An entrepreneur’s guide to corporate venture capital: Advantages and disadvantages

This article first appeared on TechWorld on 25th January

Corporate venture funding is booming. Companies like TwitterSlack, and Workday have all launched funds in the last 12 months and once the books are closed, the NCVA (National Venture Capital Association) expects corporate venture investing to represent about 13 percent of all venture investments in 2015 – that’s up from around 6 percent in 2011, so a huge relative change.

This shift poses some big questions for entrepreneurs. Is there a difference between a corporate venture firm and a traditional, financial firm? Are there times when one is appropriate or inappropriate? Are there specific questions or diligence you need to perform on corporate VC firms who are looking at investing in your company? And, if you have a corporate investor, are there differences in what you should expect from them as a shareholder and board member?

As an entrepreneur, I took corporate financing (from my company's original 'parent') and I have also seen a number of the companies in our portfolio take funding from corporate funds including Universal VenturesSalesforce Venturesand Google Ventures.

As with many things, there is no clear right or wrong on this topic, but some of the things you should think through include:

Good things about corporate funding:

1) The money: Just to state the obvious, cash is a commodity, and a corporate VC’s euros (dollars or pounds) are as good as anyone else’s. Building innovative technology generally requires substantial investment and a corporate VC will help shoulder that burden. Money is never something to overlook!

2) The network: Through their parent company, most corporate funds enjoy a large network of customers who may be highly relevant to your business. For example, it worked really well when Cloud 9 took funding from Salesforce Ventures - the company was able to gain access to a large population of Salesforce developerswho were interested in using their product (a cloud-based IDE).

3) The legitimacy: A corporate VC will use its parent’s teams of experts to perform diligence on your company and product. Passing this step is no mean feat and, once you’ve done it, a great seal of approval. This is particularly relevant if you raise money from firms who have a lot of expertise in specific areas, like Intel Capital and In-Q-tel (the CIA's in-house venture firm).

4) The resources: Even the largest venture capital firms have less than 500 employees. corporate venture funds often enjoy a parent with thousands or tens of thousands. This can get you incredible access to help and resources. Google Ventures is well known for providing access to Google’s infrastructure, and also has teams who provide on-the-ground help in areas like technology, design and product development. Salesforce gives you access to its customers through its platform and events like Dreamforce, while Universal lends its marketing might and the power of the brand of its artists.

The not-so-good things about corporate funding:

1) Alignment: Some corporate venture teams are really investing as way of getting optionality on companies that are relevant to their core business. This isn't the same as investing in order to get the highest return. This misalignment can cause a variety of tensions. For example, a traditional VC will be interested in product development as well as growth - to be an independent company one day you need to grow, to be a strategically valuable company, you need a great product. But a corporate VC might be really only interested in the latter and suggest you invest in it more at the cost of growth. Fine if your end game is to get acquired them, not so great if you wanted to build something that would stand on its own.

2) Vetoes: Many investors will include vetoes or other control clauses around things like raising more financing and agreeing to an acquisition or IPO. This could be an issue if a competitor of the investor wants to acquire your company, as your investor may decide that they would rather not sell to a competitor even if the acquisition makes a lot of sense to everyone else.

3) Independence: Some companies - especially marketplaces - require some form of independence from the various players in the market in order to be trusted. If the corporate venture firm you're accepting investment from is also a player in the market, this will affect that balance.

4) Information: While all good corporate venture firms I know adhere to a strict policy of 'Chinese Walls', there's always a chance that data or information you provide them (as an investor they would usually have rights to all of your data) will leak to the company itself, perhaps giving a competitive product (if there is one) an edge.

Overall, corporate VCs, while not a new concept, appear to be set to play an increasingly significant role in the technology funding marketplace. They have a number of advantages that mean that, at the right time, they can be an incredible investor who can help you elevate and scale your business through resource and network. But, as with any investor, beware the inevitable points at which alignment may diverge.

Ask yourself what the investor wants from their investment, and force yourself to think through what happens when you’re at a pinch-point: selling the company, running out of cash, or doing so well you need to double-down. It is impossible to find the perfect investor, but being educated on built-in biases and incentives will help you manage many of the downsides.

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