AoA Results – why are they so good?

In my previous post, I noted that the AoA had a great year in 2010. (http://blog.drosenassoc.com/?p=61 or the full release http://drosenassoc.com/AoA%20results%202-23-11.pdf)

Typically, most angel groups or VCs see about 25-40% of their deals die in the first 4 years. (This is called the J curve, since the portfolio value goes negative for the first 3-5 years and gets positive when you begin to get exits in year 5 – this valuation curve looks like a J.) The AoA has what appears to be unprecedented results – almost all of our investments in the last 5 years are still alive! Many people have asked my why we did so well in a crappy market. I’ve certainly spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I believe that there are four principal reasons that caused the great year.

  1. World-class, innovative deal screening process. The AoA sees great deal flow, largely because we have a reputation of being savvy investors, who bring lots of value, and do “write checks.” One of the true core competencies we have developed over the last 15 years is our ability to take all the deals that are submitted and invest in the very best. This takes a lot of work, starting with our selection of our staff (both full-time managing director and 2 part time program managers) who have the right skills and knowledge to help startups be ready to enter our process, continues with preliminary screening by the staff, through the selection by our screening committee (the 10-15 most experienced angels in our group), and finally the presentation to our members who invest in good deals. This process is both efficient and respectful for both angels and entrepreneurs. And, it is complemented by a rather extensive knowledge base of market terms, deals and conditions. All of this leads to great companies, presenting well to our members, and being prepared for due diligence and investment.
  2. Get the deal terms right. We work with entrepreneurs to set terms and valuation that are deal and market appropriate, which allows companies to endure. In the past, too often investors didn’t understand the impact of setting a price too high, raising too much or too little money, and/or having either investor or entrepreneur-unfriendly terms. While they can often be seductive at the outset, bad terms lead to long-term problems at companies. The AoA has taken a lead role in the Pacific Northwest in bringing forward deals that make sense for both investors and entrepreneurs. By setting terms correctly, companies can survive and thrive even after market or strategic problems push the company off track.
  3. Active, engaged investors. The AoA members not only write checks, but often get actively involved in the companies in which they invest and often take board seats. As a group, we bring a ton of knowledge and experience – the kind of experience that many startups couldn’t afford or acquire any other way. This knowledge often helps our portfolio companies avoid mistakes, see them earlier, or find more innovative solutions to fix them. We are also a source for follow on rounds, especially at this time when VC financing is either not forthcoming or inappropriate. This pool of active, engaged investors helps companies survive and thrive.
  4. The right strategy, done early enough to make a difference. About 4 years ago, we realized that our investment results then were mostly dependent on a few of our most active members investing in a lot of companies, but this wasn’t sustainable. We realized that we needed to increase the “capital capacity” of the group, if we were going to remain relevant. We were fortunate to ride the trend of the “professionalization of angel capital,” where individual angels realized that working together led to better results. Over the last four years, we have succeeded in (a) reformulating our strategy, vision, and mission, with a rebranding of the AoA; (b) recruiting a continuing stream of new members; (b) putting in place education programs that help our new and existing members know how to do good deal; (c) putting in place an angel term sheet (http://drosenassoc.com/Draft%20Term%20Sheet%20for%20Alliance%20of%20Angels.pdf) that helps angels get deals done quickly and at low cost; (d) train our angels to be good deal leads, board members, and investors; and (e) be an advocate for better communication from startups to their investors.

While the ultimate measure of success is a positive return through lucrative exits, we also know that for these early-stage startups have a long period to exit – typically 7-10 years. Since our data prior to 5 years ago isn’t very good, our surrogate measure is the “J Curve.” The fact that the AoA has succeeded in dramatically changing the J Curve implies that the strategy is working.

Comments welcome.

The changing nature of communication

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the transformation of communication. When my grandparents were born, electronic communication meant telegrams. A couple of generations earlier, sending a letter from new York to san Francisco required writing a letter, getting it on a ship, and having it sail around South America, taking months. In rapid succession, we deployed railroads, telephones, highways/cars, airlines, data networks, and the Internet. The result is we can now send the same information that required months in less than the blink of an eye.

But, one aspect of this communication remained the same – you needed to know who you were communicating with and their address.

In the last few years, this has all changed! We can now communicate, individually or to a group, with people who we don’t know. The rise of social networks allows people to find others that they don’t know, but with whom they share an interest – around the world! This has changed the definition of community. And the definition of “friend.”

I think it will take many years to understand all of the impacts of this profound change in communication.

At the tip of the iceberg, we see the revolts in the Arab world in North Africa, where dissenters used Facebook to organize and communicate.

I saw the precursor of this in Eastern Europe and Russia (actually the Soviet Union) in the late 1980s. When visiting frequently on business, some of my colleagues would ask me to bring blank video tapes (pre-recorded video tapes were seized on entry!). I didn’t understand this at first, until I was taken to a “secret” video exchange market, where you would bring a blank video tape and pay some money to get a current-run Western movie. It gave the populace the ability to see Western culture, values, etc. I believe it was a contributing factor in the changes that later swept that part of the world. The Internet and Facebook is a much more potent force for knowledge, freedom, and understanding.

We live in a time of sweeping change.