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Demystifying venture capital firms: Extraordinary or regular?  

Published 13 February 2024 in Finance • 6 min read

The VC landscape is a nuanced world that combines distinct traits with shared fundamentals. Understanding these nuances is crucial for anyone navigating the complex world of startup investments.

You might think that venture capital (VC) firms are exceptional entities that wield significant influence on corporate practices and culture. In Silicon Valley, they’ve become the poster child for innovation. However, beneath this deceptive exterior lie characteristics that make VC firms very similar to conventional organizations. Understanding these nuances is crucial for anyone navigating the complex world of startup investment.

Three points of difference

Fearlessness in the face of risk

Unlike traditional firms, VCs aren’t afraid of losing money. Indeed, they embrace risk with open arms. The VC game operates on the principle of “power law,” where a few lucrative investments offset the ones that don’t yield returns.

Competition amidst scarcity

VC firms operate in a fiercely competitive landscape, with more than 48,000 firms globally vying for a limited pool of investment opportunities. This scarcity can drive up valuations, making it challenging for VC firms to secure favorable terms.

Unique success metrics

While non-VC firms measure success through factors like profitability and market impact, VCs navigate a different terrain. They generate income through an annual management fee and a performance fee (typically 20%, known as ‘carried interest’). Yet only a small percentage – 5.9%, according to PitchBook Data – achieved a return of at least three times the initial investment between 2000-2015. Over the same period, 53.3% have a DPI (distributions to paid-in capital) of less than 1x, meaning that VC firms were not able to generate revenue beyond the 2% management fees. This distinct metric for success sets them apart in the business world.

Some analysts say that Twitter's rebranding has potentially wiped out between $4 and $20 bn in brand equity built up over 15 years
“In an era of unprecedented competition, effective branding strategies have become paramount.”

Four similarities with regular businesses

Venture capital firms, despite their uniqueness, share some fundamental traits with regular businesses:

Branding strategies for survival

In an era of unprecedented competition, effective branding strategies have become paramount. With more than 2,700 active venture funds in 2022, a 140% increase from 2013, a robust brand presence is essential to attract limited partners (LPs, the individuals who provide the capital for funds) and align with the founders of portfolio companies.

Unpredictable revenues

While the fund size represents the VC firm’s business model, the predictability of revenues is challenged by the finite lifespan of a fund. Management fees, which apply over a fixed duration (usually 10 years), necessitate an ongoing cycle of raising new funds for sustained income.

Interest rate dynamics

VC firms are not immune to the broader economic environment. Lower interest rates tend to lead to a flood of capital into VC and increased risk-taking from fund managers, making it simpler for startups to secure VC investment. Conversely, rising interest rates (the present situation today) pose challenges, raising the costs of running businesses and pushing investors towards safer investment options such as government bonds.

People-centric challenges

As a people business, VC saw extensive hiring until 2021, when shifting fundraising and startup dynamics led to layoffs. Despite strides in diversity, challenges persist, with female representation at 23% in investment roles and 16% as partners, according to Deloitte. While some VC firms prefer to merge or be acquired (as exemplified by German firm La Familia merging with General Catalyst in 2023), some other VC firms shut down and return uninvested capital to their investors (LPs), such as renowned Boston-based B2B SaaS VC firm OpenView or hard-tech focused VC firm Countdown Capital.

So, despite their unique characteristics, VC firms find themselves intertwined in the intricate web of business models, branding strategies, revenue uncertainties, interest rate fluctuations, and the delicate balance of diversity and organizational dynamics. The blurred line between the extraordinary and the regular illustrates the enduring principles that govern the world of business.


raphael grieco

Raphaël Grieco

Research Associate at the IMD Venture Asset Management Initiative

Raphaël Grieco has joined IMD as a Research Associate for the Venture Asset Management Initiative, drawing on over 15 years of leadership experience at the intersection of cross-asset Wealth Management and Technology. Raphael specializes in early-stage venture investing, multi-support educational content creation spanning written and audio formats, as well as building entrepreneurial ecosystems focusing on technology (including crypto and web3).


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