Ex-Palm, 3com CEO on Venture ‘Return to Normal,’ China Concerns
Eric Benhamou, the venture investor who ran 3Com and Palm before they were sold to Hewlett-Packard, is eyeing opportunities in China and the end of the “unicorn bubble” as he closes his third investment fund at Palo Alto-based Benhamou Global Ventures.
This TechFlash Q&A came shortly after a Menlo Park e-commerce company he was involved in, Grid Dynamics, was sold to China-based Teamsum. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been involved — both operationally and as an investor — for four decades. You’ve seen the ups and downs of the cycles that we’ve gone through for several decades. Lately, the description that I keep hearing is that in the last three to five quarters, the startup world has seen a return to normal. Would you agree?
Yes, I would. But with the caveat our firm has never really deviated from the normal. There was a short period of time in which valuations seemed to become unreasonable.
Most of that phenomenon tended to pertain to consumer-facing businesses and it was labeled appropriately as “unicorn hunting.” We never played in that environment. We focus on the different parts of the markets where we never really deviated much from normal. As an example, our average valuation today for Series A companies today is basically the same as it was three years ago.
So you have been staying the course and watching the unicorn hunters go by?
That’s right. Some of them crashed and burned and others have continued. That’s OK. It’s a different sector of the industry that we focus on. We believe that the trend that we’re riding has long legs.The digitalization of industry that we’re witnessing right now is still in the first couple of innings and it’s affecting all the sectors of the industry. So we’re not as exposed to fad or to consumer tastes, one way or the other.
Basically we’re focused on technologies which help enterprises be more productive and more customer-centric and more resilient.
You were involved with Grid Dynamics, a Menlo Park e-commerce company that was recently bought by a Chinese company. Tell us more about them.
Grid did extremely well in terms of its business trajectory. It had major U.S. customers — large enterprise customers mostly — in the retail and financial sector, particularly over the last few months. That attracted the attention of many suitors.
I was on their board and I was very actively engaged with the management team, Leonard and Victoria Livschitz, who are cofounders. I worked very closely with them, particularly in the process leading up to the sale to Teamsum.
Eventually we decided that, rather than being opportunistic, we should follow a structured process with an adviser. I helped Leonard work through this process and we eventually narrowed down the groups of qualified suitors to a very small number.
Teamsum became the most attractive one for a number of reasons. One is that they happened to be one of our investors in Fund III. We had a preexisting relationship with them and we knew that it would be an extremely good fit strategically. There was basically a foundation of trust since we knew each other. So that actually went quite well.
It looked like they hadn’t raised all that much money over the years. Is that right?
Yes. Grid Dynamics is an engineering services company as opposed to a product company. So it is less capital intensive than some other investments we make. There was only one other firm that was invested in them, called DTV.
Grid did not go through multiple rounds of financing because their base of customers provided sufficient cash flow to help the company finance itself. There was no need to go through growth investments. That was fine because we’re able to maintain our position through that.
What do you think of the concerns that are being raised about China becoming so prominent a player in U.S. technology company M&A and investments?
China has a very strong economy and they weigh in a lot more in the global scene than they did just a decade ago. So it’s inevitable that we’re going to have more and more M&A transactions that are cross-border. There may be some M&A transactions that are more sensitive than others and require a close look by regulatory authorities like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States CFIUA. But in the case of a company like Grid Dynamics that does not really sell a product, it sells services, the concern would not be really well-focused.
Keep in mind that Grid, while being a U.S. company, has about 600 engineers in Eastern Europe. That is a great source of its service talents — excellent engineers with great math backgrounds. So there was really not much that was worthy of a deep consideration or concerns when it comes to U.S. assets. That is actually why it went quite smoothly.
Are any of the investments that you’ve made in some of the more sensitive areas? I know you’re on the board at Cypress Semiconductor and that is one of the areas people have been looking at. Another that it seems everybody is involved these days is artificial intelligence — or at least they say they are. Where do you think the line should be drawn?
Well, it is really up to government officials to spell out the policy on what rises to the level of a significant concern and what doesn’t. I can tell you that the M&A momentum flows in both directions. So, for example, at the same time as we were negotiating the sale of Grid to Teamsum, we were also negotiating a Series C investment into one of our portfolio companies by some Chinese investors and some U.S. investors. It’s a Palo Alto company called IndentityMind Global and the expectation is that it will expand into China. It is a cybersecurity company that focuses on fraud detection on electronic transactions.
We’re dealing not only with companies like Teamsum who are expanding their operations into the U.S. but also with the exact opposite — U.S. companies going into China. We have been developing important relationships in China to help secure partnerships for our U.S. portfolio companies as they expand there.
People talk about great opportunity in China but they also talk about a lot of copycat type of businesses that show up there, sometimes before they can even get there. How do you weigh the opportunity versus the risk in deciding when is the right time to go there and what founders should be thinking about?
The opportunity is now. That’s because China has an economy that is vastly expanding. From an IT perspective, it is not saddled with earlier generations of products and infrastructures. They have an opportunity to basically skip a generation or two and really advance.
We focus on enterprise IT exclusively. There are a number of large enterprise companies there who need to buy IT products and services. And they need that today. They may not find suitable Chinese manufacturers for these products and services and therefore they will turn elsewhere. We want to make sure that we’re there for these opportunities.
Give me an update on your funds. When we last spoke, you had raised just part of the money that you intended to and you were also talking of perhaps doing a growth fund. Any news on either of those fronts?
Our Fund III is at the very tail end of its fundraising process. In fact, we’re no longer soliciting interest from any limited partners. We’re just finishing the legal negotiation with the last batch of LPs who wanted to come in. We expect to complete this in a matter of a few weeks. Fund III is basically done. We fully expect to continue to raise some capital and be active in the market for a slightly different orientation for the next fund.
Both Fund II and Fund III were early-stage oriented. We would expect our next fund to have a broader scope and be suitable for larger opportunities and for more mature opportunities. You could call this growth, but sometimes growth is a bit of misnomer because it covers too broad of a spectrum of opportunities. It may be easier to think in terms of an equity series.
Typically, Fund II and III would invest in seed and Series A and B. Beyond that, the investment opportunity would typically be considered out of scope. We want to have a fund that enable us to continue to plow capital into really strong companies as they get to the next stage. And fund IV will meet that requirement.
That’s the current thinking. We’re not actively marketing fund IV right now. This is just the current thoughts of the partners on this, but we will be in active marketing mode on it as soon as Fund III reaches final closing in the next two to four weeks.