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The incredibly shrinking VC model

Google-like returns on investment are getting harder to find for VCs, which is why many are now placing bets that are mere pocket change.

By Michael Copeland, Business 2.0 Magazine senior writer

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- If you're a would-be startup founder with a killer idea but no cash, you might be in luck: Landing seed funding is about to get a lot easier.

In February, Charles River Ventures will dish out a batch of $250,000 loans from its new QuickStart Fund (first up: a company called Mobeus, which turns speech into mobile text messages) and dig through 3,000 loan application forms.

The investment is unusually small, but even stranger is the fact that few strings are attached - you don't have to give up a percentage of your company on the spot. All that the VCs require is the right to be an investor in your Series A round of funding, if you get that far.

"Great returns come from companies that are hard to recognize at the seed stage," partner George Zachary says. "If we can get the right to invest in lots of these promising companies, we'll find them."

QuickStart is a prime example of how VCs are rethinking their business model. Tenfold and greater returns on Internet investments - think Google and Amazon.com - are getting harder to find in an era of cheap software tools and free distribution.

Take Del.icio.us, which founder Joshua Schachter sold to Yahoo (Charts) for about $20 million but which needed a mere $1.3 million in funding from Union Square Ventures and First Round Capital.

"Union Square was very unhappy," says Howard Morgan, a partner at First Round Capital. "Here was a company you couldn't put more money into."

VCs that stay in the tech startup game are spreading their bets. Bicoastal VC firm Y Combinator is investing up to $20,000 in a dozen startups every six months.

"Really, it's just living expenses," says founder Paul Graham. "We want these people to be able to just focus on coding, on building an idea into a company. So far it's working for us."


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