Limited Partners
March 21, 2023
5 min

Venture Capital vs. Private Equity: a Comparison

Venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) strategies have been making waves in the financial landscape, fuelling innovation, and driving growth. 

As the lines between VC and PE continue to blur, it's essential to understand their nuances, differences, and how they contribute to the success of startups and established companies.

In this blog post, we'll explore the fundamental disparities between VC and PE, shedding light on their investment structures, risk profiles, value creation approaches, exit strategies, and industry focus, understanding the core concepts of private equity and venture capital and how they operate.

What is private equity?

Private equity (PE) involves acquiring and managing companies with the intention of selling them later on. Private equity firms raise capital from mostly institutional and accredited investors.

Private equity funds have the flexibility to acquire either private or public companies, often taking full ownership or participating in buyouts as part of a consortium. These funds typically do not hold stakes in companies that remain listed on a stock exchange.

Considered an alternative investment alongside venture capital and hedge funds, private equity requires investors to commit significant capital for extended periods. Due to the substantial financial commitment involved, access to PE investments is generally limited to institutions and high-net-worth individuals.

In the broader financial landscape, PE serves as a major subset of the private markets, which also include real estate, distressed securities, venture capital, and more. These alternative asset classes offer opportunities beyond traditional equity investments such as stocks and bonds, although they may require a more specialized approach for access and evaluation.

What is venture capital? 

Venture capital (VC) plays a crucial role in supporting startups and businesses with high growth potential. VC firms raise funds from limited partners (LPs) to invest in emerging companies that don’t have much operating history, providing not just capital but also expertise and guidance.

Unlike traditional bank loans, VC funding is not expected to be paid back on a fixed schedule. Instead, VC investors take a longer-term view, hoping to achieve substantial returns if the company is acquired or goes public.

VC investors are expected to play their part in mentoring and advisory to encourage growth and help companies scale.

Private equity vs venture capital: The comparison

The fundamental differences

While PE and VC share some similarities, there are fundamental differences that set them apart. Let’s have a look at these differences. 

Investment structure

One of the fundamental differences between venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) lies in their investment structures.

Venture capital (VC): In VC, the investment structure revolves around the acquisition of minority stakes. Valuing these stakes can be difficult because startups often don't generate any revenue yet. Sometimes they don't even have a product.

Private equity (PE): On the other hand, PE firms seek to acquire majority or controlling stakes in companies, frequently through leveraged buyouts (LBOs). 

An LBO involves a private equity firm purchasing a controlling interest in a target company using equity and debt financing. When they secure a majority stake, private equity investors gain significant influence over the company's operations, strategy, and decision-making processes. This hands-on approach allows them to actively manage and drive value in their portfolio companies.

Investment stage

Venture capital (VC): Venture capital investments primarily target early-stage startups with high growth potential. These companies are attractive to VC firms due to their innovative ideas, disruptive technologies, and potential for exponential growth. But a startup at this stage lacks sufficient capital to fuel its development, expand operations, and bring its products to market. 

As well as providing financial support, VC investors provide strategic guidance, mentorship, and network connections. The aim is to help these startups navigate the challenges of scaling their businesses and ultimately achieve success.

Private equity (PE): In contrast, PE investments focus on mature companies that have already established revenue streams and demonstrated profitability. PE firms seek out well-established businesses that have reached a certain level of stability and are positioned for further growth and optimization. 

These companies could require additional capital to finance strategic initiatives, such as expansion into new markets, acquisitions, or restructuring efforts. PE investors bring their operational expertise, financial acumen, and industry knowledge to enhance the performance and value of these companies. They work closely with management teams to implement improvements, drive efficiencies, and unlock the full potential of the businesses.

Percentage acquired

Venture capital (VC): When VC firms invest in companies, they typically acquire minority stakes. This means that they take ownership of a smaller percentage of the company, often 20% or less. 

The rationale behind acquiring minority stakes is to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit and decision-making power of the founders and management team. Venture capitalists allow existing stakeholders to retain a significant portion of ownership and control in hopes that these stakeholders perform better if they participate in the company's growth.

