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. Its rising VC arm focuses not on the art of the deal, but on the science. First, data are collected, collated, analyzed. Only then does the money start to flow.
Google Ventures represents a new formula, and skeptics say it will never capture the chemistry — or, perhaps, the magic — of Silicon Valley. Would algorithms have bankrolled David Packard or Steve Jobs? Foreseen the folly of Pets.com?
The data provide one answer, 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 VC fund. Venture funds posted an annual average return of 6.9 percent from 2002 to 2012, trailing major stock indexes, Cambridge Associates says.
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 transform the industry remains to be seen. Few deny that crunching data is increasingly important. But some insist old intangibles like instinct and luck are still paramount.
“VCs, 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. “But the intuition part is ultimately the biggest factor.”
Google Ventures was the first major firm to rely heavily on data. Since then, established funds like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital, and Y Combinator have followed suit, and new firms like Ironstone Group and Palo Alto Venture Science have been created to test the strategy.
Many venture capitalists agree something needs to change. In the tech industry, where engineers believe any problem can be solved with data, the solution seemed obvious.
“If you can’t measure and quantify it, how can you hope to start working on a solution?” said Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures. “We have access to the world’s largest data sets you can imagine, our cloud computer infrastructure is the biggest ever. It would be foolish to just go out and make gut investments.”
Google Ventures has $1.5 billion under management. It employs seven people who gather data, analyze it, and present the results to the investors. Jerome H. Friedman, a statistician at Stanford, consults for a few hours a week.
Google says intuition and chemistry still play a crucial role and can override data. “We would never make an investment in a founder we thought was a jerk, even if all the data said this is an investment you should make,” Maris said.