SAN FRANCISCO — Here is how the venture capital game used to be played around here:
A friend calls a friend who knows a guy. A meeting is taken. Wine is drunk (at, say, Madera lounge in Menlo Park). A business plan? Sure, whatever. But how does it feel?
This is decidedly not how Google, that apotheosis of our data-driven economy, wants to approach the high-stakes business of investing in the next, well, Google. Unlike venture capitalists of old, the company’s rising V.C. arm focuses not on the art of the deal, but on the science of the deal. First, data is collected, collated, analyzed. Only then does the money start to flow.
Google Ventures and its take on investing represent a new formula for the venture capital business, and skeptics say it will never capture the chemistry — or, perhaps, the magic — of Silicon Valley. Would computer algorithms have bankrolled David Packard or Steve Jobs? Foreseen the folly of Pets.com?
The data provides one answer to those questions, at least for now: Since its founding in 2009, Google Ventures has stood out in an industry that, for all its star power, has been dealing its investors a bad hand. In recent years, an investor would have done better with a ho-hum mutual fund that tracks the stock market than with some splashy V.C. fund. Venture capital funds posted an annual average return of 6.9 percent from 2002 to 2012, trailing major stock indexes, according to Cambridge Associates.
Google Ventures, like all venture funds, does not publicly reveal returns. But its partners can count on one hand the number of its 170 investments that have failed, though it is too early to know how many will succeed, and it has missed investing in some superstar companies. Its successes include companies that have gone public, like HomeAway for vacation rentals and Silver Spring Networks for smart grid software, and start-ups sold to Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter.
Whether Big Data — that label for technology and decision-making that is upending so many businesses — can truly transform the industry that helped spawn it remains to be seen. Few deny that crunching data is increasingly important. But some insist that those old intangibles, like instinct and luck, are still paramount.
“V.C.’s, just like all of our portfolio companies, need to be analytically intuitive in the modern era of data analytics,” said Matt McIlwain, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, which has invested in companies like Amazon.com and Redfin, the real estate site. “But the intuition part is ultimately the biggest factor. And even with all that, a little good luck goes a long way.”
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