Ethics in Venture Capital
Venture capitalists are investment companies that specialize in careful investment in high-risk ventures that provide the possibility of exceptionally high returns, typically in specialized technology-driven industries like biotech and information technology. Venture capitalists (VCs) are a source of funding for small companies that need a serious infusion of cash (typically from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars) but that are too small (and with too little short-term promise of profit) to raise money via the stock market. In addition to providing funding, VCs typically provide startup companies with mentoring, providing advice, business connections and management expertise that might otherwise be lacking.
The relationship between VCs and the entrepreneurs they provide funding to raises some special ethical challenges. Here are just a few:
1) Bargaining power. VCs typically provide funding to companies that are fairly desperate for money. Add to that the fact that VCs are typically seasoned industry insiders, whereas the entrepreneurs seeking funding may never have been in business before at all. He or she might, for example, be a university scientist who knows a lot about cancer drugs, but nothing at all about the world of business and finance. As a result, there’s a worry that VCs will often be able to impose conditions that are highly advantageous to themselves, and much less good for the entrepreneur. Whether that imbalance ends up being unfair is a matter for debate.
2) Information. The companies VCs invest in are typically recent start-ups; often all they’ve got going for them are a few smart people and what they take to be a great idea. In order to justify investing, VCs engage in an intensive process of due diligence, essentially insisting on a level of access to information otherwise reserved for insiders. Sometimes they sign non-disclosure agreements, but sometimes they don’t. The result is that VCs end up with inside information not just about the companies they actually invest in, but also about the companies they consider investing in — and some VCs will look at proposals from several hundred companies per year. This raises obvious risks related to confidentiality, insider trading, and the protection of intellectual property.
3. Control. Because their investments are so risky, they typically insist on being given considerable control in exchange for their investment. For example, VCs may insist on being given seats on the company’s Board of Directors. This raises questions of loyalty and conflict of interest. VCs seek Board seats in order to protect their interests; but Board members have fiduciary obligations to promote the interests of the company as a whole, which may at times be different from the interests of the VCs.
4. Short Term-ism. The time-horizon for VCs is relatively short. Their investments typically take the form of cash in exchange for shares (often preferred shares) in the company. The idea is generally to nurture the company through early-stage growing pains, help it grow into a company that can either go public (via IPO) or be bought out by a bigger, wealthier company. Typically VCs cash out in 3-5 years; if things have gone well, they reap a very significant profit. The result is that VCs have a pretty short-term interest in the companies they invest in. They care about growing the company, making a profit, and getting out. They are typically seen as having very little interest in the long-term interests of employees or other stakeholders. This is the source of the common joke that “VC” actually stands for “vulture capital.”
In my next blog entry, I’ll consider what we can learn about business ethics more generally by thinking about ethical issues that arise in the world of venture capital.
Here’s the Wikipedia page on venture capital.
One of the few scholarly works on VC ethics: Yves Fassin, “Risks in Business Ethics and Venture Capital,” in Business Ethics: A European Review, Volume 2, Issue 3, pages 124–131, July 1993
Addendum (Aug. 12, 2010)
A friend of mine who is a venture capitalist suggested the following excellent clarifications regarding timelines. First, the 3-year time horizon mentioned above is mostly for later stage deals. VCs that invest at earlier stages usually have 5+ year time frames. VCs that invest in start-ups have 7-9 year time frames. Second, even the 3-year time horizon for later-stage deals is not all that short — not compared to the even shorter time horizons of stockholders in publicly-traded companies, which are typically under pressure from Wall Street to produce quarterly results.