Friday, March 21, 2008


We are in the formative phase of launching an early-stage investment fund, as scooped by The Business Journal today. Like most everything in private equity, it’s far from benevolent: The purpose is to maximize investment returns for our limited partners, who invest because – primarily – the see the fund as a superior vehicle, vis-à-vis other investment alternatives, to make money.

Our fund, though, is a bit different. It is not a pure venture capital fund, nor a social capital variety. Instead, we’re seeking to organize and institutionalize the latency of individual investors and promising companies in overlooked markets.

Investors first: Individuals in our investment chapters (e.g., the greater Chico, Davis, Sacramento, North Bay and Monterey/Santa Cruz regions) have had few, if any, opportunities to invest in a diversified private equity fund, particularly one that focuses on their community. Companies in such communities have limited access to growth capital and resources. We bridge the market inefficiency by organizing and connecting growth capital with promising companies.

If we are successful in raising the fund and executing our investment thesis, a few cool things occur. First, wealth – that oftentimes is reinvested – will be created, both for our limited partners and the companies we back. Second, entrepreneurs will replicate. It’s trite to say, but success sires success and communities prosper. Dollars, entrepreneurs, investors and ideas will recycle. Trust too.

The formalized grassroots approach we’re deploying in overlooked markets is a bit old fashioned. In pre-Arthur Rock (one of the first VCs) days, companies raised private equity through relationships, via a handshake, and based both on the potential investment returns and the investor’s affinity for the entrepreneur’s endeavor. You have an idea and a commitment to work hard, I have money. Hand-scribbled terms on napkins, versus treatise-length term sheets, sufficed.

Which brings me to credere, the Latin phrase meaning, to believe or trust. As the WSJ shared a few weeks ago in an opinion piece, to have “credit” in a community meant that you could be trusted to pay back your debts.

Too often venture investing – viewed from both sides of the table – turns in to an us against them, adversarial relationship. VC firms have a responsibility to their LPs to maximize the return on their investment. Companies are committed to growing their enterprise. Sometimes (lots of times), dissonance over the direction of the company trumps trust. The same holds true for most any relationship, business or personal: opinions differ, communication dissipates, and trust erodes.

Back to our prospective fund. We will be as diligent and formal (legally) as any investor; ‘tis the proper thing to do, and we have a responsibility to our investors. Aside from playing the traditional game, I believe we have a sound opportunity to strengthen trust – and potential returns for all – between investors and entrepreneurs. This begins, of course, by aligning interests and motivations, and ensuring communication is clear, candid and consistent.

More importantly, the commitment theory will play a role in our alignment and connection of local investors with local companies. Trust is easier to breed and more difficult to break if and when it’s galvanized in your community. Bob the entrepreneur coaches Joe the investor’s son’s Little League team. They mingle Fridays at Rotary luncheons, bump in to each other at the local farmer’s market, and may work out at the same gym. The entrepreneur and investor are aligned professionally and personally.

The aforementioned WSJ piece profiled Muhammad Yunus’s microfinance venture, Grameen Bank. Though his is a different business than venture capital, there are parallels:

“I use to say this in my speeches: Look at the world, how funny it is. They took the word credit which means trust, and built a whole edifice of credit institutions, refined, very sophisticated, entirely based on distrust. [At Grameen] we went back to the original meaning of credit.”


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