Saturday, November 28, 2020

"How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism"

 Readers who have been with us for a while, and other pros, know most of this stuff but it's nice to have it wrapped up in a compact little package.

I owe someone a hat tip on this but can't recall who had it first, when I do I'll add the HT.

From The New Yorker, November 23:

In 2008, Jeremy Neuner and Ryan Coonerty, two city-hall employees in Santa Cruz, California, decided to open a co-working space. They leased a cavernous building a few steps from a surf shop and a sex-toy boutique, and equipped it with desks, power strips, fast Wi-Fi, and a deluxe coffee-maker. Neuner and Coonerty named their company NextSpace Coworking.

Neuner, who had attended Harvard’s Kennedy School after serving in the Navy, was looking to be part of a movement. “We really believed that this would be a totally new way of working,” he told me. NextSpace provided a refuge for local freelancers desperate for office camaraderie, and within six months the company was turning a small profit. Soon, NextSpace opened locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Neuner and Coonerty also started looking for venture capital. They had raised some money from family and friends, but, as Neuner put it to me, “V.C. funding is the stamp of approval.” He noted, “In every startup story, the V.C.s supercharge everything. They’re the fairy godmothers of success.”

In 2012, Neuner went to a co-working-industry conference, in Austin, Texas, to appear on a panel and try to meet investors. One of the conference’s other speakers was Adam Neumann, a six-foot-five Israeli with flowing black hair, who wore designer jeans and a dark blazer—fancy dress amid the crowd’s T-shirts. Neumann told the audience that he ran a company in New York, named WeWork, that was “the world’s first physical social network.” His self-assuredness was mesmerizing. “We’re planning to be all over the country very, very soon,” he said. Although WeWork was just two years old, and Neumann was only thirty-two, the company already controlled more than three hundred thousand square feet of office space; he declared that WeWork would soon have ten thousand clients. “Our company is about we and about collaboration,” Neumann proclaimed. “Together, we can build a community that can change the world.”

When Jeremy Neuner began having meetings with venture capitalists, he said, “their first question was ‘How do you compete with WeWork? Why should we invest with you instead of them?’ ” WeWork was reportedly losing millions of dollars each month, but it was expanding to new locations at a feverish pace. Neumann’s promises to V.C.s were so wildly optimistic, bordering on ridiculous, that Neuner was convinced WeWork had to be a scam. “They were saying they would become the biggest office-space provider in the world,” Neuner recalled. “What do I say to compete with that? Do I tell V.C.s, ‘You know, WeWork must be lying, so you should accept my smaller returns instead’? No one wanted to hear that. All the V.C.s couldn’t wait to drink the Kool-Aid.”

A real-estate agent informed Neuner that WeWork had opened a location in San Francisco, just a few blocks from NextSpace, and was charging cheaper rates. As NextSpace grew, eventually opening a fifth California location, WeWork opened competing offices alongside each one of its facilities, never more than a few blocks away. Invariably, WeWork charged tenants slightly less.

Neuner began hearing similar stories from other co-working entrepreneurs: WeWork came to town, opened near an existing co-working office, and undercut the competitor on price. Sometimes WeWork promised tenants a moving bonus if they terminated an existing lease; in other instances, the company obtained client directories from competitors’ Web sites and offered everyone on the lists three months of free rent. Jerome Chang, the owner of Blankspaces, in Los Angeles, told me, “My average rate was five hundred and fifty dollars per desk per month, and I was just scraping by. Then WeWork arrived, and I had to drop it to four hundred and fifty, and then three hundred and fifty. It eviscerated my business.” Rebecca Brian Pan, who founded a co-working company named Covo, said, “No one could make money at these prices. But they kept lowering them so that they were cheaper than everyone else. It was like they had a bottomless bank account that made it impossible for anyone else to survive.”

Neuner began slashing NextSpace’s prices and adding amenities—free beer; lunchtime classes on accounting, coding, and chakra cleansing—but none of it mattered. WeWork’s prices were too low. By the end of 2014, WeWork had raised more than half a billion dollars from venture capitalists. Although it was now losing six million dollars a month, it was growing faster than ever before, with plans for sixty locations in more than a dozen cities.

Meanwhile, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors, Bruce Dunlevie, of the venture-capital firm Benchmark, had joined WeWork’s board of directors. Benchmark, founded in 1995 in Menlo Park, had funded such Silicon Valley startups as eBay, Twitter, and Instagram. Dunlevie admitted to a partner that he wasn’t certain how WeWork would ever become profitable, but he was taken with Neumann. Dunlevie said to the partner, “Let’s give him some money, and he’ll figure it out.” Around this time, Benchmark made its first investment in WeWork—seventeen million dollars.

