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How the Kleiner Perkins Empire Fell

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.


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.”

The firm’s ablest investor for two decades, though his name wasn’t on the letterhead, was John Doerr. A former Intel salesman, Doerr joined Kleiner in 1980 and over time became its de facto leader. Doerr scored a string of hits—Netscape, Amazon, and Google—becoming an active and forceful board member at the tech industry’s most exciting companies. He also was a prominent cheerleader for Silicon Valley in the age of the Internet.

Doerr was so powerful, in fact, that he was able to pivot Kleiner’s entire thrust away from the Internet and toward his latest passion project: renewable energy companies he believed would be the next important wave of tech investing. Doerr was a prominent Democratic fundraiser and pal of former Vice President Al Gore, whom Doerr made a ­Kleiner partner. Between 2004 and 2009, the firm had invested $630 million across 54 “clean tech” companies, and 12 of its 22 partners spent some or all of their time on so-called green investments.

“Twenty years ago, Kleiner was at the pinnacle of venture capital. These days it’s just one of many firms trying to compete.” – Ilya Strebulaev, Stanford finance professor

The firm’s heart may have been in the right place, but its investments flopped. Some, like electric-car maker Fisker Automotive, went bankrupt. Others, like fuel-cell manufacturer Bloom Energy, took 16 years from Kleiner’s investment in 2002 to go public. The result was a tarnished brand at a time Kleiner’s competitors were killing it with investments in the digital economy. Accel Partners, for example, was the early backer of Facebook. Union Square Ventures was among the first to put money into Twitter. And Benchmark Capital, which scored in the web’s first era by investing in eBay, staked Uber in its early days.

Doerr had pushed Kleiner into an unfortunate investment category, and he also failed to assemble a team of investors that could lead the firm past its troubles. On the one hand, Kleiner had a penchant for collecting famous names who nevertheless had no investing experience—or didn’t stick around through troubled times. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was a “strategic adviser.” Gore was a full-on investor. Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and by acclaim a brilliant technologist, was a Kleiner partner for nine years. Vinod Khosla, another Sun cofounder and the closest Doerr had to an investing peer, jumped ship in 2004 to set up his own shop, a formidable power on Sand Hill Road today.

Kleiner also became known as a firm full of highly pedigreed young investors who stayed for a number of years but left without being given a shot at ascending to the top ranks. Many constitute the next generation of leadership in the venture capital world—but not at Kleiner. Steve Anderson, for example, did a four-year stint in the early 2000s. He went out on his own and later became the first investor in Instagram, which sold itself to Facebook for $1 billion. Aileen Lee, famous for coining the expression “unicorn” for the once-rare billion-dollar startup, now runs Cowboy Ventures. Trae Vassallo, key to one of Kleiner’s biggest successes of the era, thermostat maker Nest, started her own early-stage-focused firm, called Defy.

The endless outflow created two problems. Entrepreneurs couldn’t be sure who would be around at Kleiner to help guide them, and Doerr didn’t know who would lead the firm when he retired. It wasn’t a problem unique to Kleiner, but it was an acute one. “Succession has always been a challenge with venture capital firms because they tend to be so tied to specific, large personalities,” says Spencer Ante, author of Creative Capital, a history of the industry. “Some people are better at giving up control than others.” In Doerr’s case, he couldn’t seem to alight on the right mix of promise and stature. “I think the answer lies in John and his superhero fixation,” says one ex-Kleiner investor. “If you weren’t already a superhero coming in, you weren’t going to become a superhero at Kleiner.”

In need of a new strategy and a high-­wattage personality to match his own, Doerr found both. He raised Kleiner’s first “growth” fund in 2010 on the assumption that if Kleiner couldn’t catch early-stage stars, at least it could get them before their ascent was complete. To run the new billion-dollar fund, in 2011 he persuaded a longtime friend of the firm, Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker, to move west and become an investor for the first time in her career. It was a development that would partly resuscitate Kleiner—and eventually lead to its being cleaved in half.


A Timeline of Silicon Valley History

 

John Doerr, from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, & Byers, speaks at the annual PC Forum, Phoenix, Arizona, February 5-8, 1984Ann E. Yow-Dyson—Getty Images
Ann E. Yow-Dyson—Getty Images

1972

What will eventually become Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is founded.

1976

Kleiner invests $100,000 and incubates biotech business Genentech, which sold for $47 billion three decades later.

1980

John Doerr, who worked in sales at semiconductor maker Intel, joins Kleiner as an investor.

1994

Kleiner invests $5 million for a 25% stake in Netscape, the first commercial web browser, producing returns of $400 million when the company goes public the following year.

June 1996

The firm takes an $8 million stake in Amazon, which goes public the following year.

June 1999

Alongside rival Sequoia Capital, Kleiner invests $11.8 million for a stake in Google, one of the greatest venture investments of all time.

Feb. 2004

General partner Vinod Khosla leaves to launch his own firm, Khosla Ventures, after 18 years at Kleiner.

Feb. 2006

Kleiner forms $200 million “pandemic and biodefense fund” focused on preventing infectious-disease pandemics.

