December 15, 2011
Angst over the surprises that may lurk in 2012 isn’t confined to investors in stocks and bonds, or to the economists trying to puzzle out the impact of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis on global growth. Even venture capitalists – whose entire business model revolves around their ability to focus on the upside potential of pretty much anything, in pretty much any kind of scenario – are showing signs of unease.
For evidence, just look at the results of the National Venture Capital Association’s sixth annual survey of venture fund managers and CEOs of the companies backed by these investors. Asked whether they expect a shortage of capital for early-stage funding, 58 percent answered “yes.” And only 23 percent of the CEOs polled said they expected it would become easier for them to raise capital in 2012 – even though 75 percent acknowledged that they would need to do so. Both the venture investors and the CEOs agree that the entrepreneurs will be at a disadvantage when it comes to haggling over the terms of VC investments in startups.
The balance of power between VCs and their limited partners – the pension funds, endowments and other institutions that invest in the venture funds – is swinging the other way, toward those big institutions with deeper pockets. Almost 70 percent of survey respondents predicted that investment agreements will become more favorable to those limited partners; they also believe it’s going to be even harder than this year to raise new capital.
Only when it comes to the outlook for the IPO market and their portfolio companies’ valuations does the traditional rosy and upbeat outlook become apparent once more; a significant majority expect their companies to be worth more by the end of 2012, and that those firms will employ more people. Even as they hope that a big, successful IPO from Facebook will fling the doors wide open for other venture-backed companies eager to go public, there are concerns that those hopes will be dashed. “More VC-backed companies will go public in 2012 than any year since 1999,” predicted John Backus, managing partner of New Atlantic Ventures. “All good companies. Six months later they will all trade down.”
None of this unease is new; this year has seen several firms struggle – or fail – to raise new funds of the size they had hoped. Groupon’s IPO already has public market investors worried about some kind of bubble – and venture investors share that anxiety, with 73 percent predicting “investment froth” in the consumer information technology space in 2012.
There is a contrarian argument to be made, of course. The less bullish and upbeat venture investors are, the more careful and disciplined they will be when it comes to backing new startups. Over time, that attitude combined with a decline in the dollar amounts invested in portfolio companies could well translate into bigger gains when the companies reach maturity and are ready either to go public or be sold.