Once the very embodiment of Silicon Valley venture capital, the storied firm has suffered a two-decade losing streak. It missed the era’s hottest companies, took a disastrous detour into renewable energy, and failed to groom its next-generation leadership. Can it ever regain the old Kleiner magic?
Some five years ago Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, founders of a potentially disruptive no-fee stock brokerage startup called Robinhood, set out to raise capital for their fledgling Silicon Valley outfit. They sought a relatively small amount, $13 million, that would value their idea at $61 million. The former Stanford classmates, both within spitting distance of their 30th birthdays at the time, did what entrepreneurs have been doing for decades: They asked the venerable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to back them.
Kleiner—its singular name is as sufficient on Sand Hill Road as Oprah is in Hollywood—was interested. The firm sees lots of opportunities, however, and it chose not to bite. Then, in mid-2015, when Robinhood was looking for another $50 million at a valuation of $250 million, Kleiner passed again. By 2017, when Robinhood became a “unicorn” valued at $1.3 billion as it raised an additional $110 million, it was the startup doing the snubbing: It excluded Kleiner from the list of venture firms that participated in its funding.
It wasn’t until early last year that Robinhood and Kleiner finally connected, according to accounts from dealmakers on both sides. By then Robinhood had made such a splash in the brokerage world that Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, and Charles Schwab had cut fees in response to the upstart’s zero-commission offering. Under the sponsorship of famed Wall Street analyst Mary Meeker, a Kleiner partner since 2011, the firm that had failed repeatedly to invest at increasing levels now participated in the $363 million funding round, valuing Robinhood at $5.6 billion.
The inability to get in on a hot startup’s ground floor, only to subsequently pay a far richer price, was all too common for the once-storied firm. Kleiner had sat out on another generation of technology investments, the crop of so-called Web 2.0 companies, including Facebook in the 2000s. Now, in the 2010s, it was failing again to make early-stage investments—the traditional meat of venture capital investing—in the most sought-after startups of the day. But this time its whiffs came with a perverse twist: Kleiner was succeeding wildly with a new strategy centered around Meeker, who ran a separate fund within the firm focused on more mature private companies that required capital to grow as opposed to merely establish themselves.
“Growth” investing, with its more developed companies, should be somewhat safer than “venture” investing and would also earn commensurately lower returns. Yet Meeker’s investment team outperformed the venture group overseen by longtime Kleiner leader John Doerr and a rotating ensemble of lesser-known investors who joined and left him over the years. Meeker, not the venture capital investing unit, was landing stakes in the era’s most promising companies, including Slack, DocuSign, Spotify, and Uber, breeding resentment over tension points as old as the investing business: Who gets the credit and, more important, who gets paid.
Worse, a class system developed inside Kleiner, evident to the outside world as well, notably among entrepreneurs mulling accepting Kleiner’s money: Team Meeker was a top-tier operation while the venture unit was B-list at best. Says Ilya Strebulaev, a Stanford finance professor who studies venture capital: “Twenty years ago, Kleiner Perkins was at the pinnacle of venture capital. These days it’s just one of many firms trying to compete.”
What happened next is another age-old tale in the business world, of how a once-proud stalwart found itself on the edge of irrelevance. It’s about just how much succession planning matters and the ramifications of not adequately grooming the right successors. And it’s a reminder that something as elusive as identifying early-stage winners from the pack of wannabes doesn’t get easier, even after more than four decades of practice. The story of what happened in the past handful of years at Kleiner is also one neither the firm’s partners nor the notoriously tight-lipped VC industry around it are interested in discussing, at least on the record. Doerr, Meeker, and other Kleiner principals all declined to be interviewed for this article or to comment. But more than 20 current and former employees, investors in Kleiner’s funds, entrepreneurs, and other industry observers did talk about what went wrong and how, if possible, the firm can ever regain that old Kleiner magic.....MUCH MORE
Having to sweat to get into a promising startup would have been unthinkable during Kleiner’s golden years, from its founding in 1972 through its $11.8 million investment in Google in 1999. The firm made legendary investments in startup icons including Tandem Computers, Genentech, Sun Microsystems, Electronic Arts, Netscape, and Amazon.com. Like any venture firm, which invests so early in a company’s existence that it often has no revenue yet, Kleiner had its share of stinkers. But Kleiner’s overall investment results were staggering: A mid-90s fund, for example, returned $32 for every dollar invested. Its power on Sand Hill Road was unquestioned. “You could not do better than a Kleiner deal,” says Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin. “It was a sign of approval from the very highest level. And it meant everything to entrepreneurs.”....
Way back in 2008 we posted "What the hell happened to Kleiner Perkins? (John Doerr et al [Gore])"
And ten years later "Mary Meeker Is Leaving Kleiner Perkins and Leading an Exodus Amidst Huge Split":
The divorce attorneys are already working on the custody agreements for the slide deck....
With dozens and dozens more between those two, including such hits as:
Kleiner Perkins Founder Says Google Bus Protests NOT Like Kristallnacht; Firm Denies Knowing Mr. Perkins
Following up on "Kleiner Perkins founder says Silicon Valley elite are being treated like Jews in Nazi Germany".