May 2008

Kleiner launches a $500 million fund that focuses on later-stage “clean tech” investments. Electric-car maker Fisker Automotive, funded by other Kleiner investment vehicles, later goes bankrupt.

Nov. 2010

Mary Meeker announces she’ll leave Morgan Stanley and Wall Street to join Kleiner to lead the $1 billion digital growth fund.

May 2012

Ellen Pao sues Kleiner for gender discrimination. She will lose her case, but the firm’s reputation suffers badly in a public trial.

March 2016

Doerr becomes chairman of Kleiner Perkins.

June 2016

Kleiner Perkins raises $1 billion for its third growth fund.

Aug. 2017

Mamoon Hamid joins from Social Capital.

Sept. 2018

Early-stage and growth-stage funds announce split.

Jan. 2019

Having left Kleiner, Meeker targets $1.25 billion for debut fund out of her new firm, called Bond.


Meeker was already a legend in Silicon Valley, despite having spent all of her career as a New York City–based research analyst. She came of age in an era when analysts worked hand in glove with investment bankers, and her enthusiastic support for companies like Netscape, Amazon, and Google—all in Kleiner’s portfolio—helped Morgan Stanley win the mandate to underwrite their IPOs. New rules prohibited investment banks from rewarding analysts on deals, so Doerr’s offer to have Meeker run the new fund afforded her the opportunity to repot herself. “I always wanted to invest,” she told Wired in 2012. “The Kleiner team had been talking to me for a decade about joining, and I thought that if I didn’t do it now, I never would.”

Her deep network and ability to spot tech trends paid off almost immediately. Kleiner’s new growth fund invested in the likes of Facebook, LendingClub, DocuSign, Snapchat, and Slack—all companies seeded by other venture capitalists that nevertheless had plenty of upside left when Meeker invested. The returns were stellar for its category. Kleiner’s growth fund grew investments by 2.4 times as of late last year, according to data the firm supplied to its investors. That performance bested a Kleiner venture fund raised at a similar time, even though later-stage investments are designed to be considerably less risky.

“Succession has always been a challenge with venture capital firms because they tend to be so tied to large personalities.” – Spencer Ante, author of Creative Capital

And as Meeker was racking up victories, Kleiner’s early-stage practice continued to stumble—especially compared with the competition and its own illustrious past. There were successes. Longtime partner Ted Schlein, for example, invested in a series of security-software companies that were purchased for healthy gains. Randy Komisar and Trae Vassallo invested early in Nest, acquired in 2014 by Google for $3.2 billion. But the wins weren’t enough, and Kleiner continued to miss bigger opportunities. The fund it raised in 2010 doubled its money. But that paled in comparison to a Benchmark fund of a similar vintage that multiplied investors’ capital by 25 times, thanks to investments in Uber and Snapchat.

It didn’t help that Kleiner faced a myriad of distractions. Even as its alternative-energy investments were blowing up or otherwise foundering, Doerr set out in 2014 to solve the early-stage leadership problem by trying to buy another firm. He approached Chamath Palihapitiya, an outspoken former Facebook executive who was the driving force behind Social Capital, which at the time was planning to raise its third fund. Doerr had personally invested in Social Capital, a not-uncommon practice for the bigwigs of Sand Hill Road, and he thought Palihapitiya’s brashness and connections could be the answer to Kleiner’s problems.

Talks eventually broke down, however, over how much control Palihapitiya, who declined to comment for this article, would have over all of Kleiner. Around the same time, Kleiner was fighting a bruising court battle, a gender discrimination suit filed by Ellen Pao, a Doerr protégé. Kleiner emerged victorious but bloodied from the litigation, and Doerr continued his hunt for new talent. He and Schlein, who helped manage the firm, found it at the same place Doerr tried before, Social Capital, by recruiting another cofounder, Mamoon Hamid, to head up early-stage investing. Hamid, who had led Social Capital’s investment in Slack, joined Kleiner in 2017, a year after Doerr became chairman, a role that connotes something like emeritus status at a venture firm. Doerr presented Hamid as the new leader of Kleiner—a move that would put the newcomer in conflict with Meeker, who already was providing plenty of leadership of her own.


 

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Khosla: Steve Jennings—Getty Images; Anderson: Timothy Archibald; Lee: David Paul Morris—Getty Images; Pao: Kimberly White—Getty images; Murphy: Courtesy of MenloVentures; Vassallo: Jealex Photo—Getty Images; Quinn: Courtesy of Spark Capital
Khosla: Steve Jennings—Getty Images; Anderson: Timothy Archibald; Lee: David Paul Morris—Getty Images; Pao: Kimberly White—Getty images; Murphy: Courtesy of MenloVentures; Vassallo: Jealex Photo—Getty Images; Quinn: Courtesy of Spark Capital

Not long after Hamid, who is 41, joined Kleiner, he circulated a poll to the firm’s staff with questions about the free food provided in the office. “We’d like to have a high-quality selection of snacks that makes everyone happy,” he wrote in an email. The focus on noshing was culturally if not financially significant. He’d been brought in to shake things up, after all. A few months later, when Kleiner moved its annual holiday party from the fusty Menlo Circus Club in the suburbs to a hipster venue in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, Hamid insisted on skipping the uncool practice of providing name tags.

