Taking Money “Off The Table”,Fred
January 7th 2018
One of the hardest things in managing a venture capital portfolio is managing your big winners. A big winner can dwarf the rest of the entire portfolio and you end up sitting on enormous paper profits that you can’t get liquid on. I realize that this seems like a great problem to have, and it is, but it is still a challenging situation.
We faced it in Twitter in 2010/2011/2012, in the years before Twitter went public (which happened in the fall of 2013). We had bought 15% of Twitter for $3.75mm in the first VC round in 2007 and though we had been diluted down a bit in subsequent rounds, we had a very large position that was worth in the neighborhood of $1bn by 2011. Our entire fund was $125mm and so we were sitting on a position that was worth 8x the entire fund. It was a wonderful situation in many ways but I was nervous that macro events or a setback at Twitter could go against us and the position would go down in value, possibly significantly.
The way we managed this issue is we sold a portion of our position in two secondary transactions and in connection with those sales, I stepped off the board, making room for an independent director who would be helpful as the Company scaled and got ready to go public. We sold about 30% of our position in those two secondary transactions for about $250mm and returned 2x the entire fund to our investors.
That allowed us to “chill out” and hold the balance until the IPO, which had a customary 180 day post IPO lockup. After the lockup came off, we distributed the balance of the position, returning another ~$700mm to our investors.
Though we sold stock in the secondary transactions at lower values than the eventual IPO, I have never regretted doing that and believe that it was the right thing for us to do for many reasons.
We have done similar things in many other situations including Zynga, Lending Club, MongoDB, and a number of other investments. We typically seek to liquidate somewhere between 10% and 30% of our position in these pre-IPO liquidity transactions. Doing so allows us to hold onto the balance while de-risking the entire investment.
I was reminded of this topic when I saw the news that Benchmark, First Round, and Menlo sold between 15% and 50% of their positions in Uber to SOFTBANK. I think they all acted rationally and responsibly in doing that. It does not mean that SOFTBANK is making a mistake purchasing the shares. There are many reasons to believe that SOFTBANK made a good deal. But if you look at First Round, for example, they have a position worth $2bn or more at the $50bn valuation of the SOFTBANK tender. I don’t know the exact details, but I believe First Round’s fund that holds Uber is less than $100mm. So they returned something like 8x the entire fund and still hold the majority of their position. That was “well played” in my book. Same with Benchmark. Same with Menlo.
Taking money off the table is smart portfolio management. It is very different from selling your entire position, which could be brilliant but is equally likely to be a mistake. Selling a portion of your position, returning a multiple or two (or eight) of the fund, and holding on to the balance works out for you no matter which way the position goes in the future. If the position blows up, you got a lot out and booked a huge gain. If the position goes up significantly, you make even more money on the part of the investment you retained. If it goes sideway, you got a little bit out early. It is a win/win/win pretty much every way you look at it.
Which takes me to crypto (naturally). If you are sitting on 20x, 50x, 100x your money on a crypto investment, it would not be a mistake to sell 10%, 20% or even 30% of your position. Selling 25% of your position on an investment that is up 50x is booking a 12.5x on the entire investment, while allowing you to keep 75% of it going. I know that many crypto holders think that selling anything is a mistake. And it might be. Or it might not be. You just don’t know.