The Power Law (Part One)

“Reasonable people…routinely fail in life’s important missions by not even attempting them.”

The Power Law

Every day for the last 15 months, I’ve sat down in front of my computer and tried to find the next great tech company. Being immersed in the daily details of e-mails and deal memos made me wonder about the history of this most unusual of industries, venture capital.


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So I grabbed a copy of Sebastian Mallaby’s excellent new book The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future. Mallaby traces the history of venture capital from its first deal to today, and explores the principles that drive its success.

The fundamental principle of venture capital is the power law — a small percentage of winners generate almost all the returns:

“Anytime you have outliers whose success multiplies success, you leave the domain of the normal distribution for the land ruled by the power law — from a world in which things vary slightly to one of extreme contrasts. And once you cross that perilous frontier, you better begin to think differently.”

Since just a few companies drive most of the returns, the entire business becomes about finding and investing in those very few companies:

“…each year brings a handful of outliers that hit the proverbial grand slam, and the only thing that matters in venture is to own a piece of them.”

So how should investors identify those rare businesses? Arthur Rock, who was arguably the first venture capitalist, liked to ask open-ended questions like “Who do you admire?” or “What mistakes have you learned from?”

Rock looked for founders who were realistic and determined. He avoided those who were prone to wishful thinking or who tried to please instead of being honest.

Rock’s inquisitive style led him to back Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1950’s in what was the first modern-style venture capital deal.

Founder traits are important, but hard numbers also matter. Google, eBay, Facebook and YouTube all had staggering growth figures early on.

Andy Rachleff, Benchmark partner and early investor in eBay, looks at an even more sophisticated growth metric:

“‘When companies grow exponentially, they don’t suddenly stop,’ Andy Rachleff observed later, adding that it is the ‘second derivative —the changes in the rate of growth of a company’s sales — that really tell a venture investor whether to back it.’”

Once an investor finds that diamond in the rough, he needs to own a piece, even if the price is high. Mallaby notes that Google’s seed round valuation was around $10M, high for its time.

Prone as I am to analysis, I often undervalued actually meeting investors and founders. This book taught me a lot about the importance of networking to the venture industry.

Don Valentine, founder of Sequoia, went to a Silicon Valley bar every Wednesday and Friday to chat with engineers about the next big thing. In the world of startups, investors are the specialists in connecting people with each other.

The more interesting people we meet, the better we’ll be at our job!

Mallaby provides so much great information that I’ll save the rest of the book for another post soon. In the mean time, if you’re interested in startups and venture capital, I urge you to grab yourself a copy!

More on tech:

What I Learned From an Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000

Amp It Up

Managing a Crisis the Sequoia Way

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Photo: “Don Valentine, Sequoia Capital” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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