Venture capitalists to tech bigwigs: Mea culpa

Venture capitalists take some blame for the implosion of 'dot-bombs' they pushed to go public too soon

The clubby world of venture capitalists is all about making money, not apologies. But with an endless parade of grim news from Wall Street amid disclosures of yet more dot-bombs, guess who some venture capitalists are blaming for the souring fortunes of the Internet sector?

Themselves.

With tech leaders from around the globe gathered for the Etre Conference, much debate has been devoted to how the industry got into this mess in the first place.

Some people in the venture capitalist community say it would be misleading, if not totally inaccurate, to dump all the responsibility for the torrent of bad news at their feet. Others suggested that any chronology of the end of the irrational exuberance must take into account more than the hijinks of retail investors.

"The trouble we find ourselves in is the fact that a lot of companies got out and went public too soon," said Scott Ryles, the chief executive of Epoch Partners, offering an indirect criticism of venture capital firms pushing companies into the equity markets before they were ready.

Indeed, Ryles and other investment professionals here acknowledged that venture capitalists took a lot of companies public in the last 18 months simply because they could.

"Many went public before they were properly bedded down," said Paul Deninger, the chief executive of Broadview Associates. "And now they're paying the price."

Although Deninger wryly noted that "nobody was putting a gun to [investors'] heads" to buy particular Internet stocks, he nonetheless offered a blunt assessment of the investment community's recent track record.

"We all had our fingerprints on this," he said.

Such was the fate of Liquid Audio, recalled a former executive.

"The exuberance in the private market fueled the exuberance in the public market," said Sanjay Guleria, now with HiuGo, a telecommunications startup in Italy. "Back then, it was a foregone conclusion that we'd go public after our third round of financing."

At the same time, Guleria recalled there were "multiple media companies willing to buy us at top dollar". But he noted that the venture capitalists were convinced the company would receive a market multiple of 100 times revenue.

"So we went public anyway," he said.

The rest of the story has been repeated around the industry. After the stock initially soared, it began an inexorable decline and is now stuck in the low single digits.

It's fashionable in any industry conference to fasten upon the headlines du jour. But in offering frank reassessments of the parts they played in this tale, venture capitalists described a brutally competitive world where they often moved into the fray if for no other reason than to preempt any such move by a rival.

"We're very strange. We really act to a large degree like a frenzied herd," said Jon Medved, a senior partner with Israel Seed Partners. "The bubble itself hasn't just burst on B2C but it's like that little bouncing ball in the Disney movies. And the venture capitalists are trying to find out where that ball will bounce next."

To be sure, times have been good -- make that phenomenal -- until recently. Last year venture companies routinely registered triple digit increases in the value of their portfolio investments. That chapter is over and now some venture capitalists fear what they describe as a Darwinian shakeout might actually decrease their ranks as competitors bid for fewer and fewer clients.

"Times have been good. But you have to be mindful of what's happening in the market," said Peter Englander, a director with Apax Partners, a venture capital firm in Britain. "You have to be discriminating. Still, the Internet market is going to grow. It is real."

Given the rise of angel investing and informal corporate funding, there's a lot of money suddenly available for investment. That's shuffled the deck, according to venture capitalists. They say that in a market flush with money, you have to offer clients more than money -- you have to add real value.

"Frankly, venture capitalists are going to have to deal with competition," said Lawrence Calcano, a managing director with Goldman Sachs, who offered that "it's a little unclear what will happen now."

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