A brave new world. You in?

Let’s entertain a hypothesis: what if VCs can see a train coming towards them, but don’t know how to get on board?

The inimitable Dan Bowyer calls the train “Nice”, and it has definitely left the station. Nice is coming. For the sake of clarity, let’s define “Nice” as “companies that factor in externalities other than profit, take them seriously, and deliver on them”.

Whether you’ve read Dan’s LinkedIn posts, or seen frequent mention of the ‘paradigm shift’ in front of us, there seems to be a growing chorus of expert voices singing, in harmony, that change is coming. Investors and the companies they fuel cannot continue in the same way. Some of the most obvious points with which to rationalise the inevitability of change include: shifting consumer preferences; impending ecological disaster; and unprecedented global inequality. Dan wrote a post a few weeks ago in which he wondered whether it’s possible for a company to do well and do good (i.e. to make money and have a positive impact) at the same time. I actually believe that VCs can make more money by doing good, especially if the long-term perspective is taken into consideration.

VC heavyweight Daniel Keiper-Knorr wrote an excellent article about the dangers of VCs’ fixation with, and ruthless pursuit of unicorns. He argues the case for a VC ecosystem that nurtures serial founders, on the basis that a higher number of smaller exits does great things for all participants in the space: the founders make life-altering sums of money that afford them the luxury of space for more creative thought; they gain a tonne of experience, armed with which they will probably create new, even better start-ups with higher chances of more dramatic successes; and, most importantly, it encourages “the cyclical flow of capital around the start-up ecosystem”. This sounds great, but we’re not there yet. A few things are stopping us. Let’s explore what they might be:

1. VCs don’t think the need for change is imminent enough

Let’s take the example of the environmental issue and the urgency with which it is requiring us — ALL — to change our practices. Driven by popular opinion as much as irrefutable science, the world is cottoning on to the idea that we might have to clean things up a bit. As a result, the huge and irksome phenomenon of greenwashing is afoot. There seems to be a competition to shout ‘ESG’ the loudest, but quantifiably pertinent investments haven’t kept up with the clamours. This applies to companies just as much as it does to the funds that invest in them. Diversifying your portfolio to include one clean tech initiative isn’t going to cut it. The only scenario in which that move would be ‘enough’ is a scenario in which there is no real perceived urgency.

2. Most VCs don’t quite know what the next move is

You can’t blame the financiers at the top of their game for not being able to answer the question: “How do we fix the world?” Even knowing how to turn the financial ecosystem to favour “Nice” is hard. How many of them really know what the next step should be?

Daniel Kepier-Knorr, does, and his results speak for themselves; but VCs who are unaware of precedents might not know what the next move is.

3. The disadvantage of being the first mover

Let’s apply the framework of public opinion about the aesthetic appeal of bottoms. I have two older brothers, both of whom remember a time when more petite figures were de rigueur; but who in their right might would turn down an opportunity to invest in gluteal enhancement products in 2008, knowing what they know now?

Paradigms shift: it’s better to be ahead of them, even if it does take courage to come out as a fan of big bottoms before everyone else.

4. Nobody knows how to get to ‘the other side’

The problem with an investment ecosystem where everybody has a background in finance is that the plight of the founder/founding team is just totally incomprehensible unless you’ve experienced it. As Ina von Turow, puts it: “what makes financial sense doesn’t always make economic sense”. I think that’s pretty close to the crux of the issue.

So, what next?

Firms know they should be judged on their contribution to ESG goals with a substantial part of the money they invest. They know that exit multiples cannot be the sole criterion by which an investment can be determined a success. They know that a certain bracket of investments need to migrate to, and focus on other criteria. It would need to be a commitment of a sum of money that wouldn’t be reputation-damaging if lost; but could make a real difference if put to good use.

I have a vision of each major VC having a sub-fund, whose focus is explicitly not on finding one or two “diamonds”; but rather on finding tens of “rubies and emeralds”. Lots of smaller wins. The only difference between this and what Daniel Keipper-Knorr has argued, really, is the dedicated resources to a different game plan, to an extent that each VC can afford to earmark for these purposes, but which are then judged on different standards. CompSci grads/physics PhDs, let’s see a model for quantifying ESG impact in your next pitch. Let’s follow Norrsken’s example and care more about impact than how loudly we care about it.

A theoretical emerald might have a multiple of 3x, but a quantifiably positive impact on the environment. A theoretical ruby might have a multiple of 2x, but creates meaningful, dignified jobs for people who might otherwise be dependent on state support. I could go on listing precious stones, but I think you get the gist. My hypothesis is that it is easier to mine tens of rubies and emeralds than one or two diamonds. If you found 50 “rubies and emeralds”, that would add up to a value higher than that of a couple of diamonds, not to mention the numerous other benefits that this approach would bring with it, addressing the issues that we all know need to be fixed anyway. So why not agree to a) do it together, across-the-board (like the Gates Foundation Giving Pledge); b) agree on a subset of capital consciously chasing lower multiples; and, c) giving this a 10-year perspective in order to really judge it against the current model, which many would probably agree has no real ‘secret sauce’ besides diversification, anyway?

Am I wrong to think that 50 rubies and emeralds are easier to find than two diamonds?

In the absence of substantial evidence to the contrary, given the current state of the world, wouldn’t you say that this hypothesis is, at the very least, worth testing? Through a concerted, collective VC effort? Collective enough to matter, but with a small enough piece of the pie not to give anyone a heart attack! If all the significant players pledge to do it, the first mover disadvantage disappears, and a new game is allowed to come into being.

It’s a hypothesis worth testing!

This new approach would require not just new thinking, but also new kinds of people; a widening of the ecosystem, if you like. Einstein said that “no problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.” Nobody is suggesting that the traditional VC is even close to obsolete; but to deny that ‘Nice is coming’ is to be in denial. Why not get ahead of it?

What do you think? All responses welcome!

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