The Right Question(s) to Ask VCs about Their Availability of Capital

Most first and second pitch meetings with VCs are fairly lopsided, where entrepreneurs spend the bulk of the time sharing their businesses, rather than being a true exchange of both parties in developing a relationship. However, there is typically (and should be plenty of) time for founders to ask VCs questions about their approach and working-style to help determine if there’s a mutual fit.

Somewhere in the past few years a meme developed that a sophisticated best-practice question to ask a VC in early conversations is something like “Where are you in your fund’s investment cycle?” The idea is that if a venture firm is towards the end of its capital availability that they’re much less likely to invest in a new startup, and that there are even cases of “walking dead” firms taking entrepreneur meetings to maintain the appearances of being “in market” with very little intentions (or ability) to invest at all. These situations are certainly prevalent and therefore entrepreneurs need to be cognizant to avoid spending too much time with a venture firm where the end result of the conversations isn’t going to be fruitful. However, it’s rare that a venture capitalist is going to point-blank admit that his pockets are empty. There are too many ways to answer the question above without really addressing the heart of the issue: the likelihood of making a new investment. Because most venture capital firms reserve the bulk of their capital for follow-on investments, and a smaller portion for initial investments, it’s not difficult to spin the numbers to tell a story since about how there is still a pool of capital available… except it’s earmarked for something else. Moreover, the situation is more nuanced – given that some firms at the tail end of their fund have confidence in the ability to (or have already been able to) raise a new fund, whereas others do not, being at the tail end of fund isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or it can be especially negative if a firm changes its strategy toward the end (like investing in a number of seed round with about capacity for any follow-on). It just all depends.

A little simple homework can rule out asking the question altogether. Nearly all VC firms follow an initial three year initial investment cycle on a ten-year fund life (with the possibility of extensions). So if you’re meeting with a firm which has raised a new fund within the past three years, it’s pretty safe to say there is available capital for new investments. A simple Google search can usually yield an answer, and it surprises me how many entrepreneurs fail to do this before asking about the fund’s investment cycle in a meeting.

Once a venture fund’s life is entering the fourth year and beyond, the situation can change. In this case, the best way to determine future behavior is to look at recent behavior and use it as a proxy. The better question to ask is: “When was the most recent new investment your firm made which had the size & shape of the one which we’re seeking?” Often you can fund this information on the web (like on Crunchbase) anyway, but sometimes, and especially with seed investments from larger firms, not always. A venture firm has a tendency to slow down towards the end of its initial investing cycle, rather than coming to a sharp halt, so the longer since a recent investment of the same profile, the less likely the capacity and willingness to add another investment. It seems as though there’s always room at the end for potentially one more investment in a fund, so venture capitalists always like to keep the door open, and may feel given that fact it’s not disingenuous to do so. So in the end, the grey area of a fund’s initial investment period end is going to be opaque at best. It’s productive then for entrepreneurs to play detective to ensure that they don’t waste their time on conversations with firms without the capacity to invest, but also to be realistic about the clarity of the answer uncovered.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by About.com where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.

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