The Rise (and Rise) of Old-Fashioned IVP

Reading-Ticker-Tape-ManWhen Twitter goes public shortly, you can bet it will be a proud moment for Institutional Venture Partners. But it will be icing on the cake for its investors. Already, 95 of IVP’s 300 portfolio companies have gone public. Already, IVP’s 32-year internal rate of return, dating back to its 1980 founding, is a stunning 43.2 percent. 

IVP has pulled off this hat trick by operating in as proudly an old-fashioned way as possible.

Unlike many of its peers on Sand Hill Road, for example, IVP’s walls aren’t filled with contemporary art but rather dotted by the same, framed antique prints and maps of Santa Clara County that have hung there for years.

By design, IVP doesn’t have celebrity investors. Its oldest partner is Norm Fogelsong, a former programmer at Hewlett Packard who joined IVP in 1989 and has remained virtually unknown outside of venture capital circles ever since.

IVP also eschews the popular wisdom that operators make the best venture capitalists. In a recent sit-down, Fogelsong calls venture an “apprenticeship business that you learn over time.” In fact, unlike many firms that cycle their associates out the door after a few years, IVP sends them off to business school, then brings them back and promotes them.

“Assembling a multi-generational team is one of the secrets to our success,” says Todd Chaffee, the IVP general partner who has largely assembled IVP’s current team of six general partners — along with its bench of associates, principals and vice presidents. “It gives us different eyes on every deal and combines the energy and hustle from the younger team with the experience and insights of the older people.”

Yet there are other ways that IVP has distinguished itself from the pack.

Though its investments used to run the gamut, the firm decided in 2000 to focus on one area almost exclusively: later-stage companies with between $10 million and $100 million in revenue. Likely, the move has paid off better than the firm could have imagined. During the go-go dot com era, emerging companies with between $10 million and $30 million in revenue could go public with the help of a boutique bank. But today’s companies need revenue in the $100 million range to go public, meaning they often need late-stage capital from firms like IVP.

More, unlike some industry peers that have collected billions of dollars from their limited partners in recent years, IVP has grown steadily, its fund sizes slowly expanding as its commitments to later-stage companies have grown. Over its last five funds, IVP has raised $225 million, $300 million, $600 million, $750 million, and $1 billion, a sum it closed on last year.

The money still adds up. Three billion dollars of the $4 billion that IVP has raised in its entire history has poured in over the last 13 years. But Fogelsong shrugs off any suggestion that it could jeopardize IVP’s continued ability to deliver big returns. “If you’re going to be a late-stage investor, investing $30 million at a time, you can’t do that with a $100 million fund.”

Which raises one final point. IVP makes just 10 to 12 investments annually, each chosen from the pool of roughly 2,000 companies it sees each year. Pacing itself means turning down some attractive deals. But sounding every bit the Stanford engineering student he once was, Fogelsong says the “idea is to make three to five times our money in three to five years, for a 41 percent internal rate of return. We don’t care how much of a company we own. What we want is to get our capital deployed properly in the best companies at a proper valuation.”

Fogelsong shoots me a confident smile. “We have a very tight, well-defined investment strategy,” he says.

It’s not not flashy. It’s not novel. Very plainly, though, it works.

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