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In a panel on angel return data at the Angel Capital Association Summit recently the speaker went back and forth between data using ROI (multiples of the original investment) and IRR (internal rate of return).  These metrics are very different and it is important for angels to have a good understanding of how using each of these will impact their investment strategy – in many cases for the worse!

Why Hunting for Unicorns May not be a Good Strategy for Angel Investors

Angel Investing Unicorn

 

There is a mythology among angel investors about going for “unicorns” (private companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more) in their portfolios.  In many cases, real returns from unicorns may be less than hitting solid singles and doubles that exit at under $100 million. Here’s why:

 

While unicorns may appear to give great returns, our speaker gave an example.  He had invested in DocuSign which is now readying itself for an IPO.  (Initial Public Offering)  After multiple follow-on rounds after his angel investment, his percentage ownership had been significantly diluted, but even worse – it took twelve years for DocuSign to get to exit from the time of his investment.  While he expects to receive an investment ROI multiple of 4.8 times his original investment, that comes out to only a 15.3% IRR. Getting $480,000 back on a $100,000 investment sounds good initially. When the amount of time that the investment takes comes into the calculation, the unicorn doesn’t look as good as some of the same investor’s exits that came along in five or fewer years and yielded $100 million or less.  In fact, his average IRR over his portfolio was 27%, so this unicorn was bringing his average down!

 

Angel Investors should think about their investments from a portfolio strategy viewpoint.  

Smart angels will target 10X their investment back within five years or less – that’s a 58.5% IRR.  After calculating winners and losers over time, angels who invest through angel groups will typically see a portfolio return in the 23-37% range, or about 2.5X.  Getting 4.8X your money back sounds good, until you think about what you could have done with that money if you could have reinvested it after five years.  

 

What if the investor had taken his $100,000 and NOT invested in DocuSign, but rather invested in ten deals at $10,000 each with half of them returning nothing and the returns from the others averaging 2.5X return over five years?  And what if he had reinvested the returns from those investments? At that rate, including winners and losers, he would have received $850,000 at the end of twelve years for an 8.5X return or 27% IRR. Clearly, taking time into account, but also taking the opportunity to recycle exits into the next deal increases profits.  

 

The likelihood of any one investment being a unicorn is something like 1,800 to 1, but the most prolific angel investors I know have portfolios of maybe 100-150 deals.  On the other hand, getting a 2.5X in five years on a ten company portfolio is fairly common among angels. Unicorn hunting, even when successful returned almost half the cash that the diversified angel did.  Using IRR instead of ROI helps angels to understand the best way to think of their strategy.

How do Venture Capitalists Differ from Angels?

Venture Capital funds often talk about how they need to go for the big multiples “because they need to return large amounts to their Limited Partners.”  This is partly true, but not for the reasons they would have you think. Angels have the same return targets as VCs, and, when they invest in groups, they tend to outperform Venture Capital funds by a good margin.  Over the past fifteen years VCs have been hunting for unicorns and missing out on the singles,doubles and triples that angels enjoy, but their returns averaged 9.98% – less than half of what angels have earned during the same period.

 

VCs are limited by time in their investments.  The average VC fund lasts for ten years, and many funds have a policy of not “recycling” their returns into new investments, so they are motivated to get large multiples of ROI rather than focusing on quick returns with high IRR.  It’s better if a fund can recycle its returns into new investments, with the caveat that they must return all capital to Limited Partners within ten years.

 

VCs also shy from using IRR to measure their fund’s performance because of the “J Curve” which refers to the shorter period between investment and failure compared to the longer period between investment and large-multiple success.  Using IRR can make the fund’s performance look sub-par early in the fund’s lifecycle.

 

Finally, the institutional investors that are the VC’s Limited Partners often earmark their funds for long investment periods and the last thing they want is to get a 30% IRR on an investment that comes back in the first year.  They would rather deploy the capital for longer periods for larger returns. Because institutional investors have a high cost of analyzing investment opportunities, it’s not as easy for them to re-deploy as it might be for angels.

