The Upside of the Venture Capital Crisis

May 27, 2008

I profess no special insight into what really goes on inside the Canadian venture capital world. I am not part of the esteemed club, do not possess the insider’s secret decoder ring and am not a confidant to anyone who has one. Instead, my vantage point is down the food chain looking up, a service provider selling to, working for, and dependent upon this community for part of my livelihood.

These days, one need not be an insider to sense that the venture capital sector is in a funk, a condition which has been rich fodder for the gossip and rumor mills. Such and such a firm is struggling to raise its next fund, this or that labor sponsored fund is toast, such and such a firm will raise far less than expected, so and so is on his way out the door. Occasionally, real news interrupts the frenzy, such as RIM’s new fund or Roynat’s decision to exit the venture business altogether. But the word on the page has little chance in a race against the word on the street and soon we are run amok with scuttlebutt and innuendos once again. While such goings-on are pure schadenfreude for some, for most of us the health of the venture capital sector is a matter of great concern.

Given the unsettled mood, I decided to attend my first CVCA annual event which was held this year in Montreal. The event seemed well attended with an array of interesting panel discussions and high profile speakers. But if I had to distil the dominant take-away image (outside of the Crosby, Stills and Nash look-alike American VC whose band played at the dinner) it would be the sea of fingers pointing every which way in search of those culpable for the damaged state of the great venture nation. Take your pick…macroeconomic forces, government myopia, the credit crunch, the shortage of good entrepreneurs, the lack of industry critical mass, structural problems, etc. etc. etc.

But while these swirling forces are undoubtedly affecting the industry as a whole, it seemed odd that the attendees spent so little time talking about the thousand pound, lifeless gorilla plopped in the middle of the conference room…..performance, or more specifically, the poor performance of so many of the firms. If, as has been widely reported, the performance of many Canadian venture capital firms has been let us just say modest, then the search for culprits in the current fundraising crisis should at least include a drive to the closest full length mirror.
Oddly enough, self-reflection and navel gazing did not appear to be high on the CVCA agenda this year. There was not a lot of talk about lessons learned, best practices among the more successful Canadian firms, how professional development can be improved, or in fact how the whole industry can be improved. There was not a lot of talk about models, the assumptions on which they are built, or the extent to which they need to be tweaked to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. This is especially regrettable as there certainly is a lot of talk about these issues in the markets they serve.

Also, one would have thought that the veneer of certainty, dare I say hubris, which so characterized a percentage of this population, might have been washed off by the inclement weather of poor performance and the damage it has inflicted on the sector. But based on what I saw at the CVCA, for some, a yet stronger solvent appears to be needed. Until that time however, soul-searching and the growth that it promises will not occur, attitudes and behaviors will not change, skills will not improve, wisdom will not be found and success will not come. And that’s why there is an upside of these downtimes, for trying as they may be, they will flush out some and mature others. And that will benefit the venture capital industry and the tech sector as a whole.