What are venture capitalists looking for in start-ups?

Brian Wallheimer | Mar 07, 2017

Sections Finance

If you’re the next Uber or Facebook, you have a good chance of attracting high-dollar investors. But venture capitalists doling out millions to back big ideas may be less interested in the product than in the people developing the product, research suggests.

Harvard’s Paul Gompers, University of British Columbia’s Will Gornall, Chicago Booth’s Steve Kaplan, and Stanford’s Ilya A. Strebulaev surveyed 885 institutional venture capitalists, posing dozens of questions. They find that big investors almost always cite a management team for their willingness to invest. Venture capitalists also say that deal selection is the most important factor in making winning investments.

Scroll down for charts that help visualize the data in this article.

When considering an investment, 95 percent of respondents mentioned management as an important factor, and almost half (47 percent) called it the most important one. VCs also frequently consider business-related factors: 83 percent mentioned business model, 74 percent cited product, and 68 percent referred to market. Still, only 37 percent of investment groups rated one of those as the most important factor.

That surprised Kaplan, who says conventional wisdom has held that a product must be sound for an investment to be successful. But venture investors “view the team as more important than the business to the ultimate success or failure of their investments,” the researchers write. “Perhaps surprisingly, VCs did not cite their own contributions as a source of success or failure.”

The researchers also find that there has been a shift among VCs in terms of what they see as generating their returns. VCs a decade ago believed deal flow, deal selection (investment choices), and postinvestment actions more or less drove returns equally, according to previous research by Columbia University’s Morten Sørensen. But Gompers and his colleagues now find that 49 percent of venture-capital groups see deal selection as the most important factor, followed by postinvestment actions, then deal flow.

Venture-capital businesses also seem to resist standard methods when valuing the companies in which they may invest. Business schools teach discounted cash flow or net present value (NPV) analyses as the standards for evaluating investment opportunities. Instead, the VCs said they tend to rely on cash-on-cash return or internal rate of return, and less than a quarter of them use NPV. Some, it seems, simply rely on their guts, with 9 percent of venture capitalists saying they use no financial metrics at all.