“Why There Aren’t More Googles”

16 Apr ’08

A fascinating new post by Paul Graham on early stage finance. I’ve been waiting for ages for the $250K-ish size market he describes to develop here in Canada. Gist:

The reason there aren’t more Googles is not that investors encourage innovative startups to sell out, but that they won’t even fund them. I’ve learned a lot about VCs during the 3 years we’ve been doing Y Combinator, because we often have to work quite closely with them. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how conservative they are. VC firms present an image of boldly encouraging innovation. Only a handful actually do, and even they are more conservative in reality than you’d guess from reading their sites.

I used to think of VCs as piratical: bold but unscrupulous. On closer acquaintance they turn out to be more like bureaucrats. They’re more upstanding than I used to think (the good ones, at least), but less bold. Maybe the VC industry has changed. Maybe they used to be bolder. But I suspect it’s the startup world that has changed, not them. The low cost of starting a startup means the average good bet is a riskier one, but most existing VC firms still operate as if they were investing in hardware startups in 1985.

Howard Aiken said “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” I have a similar feeling when I’m trying to convince VCs to invest in startups Y Combinator has funded. They’re terrified of really novel ideas, unless the founders are good enough salesmen to compensate.

But it’s the bold ideas that generate the biggest returns. Any really good new idea will seem bad to most people; otherwise someone would already be doing it. And yet most VCs are driven by consensus, not just within their firms, but within the VC community. The biggest factor determining how a VC will feel about your startup is how other VCs feel about it. I doubt they realize it, but this algorithm guarantees they’ll miss all the very best ideas. The more people who have to like a new idea, the more outliers you lose.

Paul’s comments about spending less time on smaller deals is interesting. I’ve been hoping to see that trend develop – it makes a lot of sense – but if anything I’ve seen the opposite occur – smaller deals get more complicated.

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