 

So, angel investors differ from VCs in investment strategy, and if they invest in groups and pay attention to using IRR as their performance metric, they can outperform VCs and create significant returns for their own portfolios.

If you’ve read ANYTHING about cryptocurrencies and ICOs (Initial Coin/Token Offerings), you’ve read opinions from people who believe that the value of these coins will go up 100 times and others who believe that they will all crash to zero because there is “nothing there”.  If you believe either of these groups, you’ll be in big trouble if you’re an entrepreneur or angel/venture capital investor in this space.  Some cryptocurrencies will indeed go to zero and others will likely rise by 100X, but out of thousands of deals, how would you know how to pick the right ones?

It’s not just cryptocurrencies that have a lot of uncertainty today.  We’re seeing unprecedented change in blockchain, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, self-driving cars and more.  These trends are all going to become a big part of our future, but which companies are the ones we should invest in?

Experience can be a guide in helping decipher the trends in fast breaking industries. The cryptocurrency ICO market reminds me a lot of all the dot.com startups in the 1990’s who were going public without having much more than a URL like etoys.com, socks.com, pets.com, etc.

What happened during the .com boom?  Lots of companies got funded quickly and at valuations that didn’t make sense.  It kind of looks like the ICO boom now.  When companies get too much money too quickly, they tend to accelerate their failure rate because they haven’t figured out their product-market-fit or how to scale up quickly.  We’ll certainly see some of that in the current ICO boom, but, just like in the .com boom, we’ll also see some VERY BIG winners. Google and Amazon looked crazy in the 1990’s  but now they are today’s biggest companies.  We will see the same thing with blockchain, cryptocurrencies, AI, IoT, intelligent cars and more.

The people who predict wholesale failure or wholesale success are bound to be wrong.  The people who are diligent in digging into who the winners and losers will be with a futurist attitude will succeed.  Investors who think like the hockey player Wayne Gretzky who famously said “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” 

Great venture capital investors have to be like great hockey players and invest where the market is going to be.

Predicting the future is hard, but we’ve got some help for you.  The upcoming Angel Capital Summit, produced by the Rockies Venture Club will be focusing on Funding the Next Wave of Innovation.  We’ll be interviewing CEOs of companies that have gone through major trends in social networks, cyber security and more in order to learn how to identify and ride the trends.

The Angel Capital Summit will also feature 16+ companies that are riding the trends of their industries, pitching to angel and venture capital investors.  The event is open to the public and is free for RVC Keystone and Active Investor Members.  (If you’re not a member yet, click HERE for more information).

The Rockies Venture Club is the oldest angel investing group in the U.S. and is a non-profit organization focusing on furthering economic development by educating and connecting angel investors and great startups.

Many professional organizations have a certification test of competency that members must pass to demonstrate their knowledge and ability to perform at a high level.  Doctors, Lawyers, CPA’s and other professions must also take continuing education credits as well.

The criterion for being an angel investor, however, has nothing to do with knowledge and does nothing to provide the knowledge that an accredited investor needs to know to both make good investments and to exercise prudence with regard to their portfolio strategy.  Accredited investors qualify to be angels simply by wealth (having assets in excess of $1 million) or income, (having annual income of $200K per year or more, or $300K for married couples)

The SEC has proposed recently that a knowledge based criterion for accredited investors be added.  This would allow people with expertise to participate in angel investments.  The proposal, however, suggested that existing certifications such as a FINRA Series 7 might be a good benchmark.  Having passed the Series 7 test myself, I can assure anyone that the knowledge one acquires to pass that test, though it is significant, has nothing to do with what someone needs to know to be an angel investor.   Angel and venture capital investing has its own set of language and guidelines that have very little overlap with what a Series 7 certificate holder would have.  If the goal of accreditation is to protect the investors from themselves, then providing a certification that tested knowledge that was relevant to the asset class would be most useful.

A good certification test for angel investors would include several parts.  Here’s an overview of what it might look like.

