Venture Capital’s “Massive” Role in Funding Innovation

(p. A15) The average venture-capital fund launched in 2011 outperformed the S&P 500 by 7% per year. But that statistic understates the astronomical returns earned by a few top performers—and the mediocre returns earned by the rest. Between 1979 and 2018, the median fund underperformed the S&P 500, while the top 5% of funds nearly tripled the index’s performance.

The investor Bill Gurley, of Benchmark, describes venture capital as a “grand-slam business.” In “The Power Law,” business journalist Sebastian Mallaby argues that venture is defined by its most extravagant successes. A few deals explain the majority of returns, a few funds drive the majority of asset-class performance, a few wild ideas change the world.

Venture’s contribution to innovation and entrepreneurship is massive. Mr. Mallaby notes that between 1995 and 2019 venture-backed companies accounted for nearly half of U.S. nonfinancial IPOs. These firms are orders of magnitude more likely to launch an IPO than startups that don’t receive venture backing. The U.S. economy’s dynamism depends in large part on the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

. . .

Though the book focuses on the winners, Mr. Mallaby doesn’t shy away from criticism, especially in his description of the decline of Kleiner Perkins. The firm was successful in the 1990s, but lead partner John Doerr became more interested in virtue signaling than in profit making. He started a cleantech fund, based on a conversation with his teenage daughter about saving the planet, that put a significant dent in the firm’s long-term track record. And he embarked on a highly publicized gender-equity campaign to hire female partners, only to see some of the most talented women quit and then see the firm be sued by a disgruntled employee for gender discrimination.

. . .

In his closing words in “The Power Law,” Mr. Mallaby warns that it’s “unwise” to bet against venture. But public markets have recently turned against IPOs and other venture-backed companies, sending venture-style portfolios like Cathie Wood’s ETF into steep losses. With the IPO window closing and tech stocks selling off, some venture investors might well be thinking: “There but by the grace of God go I.”

For the full review, see:

Daniel Rasmussen. “BOOKSHELF; Chasing Unicorns.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, February 3, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 2, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Power Law’ Review: Chasing Unicorns.”)

The book under review is:

Mallaby, Sebastian. The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

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