Having Won Over VCs, Y Combinator Turns To LPs

Last week, Y Combinator ran investors through 105 presentations by early-stage startups in a two-day show it calls Demo Day. The pace of deal-making for such events, staged every summer and winter, has grown so feverish that the incubator introduced a new wrinkle: backers could commit to plowing millions into a company by simply clicking the equivalent of an “easy button” via an online dashboard that Y Combinator created.

Many local VCs seemed too busy to notice. Brian O’Malley of Accel Partners was walking around on his phone. Jon Sakoda of New Enterprise Associates made the rounds. Hunter Walk of Homebrew looked to be taking a couple of meetings, too.

Yet there were other, more surprising guests. There, in the front row, was “Stevie” Cohen, the famed hedge fund manager. Elsewhere in the audience, a money manager for Major League Baseball sat rapt, listening to the procession of startup presentations.

Perhaps the most interesting category of attendee, though, were more traditional limited partners, who typically invest in venture and private equity funds.

Indeed, while it used to be that VCs treated their LPs a bit like mushrooms, keeping them mostly in the dark, today’s LPs want to be closer to the action, and for them, Y Combinator is Ground Zero.

For some, it’s a chance to make direct investments in companies, including those that might seem, to the casual observer, to be little more than jumped-up PowerPoint presentations. One Midwest LP who represents a family office and began receiving invitations to these affairs last year – one year after he began investing in privately held tech companies – has already backed a dozen startups out of YC. They represent one-third of his current portfolio of direct stakes.

“I find [YC’s] batches are always the best of any accelerator class or demo day that I attend,” says the LP, who asked not to be named. “I’ve found a number of opportunities that were as exciting as any we’ve pursued.” YC’s endorsement, he says, is “a very important signal to us.”

Others have started coming largely for a preview of what’s coming in tech. Among them is J.D. Montgomery, a managing director at the Newport Beach, Ca., firm CanterburyConsulting, which works with 60 families and 105 institutions that collectively oversee $14 billion in assets.

While Montgomery has worked with clients for 27 years, it’s only in the past three years that he has begun coming to Y Combinator Demo Days with a family from Mexico that has begun actively making direct investments in tech companies. Montgomery says the family, which has invested in a dozen venture funds and owns direct stakes in 15 startups altogether, made one investment in a company from YC’s winter “batch” and is currently pursuing a deal with a second YC company that presented to attendees last week.

“You get exposure to what’s coming,” Montgomery says. “It’s a little like seeing the future.”

Of course, Y Combinator may have motives of its own for sending out more invitations to LPs.

As industry watchers know, the outfit is still in the midst of raising a very big, growth-stage vehicle, one that it will use to take a pro rata stake in every company that passes through its program and which outside investors assign a post-money valuation of $250 million or less. It certainly doesn’t hurt to make friends with a wider pool of potential investors than it might have had a few year ago.

Y Combinator has also said in recent months that it would like to fund 1,000 companies a year in the not-too-distant future. To fulfill that ambition, too, it will need more than Silicon Valley venture capitalists in the mix.

Luckily for YC – whose winter class of roughly 100 startups has already raised a stunning $227 million from investors — those enthusiastic VCs  have already laid the groundwork.

Says Montgomery knowingly of last week’s Demo Day experience: “It is a show, and it’s produced, and it’s very formulaic in how you put together your pitch. Everyone has a ‘billion dollar industry’ they’re going after.”

Showmanship aside, he says, “These teams are really impressive groups of people and they’re developing some really great technologies. I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing about some of them over the course of the next 5 to 10 to 15 years.”