Nasir Qadree, a Washington-based investor who just raised $62.1 million for his debut venture fund, recently told us that as his fundraising gained momentum, he was approached by established firms that are looking to absorb new talent.
He opted to go it alone, but he’s hardly alone in attracting interest. Anecdotally, bringing emerging managers into the fold is among the newer ways that powerful venture firms stay powerful. Early last year, for example, crypto investor Arianna Simpson -- who founded and was managing her own crypto-focused hedge fund -- was lured into the heavyweight firm Andreessen Horowitz as a deal partner.
Andy Chen, a one-time CIA weapons analyst who spent more than seven years with Kleiner Perkins, was in the process of raising his own fund in 2018 when another prominent firm, the hedge fund Coatue, came knocking. Today he helps lead the firm’s early-stage investing practice.
It's easy to understand the appeal of such firms, which manage enormous funds and wield tremendous influence. Still, as older firms look to recruit from a widening pool of new managers, they might have to wait on the most talented of the bunch; in some cases, given today's go-go market, they might be out of luck entirely.
There is, of course, a long list of reasons that so many people are deciding to raise funds these days, from the glut of capital looking to make its way into startups, to tools like AngelList's Rolling Funds and revised regulations around crowdfunding in the U.S.
Emerging managers also seem adept at capitalizing on the venture industry’s blind spots. One is the excessive wealth of more veteran VCs. An investor's experience counts for a lot, but there’s a lot to be said for up-and-comers who are still establishing their reputation, who aren’t sitting on more than a dozen boards and whose future will be closely aligned with their founders.
Yet there are other trends the establishment has long overlooked. Many firms probably regret not taking crypto more seriously sooner. Many teams have also ignored for too long the soaring economic power of women, which new managers are driving home to their own investors.
Not last, many have stubbornly resisted racially diversifying their ranks, creating an opening for investors of color who are acutely aware of changing demographics. According to census projections, white Americans will represent a minority of the U.S. population within 20 years, meaning today’s racial minorities are becoming the primary engine of the country’s growth.
That new managers have shaken up the industry is arguably a good thing. What some are beginning to ponder is whether they can afford to maintain their independence, and that answer isn't yet clear.
Like the startups they fund, many of these new managers are right now operating in the shadows of the firms that came before them. It's a seemingly copacetic arrangement. Venture is an industry where collaboration between business competitors is inescapable after all, and it’s easy to stay on the good side of giant firms when you’re investing a nonthreatening amount into nascent companies you’ll later introduce to the bigger players.
Ensuring that things remain harmonious -- and that deal flow keeps coming -- a growing number of venture firms now play the role of limited partner, committing capital to new managers. Foundry Group was among the first to do this in an institutionalized way five years ago, setting aside 25% of a new fund to pour into smaller venture funds. But it’s happening routinely across the industry. Jake Paul’s new influencer-focused fund? Backed by Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz. Katie Stanton’s Moxxie Ventures? Backed by Bain Capital Ventures.
The running joke is that big firms have raised so much money they don't know where to plug all of it, but they're also safeguarding what they've built. That was the apparent thinking in 2015, when a then-beleaguered Kleiner Perkins tried to engage in merger talks with Social Capital, a buzzed-about venture firm founded by Chamath Palihapitiya.
That deal reportedly fell apart over who would ultimately run the show. Kleiner subsequently underwent a nearly complete management change to regain its footing, while numerous members of Social Capital left to start Tribe Capital. But surely venture firms continue to track managers who they think could add value to their brand.
Undoubtedly, some of that attention is welcome, given the sheen and economics of a big brand, and because teaming up can be far easier than slugging it out alone. Early-stage investor Semil Shah -- who has built up his own firm while also working as a venture partner with different, established outfits -- thinks it's "natural to assume that lots of new rolling funds" in particular will either "burn out, stay small, or try to scale and realize how hard it is and perhaps go to a bigger firm once they have established a track record."
But that last scenario is not as exciting as it might have been earlier in time. Eric Bahn, who co-founded the Bay Area-based seed-stage firm Hustle Fund in 2017, predicted last week on Twitter that "establishment VC funds will acquire emerging VC funds, who are building differentiated networks/brands." While that might be seen as a cushy landing, Bahn added: "Not sure how I feel about this. 🤔" (Plenty of people weighed in to say they also felt conflicted.)
Bahn also later tweeted that "to be unequivocal, Hustle Fund is not for sale."
Asked about his resistance to a possible tie-up, Bahn says he's "nervous about industry consolidation" given there have been "systemic issues with VCs being exclusionary in the past when it comes to women and other underrepresented groups."
He adds that even more recently he has "met LPs who -- wink wink -- really like men who come from Stanford and have computer science degrees." Both lead him to fret that even a team with "good intentions can revert back to the mean."
His comments echo those of Qadree, who told us last week: “I think it’s up to someone like myself and people who are constantly being asked these questions to have strong conviction around how to think about building your franchise. I’ve been through so much to get to this point that to give up my equity, give up my branding and ideas” was not an option he was willing to consider.
In the meantime, investor Lolita Taub of The Community Fund -- a $5 million early-stage fund that is focused on community-themed startups and backed by the Boston-based seed-stage venture firm Flybridge -- is more sanguine about emerging managers' ability to remain independent. Rather than gobble up smaller funds, she foresees even more established players begin to fund -- and nurture -- emerging funds that have overlapping areas of interest.
Taub suggests that it's the next step beyond VCs who've worked with so-called scouts to find undiscovered gems. "I think older players are looking to expand their reach beyond what they know."
Either way, the industry is changing shape, and some form of consolidation, if not imminent, seems inevitable once the checks eventually stop flying. Some firms will break out, while others team up. Some newer investors will find themselves at top firms, while others close up shop.
Almost the only certainty right now is that a larger fund "buying" a smaller fund is "not that complicated," according to fund administration expert Bob Raynard of Standish Management in San Francisco.
Asked about the mechanics of such tie-ups, he shares that it "generally involves changing or adding members at the GP entity level [leading to a] change in control of the funds." Maybe, too, he says, there is a rebranding.
The real challenge, suggests Raynard, is just "getting two VCs to agree on a value." And that depends entirely on their other options.