• TCV on the Market, the Competition, and Taking Bankers’ Advice with a Grain of Salt

    Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 4.52.59 PMTechnology Crossover Ventures has become a major investing powerhouse over its 22-year-old history by funding relatively undiscovered but mature companies; buying sizable stakes in later-stage, venture backed companies; and acquiring positions in publicly traded tech companies that TCV sees as undervalued.

    The firm, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, has done so well that it just wrapped up its ninth fund with a cool $2.5 billion. It also now features offices in New York (opened in 2005) and in London (opened in 2011).

    Late last week, over coffee at a San Francisco bistro, I sat down with TCV’s founding general partner, Jay Hoag, and general partner Woody Marshall, to talk about some of the firm’s latest hits, which include recently acquired Dollar Shave Club and LinkedIn, some of whose shares TCV acquired in February when they plummeted more than 40 percent.

    We also talked about why mutual fund companies (with which TCV sometimes competes on deals) don’t make great private company shareholders, and what can be the bad advice of investment bankers, who are largely telling companies to wait until 2017 to go public. Our chat, edited for length, follows.

    TC: You’ve invested roughly $700 million in Europe since opening an office in London, including deals in Spotify and World Remit. That’s a lot of capital.

    JH: In London and Berlin and the Scandinavian countries, there was lots of activity we were seeing, and we thought it better to see it from quasi-local office.

    WM: In Europe, [the investors on the ground are] very much early stage or buyouts or else guys who may call themselves growth equity investors but are really doing growth-buyout deals with a lot of debt. In terms of minority investments that startups can spend on product and sales and tech and marketing, we don’t have a lot of [competition].

    TC: What about other U.S firms? Doesn’t Insight Venture Partners do a lot of deals in Europe?

    WM: Insight does everything globally out of one office in New York. We’re pretty active, so we don’t necessarily like to be a tourist. We like to be part of the local community, so we felt like it was important to plant our flag in the ground and hire local people.

    TC: One of your more recent investments was in Believe Digital, a Paris-based next-generation music label. What does that deal tell us about your style?

    WM: It’s a growing, profitable business that’s already achieved significant scale with hundreds of employees. Our co-investors are two little French funds, and we were the largest and only investor in the financing we did, which is pretty typical. Also, the company has been around long enough that some of the funds will be thinking about selling some of their stock going forward. Most of our deals are a mix of primary and secondary stakes.

    TC: Five of your portfolio companies have been sold this year, including the data marketing firm Merkle, which just sold a majority stake to Dentsu. You also invested in LinkedIn, which turned out nicely for you. 

    JH: We didn’t see that [Microsoft acquisition] coming; it was a nice surprise. But if you’re going to deploy a dollar, why wouldn’t you look at a public company as well as private companies and assess, “Well, this appears fully valued, but this other one is discounted by 70 percent,” as long as you have the right insight. And the public markets tend to overreact on a quarterly basis.

    TC: Why aren’t more venture funds investing in discounted publicly traded companies, especially given that so many of them got socked earlier this year? My understanding is that most firms aren’t restricted from doing these deals here and there.

    JH: Generally, it’s  because the [universities and endowments and other] sources of capital for all of us want to think of us as being in discrete [buckets]. Either it’s, “I’m in investing in a private manager” or “I’m investing in a public manager.” So it’s not an easy sell.

    WM: It’s also hard. A lot of times you don’t have access to perfect information. It’s a different process. But your private activity informs your public activity and vice versa. Even when we aren’t looking to deploy money in the public market, we probably spend more time listening to quarterly conference calls than most private investors, because when you’re thinking about diligence, that’s some of the best information out there. You can spend a gazillion dollars for [repackaged intelligence] or just go online and look at whatever calls you want. All that great trend and customer data is there.


    TC: You mentioned that you buy a mix of primary and secondary stakes. Can you talk about some of the discounts you’re seeing?

    WM: Off of what? It depends on the last round and the structure of the last round. A lot of people have said, “Stay away from unicorns.” But there are a lot of great companies out there that are looking to raise money. Maybe [their last round was] lavish [so the price is now] maybe a little bit up or down, but in the meantime, the business has materially executed since that last round. So even though the [valuation is] similar, your multiple is half because the business has doubled. You have to look at these opportunities on a relative basis.

    TC: Mutual funds have gotten into your business in recent years. I still see them popping up here and there in late-stage deals.

    WM: Sometimes we don’t see anybody. Sometimes, if there’s a more formal process, we do. One deal we looked at earlier this year, we thought the discount was appropriate, and one of the T Rowes or Fidelitys did a flat round. But you’re generally seeing less aggressive behavior from the Baillie Giffords and the BlackRocks. You’re definitely seeing people pulling back and reevaluating the bets they’ve already made. 

    TC: Reevaluating and literally re-valuing — and publicly — which I think has surprised some of the companies these managers have backed.

    JH: If we hear a company is talking with T Rowe and Fidelity and BlackRock, I understand why. The company probably wants a high price and a quick process. But we [know we] should probably spend our time elsewhere. Full stop.

    [Mutual funds] are buying [private stakes] so they can have lower costs at the IPO price, etc. But the moment [their portfolio companies] underperform their competitors, that activity stops. These private investments have to have a return associated with them. If they’re buying high and selling low, that’s not good.

    TC: Could you see action being taken against any of these managers?

    JH: Mutual fund and hedge fund guys have been sued in the past over valuations. Even if it’s just 5 percent of your activity, with [people on Main Street] going in and out of your fund, your [net asset value] is a very important measure. These investors are buying in, assuming the valuations [they are paying at any single moment in time] are correct.

    WM: Some of these guys, they have deep pockets but they get those alligator arms sometimes. And management teams are starting to say, “I got it.”

    Much more here.

