) making money, and (3) everything else. So angels will tend to be more cautious investors: there is no pressure to deploy capital, there is the normal human loss avoidance behavior, and once you've made your money it's easier to shrug off opportunity loss. So while the community organizing efforts may grow the population of investors, I don't think we should expect that this will make it easier for entrepreneurs to raise capital.

Nor should we want it to. Based on my short experience as an angel, the problem is not enough good ideas and good teams. Northeast Angels gets dozens of submissions per month on Angelsoft. Most of these are weak ideas that are not suitable for investment. Some are good ideas with a good but inexperienced team. I suppose this is the area where a larger population of angels can have the most impact on the economy.

Best (paraphrased) quote from the conference: the participation trophy for life is called a tombstone. (Jason Calacanis via skype)

3 comments:

  1. Chris: glad you enjoyed the Nantucket Conference and also got to me our other Managing Director, Chris Sheehan. We can discuss Northeast Angels joining the Angel Capital Association, if you like. There are lots of resources to help improve deal flow and investment returns. Sincerely, James Geshwiler

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  2. Chris,
    Interesting post. In the music industry the Labels finance scores of bands each year to put out an album each. They pay for the studio time, equipment, mixing pros, pressing (well, ok, not so much anymore ;) marketing, paying radio stations to play them, etc. The model is to get one hit out of every N bands. Bands risk less and reap smaller rewards.

    Do you see any VC firms adopting this kind of record label model? Seems like an app is pretty close to an album.

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  3. @James - It's come up before but gets voted down. NEA is so frugal that we now have to bring our own coffee to the meetings.

    @Alan - Micro-VCs like Y Combinator or TechStars might be the closest to the record label model.

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