Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

VCs Pay Up for Second(ary) Chance to Invest in Web Winners

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms pride themselves on finding future hits before anyone else. That’s how they get the best returns, have the most influence and build their brands.

But the current market tempts VCs to change the game plan by buying shares of late-stage Web companies wherever they can find them–from start-ups directly or from employees and previous investors.

VCs didn’t start the fire; folks like Yuri Milner from Digital Sky Technologies (Facebook, Zynga, Groupon) and private company marketplaces that help stave off IPOs, like SecondMarket and SharesPost, did.

But these new Web giants’ valuations just keep going up. Think Facebook’s valuation was bloated at $50 billion? After seeing huge demand at that price, a month later, the company is exploring selling employee shares at a $60 billion valuation.

Watching those numbers rise so quickly makes VCs lose their hang-ups about price and just want to get in on the hotness.

Kleiner Perkins is reportedly buying $38 million worth of Facebook shares from existing shareholders at a $52 billion valuation, according to VentureWire. Meanwhile, Andreessen Horowitz bought $80 million worth of Twitter shares on the secondary market, after not participating in the company’s recent $200 million funding round, led by Kleiner Perkins.

Both those firms, along with Battery Ventures and Greylock Partners, also invested in Groupon’s last huge round, after the daily deal site walked away from talks of a $6 billion buyout by Google.

It’s not just the big names doing such deals. Venture capitalists were the buyers in more than 40 percent of transactions on SecondMarket in the fourth quarter of 2011.

VC activity easily outpaced other buyers, which were individuals, hedge funds, mutual funds, secondary funds and asset managers.

According to SecondMarket Head of Public Affairs Mark Murphy, VCs representing the largest percentage of buyers is a recent trend that started in the third quarter of 2010.

This comes at a time when raising money for a VC firm is tougher than ever.

What are VCs buying on SecondMarket? Facebook accounts for the single largest portion of transactions, at 39 percent. After that are LinkedIn, Etsy, Chegg, Epocrates, Silver Spring Networks, CafePress and Reply, and some other companies that declined to be named.

SecondMarket does not share pricing or volume stats or trends, except to say it sold $157.8 million worth of stock in the fourth quarter, up from $75 million in the third quarter.

Some VCs are steering clear of secondary markets and late-stage deals. Redpoint’s Geoff Yang was willing to go on the record about it in a recent interview. “What do venture capitalists know about being a momentum hedge fund?” he said.

It’s not just proven hits big enough for the secondary markets that are attracting funding interest. Everyone is still eager to find the next Groupon or Zynga. The Q&A site Quora, led by former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, raised $11 million at a valuation of $86 million last year before it had even launched to the public. After success with early adopters, the start-up is now fending off offers of much more money than that.

So there’s pressure to either get in very early, or get in late if you can, because the time in between is fleeting.

VCs are also actively trying to get more involved in seed funding deals. For instance, Google Ventures recently set up its Startup Lab to attract early-stage companies where it charges them $5 per month for office space (see our video tour). And just this morning, NetworkEffect covered how VCs are actually more active than angels on the early-stage investment matchmaking service AngelList.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus