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The Remaking of Kleiner Perkins
After 50 years of dealmaking, the historic firm is back at venture’s top table. Sharp bets and renewed focus suggest Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman’s KP may be heading for another golden generation.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Kleiner Perkins.
Back on top. In the 2000s and 2010s, the dominant narrative was that Kleiner Perkins (KP) had lost a step. New leaders Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman have instilled a hungry, collaborative culture that has the firm back on fine form. Under their watch, Kleiner has invested in breakout businesses like Figma, Rippling, Glean, Viz AI, and others.
Refinding focus. Rather than adding new initiatives, KP has succeeded by streamlining. Over the past six years, the firm has wound down vehicles focused on cleantech, biotech, China, and growth investing, choosing to focus on early-stage investing. It represents a return to the fund’s roots.
A craft-approach. The last two decades of venture capital have been defined by a question: is this an asset class that can be industrialized? Can venture firms bulk up to the size of investment banks? KP has a definitive answer: no. Rather than running multiple teams, Kleiner is managed by just nine full-time investors.
A continuity plan. Kleiner has developed a strong investing core behind its two managing partners. In Bucky Moore, Annie Case, Everett Randle, and Josh Coyne, KP has a cadre of young partners familiar with the firm’s culture and operations – and capable of leading future generations. This continuity plan is a revival of the firm’s apprenticeship-based model.
Encouraging results. Venture’s lengthy feedback cycle means we don’t definitively know how successful Hamid and Fushman’s stint at Kleiner has been. The early results look encouraging, though. Over the last five years, KP has logged an IRR of 65% and invested in leading businesses like Figma, Rippling, Glean, Productboard, Loom, and many more.
On August 3, 2017, Mamoon Hamid stepped into the sunlight.
Though not yet forty years old, the Pakistani-American investor had established a reputation as a razor-sharp dealmaker with the contemplative demeanor of an economics professor. After rising through U.S. Venture Partners’ ranks, Hamid partnered with Chamath Palihapitiya – then best known as Facebook’s growth agitator – to found Social Capital. Along the way, he’d invested in breakout companies like Slack, Front, Box, and Intercom while mostly managing to avoid the public eye.
Hamid’s newest position had no such luxury.
By joining as Kleiner Perkins’ newest managing partner, the financier stepped into venture capital’s stratosphere – where big moves always attracted attention. It was a fitting step for a man that had chosen to attend Purdue University because it had produced more astronauts than any other American college.
Even among Silicon Valley’s elite, few firms stand as tall as Kleiner Perkins. Founded in 1972, the same year as rivals Sequoia Capital, the original venture denizen of Sand Hill Road earned its reputation as a sterling activist investor with the chutzpah to incubate and invest at technology’s frontier. In its first few decades of operation, Kleiner built and backed remarkable businesses, including Amazon, Google, AOL, Compaq, Citrix, Tandem Computing, and Genentech.
It also established itself as an impressive spotter of founding and funding talent. Indeed, if venture funds abided by the constraints of basketball, limited to just five players, it would be hard to find a stronger line-up than Kleiner’s most famous names: the energy and maverick vision of John Doerr; the pugnacious cut and thrust of Vinod Khosla; Eugene Kleiner and Tom Perkins thinking, pacing, finding angles; and Mary Meeker towering in the post, finishing off move after move. (I hear the venture obsessives among you quibbling: Brook Byers and Frank Caufield are riding the bench? Really?)
When Hamid took the reins in the summer of 2017, Kleiner seemed far from those glory days. It was still one of venture capital’s august institutions, but there was the pervasive sense it was a firm on the decline. Younger, faster, larger competitors had usurped its position in the food chain; a much-touted cleantech experiment looked like a bust; and internal unrest suggested a team fraying at the edges.
When a great venture firm appoints a new managing partner often, the directive is simple: don’t screw it up. Here is a miraculous orb, burnished by time, that turns money into more money; don’t drop it.
The task before Hamid was not nearly so straightforward. He could not afford to keep Kleiner on the same path, to keep drifting, declining. What was needed was change, not stasis. It was a challenge that required managerial skill as much as investing acumen.
Nearly six years in, the appointment of Mamoon Hamid seems to be paying dividends. Along with former Index partner, Ilya Fushman, hired in 2018, Hamid has shepherded Kleiner into what looks to be a new era of prosperity, defined by bets in Figma, Rippling, Loom, Glean, and others. Assuming Adobe’s $20 billion purchase of Figma is not blocked by the Justice Department, one of those investments is already set to deliver a generous return.
