Addressing the VC Seed Investor Signaling Problem

Traffic SignalOne of the most common criticisms of VC investors making seed investments is something that has become known as "the signaling problem." The explanation of this problem is that VCs create a "negative perception" about a company if they make a seed investment but then don't follow through and make a next round investment. Another way to say this is that a VC creates a "signaling situation" with their seed investment—if they don't follow on in the next round they are "sending a signal" that something is wrong with the company (hence the label "signaling problem.")

Last week I spoke with a partner at a large VC firm whose firm has been around for a long time. They have a new seed program (as of a few years ago) after eschewing seed investments from 2002 to 2008. The partner that I talked to told me that they are doing 30 seed investments out of their newest fund.

I was surprised on two levels—the first is that they have a very visible anti-seed reputation. I pointed out that their market reputation was that they didn't do seed investments nor did they do many Series A investments. He said "we changed that a few years ago." I suggested that their Web site didn't talk about their seed program; he responded "yeah, we need to work on our Web site."

The second, more important thing, was that I couldn't make the math work on their fund. I asked them how many of the seed investments they expected to follow with regular first round investments. He said "half of them". So—15 of their investments in the fund would come from their seed program. I asked how many other investments they'd have in the fund. He said 30. So they'll end up with 45 active investments in the fund (high for their fund size) of which 33% came from seed investments.

I then asked how they were going to deal with the "signaling problem" for seed investments they didn't follow on with. Here he said something that made me pause: "We'll sell them back to the founders, the company, or the angels at somewhere between $1 and our cost." I probed on this (as in "seriously, can you give me some examples?") Without naming names he explained three situations in the past two years where they've done this. And, in each case, his firm had decided not to follow on, took themselves out of the cap table, and the three companies were able to raise additional financing (in one case from a different VC firm.)

I thought this was a pretty clever way to deal with this issue. While it doesn't eliminate the problem created by the signaling issue, it addresses part of it. I don't know if this firm will follow through on unwinding their positions in 15 of the 30 seed investments they make. I also don't know how they'll feel when one of the 15 they decided not to follow goes on to be massively successful and their seed piece, if they had kept it, would have returned a meaningful amount of money to them. But if they do take this approach it seems like they should shout it from the rooftops as part of their VC / seed positioning statement.

I'm not a fan of this "spray and pray" seed investing strategy for VCs. Instead, when we make a seed investment, we don't treat it any differently than our non-seed investments. Rather than repeat our approach here, take a look at the post How I Think About Seed Investing As A VC that I wrote a month ago. That said, I found the approach of selling back the seed investment at $1 to be an interesting way to address part of the signaling problem.

Reprinted from Feld Thoughts

Brad Feld is a managing director at Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He invests in software and Internet companies around the U.S., runs marathons, and reads a lot. Follow him at twitter.com/bfeld.

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