By Adam Lashinsky
August 11, 2010

Why HP was wise to put director Marc Andreessen forward as the board’s spokesman on the Mark Hurd crisis.

The delightfully jarring aspect to Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) bombshell news and investor conference calls last Friday was the board member the venerable company put forward as its public face:  Marc Andreessen, not so very long ago the enfant terrible of Silicon Valley.

It was surprising at first blush, given that Andreessen is anything but a big-company guy or a guru of corporate governance. But it’s a shrewd choice. There may be no one in the Valley right now whose “dashboard” is more complete than Andreessen’s. As such, he gives HP’s board a unique finger on the pulse of the Valley while at the same time giving the Valley a sense that a spirit of tech know-how and innovative savvy exists on the HP board.

More than a decade ago, Andreessen appeared barefoot on the cover of Time. As recently as two years ago, Andreessen, having sold his last company, Opsware (to HP), was making frequent contributions to his wildly popular and irreverent blog at all hours of the night.

Today, the co-founder of Netscape has come full circle. He’s not only fully employed, he has more on his plate than any normal person could possibly handle.

Venture capitalist. Last year Andreessen and longtime business partner Ben Horowitz started a venture firm, which quickly has become a thought leader in Silicon Valley. (Kevin Maney wrote a good preview of the firm; I interviewed him at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in 2009.)  An early investment was Skype, which split from eBay and this week filed to go public. Andreessen Horowitz is taking an aggressively professional approach to the genteel venture game. It’s recruiting on college campuses, for example, alongside Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), so that it has in its database a list of talented programmers who can join startups in which the firm invests. Similarly, it recently hired a professional recruiter, also as a service to its portfolio companies, and in the bargain giving Andreessen Horowitz a good flow of market intelligence.

Board member. In addition to being chairman of Ning, another software company he founded, and a director at HP, Andreessen sits on the boards of eBay (EBAY), Facebook, and Skype. That’s some concentrated market knowledge in one person’s head. The hottest startup, the biggest technology company, one of the oldest Internet companies and one of the brightest IPO prospects of the year. It’s a long way from the being the chief technology officer at AOL, which bought Netscape.

Advisor. Before taking on quite so many board memberships, Andreessen started advising Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg just because. Who could better understand the young entrepreneur who’d arrived recently in Silicon Valley than the last generation’s young entrepreneur who arrived in Silicon Valley? The advisor role suits Andreessen. He’s seen most of the issues that entrepreneurs face, including the glaring light of fame and all its pros and cons. Imagine how much the youngsters appreciate the attention from the not-exactly-over-the-hill Andreessen, who turned 39 last month. The guy helped invent the browser, for goshsakes. Andreessen also pledged early support to former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in her bid to be governor of California.

Philanthropist. Together with his wife Laura, Andreessen has given boatloads to Stanford’s hospital. (If only the University of Illinois, our shared alma mater, hadn’t been such a jerk to Netscape …) He’s bucking the trend of most Silicon Valley titans by starting his giving at a young age.

Andreessen likes to cast himself as a mild misanthrope, content to sit around reading all day and not talking to people. The latter half of that undoubtedly is true. The former half is misleading. He’s actually the rare Valley leader who can code software and discuss the ramifications of declines in value of mortgage-backed securities and hold forth on the history of Hollywood.

There’s a potential downside to all of Andreessen’s connections: possible conflicts every which way he turns. Ebay and Facebook are potential competitors to just about every company in which Andreessen Horowitz would consider investing. HP’s competitors might buy any of the venture firm’s companies, as might HP itself. And so on.

HP’s board may have put him forward last week mostly because he’s local and well known to employees and investors alike. Whatever its reasons, it confirmed his suddenly elevated status in a Valley that has nurtured his career.

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