There is still time for it to go sour; venture performance is best measured in a decade or more. Looking beyond the numbers, though, Kleiner feels like an organization that understands itself again, knows the game it is trying to play. Much of that has been achieved by embracing the principles and playbook that made Kleiner great in the first place.
How has Hamid done it? What did the managing partner do to renovate a fifty-year-old franchise? How did he leverage a golden history to create a firm built for the future?
Note: In addition to reviewing secondary information, we spoke with approximately a dozen different sources to build this piece, many with direct, intimate knowledge of the firm’s different eras. All have asked to remain anonymous.
It is a relief to novice investment managers everywhere that even storied investors sometimes start with a few duds.
In 1972, Tom Perkins and Eugene Kleiner set about looking for investments. As detailed in Sebastian Mallaby’s comprehensive history of venture capital, The Power Law, the pair had only known each other for a few months by that point, meeting for brunch at Kleiner’s behest. The Viennese engineer – famous for writing the letter that set in motion the “Traitorous Eight’s” departure for Shockley Semiconductor – had decided to turn his attention to the budding venture capital industry. Though he didn’t know the man, Kleiner thought Tom Perkins would make an ideal partner.
Perkins’ reputation preceded him. After studying at MIT and Harvard Business School, the brash Westchester native had built an impressive career at Hewlett-Packard, managing the company’s west coast computing division. Though nearly a decade younger than Kleiner, Perkins also planned to transition from operating to investing.
Brunch turned into lunch, which turned into a weekend of meetings, by the end of which Kleiner and Perkins had decided to go into business together. The pair secured $8.4 million in financing in the following months, besting fellow upstart Don Valentine’s $8 million for Sequoia. They named their firm Kleiner & Perkins.
Then the hard work began. “We hung out our shingle, and…nothing happened,” Perkins recalled in the Something Ventured documentary. Despite speaking to every group “a notch above the Boy Scouts,” in Perkins’ retelling, a sluggish economy kept the inflow of business plans at a trickle. The ex-engineers dutifully read all those that arrived at their door, neglecting only those written in crayon. “We knew that those were from inmates at mental institutions, and that the staff didn’t trust the writers with anything sharper,” Perkins remarked in his memoir.
Desperation and naivete tempted the new firm into a series of calamitous investments. A semiconductor bet was run into the ground by profligate management. Tread-Two, a tennis shoe resoling business, ran out of road when it attempted to sell its own sneaker line. And the Snow Job (yes, really) proved a diverting disaster. The company had invented a way of transforming motorcycles into snowmobiles, and Perkins spent a glorious day zipping through powdered Sierras. But when an oil crisis prompted the government to crack down on gas-guzzling recreational vehicles, Snow Job hit the skids.
That might have been the high point of Kleiner & Perkins – a cocktail party story of frivolity and failure – had its founders not changed their approach. Recognizing the poor quality of deals they were seeing, Kleiner and Perkins set about making their own luck. If promising companies weren’t going to land in their lap, they would cultivate great corporations themselves. The novice fund managers’ decision was a significant moment in the history of venture capital: a shift from passive investing toward an activist strategy.
That approach began with James Treybig and Tandem Computers. At Hewlett-Packard, Treybig had reported directly to Perkins, who’d been impressed by his blend of marketing savvy and computer science knowledge. When it came time to bolster KP’s ranks in 1974, the affable Texan was a natural choice.
Though he’d been hired primarily for his “general marketing skills,” Treybig’s legacy at the firm extended far beyond that function. “Jimmy Treybig played a huge role in the transformation of KP,” Perkins would later write in his memoir Valley Boy. That was thanks to “the germ of an idea” he and Perkins began assessing.
Treybig’s idea was simple in its fundamental premise: he wanted to build a computer that could not fail. Though computers had penetrated the working world by the 1970s, many were susceptible to crashes. For the average office worker keying data into a terminal that was a frustrating time-suck, but for large enterprises, it could be catastrophic. The New York Stock Exchange, for example, experienced computer crashes as often as once a day, destroying data. Failures could be even costlier for emergency services, hospital systems, and the military.
Treybig believed he had a solution. Over weeks, he and Perkins sketched the designs for a computer system that moved to isolate malfunctioning parties. When one computer went “crazy,” the remaining “sane” computers voted to block it from participating in further operations. After checking the logic of their “fault-tolerant” computing system with industry experts and finding no theoretical impediments, Treybig and Perkins decided to formally go into business together. Tandem Computing was born. Treybig spun out of KP to be its CEO.
