charlesriverventures.bmpCharles River Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm, has launched a new investment strategy, offering rapid but tiny $250,000 checks to Internet start-ups.

The program, called QuickStart, recognizes times have changed, and that Internet companies no longer need the vast amounts of cash that most venture capital firms want to give to them. The CRV program also offers entrepreneur the friendly terms of the “convertible” seed round, explained below.

VentureBeat talked with the firm’s Silicon Valley team — led by Bill Tai, George Zachary and Susan Wu — about the program. They said that most Internet entrepreneurs can design prototypes and launch their ideas on a quarter million dollars. Under the program, if the start-up does well and needs more money to expand, Charles River will have the right to invest during the first round of institutional funding, called a “Series A.”

Many venture firms provide seed money to start-ups, but typically as an exception or on an ad-hoc basis. This is one of the first formal seed programs by a venture firm that we’re aware of.

The advantage of a seed round is that it done as a “convertible” loan, which means the $250,000 is essentially a no-strings-attached loan to an entrepreneur. There is no equity stake claim by the investor at the time, which is good for the entrepreneur, who can see how good his idea is first. If the idea gains traction, he can raise money in the series A and negotiate a high valuation for his company. If he can command a $5 million valuation, for example, the investor’s $250,000 seed money converts into only 5 percent of the company.

georgehead.jpgZachary (pictured here) says he sees too many entrepreneurs giving away between 10 to 20 percent of their company in the seed round. They have fewer shares to give to employees, and they’re less attractive to venture capitalists.

Tai (pictured below) adds that most Internet companies need to move swiftly, and grow virally. Technology has become a commodity in most cases, he says, and most companies don’t need hordes of cash to develop it.

bill tai.jpgZachary last year invested $4 million into podcasting company Odeo, which turned out to be too much money — or at least entrepreneur Evan Williams decided he didn’t want to use it. Instead, Williams bought back the company, and decided to launch an incubator instead, owning the vast majority himself.

Of CRV’s last five deals, four were seed rounds (three consumer Internet companies, and one chip intellectual property company). The partners acknowledged that some deals — such as solar companies — need millions. But they said a majority of the deal leads they see these days falls into this seed category.

CRV has downsized considerably in recent years. The firm now manages a $250 million fund, down from a whopping $1.2 billion fund they’d raised during the Internet bubble years. The team estimate they’ll do between 25 and 50 deals over the next three years.

Another advantage to seed/loan funding is that no public filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission is required. Entrepreneurs can thus stay in stealth mode longer, which can be an advantage.

There is almost no liability for the entrepreneurs, because the loan is made to a corporation formed around the entrepreneur. If the company fails, the company goes away, and the founders aren’t liable. “We’re all big boys,” says Tai, explaining that CRV doesn’t mind when this happens. “We go into this with eyes wide open.”

See CRV’s site for an example:

If CRV loans your company $100,000 with a six percent interest rate, and six months later the company closed a Series A round, at that point the loan balance (with interest) would convert at a 25% discount (value = loan dollar amount plus interest / .75) into $137,333.33 worth of Series A stock. Given that seed funding amounts are typically very small compared to the amounts one might expect to raise in a Series A round, as the example illustrates, the aggregate discount amount, in this case $37K, is a tiny fraction of what is likely to be a multimillion dollar Series A financing.

UPDATE: Wonder if CRV’s move will make seed investors feel crowded. Already, early investor Josh Kopelman has responded, suggesting the economics of the move makes sense, but that there may be some conflicts in CRV’s model.

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