  • Fred Destin of Accel Partners on What’s Changing (Fast) in Europe

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    Almost exactly a year ago, Belgian-born venture capitalist Fred Destin left his longtime post with Atlas Venture in Boston and joined Accel Partners in London. Last week, over a charcuterie board at a French cafe in San Francisco, Destin talked with StrictlyVC about the move, what the Accel team in London shares in common with their U.S. peers (and what they don’t), and the newest trend in European startup funding. Some of that chat, edited for length, follows.

    Accel London has been around since 2000 and closed a $475 million fund in 2013. 

    Yes, and started investing it in April of last year. The fund was raised with maybe a little bit of anticipation. Also, sometimes you meet no entrepreneurs you want to back, then you meet five at the same time, so our pace is always a little inconsistent.

    How big is the team?

    We have six seven partners, one VP, one principal, three associates. We have a habit of promoting from within. I’m a rare external hire.

    How closely tied are you to the team here in the U.S.?

    We run separate funds, but it’s the same brand and we have a fair amount of overlap [in terms of LPs], and I believe we have 18 coinvestments that come in a variety of flavors. Both funds had been looking at SaaS accounting for small businesses, and in the end, [New Zealand-based] Xero is the only company you want to back in this field – we think it can kill Intuit – so we [collectively] made a $100 million investment in the company. We’ve also co-invested in [the newly public online marketplace] Etsy and [the Australia-based collaboration software company] Atlassian. Sometimes, it’s European-born companies, too. When we backed World Remit, a remittance business, half of its $40 million Series A came from the U.S. and the other half came from London.

    What if you wanted more than 50 percent? Do you ever compete with the U.S. team? 

    I can’t really think of a case where we’ve  been competitive. They’re a really disciplined team on investments, and so are we. If we find something that we think is really great, we’ll say, hey, we can syndicate with Index [Ventures] or we can try to move all the money through the Accel partnership. [The U.S. firm] looks at [the deals] independently. But there are definite benefits [to partnering], as when we find a little gem like Showroomprive [a Paris-based online shopping giant that sells discounted clothes, cosmetics and household items]. It was bootstrapped and had got to quite a large size, and [my London colleague] Harry [Nelis] went to meet them and said, “We can write a single check. I’ll bring Palo Alto into it so you have one investor and one board member.” So we put in [roughly $47 million] in a single shot, with both funds contributing.

    Can you see a future where you won’t be Accel London but something else? DFJ and Benchmark obviously decided to reign in their brands at different points.

    You learn from what happens in the past. I’m not sure you can scale venture very well. Having general partners in London who effectively decide on what happens to the firm makes decision-making really simple.

    We’re also in close cooperation with Palo Alto to make sure we represent the brand in the same way.

    How institutionalized are your communications?

    The important decisions, like when to hold an annual LP meeting or when to fundraise, are discussed extensively between the groups, but the rest of our discussions are very organic and multithreaded. You don’t want to fight the natural order of things. We’re very careful about not sharing too much information about the companies we look at, but we definitely share expertise and views and kind of help each other be better.

    It helps when you have funds that are performing well and teams that are high quality. If one part of the organization was doing well and the other wasn’t, it might become more tense, but that’s not the case.

    There’ve been lots of reports out this year about Europe falling behind.

    I’m just back in Europe, and I’m amazed by the number of large successes being built. There were seven or eight billion-dollar-plus exits last year, including [the British property site] Zoopla [which went public last June] and [the online restaurant delivery company] JustEat [which went public in April 2014]. Our third fund has three [billion-dollar-plus] companies, including [streaming music service] Spotify, and guys like [ridesharing company] BlaBlaCar, World Remit, and [the online lending marketplace] Funding Circle are growing super fast.

    I used to be quite negative about the market,  but now we’re seeing companies achieving hyperscale and building value really quickly, and in the case of [our portfolio company, the online marketplace and Craigslist competitor] Wallapop, it’s even bringing the fight to the local guys [in the U.S.].

    But European entrepreneurs are often quick to note that their funding options remains fairly limited.

    The VC landscape remains quite weak. You have Index and Accel as the sort of leaders. You have Balderton [Capital], which has enjoyed a great reinvention-slash-turnaround [since parting ways with Benchmark]. Then you have some new managers, including Mosaic [Ventures] and Frederic Court [a longtime investor at Advent Venture Partners who is raising a new fund under the brand Felix Capital], and a bunch of micros VCs like Hoxton [Ventures]. But there are a bunch of funds that have exited or stopped fundraising — names that everybody knows aren’t going to make it.

    What’s happening, though, is that U.S firms and the “Tiger Cubs” are smelling blood, so we’re seeing Insight [Venture Partners], DST [Global], TCV, and some of these tech hedge funds all suddenly coming into Europe on a regular basis, and anything that scales they want to fund. It’s a huge factor right now. They’re hunting aggressively, writing big checks, and moving fast.

    And that’s purely good news? As you know, there’s a little angst here about the impact all their money is having on companies and their burn rates.

    In general, we love it because we finally have scaling capital. We just invested in Deliveroo, which is the European version of DoorDash. It’s growing like a weed, but a few years ago, we’d have had to scale organically or raise a small Series B. Now people are knocking at the door of companies that are scaling and saying: “Can we write a big check?” We’re like, finally, we’ll be able to build billion-dollar companies in less than 10 years – maybe in three to five years.

    The other big factor in Europe is Rocket Internet, which used to clone companies but they had no balance sheet. Since its IPO [last October], they have a balance sheet. And while I don’t know exactly how much cash they have, it’s probably a billion-plus [dollars] that they can use to invest, replicate and whatever else they do, and they’re the biggest VC in Europe. They force people to raise their game, because if you want to compete against Rocket, you have to know what they’re doing.

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