Cue the grumbling. Hamid’s assertion of authority extended beyond generational etiquette and a long overdue redesign of the firm’s website. He also turned his attention to the operations of the entire firm, including the growth fund. Hamid began attending growth team meetings, for example, and giving input on investment ideas, offering to help source deals. He wanted to blur the lines of what types of investments were appropriate for which funds, meaning he envisioned the early-stage fund taking bigger stakes, the province of the growth fund. Hamid, say Kleiner insiders, saw himself as helping; Meeker’s team viewed Hamid’s offers as meddling.

The relationship between the two funds was made more difficult because Kleiner partners shared in the spoils of one another’s investments. The success of Meeker’s fund had proved to be a boon to other partners. But deciding how much of a boon quickly became contentious. The firm incentivized investors to work together on deals but wasn’t clear on what the rewards formula was. “All of a sudden, [Meeker’s] monster growth fund starts working, and there was a lot of credit-seeking and lobbying for their share, claiming, ‘I did this,’ and ‘I helped with that,’ ” says a former Kleiner investor. According to someone close to the growth team, its members began to ask: “Why do we want to give such a big portion of the ­money we earn to people who aren’t contributing anything?”

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The two sides disagreed about more than compensation. Hamid had recruited a contemporary from another firm, Ilya Fushman of Index Ventures, with the suggestion the two could build a firm together. Never mind that Kleiner had been around for decades. One of their goals was to be able to assure entrepreneurs that Kleiner’s growth outfit would be able to fund later investment rounds in their companies. Meeker wasn’t willing to make those assurances though. The two sides disagreed on a number of administrative issues too, like fund governance, hiring practices, and the way investment committees would be structured.

By last year the mood inside Kleiner devolved into one of bruised egos and general resentment. Rankings of top VCs routinely pushed Kleiner partners far down the list; of the world’s top 20 venture capitalists published recently by CB Insights, Meeker’s was the only name associated with Kleiner, at No. 8. “Let’s be perfectly honest. Everyone at Kleiner cares about that stuff,” says a former insider. Says another: “Mamoon comes in and thinks he’s the new sheriff in a place where Mary thinks she’s the sheriff. Why wouldn’t she leave?”

In September, Meeker did just that. She announced she would exit Kleiner to set up a firm called Bond, still focused on late-stage private companies, and would take her Kleiner team along for the ride. These included her longtime partner Mood Rowghani, Warburg Pincus veteran Noah Knauf, and Juliet de Baubigny, who had been with Kleiner since 2001. They would leave behind Hamid, Fushman, and a small group of other Kleiner investors to try to rebuild the firm’s reputation.


The splitting up of a venture capital firm isn’t so different from the dissolution of a marriage. Meeker, who is 59, hasn’t completed raising money for Bond, and she has continued to look after Kleiner’s “children,” the companies she invested in during her time there. Like divorcing spouses who haven’t yet sorted out the paperwork, the two sides are still cohabitating. They continue to share office space in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood as well as in Kleiner’s longtime complex on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park.

John Doerr, now 67 years old, remains Kleiner’s chairman. He’s no longer actively investing the firm’s funds, but he lends a hand where he can. He recently published a book, Measure What Matters, in which he shares his experiences from Google and other companies with managing by “objectives and key results,” or OKRs. And in February, Doerr received a lifetime achievement award from the National Venture Capital Association. Demonstrating that there are no hard feelings, Meeker introduced him at the gala event, attended by many Kleiner alumni. Doerr, calling himself “a hopeless optimist,” reminded his audience that “ideas are easy. It’s execution that’s everything. And it takes a team to win.”

“[Hamid] comes in and thinks he’s the new sheriff in a place where Mary thinks she’s the sheriff. Why wouldn’t she leave?” – a former Kleiner Perkins insider

Doerr’s successors at what remains of Kleiner continue the work of trying to find Silicon Valley’s next big thing. They have invested in companies like Rippling, an employee-management software concern; Applied Intuition, which makes software for self-driving-car simulations; and Propel, an app for managing food stamps. And they are very much taking their chairman’s cue in how they communicate their shared values.

The venture capital partners recently held a retreat and came up with the slogan, “One team, one dream,” a nod to the firm’s formerly fractured approach. The new leadership also has begun quarterly “all-hands” meetings in an effort to be more transparent about the firm’s performance. As Doerr implores in his book, they’re trying to measure what matters now—not what happened in the past.

A version of this article appears in the May 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Kleiner Perkins: A Fallen Empire.”

Correction, April 23, 2019: In an earlier version of this article, the timeline inaccurately stated that Frank J. Caufield and Brook Byers co-founded the firm in 1972; they joined Eugene Kleiner and Tom Perkins later. The timeline also inaccurately said the investment for Fisker Automotive came from a dedicated “clean tech” fund; the Fisker investment came from other Kleiner funds.