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Tails, You Win

Steamboat Willie put Walt Disney on the map as an animator. Business success was another story. Disney’s first studio went bankrupt. Later cartoons were monstrously expensive to produce, and financed at onerous terms. By the mid-1930s Disney had produced more than 400 cartoons – most of them short, most of them liked, and most of them losing money. Disney and his studio were nearly broke. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs changed everything. The $8 million it earned in the first six months of 1938 was an order of magnitude higher than anything the studio earned previously. It transformed Disney Studios. All company debts were paid off. Key employees got retention bonuses. The company purchased a new state-of-the-art studio in Burbank, where it remains today. By 1938 Walt had produced several hundred hours of film. But in business terms, the 83 minutes of Snow White was pretty much all that mattered. Long tails drive everything. They dominate business, investing, sports, politics, products, careers, everything. Rule of thumb: Anything that is huge, profitable, famous, or influential is the result of a tail event. Another rule of thumb: Most of our attention goes to things that are huge, profitable, famous, or influential. And when most of what you pay attention to is the result of a tail, you underestimate how rare and powerful they really are. Venture capital is a tail-driven business. You’ve likely heard that. Make 100 investments, and almost all of your return will come from five of them; most of your return from one or two. Correlation Ventures crunched the numbers. Out of 21,000 venture financings from 2004 to 2014, 65% lost money. Two and a half percent of investments made 10x-20x. One percent made more than 20x return. Half a percent – about 100 companies – earned 50x or more. That’s where the majority of the industry’s returns come from. It skews even more as you drill down. There’s been $482 billion of VC funding in the last ten years. The combined value of the ten largest venture-backed companies is $213 billion. So ten venture-backed companies are valued at half the industry’s deployed capital. There is a feeling, I’ve noticed, that this low-hit, high-stakes path is unique to VC in the investment world. I want to show you that it’s not. Long tails drive everything. The most successful venture-backed companies – the tails – go on to become public companies. And it’s easy to measure how important tail returns are to public markets. Spoiler…

Tails, You Win
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