Startups also will have multiple funding rounds in their journey, each time reducing the proportion owned by previous investors and founders. To combat this, VCs save a part of their fund for follow-on investments reserved for their “winning” companies, This protects their equity proportions and shifts the exposure to startups that have a higher chance of success.

Private equity (PE): In contrast, PE investors often aim to acquire majority or controlling stakes in the companies they invest in. This means that they take ownership of a significant portion of the company. 

This gives them the power to actively drive value creation, implement operational improvements, and make transformative changes to maximize the company's potential. The acquisition of majority stakes stems from the objective of PE to exert control and work closely with management, optimizing the performance and profitability of mature businesses.

Fund size

Venture capital (VC): With VC, the investment size varies based on the funding round and the valuation of the startup. VC investments typically range from thousands to millions of dollars. Fund sizes range from single-digit millions to close to a billion. Early funding rounds for startups are typically smaller, and therefore funds don’t need to be that large to follow their investment thesis.

Private equity (PE): PE investments involve significantly larger amounts of capital. Therefore, the fund size also needs to be bigger. For comparison, the biggest PE firm in the world, Blackstone, manages $941 billion in assets. The biggest VC firm has $28 billion asset's under management (Source). 

Additionally, PE Firms use debt to invest in companies, expanding their investment accounts. This is possible because the companies they are buying generate profits for the most part. Therefore, the company can be used as collateral in the transaction. This approach allows private equity investors to finance the acquisition and provide the necessary capital for the company's growth and transformation. 

Risk profile

Venture capital (VC): VC investments are inherently risky due to the uncertain nature of startups and their potential for failure. Startups often face numerous challenges, such as market validation, scalability, competition, and execution risks. Many startups fail to achieve their growth objectives or generate sustainable profitability, leading to a high failure rate.

That's why diversification is so important for a VC fund. Typically, fund returns are generated from only one or two “fund returners”. Finding these “fund returners” and doubling down on them is easier if funds have a diversified portfolio. This means from a portfolio of 20–30 investments, only a handful (or less) become successful. 

However, successful VC investments can yield substantial returns, often outperforming other investment classes. Venture capitalists are willing to take on this risk in the hopes of identifying the next big success story and achieving outsized returns.

Private equity (PE): PE investments, on the other hand, tend to have a lower risk profile compared to VC investments. This is primarily because PE firms target more mature companies that have already demonstrated stability and profitability. 

PE investors seek companies with established revenue streams, proven business models, and a track record of financial performance. These efforts help mitigate risks and increase stability within the company. 

Value creation & sources of returns

Venture capital (VC): The value provided by VCs goes beyond monetary investment. They offer strategic guidance to help startups navigate challenges, refine their business models, and accelerate their growth trajectory. VCs also facilitate access to valuable networks, connecting entrepreneurs with potential partners, customers, and mentors. 

Private equity (PE): However, with PE, value creation focuses on operational efficiencies, financial management, and corporate governance. PE firms target mature companies with established revenue streams and profitability. They aim to enhance the value of these companies by optimizing their operations, improving their financial performance, and strengthening corporate governance practices. 

Exit strategies

Venture capital (VC): With VC, exit strategies often involve initial public offerings (IPOs) and acquisitions by larger companies. An IPO is a process through which a privately held company transitions to being publicly traded on a stock exchange. When a VC-backed company reaches a certain level of maturity, growth, and market demand, it may choose to go public. This allows VC investors to sell their shares in the company and realize their investment through public trading. 

Another common exit route in VC is through acquisitions by larger companies. Established companies often acquire innovative startups to access new technologies, talent, or market opportunities. When a larger company acquires a VC-backed startup, the VC investors typically exit their investment, either by selling their shares or receiving cash and/or stock in the acquiring company.

Private equity (PE): Exit strategies can take various forms with PE. One common exit route in PE is selling the portfolio company to another PE firm. Private equity firms often acquire companies intending to add value, optimise operations, and drive growth. Once the desired improvements and value enhancements have been achieved, the PE firm might seek to sell the company to another PE firm, which recognizes the potential for further growth or synergies. 

