Idea Flow

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about how the VC model is dead, and the venture capital industry is drying up. This is justified by the lack of conventional exits and liquidity events, meaning the venture capital funds can’t return cash to their investors. While we have clearly been going through a flat spot in IPOs, and the world of acquirers is reduced, I’m not sure that implies the industry is dead. I think its just going through a stretched out phase.

For that reason, institutional investors have been reducing their allocation for venture capital and fewer venture firms are raising new funds.

water fall photo by Hamed Saber

Therefore there is less money going into startups, but that doesn’t mean the VC model is dead, just scaled back.

At VC conferences, you see graphs of how much money is going into the funds, how much is being invested in early and late stage deals, how many deals are being done and how many exits are happening. Inside the fund meetings, there is always a lot of talk about this abstract VC concept called “Deal Flow”– how many deals are we seeing; are we seeing the best deals or the dregs; and how many are competitive deals where multiple funds are bidding up the price?   In the board rooms of our investments, we talk about “Cash Flow” and burn rates.

The discussion everywhere is about the flow of money from one place to another, and accumulating in the chosen few winners. It’s all about “Flow”.

I want to talk about another abstract measure of the venture capital business that I am calling “Idea Flow”. What is “Idea Flow”? Simplistically, it is the rate at which new ideas are being generated. And what is it a function of?

I believe “Idea Flow” is partly a function of population growth, and the number of fresh minds entering society–take for example the number of college students graduating and entering the workforce. Each young mind is looking at the world with a fresh perspective.

In addition, “Idea Flow” is also a function of how far we have gone in digesting the last few major revolutions in our society. For example, the Internet has provided  frictionless communication at negligible cost– this is a revolution that is clearly still happening. When there are major revolutions percolating through society that haven’t been fully exploited yet, then the “Idea Flow” rate is enhanced.

Finally, “Idea Flow” is a function of whether sufficient resources are available to gestate these ideas. Maybe this is a slightly different concept, I’ll call it “Manifest Idea Flow”. In other words, maybe just having an idea isn’t enough.

We also need to let the idea bloom, give it fertile ground to sprout or it’s meaningless.

Allowing the idea to bloom is about both financial resources, and our society’s openness to try out new ideas, and new approaches to problems.

I’m sure one can identify other contributors to the rate of “Idea Flow”. My point  is that basic “Idea Flow” is clearly still growing. The number of college graduates continues to rise each year, and the population continues to grow. Additionally, we have experienced at least three major revolutions in the past few decades that are still playing themselves out:

  1. Information Technology (computers, memory, programming, AI)
  2. Biotechnology (genome mapping, molecular biochemistry, synthetic biology)
  3. Communication Technology (the Internet, email, texting, cellphones)

These are three general categories of revolution in process. And where they overlap, “Idea Flow” is even further enhanced.

I believe “Idea Flow” is the bedrock of the venture business. Without ideas, nothing can be created. You might as well buy Ma Bell and cash your dividend checks quarterly. The venture capital business starts with a couple of motivated entrepreneurs, a problem that needs solving and an idea.

In this time of economic turmoil, where cash flow and economic growth and investment capital are down substantially, the bedrock of the venture capital business is still healthy. If anything the current turmoil makes aspects of our economy more ripe for disruption. If the old ways are broken, let’s try a new way.

A larger number of bright young minds are emerging each year, and the ground is fertile. And today it often takes less capital than ever before to manifest an idea.

So I’m bullish on the venture capital business right now. While others say it is dead or broken, I believe it is likely to be even more fertile in the coming few years.

Valuations are down and the potential for profit is therefore up. The markets are more vulnerable to disruption. Old models are hurting in the downturn, and new models will have a great opportunity as we emerge from this downturn.

And the public investor is always interested in an exciting story of the future realized. The IPO market in some form will reopen soon — it’s already showing signs in 2010. And large companies will emerge from this downturn with their existing market approaches damaged, and needing new ways to continue growth. They will be acquiring again.

In the end, this business is about “Idea Flow” and it’s still healthy.