Micro VCs are notorious for building large and friendly syndicates. One or two players decide (sometimes rather quickly) to make a seed-stage investment in a new startup, and as a round comes together they invite in a number of their Micro VC and angel cohorts. What’s the reasoning for all of this chummy behavior? While traditional VCs sometimes have a love/hate relationship with their syndicate partners (often depending on how well their mutual portfolio companies are performing), it seems as though in the Micro VC arena all of the players speak and act like best friends. Can this friendship last forever?
Just like traditional VCs, Micro VCs syndicate to pool their risk and their (tangible and intangible) resources in maximizing the upside of the investment while hedging the downside. Therefore, the most obvious reason for Micro VCs to syndicate more prevalently is due to capital constraints. When a Micro VC is working from a relatively smaller pool of capital (usually less than $25M per partner), it would prefer to spread risk out further. Plus, unlike traditional VCs which have capacity to invest over the life-cycle of the startup, Micro VCs can usually only afford to play for a round or two. Or not even a full round in many cases. By definition MicroVCs need each other.
However, the friendly nature of syndicates is not just dictated by capital constraint, but deal sourcing and velocity as well. Perhaps implicit in Micro VC model is the aim to potentially maximize the number of good deals to deploy capital, as opposed to maximizing the amount of capital deployed into a number of potentially good deals. Given the number of deals that they do each year, Micro VCs more actively turn to their peers for deal sourcing. This situation is further exaggerated by the smaller funds they manage which result in less management fees. Without additional cash flow coming into the firm, Micro VCs lack the ability to hire associates or other support to provide leverage on deal sourcing, so they instinctively turn to their fellow firms.
This reliance on outsider syndicates for deal flow does present risks for Micro VCs. Outsourced deal sourcing shouldn’t be confused as outsourced deal diligence – a potential fatal flaw which does certainly happen. Playing nicely in syndicates is not reliable due diligence, period. This group-think effect also fosters a negative situation for entrepreneurs as well. With Micro VCs building syndicates in familiar packs, a cursory investment decision by one group-member can spread quickly. Somebody passes in a clique, and soon an entrepreneur is receiving an automatic “no” from the rest of the network of informal ties.
The third reason Micro VCs travel in overly-friendly packs is that the Micro VC space is relatively immature, so the supply of good investment opportunities is still outweighed by the demand. Almost all of the firms or quasi-firms are just a couple years old. As the Micro VC space matures and there are additional entrants in the market, potential competition for getting into deals and more capital in each will increase. This evolution will drive up the “price” of getting into good deals and the chumminess will be dampened.
Moreover, as some Micro VCs experience success and decide to change strategies by “growing up” into traditional VCs, their capital constraint goes away. So players who were friendly originally may be less so down the road. Yet just as traditional VCs are face their peer firms as coopetition, this situation will endure in the Micro VC segment as well. As the space matures some of the over-enthusiastic pupply-love will be lost. And if Mirco VCs lose their defining characteristics and become the pigs at the end of Animal Farm, they’ll lose the overtly syndicate friendliness.
But as long as these Micro VC players remain capital constrained and seek a higher deal velocity, they’ll remain good friends forever. A critical mass of high quality friendly syndicates creates an activation energy for an ecosystem. Having more smart people giving their time and their resources into a startup market creates a ripple effect of new companies, better performing companies, and ambitious entrepreneurs. Afterall, it’s good to have friends.