  • Portfolio strategy. The presumed reason for the accredited investor guidelines is that people of high wealth have excess money to lose and can withstand a complete loss.  Just having money to lose isn’t really a great way to build a portfolio strategy.  Smart investors will allocate approximately ten percent or less of their investable portfolio into the angel investing asset class.  Within that ten percent, they will be invested in a minimum of ten deals and preferably twenty or more.  That means that a marginally accredited investor with a $1 million in investable assets will create an angel investing portfolio of about $100,000 which will be in at least ten $10,000 deals or even twenty $5,000 deals.  Someone with a $5 million investable portfolio will put $500,000 to work in angel deals, perhaps with twenty deals at $25,000 each.  Some angels really spread out their risk with fifty or more deals and it’s generally agreed that the more deals you can get into the better.  Finally, angels should understand the difference between making a “one and done” investment in a company vs. follow-on investments and how they can benefit a portfolio.
  • Exit strategies. Angel investors have only one way to get their money back and that’s through an exit. Anyone investing in this asset class should have a sophisticated knowledge of how exits work, how to analyze the market for exit potential, what typical exit multiples are and what the typical exit amounts are for startups in any particular industry.  An angel who doesn’t understand exits will not likely do well as an investor and may end up investing in a lot of great ideas that never see a liquidity event.
  • There are some who say that “valuation doesn’t matter”.  These are the VC hacks who think they can make up for any valuation by investing only in “unicorns” ( private companies that reach a valuation of $1 billion or more).  That’s a great theory until you realize that only one in several thousand deals results in a unicorn deal and most that exit at all will exit for under $50 million.  For these, understanding valuation and putting together a fair deal is critical.  A smart angel should have a valuation toolbox under their belt with several different valuation methods available to them.
  • Due Diligence. Smart angels know that the more diligence you do, the better your chances for investment success.  Just having lunch with a startup CEO and getting excited about their passion and commitment is not a good way to do diligence.  Investors should thoroughly investigate the market, the team, the product, IP and legal landscape, valuation, comparable transactions, financial projections, competition, exit potential, key documents and agreements and much more.
  • Term Sheets. Investing requires good knowledge of the terms used in negotiating the deal.  These terms are far from obvious and many that sound similar can result in a difference of millions of dollars when the company exits.  g. “preferred liquidation preference” or “participating preferred”.   I’ve seen angels who have caused serious problems for themselves and the companies they invest in by creating situations that make follow-on investment by VCs all but impossible.
  • Securities and Tax Law: Angels should be familiar with the various points of securities law to understand the registration exemptions that offerings are using, and to know the boundaries of proper securities offering processes. They should understand the difference between Regulation D 506B and 506C registrations, the proper filing of Form D, numbers of investors allowed, and verification of accredited investor status.  They should also understand tax law as it applies to angel investment including Section 1202, 1244, and 1045 as well as state breaks for economic development and federal breaks for research and development.
  • Proformas and financial analysis. Like it or not, there’s a lot of finance knowledge required to be a good angel investor.  Being able to look at a proforma and understand if it’s believable, or just a “hockey stick” graph someone put together to make it look good.  A proforma is a treasure trove of information about the company, its strategy and how it expects to operate.  Even though it’s never going to be right, the way that the information is presented gives the investor a window into how the CEO and team thinks.  Finance risk is significant for most companies and understanding how many future raises will be required, how big they will be and what the cumulative dilution to both founders and investors will look like is critical to assessing the potential for the deal.
  • Market Analysis. Understanding the trends in a market, competition, actual pain points and return on investment for customers is one of the most important parts of understanding the viability of a deal.  These require sensitivity to the particulars of specific industries and are not easy.  Many startup founders are technical wizards and they may have some insight into the needs of their markets, but many have no idea about how to create a go-to-market strategy, assess which channels are appropriate for their market, or how to allocate scarce resources to create the lowest Cost of Acquiring a Customer relative to the highest Lifetime Customer Value.  Many startups are blind to their competition and claim that they “have no competition.”  This should cause any investor to run from a deal.  Creating “virality” is an art that is lost on many tech or healthcare founders and angels should be able to assess the viability of the market strategy.
  • Post Investment Management and Serving on Boards. The work of the angel investor is just beginning after the check clears.  Managing the investment after the check requires expertise to help ensure alignment and to guide the CEO towards the best exit opportunities.  Serving on boards carries fiduciary responsibilities.

