(David Ventzel is Investment Manager at Accelerace. Accelerace is not a venture capital firm. Accelerace is an accelerator and seed investor. The insight provided in the article doesn’t reflect how Accelerace operates)
Conventional wisdom will tell you it’s easier to raise a little money than a lot of money. This post explains why it isn’t so. It will explain why VCs don’t invest small amounts. In the process you will meet my mother. You will see how VCs actually make money. You will learn what only few people know. Knowledge is power. Use it.
The elevator rushed towards the 5th floor. Seconds ago me and my co-founder had been buzzed in. Adrenaline rushed through my body. You can do this! you can do this, I said to myself. Ding! The doors opened. Two investment managers greeted us. We smiled. Made firm handshakes. The show began.
Earlier that day me and co-founder had prepared for the VC pitch. We would focus on our unique product. Then finish with a modest ask. Just €300K. The firm managed €1 billion. Surely our modest ask would be no problem for these guys.
Against all expectations the VC turned us down. Or rather they said: you are interesting and we would like to follow your progress. That’s VC language for No.
I didn’t know it then. It would take another 10 years before I knew. But we had made a fundamental mistake. A mistake that many startups make. We asked for a modest investment. I know what you are thinking. How can that be a mistake?
It seems strange indeed. You will learn why it’s not. But first, I will take you further back in time. To a summer when I learned something important.
Lesson one. Small asks are easy.
I was 10 years old. Me and my friend wanted ice creams. Big ones. But we didn’t have money. So we did what children always do. Asked for money. But this time we made a cleaver plan.
My mother was our biggest concern. Sugar was her enemy. She baked chocolate cake without sugar. It just tasted like regular bread.
We started with my mom. “Mom can we have a little money for ice creams? We just want the small round soda ones” The small round ice cream was the cheapest and smallest available. She gave in and handed us the coins.
Then we went to my friend’s mom. We asked for the same and got the money. Then our neighbor. They didn’t have kids and liked us. They gave us money too. We collected enough money to buy ice creams called Magnum. When my mom learned, she was furious. I was too high on sugar to care.
That day I learned an important lesson. Something I suspect most people have learned. It’s easier to ask for a little than a lot. Why? Because the less you ask for, the less the giver sacrifices. We all know this. Later I would learn a new lesson. A peculiar one.
I would learn that the complete opposite is true for VC investments. It’s easier to ask for a lot than a little. Why? Because the more you ask for, the less the giver sacrifices. Few know this. You are about to become one of them.
Lesson two. Small asks can be hard.
See, the thing is this:
My mom could take money out of her wallet. VCs don’t have a wallet.
My mom didn’t have a lot of questions for me. She trusted me. VCs do have lots of questions. They don’t trust you.
Once my mom gave us the money, she had no responsibilities. Once the VC invest, they will have lots of responsibilities.
And those differences have names. VCs call them:
- Capital calls
- Due Diligence
- Portfolio management
Let’s find out how they actually work:
Capital Calls (asking dad for money)
My mom just took money out her wallet. It was easy for her to hand us money. VCs don’t have a wallet. In fact, they don’t any cash. That’s right. So how do they invest?
VCs got investors too. They are called LPs (Limited Partners). The LPs don’t like the idea of the VC swimming around in cash like Uncle Scrooge. So LPs keep the money until the VCs need them. When the VCs need cash, they make a Capital Call. They ask for money. No one likes asking for money. It’s unpleasant work.
But there is one thing about capital calls VCs do like. Management fees! Every time VCs invest, they get 2-3% of the amount in annual fees. And that pays for the nice office. It also means they get more money if they make big investments. Bingo. That’s’ the first reason why VCs don’t invest small amounts.
But there are even bigger and more important differences.
Due Diligence (checking the merchandise)
My mom trusted us. So she just handed us the money. It took 2 minutes. Obviously, VCs can’t do the same. They spend 3-6 months seizing the startup. It’s called Due Diligence. You knew that already. But did you also know how much it costs?
Due Diligence isn’t just a long process. It’s also expensive. It often costs + €100K. Lawyers, consultants and accountants send big bills. The cost for Due Diligence is taken from the invested amount. But Due Diligence is not proportional to the size of investment. It’s about the same for €10 million as for €1 million.
To spend €100K to do a small investment makes no sense. Even at €1 million the costs would be 10%. Bingo. That’s the second reason why VCs don’t invest small amounts.
Portfolio management (traveling to board meetings)
My mom never expected to see her money again. It was a gift. VC investments are not. A VC firm is a business. It has revenue and cost. The main revenue comes from fees. The main cost is time.
Most of the time is spent on board of director work. VCs prepare for meetings. They often travel far to attend them. Individual investment managers can sit on more than 10 boards. I have a friend who cried when he reached 12.
The problem is this. With each investment they get a new board seat. Board seats are time. Time is cost. A business wants to reduce costs. So the VC wants to reduce board seats. How? By making fewer, but bigger investments. And Bingo. That’s the third and final reason why VCs don’t invest small amounts.
What founders must do
Founders can do two things. Stop approaching VCs. Or get a valuation that justifies a big enough investment. I suspect you want the latter. How? Well, that’s a different topic. I plan to write about it. But I suggest you start with my earlier post on valuation.
That’s it. It took me 10 years to learn. Many up and down elevators. Including 3 years as an investment manager at Accelerace Invest. Now you know too. It took you 10 minutes.
- VCs don’t have cash. They ask LPs for money and take a fee
- VCs do due diligence and it’s really expensive. Only big investments can pay for the costs
- VCs’ main cost is time spent on boards. The fewer investments, the fewer costs
- Founders must either stop approaching VCs or get a valuation that justifies a big investment. Or turn to another type of investment vehicle.