An eerie silence pervades the technology-focused venture capital community.

In an about-face from the gold rush mentality of a year ago when investors stood willingly in the limelight and chatted up their portfolios, L.A.'s venture capital business has gone behind closed doors.

Preoccupied with their fledgling companies, VCs are in nurturing mode lining up additional financing for existing investments from their own fund or from another one.

Still, if you ask just about any local venture capitalist how things are going, they will tell you they're busy looking at potential early stage investments and even doing deals. They just don't want to talk about any of them.

The aloofness is easy to explain. The door for initial public offerings is still shut and valuations of private technology companies have plummeted, making it difficult for venture capitalists to cash in on their investments.

"Let's face it, those firms that made investments in 1999 and 2000 have issues on their hands," said Pat Haden, partner with private equity firm Riordan Lewis & Haden. "Many of those firms in the Internet space are figuring out what they can do, whether it's merge and sell, abandon ship or continue evaluating their alternatives. It makes it difficult for the VCs to look at new deals."

Venture capital funds in the United States posted back-to-back quarterly losses in their portfolios for the first time since the 1970s, according to the National Venture Capital Association and Venture Economics.

The most recent figures available for Los Angeles funds are for year-end 2000, but if national numbers are any indication, VCs are on track to have their worst year on record. The 1,200 funds monitored by Venture Economics posted an average loss of 8.9 percent in the first quarter of 2001, which follows a 13.4 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2000.

A brave face

Even so, there are few venture capitalists who admit to having "issues."

Enter reticence and denial.

"Everyone has their dirty little secrets that they don't want to talk about, such as admitting that they're not investing new money," said Paul Nadel, managing partner of East West Venture Group. "It's hard to have a lot of bravado in these markets. There's an insecurity with telling what's really happening."

Nadel said East West has done "a couple of deals in the last four months," but declined to comment further. Riordan Lewis & Haden has invested $24 million in the last four months across several L.A. deals. Redpoint has done no deals in L.A. so far this year, and Mellon Ventures has done two deals recently.

At the same time, technology-focused venture capitalists don't want to miss out on a potential winner, so they don't say anything publicly that could scare off potential deals.

"It's true that people aren't doing very many deals right now," said Brad Jones, managing director of Redpoint Ventures, the region's leading venture capital firm with about $80 million invested in L.A. and Orange counties last year and a total of $2 billion under management. "It has slowed down for everybody. News like that creates the perception that we're not doing deals. Things are slower, but it doesn't mean we don't want to talk to entrepreneurs."

Pendulum swings

That's what they say, but there's a different view on the other side, where entrepreneurs are struggling just to get noticed.

A year ago, venture capitalists would have been duking it out for Michael Goff's Roamable Inc. The Santa Monica start-up enables users to access corporate e-mail and databases wirelessly. Goff, a former Microsoft Corp. executive and media industry veteran, assembled a strong management team and inked deals with a few high profile clients like MTVi and MSNBC. The company's wireless offering was lauded in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

But Goff is getting a cold shoulder from the venture capital community. "I have found that the VCs I've met with in L.A. are all very skittish," Goff said. He has taken valuations down and is about to close a first round of $2 million to $3 million from venture capitalists outside L.A.

"Of the VCs I talked to here, some said they were caught up in their portfolios and some said they were out of money," Goff said. "One said he has much more empathy for entrepreneurs because he's raising money and it has never been this hard."

Even if a local VC firm gets behind Roamable, it won't likely blab about it quite a contrast to the past two years when countless venture firms touted their discoveries only to watch competitors bid up prices.

Picking a winner today, according to most local venture capitalists, is agonizingly difficult and distracting.

"You always wonder, 'Am I catching a falling knife?'" said Jeffrey Anderson, managing director of Mellon Ventures. "A lot of VCs are having a tough time figuring out what categories to put money into because figuring out the endgame is difficult. You can buy right now at low valuations, but you'll have trouble figuring out what the companies can become. So VCs are taking a deep breath and making sure the deals they did in last two years are doing as well as they can."

Still, there is plenty of venture capital just waiting in the sidelines some $40 billion of it in U.S. funds, according to John Taylor, vice president of research for the NVCA.

"The binding constraint is the time of the VCs, who are allocating time between exiting portfolio companies and identifying, screening, filtering and negotiating with new companies," Taylor said on record. The 1,200 funds monitored by Venture Economics posted an average loss of 8.9 percent in the first quarter of 2001, which follows a 13.4 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2000.

"Everyone has their dirty little secrets that they don't want to talk about, such as admitting that they're not investing new money," said Paul Nadel, managing partner of East West Venture Group. "There's an insecurity with telling what's really happening."

"It's true that people aren't doing very many deals right now," said Brad Jones, managing director of Redpoint Ventures, the region's leading venture capital firm with about $80 million invested in L.A. and Orange counties last year and a total of $2 billion under management. "Things are slower, but it doesn't mean we don't want to talk to entrepreneurs."

A year ago, venture capitalists would have been duking it out for Michael Goff's Roamable Inc. The Santa Monica start-up enables users to access corporate e-mail and databases wirelessly. Goff, a former Microsoft Corp. executive, is getting a cold shoulder from the venture capital community. "I have found that the VCs I've met with in L.A. are all very skittish," Goff said. He is about to close a first round of $2 million to $3 million from venture capitalists outside L.A.

"Of the VCs I talked to here, some said they were caught up in their portfolios and some said they were out of money," Goff said.

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