Conducting an IPO is another exit strategy pursued by PE investors. Similar to VC-backed companies, when a PE-backed company reaches a level of maturity, scale, and market demand, it may choose to go public through an IPO, allowing the PE investors to realize their investment through public trading. 

Industry focus

Venture capital (VC): VC investments often concentrate on high-growth sectors that show significant potential for innovation, disruption, and rapid expansion. Technology is a primary focus for many VC firms, as they seek out startups developing cutting-edge software, hardware, artificial intelligence, and other tech-driven solutions. 

Biotechnology and life sciences are also attractive sectors for VC investors, as they involve groundbreaking research, drug development, and healthcare innovations. Additionally, VC firms often target consumer products and services, looking for startups that offer unique and scalable consumer offerings, including e-commerce, direct-to-consumer brands, and digital marketplaces. 

Private equity (PE): In contrast to VC, PE investors have broader industry exposure. PE firms invest across a wide range of sectors, including manufacturing, retail, services, and technology. They seek out mature companies that have established revenue streams, profitability, and a solid track record. 

PE investors are interested in sectors where they can apply their operational expertise, financial management skills, and strategic guidance to drive value creation and operational efficiencies. This can involve optimizing manufacturing processes, implementing cost-saving initiatives, expanding into new markets, or enhancing overall business performance. PE firms often look for companies with strong market positions, stable cash flows, and potential for further growth and expansion.

Trends in the private equity and venture capital markets 

The PE and VE markets are dynamic and continuously evolving. Let's explore some of the key trends shaping these markets.

ESG or "impact investing"

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations have gained a lot of traction in recent years. Both PE and VC firms are increasingly integrating ESG factors into their investment decisions. 

ESG investing focuses on supporting companies that demonstrate strong environmental practices, social responsibility, and sound governance. Investors place greater emphasis on sustainable and responsible investments, seeking to generate positive societal impact alongside financial returns. This trend reflects a growing recognition of the importance of long-term sustainability and ethical practices in the investment landscape.

Entry of high-net-worth individuals

Traditionally, PE and VC investments were primarily accessible to institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals. However, there has been a notable trend of increased participation from high-net-worth individuals in both PE and VC funds. 

This shift is partly driven by the desire for diversification and higher potential returns, as well as increased accessibility through platforms that offer fractional ownership and pooled investment structures. The entry of high-net-worth individuals has expanded the investor base and provided additional capital to fuel innovation and growth in the private markets.

Takeaway: The difference between VC and PE

In summary, venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) represent distinct forms of investment with their own characteristics and objectives. Here's a recap:

  • Investment Structure: VC typically involves the acquisition of minority stakes in exchange for equity shares, while PE focuses on acquiring majority or controlling stakes, often through leveraged buyouts.
  • Investment Stage: VC investments primarily target early-stage startups with high growth potential, while PE investments focus on mature companies with established revenue streams and profitability.
  • Percentage Acquired: VC investors usually take minority stakes, while PE investors acquire controlling stakes in companies.
  • Investment Size: VC investments vary based on funding rounds and startup valuations, while PE investments involve acquiring controlling stakes in companies with significant capital requirements.
  • Risk Profile: VC investments are associated with higher risk due to the uncertain nature of startups, while PE investments generally offer lower risk due to the stability of mature companies and the implementation of operational improvements and financial engineering.
  • Value Creation: VC investors provide capital, strategic guidance, and access to networks to accelerate growth in portfolio companies, while PE investors focus on operational efficiencies, financial management, and corporate governance to enhance value.
  • Exit Strategies: Common exit routes for VC investments include IPOs and acquisitions by larger companies, while PE exits can involve selling to another PE firm, conducting an IPO, or strategic acquisitions.
  • Industry Focus: VC investments often target high-growth sectors like technology, biotechnology, and consumer products, while PE investments have broader industry exposure, including manufacturing, retail, services, and technology.

We hope to have given you a firmer grasp of the differences between VC and PE. Feel free to browse through the Vestlane blog for more resources! 

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