Though Treybig’s idea sounds like a no-brainer today, contemporaries didn’t see it that way. IBM was considered an unassailable monolith with which only the very brave or very foolish would choose to compete. A magazine cover portraying “Big Blue” as a shark devouring industry “minnows” like General Electric, Honeywell, and Siemens symbolized the mood. It didn’t help that Treybig was a first-time founder – certainly impressive but far from a sure bet. “Untried management, unlikely idea – most people would not have thought this was going to be a big winner,” Treybig said.
All of that meant that when Perkins went to raise money for Tandem, going hand-in-hat to Sand Hill Road peers and Wall Street suits, he left empty-handed. Rather than accepting defeat, though, Perkins made a bold move. If the rest of the market was too afraid to back Tandem, Kleiner & Perkins would finance the business itself, writing a $1.4 million check. It represented a huge swing – more than 16% of total capital raised – and one with real risk. “If Tandem had failed, there would have never been a second Kleiner & Perkin’s fund,” Perkins said. Before closing the financing, notable angel investor Pitch Johnson joined the round, adding credibility to the coalition.
Thankfully for all involved, Tandem not only survived but soared. A partnership with Citibank ratified the concept, and customers began flowing in. By 1982, Tandem had broken into the Fortune 500; in 1997, Compaq acquired the business for $3 billion. Some sources suggest it delivered Kleiner & Perkins north of $160 million in returns.
Frank Caufield – a future partner at the firm – would later remark that Kleiner’s first fund could be “charitably described as ‘two peaches in a bucket of piss.’” The second of those peaches flowered in the form of Genentech.
Two years after incubating Tandem Computers, Kleiner and Perkins set about repeating their playbook. Once again, they cherry-picked industry talent to fill Treybig’s spot; once again, that arrangement morphed into a winning business. Eugene Kleiner and Bob Swanson had gotten to know one another by serving on the board of one of KP’s failed investments. Though Swanson had received his undergraduate degree in chemistry at MIT, he’d stayed on at the Boston school through an MBA program. By the time Kleiner met him, Swanson was a partner at Citicorp, an imperfect fit given his restless nature. He jumped at the chance to join the upstart venture firm.
Swanson quickly made an impact. While supporting a biotech startup KP had invested in, the boy from Brooklyn came into contact with the budding field of gene splicing. He immediately grasped its importance. This was a technology that allowed humankind to recreate nature – and push beyond it. With the right approach, it would be possible to mass-produce new, cheaper medicines and materials for any number of use cases.
“Bob had caught on fire,” Perkins recalled. He immediately devoted himself to learning about the field and sought introductions to its academic pioneers, including Stanford’s Herbert Boyer. At a Palo Alto bar, Boyer and Swanson discussed the massive potential of gene editing and its commercial timeline. The professor told the enthusiastic investor that it was too early to build a business around the technology – maybe in ten years. But Swanson’s zeal stopped him from taking no for an answer. He poked and prodded at Boyer’s assumptions. Was a decade really required? What if Swanson had the money to avoid soliciting sluggish academia?
Like Eugene Kleiner and Tom Perkins’ original breakfast, Swanson and Boyer’s meeting quickly spiraled beyond a simple introduction. Within days, the pairing went from theoretical discussions to practical implications. They were going to start a business; they just needed to raise money.
Despite Swanson’s position at Kleiner & Perkins, financing was not guaranteed. “Venture capitalists shouldn’t knowingly fund pure research,” Perkins wrote. “That’s a recipe for losing millions.” It didn’t help that Swanson wanted $2 million for the novel venture, which he and Boyer dubbed “Genentech.” Even if KP posted $1 million, Perkins thought there was little chance his more risk-averse contemporaries would follow suit.
After a few days of brainstorming, Swanson returned with a leaner approach. Initially, Genentech had sought to create human insulin off the bat. At the time, most hospitals used pig and cow variations which were costly to extract and came with nasty and occasionally fatal side effects. If Genentech could create a human alternative, it would surely be a breakthrough success, delivering a radically better product at a much lower price. However, developing the product was pricey, especially given the possibility of total failure.
Instead of chasing human insulin, Genentech would start by synthesizing a less complicated and more economical product as a proof-of-concept. If that worked, the technical questions would have been de-risked, making it a more attractive bet for investors.