Unlike the questions for the FINRA Series 7 exam, most of the knowledge required for angel investing certification centers more around principles, definitions and best practices rather than distinct points of law.  Only about 10% of the angel certification test is about specific regulations and point of law, yet the knowledge the test represents is what angel investors should know.  This ratio represents the ratio of technical to legal know-how in other professional exams and would represent a step-up in the professionalism of angel investing.

The SEC has set income and asset limits to the definition of accredited investors with good intention.  Unfortunately, simply having wealth does not make one qualified to make good investments and there are plenty of stories of wealthy people making imprudent investments that resulted in disaster.  Better to allow a criterion based on knowledge, so that investors understand how to balance risk and opportunities through diversified investments and well accepted principles of successful angel investing.  We hope the SEC will consider this certification as a means to becoming accredited, and open up angel investing to a broader audience while accelerating American economic development through greater investment in our job creating startups.

 

Peter Adams

Managing Director, Rockies Venture Fund I, LP
Executive Director, Rockies Venture Club, Inc.
 Buy Venture Capital For Dummies on Amazon

It is almost deemed common sense to follow where the money is, but one must also consider where the opportunity is as well. This is where the thought leaders get a head start and  potentially receive better returns. The Rocky Mountain region is looking favorable for investing due to recent startup activity and a lack of access to capital.

Startup Activity in the RockiesScreen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.25.26 AM

Recent startup trends are looking favorable for the Rockies. The Rocky Mountain region states are Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Idaho. All of these states rank high on the Kauffman Index Startup Activity Rank for 2015.

Among these states Montana ranks #1 for 2015, and Wyoming follows at #2. Colorado ranks #4, and Nevada jumped 11 spots to place it self at #10.Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.30.43 AM

Fishing for Returns

Angel investors should always consider the water they are fishing in. The Rocky Mountain region is setting itself up to look like a stocked pool. With so much start-up activity, angels can afford to be picky while also diversifying their portfolio. Not to say angels should throw their money in the area assuming one will be a home-run type of investment. Yet, they have a bigger selection to compare and contrast similar investments.

Competitive Deals
Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 11.21.43 AM

The 2015 Annual Halo Report shows that 3 out of 4 Angels invested within their region. However, less than 18% share of all angel dollars are within the Rocky Mountain Region (this yields higher competition among the startups). Therefore, with less money coming from out of the region, and only 18% of total money within, start-ups need to build a well rounded deal to stand-out and gain an Angels attention.

(I.e. More activity doesn’t necessarily equal better returns, but it does yield more opportunity and more investment options. Always do your due diligence/invest smart, but also consider regional activity or trends.)

Angel investors take risks in backing startup companies – but recent tax breaks make it a lot less risky than you may think!

Experienced angel investors know that to get a 3X return on their portfolio over five years, they need to shoot for 10X on each deal they do.  With recent tax breaks, angels can do a lot less well on their investments and still put more money in their pocket at the end of the day.  Angels who are a part of the 1% everyone is talking about now have tools to make sure that they stay in the top echelons of the wealthy. Read more

Many years ago almost all companies raising money used a PPM (Private Placement Memorandum) as the document to put the deal together.  The PPM typically consists of three or four parts including 1) A summary business plan that describes what the business is and how it is going to execute its plan 2) Risks involved in investing in the deal. 3) A term sheet that describes the terms of the deal and 4) the capitalization table showing existing shareholders, types of shares, percentages owned, etc.  The PPM was the selling document and, when signed, constituted the completion of the deal. Read more