Limited partners or LPs — the pension funds, the university endowments, the family offices that largely provide venture firms with their spending money — are receiving a lot of attention from venture capitalists, some of it unwanted. VCs have begun knocking down their doors with requests for fresh capital commitments so they’ll have money to invest if the market cools down.
The problem is, many of these LPs are already over-allocated. LPs traditionally invest in many asset classes, such as public equities, and they allocate a small percentage of their portfolio to venture capital. Suddenly, they’re finding they’ve forked over more than they’d intended to VCs.
There are several reasons for this situation. First, VCs are returning to them ever faster for more capital — sometimes in less than two years’ time — because they are investing at such a furious pace.
Compounding the problem, not all LPs have received returns from their VC investments that they can recycle into new venture capital allocations. In some cases, this capital is still tied up in startups that are raising much more money than in the past and staying private longer. “We have some large exposures to blue chip names where IPOs have been rumored to be coming for a long time already, and now it’s maybe 2021, maybe 2022,” says one endowment manager who asked not to be named. In other cases, where startups have gone public, falling prices have prompted VCs to hang on to their shares instead of distribute them.
The result is that LPs are having to cut back on the number of managers they can fund, and that could mean bad news for venture capitalists and startups alike. These LPs don’t have much choice. As the LP explains it, “We have a pretty structured allocation process, and we’re really trying to be creative,” she says. One venture manager who reappeared too quickly for more money was “easy to walk away from,” says this person. “Others, we’re having to do financial backflips for them to remain strong partners.”
Either way, this LP adds, “We can’t add any new relationships right now,” meaning new venture teams in particular are out of luck. “When [VCs] shorten their fundraising cycle by nine months to a year, you can only squeeze the balloon so much.”
Backing up the truck
SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund is one big reason LPs find themselves in their current predicament. From the moment SoftBank began waving money around several years ago, it launched a vicious cycle. According to Chris Douvos, whose investment firm, Ahoy Capital, owns stakes in such venture funds as True Ventures and First Round Capital, “When Andreessen Horowitz hit the scene a decade ago, they changed the tempo of investing and everyone got more aggressive in their dealmaking as a response. Then SoftBank entered the picture in a big way, and it was like a16z on steroids.”
In order to compete with SoftBank’s money cannon, other funds supersized their own investment vehicles, and startup valuations soared. Uber and WeWork were prime examples of companies for which funding events became routine, along with huge mark-ups. Uber went public, pricing below expectations, and its shares have been falling ever since. WeWork and its unconventional S-1 filing never made it past the starting gate.
Competitors are enjoying some schadenfreude: they can’t help but delight in SoftBank’s pain. But WeWork’s slow-motion implosion comes at an uncertain moment in time. If a second massive Vision Fund doesn’t come together — and that seems more than likely at this point — it would mean a sharp drop-off in startup funding. Meanwhile, the world is also grappling with a U.S. administration that appears increasingly unhinged. And a recession that seemed far away as recently as early July could be around the corner.
Collectively, these elements could change the picture dramatically for LPs. Specifically, if LPs aren’t getting enough money back from VCs and their public holdings fall in value because the markets hit the skids, their commitments to venture funds could become even larger as a percentage basis of their overall portfolio. That would create even more imbalance in their asset allocation. Which would mean even less money for new funds. Which would translate into less money for startups. It’s a vicious cycle of another kind, in short.
Maybe it won’t happen. We aren’t there yet. But VCs of all sizes would be wise to take a lesson from their entrepreneurs and perfect their pitches. As is becoming clear, LPs can’t dole out capital at an accelerated pace forever. If VCs want to continue raising new funds, or raising funds as fast, they’d better have a very good story to tell.