Tom Perkins was sold. He agreed to invest $100,000 of his firm’s money into the venture, adding another $150,000 not long after – securing a third of the business in exchange. Though KP didn’t invest as heavily as in Tandem, it was another bold bet given the risks endemic in Genentech’s business. Yet again, it paid off. Genentech’s trial worked, as did its development of human insulin. In 2009, Genentech was acquired outright by Roche for $46.8 billion. Though KP had likely entirely exited by then, it nevertheless secured outstanding returns. Never one for restraint, Perkins suggested in his 2007 memoir that it was, on a percentage basis, “the most successful venture capital investment of all time.”
From an inauspicious start, Eugene Kleiner and Tom Perkins closed their first fund with two historic winners that propelled the novice firm to the vanguard of its industry. “By the late seventies…Kleiner & Perkins was the front-running venture partnership in America.” Its best days had yet to come.
The golden age
There was once a time when an American in search of fast food was nearly as likely to pull into Burger Chef as McDonald’s. In the early 1970s, the creator of the “Funburger” – a precursor to the Golden Arches Happy Meal – boasted 1,200 locations across the U.S. and Canada.
Today, Burger Chef is defunct. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that during the chain’s heyday, it employed one of the last half-century’s finest business minds, if only fleetingly. Around the time Tandem Computers was getting off the ground in Palo Alto, a young student named John Doerr flipped patties in St. Louis. A Missouri native, Doerr had recently graduated from Rice University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and was set to start MBA studies at Harvard in the fall. To make money in the meantime, he turned to the broiler, spending his summer serving up Super Chefs. By the end of his spell in the kitchen, his supervisor suggested he forgo his plans to attend Burger Chef managerial training; the young Doerr was “hamburger material,” as he recalled being told.
Fast food’s loss was venture capital’s gain. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1975, Doerr moved to Silicon Valley. Over the following forty-eight years (and counting), the son of a sales-rep-turned-founder would leave an indelible mark upon tech’s epicenter.
It was not all smooth sailing. Despite his academic credentials, Doerr struggled to break into venture capital. That profession was a compromise in and of itself – what Doerr really wanted to do was run a business like his father. Venture investing seemed like a shortcut to that dream, introducing the young man to promising industries and connecting him to the moneymen.
Among those that rejected Doerr was Kleiner & Perkins – then known as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, or KPCB. In 1978, after their successful first vintage, Kleiner and Perkins expanded their partnership, bringing Brook Byers and Frank Caufield aboard.
The founding pair had gotten to know Byers through their work with Tandem Computers. After graduating from Georgia Tech, Byers worked as co-investor Pitch Johnson’s apprentice. It was an added coincidence that Byers and Genentech founder Bob Swanson had once been roommates. KP poached the thirty-three-year-old physics graduate, but only after clearing it with Johnson himself.
Frank Caufield brought something different to the partnership. Unlike its other investors, he hadn’t a rigorous technical education. The son of a U.S. general, Caufield attended the West Point military academy, followed by Harvard Business School. In his work managing the personal investments of local entrepreneur Paul Cook, Caufield came to know Kleiner and Perkins. “We had been interacting with him in various ventures and respected his judgment enormously,” Perkins recalled. It didn’t hurt that Caufield had a brilliant sense of humor, honed at British boarding school.
This was the quartet Doerr needed to convince, though he would only get time with one of them. Brook Byers agreed to meet the ambitious, insistent man if he was willing to join him on one of his evening runs on Stanford University’s track. Doerr duly agreed, accompanying Byers for a lengthy run, “around ten miles,” as the latter remembered. It went well, Byers thought: “We really connected. He’s hyper, I’m hyper.” That shared energy wasn’t enough to secure Doerr a job, though. As with his other meetings, it ended in rejection.
It took five years for Doerr and KPCB’s paths to cross again. After initially striking out among VCs, Doerr took a job at Intel, where he proved himself to be a sharp manager and impressive salesman. In 1980, when a classmate interviewed at KPCB but didn’t find it a fit, he told Doerr about the new opening. This time, Doerr met with the full partnership and promptly won the position.
Across its various incarnations and names, recruiting John Doerr was the single best decision in the firm’s history. Kleiner and Perkins had knocked their first fund out of the park, but in the following decades, Doerr delivered a series of mega-winners that minted billions and gave the organization even greater luster.
It was an extraordinary run that got off to a fast start. In 1982, barely in his seat at Kleiner, Doerr sniffed out three prize truffles: Compaq, Lotus Development, and Sun Microsystems. All are rich operas in their own right, but for brevity’s sake, know this: all three hit the public markets with years of Doerr’s backing. As a bonus, KPCB’s investment in Sun would also introduce the firm to co-founder Vinod Khosla, who joined as a managing partner in 1986.
