As VC brands go, Rothenberg Ventures has seen better days.
The firm built up a reputation as an up-and-coming early-stage investor a few years ago, based on bold bets on virtual reality, a flashy marketing strategy and its well-connected namesake and founder, Mike Rothenberg. Between 2012 and 2016, the San Francisco firm participated in funding rounds for more than 100 early-stage companies, commonly investing alongside top-tier VCs.
But Silicon Valley soured on Rothenberg Ventures last year, amid charges that its founder spent beyond his means, failed to pay staff and misappropriated investor funds for a side project. Lawsuits ensued, along with a name change (since changed back), an SEC investigation and a lot of unflattering profiles casting the now 33-year-old Rothenberg as a sort of modern-day Gatsby.
So it hasn’t been a good year for Mike Rothenberg. But what about the Rothenberg Ventures portfolio?
In an effort to see how firm- and investor-specific scandals might affect portfolio companies, Crunchbase News took a look at the performance of Rothenberg Ventures-backed startups. We looked at exits and up rounds, as well as closures and apparent down rounds.
Overall, the Rothenberg portfolio seems to be doing well. It’s seen multiple exits at what appear to be favorable returns, a lot of up rounds and not too many high-profile flops. It probably helps that most portfolio companies had a number of other investors. The vast majority that raised cash from Rothenberg Ventures did so as part of a larger investor syndicate, and those startups weren’t relying on the firm as a major provider of follow-on capital.
With that in mind, here’s what the portfolio looks like now.
At least 13 Rothenberg-backed companies have gone on to exit, according to Crunchbase data. Point-of-sale systems company Revel Systems sold a majority stake to private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.
All of the exits were through acquisitions, and most of those exits involved early-stage companies selling for undisclosed amounts. Typically, Rothenberg was a non-lead investor in a syndicate for these startups. Most had raised a few million dollars prior to exit, though a few had raised larger rounds.
A couple of acquisitions involved companies that had already stopped offering their services.
Generally speaking, if an early-stage company that is not known to be in distress gets acquired, backers make money. This seems to be the pattern for most of the Rothenberg portfolio company acquisitions to date. The list includes Sweet IQ Analytics, a provider of local search tools that sold to Gannett; Payable, a provider of software for paying contractors that sold to Stripe; and Propeller, a platform for updating apps that sold to Palantir. One of the few deals with a disclosed price was a celebrity-heavy investment, Hello Giggles, a women-focused online media startup that sold to Time for $30 million in 2015. (You can view the full list of acquisitions here.)
A couple of acquisitions involved companies that had already stopped offering their services. AltspaceVR, a social VR platform closed over the summer, was snapped up by Microsoft in October. And Luxe, a valet parking app, had also shut down before it sold to Volvo in September.
So far, the firm’s big bets on virtual reality have yet to produce lucrative exits, though some have raised follow-on rounds, which we’ll look at next.
Seed investments take a long time to mature, so it’s not surprising to see the majority of viable portfolio companies still in follow-on fundraising mode.
To date, the Rothenberg portfolio has a number of companies that have gone on to raise much larger follow-on rounds, presumably at marked-up valuations. We assembled 30 of them here.
The portfolio includes some unicorns. Mike Rothenberg said there are three companies in the portfolio that have surpassed the $1 billion valuation mark, but did not name them. It seems clear looking at the firm’s list of investments that one unicorn is RobinHood, the zero-commission platform for buying stocks, which raised its last round at a $1.3 billion valuation. The firm is a non-lead investor and one of at least 28 known backers.
The biggest exits and biggest flops are probably yet to come.
It’s unclear whether SpaceX counts as one of the unicorns. Rothenberg invested in a 2012 Series D, but SpaceX already had a multi-billion dollar valuation at the time, (although its value has since multiplied). We couldn’t identify an additional potential unicorn, so probably we either missed it or it’s a company whose billion-plus private valuation hasn’t been publicly disclosed.
There were also a number of companies that raised early-stage funding from Rothenberg that have secured significantly larger follow-on rounds in the past couple of years. Some of the bigger ones are Patreon, an online platform for sponsoring artists; 8i, a VR software developer; Andela, a tool for finding African tech talent; and Rinse, a garment care service.
Most seed-stage startup efforts don’t end in success, so we’d expect that any firm operating this stage for a few years would have some flops.
Rothenberg is no exception. Crunchbase turned up a few portfolio investments that raised small sums a few years ago and have since closed, like Butter, an app for making new friends; Buttercoin, a Bitcoin startup; and Bloodhound, an app for managing leads at trade shows. There are certainly more, though putting together a full list is challenging, as many startups prefer to quietly fade away rather than officially announce their closure. Also, seed investors commonly don’t disclose all their micro-investments, particularly for stealth startups.
The firm’s most high-profile potentially troubled asset is River Studios, a virtual reality production house Rothenberg launched in 2015. The investment came under fire last year, with Wired and other publications reporting that River hadn’t been properly green-lit by investors, lost money and was behind on rent.
The current status of River Studios is unclear. Its blog hasn’t been updated since mid-2016, and there are no open positions listed on its site.
Overall, the takeaway seems to be that Rothenberg Ventures’ downturn hasn’t extended to its portfolio companies in a meaningful way.
The firm’s performance seems similar to those of other funds of a similar vintage and approach. That is, it’s largely what we would expect from a well-connected Silicon Valley angel or VC participating in large investor syndicates for hot seed and early-stage startups in hot sectors. Rothenberg was somewhat of an outlier in its heavy focus on virtual reality, a sector that continues to attract reasonable funding but has yet to produce fat exits. VR hasn’t produced any big outcomes for Rothenberg, either — yet.
Given the long-time horizons that seed-stage startups require to mature, however, it’s still early innings for the bulk of the portfolio. The biggest exits and biggest flops are probably yet to come.