Venture capitalists began telling Jeremy Neuner that making piddly investments in his company wasn’t worth their time; moreover, if they funded NextSpace, they might be excluded from buying into WeWork someday. To Neuner, this seemed nuts. He was building a solid business, but the V.C.s wanted fantasy. “All we needed was five million dollars a year in revenues, and we would have made money for everyone,” he told me. “That’s enough to earn a living and buy a house and put your kids through school. But no one wanted something that just made a healthy living. They all wanted to find the next Zuckerberg.” Neuner was frustrated, but he wasn’t surprised. He knew that American history was filled with entrepreneurs like P. T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and Charles Ponzi, self-promoters whose audaciousness created new industries and vast riches—and who, occasionally, ended up in jail. What Neuner hadn’t realized was that some venture capitalists had become co-conspirators with such hype artists, handing them millions of dollars and encouraging their worst tendencies, in the hope that one lucky wager would more than offset many bad bets.

In six years, Neuner opened nine NextSpace locations, as far east as Chicago. “But I was so burnt out by everyone saying I was a failure just because I didn’t want to dominate the globe,” he said. In 2014, Neuner resigned, and NextSpace began closing its sites. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “V.C.s seem like these quiet, boring guys who are good at math, encourage you to dream big, and have private planes. You know who else is quiet, good at math, and has private planes? Drug cartels.”

As NextSpace’s offices shut down or were sold off, WeWork opened forty new locations and announced that it had raised hundreds of millions of dollars more. It became one of the biggest property lessors in New York, London, and Washington, D.C. One fall day in 2017, as Neuner was browsing in a bookstore near NextSpace’s original location, in Santa Cruz, he passed a magazine rack and saw that Forbes had put Adam Neumann on its cover. The accompanying article described how Neumann had met with Masayoshi Son, one of Japan’s wealthiest men and the head of the enormous investment firm SoftBank. Son had been so impressed by a twelve-minute tour of WeWork’s headquarters that he had scribbled out a spur-of-the-moment contract to invest $4.4 billion in the company. That backing, Neumann had explained to the Forbes reporter, was based not on financial estimates but, rather, “on our energy and spirituality.”

The article also detailed how, a few months after Son made that commitment, Neumann travelled to Tokyo to toast the deal with him. As they celebrated, Son asked Neumann a philosophical question: “In a fight, who wins—the smart guy or the crazy guy?”

“Crazy guy,” Neumann replied.

“You are correct,” Son said. “But you,” he added, with a hint of concern, “are not crazy enough.”

From the start, venture capitalists have presented their profession as an elevated calling. They weren’t mere speculators—they were midwives to innovation. The first V.C. firms were designed to make money by identifying and supporting the most brilliant startup ideas, providing the funds and the strategic advice that daring entrepreneurs needed in order to prosper. For decades, such boasts were merited. Genentech, which helped invent synthetic insulin, in the nineteen-seventies, succeeded in large part because of the stewardship of the venture capitalist Tom Perkins, whose company, Kleiner Perkins, made an initial hundred-thousand-dollar investment. Perkins demanded a seat on Genentech’s board of directors, and then began spending one afternoon a week in the startup’s offices, scrutinizing spending reports and browbeating inexperienced executives. In subsequent years, Kleiner Perkins nurtured such tech startups as Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems, and Compaq. When Perkins died, in 2016, at the age of eighty-four, an obituary in the Financial Times remembered him as “part of a new movement in finance that saw investors roll up their sleeves and play an active role in management.”

The V.C. industry has grown exponentially since Perkins’s heyday, but it has also become increasingly avaricious and cynical. It is now dominated by a few dozen firms, which, collectively, control hundreds of billions of dollars. Most professional V.C.s fit a narrow mold: according to surveys, just under half of them attended either Harvard or Stanford, and eighty per cent are male. Although V.C.s depict themselves as perpetually on the hunt for radical business ideas, they often seem to be hyping the same Silicon Valley trends—and their managerial oversight has dwindled, making their investments look more like trading-floor bets. Steve Blank, an entrepreneur who currently teaches at Stanford’s engineering school, said, “I’ve watched the industry become a money-hungry mob. V.C.s today aren’t interested in the public good. They’re not interested in anything except optimizing their own profits and chasing the herd, and so they waste billions of dollars that could have gone to innovation that actually helps people.”

This clubby, self-serving approach has made many V.C.s rich. In January, 2020, the National Venture Capital Association hailed a “record decade” of “hyper growth” in which its members had given nearly eight hundred billion dollars to startups, “fueling the economy of tomorrow.” The pandemic has slowed things down, but not much. According to a report by PitchBook, a company that provides data on the industry, five of the top twenty venture-capital firms are currently making more deals than they did last year.

In recent decades, the gambles taken by V.C.s have grown dramatically larger. A million-dollar investment in a thriving young company might yield ten million dollars in profits. A fifty-million-dollar investment in the same startup could deliver half a billion dollars. “Honestly, it stopped making sense to look at investments that were smaller than thirty or forty million,” a prominent venture capitalist told me. “It’s the same amount of due diligence, the same amount of time going to board meetings, the same amount of work, regardless of how much you invest.”....