Talking Mary Meeker and digital investing with Kleiner Perkins’ Ted Schlein

November 30, 2010, 11:36 PM UTC

Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins made headlines yesterday, hiring star tech analyst Mary Meeker away from Morgan Stanley. So we caught up with Ted Schlein, a KP managing partner who oversees digital investing, to ask about the hiring and where tech fits within the larger firm investment strategy.

I asked most of the questions, but some came from my colleague Adam Lashinsky (who also was on the call). Here you go:

Fortune: There has been speculation for nearly a decade that Mary Meeker might join Kleiner. Were the rumors legit?

Schlein: Yes, it’s true that we have danced with Mary on numerous occasions, but it was a matter of everything lining up right.

In the past, we kind of had a bunch of different ideas of how to work together, and I don’t think any of them was actually the right one. Now, with the rapid evolution of mobile communications and social taking place — and the astounding growth in some of those companies – Mary’s talents can be put to better use by those entrepreneurs than at any other time in our history.

She realized that and we realized that. Also, she now feels that Morgan Stanley is well taken care of, so she has a greater ability to leave.

How is the management of Kleiner Perkins now structured, and where does Mary fit into that?

Mary is joining us as a senior partner. In general, I manage the digital group, Ray Lane manages the greentech group, Brook Byers manages life sciences and John Doerr manages what we call big ideas.

This hire comes on the heels of the sFund announcement. Is it fair to say that Kleiner Perkins is refocusing on tech?

All I can tell you is that the vast majority of our investing over the past several years has been in tech, with 80% of that on the consumer-facing side of life. We’ve also had some great tech liquidity events over that time.

So how do you respond to those who suggest that you guys missed the early boat on social –with a few exceptions, like Zynga – and are now trying to play catch-up?

I think that we’re in the second inning of what we call digital. We’re still early in the web being ubiquitous and accessible from anywhere, and you can build very innovative business models on top of that. We never used to debate virtual goods, for example, but now it is a major commercial monetary source. Plus, you have the social graph being laid down as a foundation with Facebook and Twitter, with a new economy being created on top of it.

When we did the iFund, a lot of people thought we were a little ahead of our time, but one venture alone returned the entire iFund [Editor note: Schlein would later clarify this statement, to say that the “venture” – ngmoco – returned the original $100 million iFund, but not the later-expanded $200 million iFund]. So now some people might say we’re behind our time, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of this commercial mobile social revolution. In fact, I think we’re just getting started.

You say we’re in the “second inning.” That would have been true, in retrospect, of B2C Internet deals in 2000 and 2001, but the returns have been lousy. Even if the market is in its infancy, is it possible that the VC opportunity has passed?

Well, you certainly need to have good venture discipline and prudence in your investment profile is well-warranted. So I look at that as a different issue than if the opportunity set is rich and exciting. Remember, there were some great companies created in 2000 and 2001.

I know you can’t discuss current fundraising efforts…

That’s right, I can’t.

Ok, but our analysis shows that around 80% of the two new funds you’re raising is allocated to tech investing. So I guess I’m repeating a question a bit: Isn’t Kleiner emphasizing new tech deals going forward, and deemphasizing greentech and life sciences?

I think it’s true that a larger percentage will go into what we call digital. And that’s a reason why we’ve added Mary to the mix, just like two years ago we added Bing Gordon and Chi-Hua Chien. But what we’ve effectively done over the past several years is to build a greentech practice, and that’s not going anywhere. Neither is our life sciences strategy.

Just look at what’s taken place for us in the past year: We’ve had one greentech IPO, one or two digital IPOs and two life sciences IPOs. Plus five digital M&A events, or at least five that matter. We invest across a broad swath of different industry segments, and are just trying to find great entrepreneurs.

Kleiner’s traditional reputation is as a Series A investor, or first money in. But you guys came in later on Zynga, plus some of your own recent deals. Does that mean the firm has become stage-agnostic?

I’d say that 80% of what we do is still seed or incubation. Series A deals that help create something out of whole cloth. But you’re right that Zynga was a bit later than that, as was Chegg and Jive. Mary might focus more on later-stage deals too, but I still think most of our deals will be for earlier-stage companies.

On the later-stage digital front, any worries about hot companies like Facebook and Zynga are finding liquidity outside of IPOs or M&A? For example, the Facebook derivatives or secondary exchanges like SecondMarket?

It’s true that some companies are raising different types of capital, or have created currency that can be used for things like acquisitions. But not every private company has a vibrant private marketplace for their stock…

What about providing company founders with liquidity via later rounds, like the recent Foursquare deal?

Yes, we’re seeing more of that than in the past, and it maybe takes a bit of pressure off of a company to get public quickly, but patience is usually a virtue for these companies.