Stanford students are short-circuiting VC firms by investing in their peers


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Stanford’s success in spinning out startup founders is a well-known adage in Silicon Valley, with alumni founding companies like Google, Cisco, LinkedIn, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and, yes, even TechCrunch. And venture capitalists routinely back more founders coming out of the Stanford business program than any other university in the country.

One group of Stanford graduate students is well-aware of their favorable odds, and think that they should be able to cash in their classmates, too — not just accredited investors and the super-wealthy.

They have put together Stanford 2020, a new fund created entirely by Stanford classmates to invest in their fellow students’ ventures.

The idea was spurred by six students, who after a year of working with Fenwick & West law firm to find a suitable legal structure landed on creating an investment club — multiple parties can invest together as long as they have some form of shared ties.

Steph Mui, a founding member of Stanford 2020 and former venture capital associate at VC firm NEA, formed the club in defiance of the inaccessibility of angel investing, which she described as an elite Silicon Valley status symbol.

“Especially in Silicon Valley where it seems kind of a status symbol and only accredited people can do it, it feels very elite” she said. “We started thinking more about if we can actually make this something that the whole class could participate in, or at least make it more accessible to more than just like these small pockets of people that do it behind closed doors.”

Stanford 2020 club members must put up a minimum of $3,000 to join the investment club, and any eventual returns will be distributed proportionally to the investment each makes. So far, Mui tells TechCrunch that $1.5 million has been raised across 175 investors, with 50 investors willing to give $500,000 on the waitlist. In fact, the club is so “oversubscribed” that it is working to give money back.

Mui estimates that roughly 40% of the class is participating in the club. The founding members are being defined as “board members” who were recruited for passion and for diversity in background, professional interests and past leadership experience.

The group plans to invest $50,000 to $100,000 in startups depending on round size and valuation.

Mui thinks that Stanford 2020’s competitive advantage is largely the personal relationship it has with the companies it will invest in. After all, success might be just an arm’s reach away. Indeed, Cloudflare, Rent the Runway and ThredUp were all born in the same HBS classroom after being assigned a class project, according to Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince.

“We have such strong pre-existing relationships, we know what people are working on way before they even raise,” Mui said.

Anyone who has been part of a club or team knows that loyalty runs deep, but we’ll see if that closeness is enough for a founder to dole out a stake in their company. While Stanford 2020 doesn’t take any management fee or carry, equity isn’t casual; in that vein, a famed Silicon Valley firm might be of better utility than your classmates.

Stanford 2020’s set up sounds similar to StartX fund, the university’s attempt at investing in its own, leafy backyard, which shut down in 2019. Launched in 2013, StartX fund offered to invest money in exchange for equity in any startup that went through its auxiliary accelerator and has $500,000 from professional investors.

Looking at Stanford 2020’s set up, the rules are almost exactly the same. Mui tells TechCrunch that startups must fulfill two criteria in order to automatically invest: first, the co-founder must be a member of the class, and second, they must raise a round of $750,000 or more from a reputable institutional investor. They define reputable as a list of 80 investors they got guidance on from advisors in the industry.

The concept of a rule-based automatic investment strategy comes with a big red flag: what if the founder has a bad idea or is a bad person, and still meets the criteria?

“I actually literally can’t think of a single person and I’m like, that person is so bad or so immoral, that we wouldn’t invest in them,” Mui said. “That’s part of the benefit of investing only in your classmates.”

But in case a Stanford-born class does have a problematic founder, Stanford 2020 has a veto voting mechanism.

In the grand scheme of things, Stanford-born startups are in a better spot than most when it comes to securing cash. They don’t desperately need another fund to invest in them. Mui’s ambition for Stanford 2020 is that other schools can copy and paste the legal structure they took a year (and a lot of hard work) to figure out.

She says they’re already getting inbound from incoming Stanford classes, other Stanford Schools and undergraduates. Now that it’s closed, she hopes they hear from other business schools, too.

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