Between 1989 and 1994, Doerr backed three other mega-hits: Citrix, Intuit, and Netscape. The final of those minted a particularly tidy return, with the value of Doerr’s $5 million investment swelling to $400 million in a single year. In 1996, a profile in Institutional Investor featured a quote remarking that “Doerr is to his business what Gates is to software.” In the world of finance, few practitioners matched the former burger chef’s sizzle.
Doerr was not unilaterally successful during this spell. A bet on a “pen-operated computer” named GO turned into a debacle with flailed fundraises eventually resulting in a firesale. Dynabook Technologies, a laptop manufacturer Doerr incubated, also flopped, but only after using up tens of millions in capital.
In this respect, Doerr is perhaps the paradigmatic venture capitalist. It is a pity that the industry’s most public award is named “The Midas List” when the craft is so far from the parable. Great venture investors don’t turn everything they touch into gold. They are, by design, inconsistent and imperfect: sluggers, searchers, needle-in-a-haystack hunters. If you were designing a VC in an admittedly weird video game, you’d happily sacrifice consistency to raise the ceiling on expected outcomes. Miss, miss, miss, and miss again – but when you hit, make sure it crashes through a window on the other side of town. In both his hits and misses, Doerr exemplifies this truth of the industry as well as anyone.
Interspersed with Doerr’s hit parade were tremendous investments from Kleiner’s other partners. Brooks Byers grabbed Electronic Arts (1982), Frank Caufield backed AOL (1987), and Vinod Khosla invested in NexGen (1986), Juniper Networks (1995), and Siara Systems (1998), and incubated Cerent (1997). Kleiner’s $3 million investment in Juniper reportedly produced $7 billion – a 1,400x return. Siara netted $1.5 billion.
As that figure suggests, Khosla became an increasing part of KPCB during this period. Not only was he a rainmaker in his own right, he and Doerr made an effective pairing, pushing each other’s thinking – Pippen and Jordan. Their performance, alongside the leadership of Caufield and Byers, became increasingly important as Kleiner’s founders shuffled off-stage. By the early 1980s, Eugene Kleiner had retired from day-to-operations; Perkins followed a similar path about a decade later.
The same Institutional Investor profile gave a sense of Kleiner’s performance up to that point. Over its twenty-four years of operating, the firm had averaged annual returns north of 30%, putting it in the top 1% of venture vehicles. The average return in the twenty years prior came in at 13.1%.
The back half of the 1990s showed KPCB at the peak of its powers. As NEA founder Dick Kramlich remarked, this was the “golden age of venture capital,” and John Doerr wasn’t about to let good times go to waste.
In 1996, a former hedge fund manager named Jeff Bezos sought an introduction to Kleiner. Despite the rapid growth of Bezos’s business (and fervid interest from investors), the Amazon CEO specifically sought out Doerr. A term sheet swiftly followed a visit to Seattle, and KPCB snagged 13% of Amazon for just $8 million. For Bezos, seeking out Doerr made obvious strategic sense: “Kleiner and John are the gravitational center of a huge piece of the Internet world. Being with them is like being on prime real estate.” (Depending on when KPCB sold its position, its Amazon stake might have been worth as little as $60 million – its IPO value – or many multiples more.)
KPCB’s crowning investment came three years later. In 1999, Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page knocked on the doors of two venture firms: Sequoia Capital and Kleiner. By then, the fledgling search engine was handling 500,000 queries daily, a sign of true product-market fit. John Doerr quickly recognized the potential of Brin and Page’s business and was wooed by their ambition. When he asked Google’s founders how big their company could become, they told him “ten billion.” He was thrilled to learn that Brin and Page meant revenue, not market cap – a sign of extraordinary ambition.
As it turned out, Sequoia’s Mike Moritz was similarly bullish on the company. With Google wanting the best of both worlds, a rare deal was struck: Sequoia and KPCB would co-lead the investment, each taking a 12.5% stake. The $12 million Doerr put forward was the largest in his career to that point. His concentrated bet paid off. In 2004, the search engine hit the public markets, ending its first day of trading at a $27 billion market cap.
Venture capital is a strange game. A particularly pronounced quirk is the asset class’s long feedback cycle. Startups take time to mature and trace volatile trajectories. This central, structural truth results in an industry that is always, at least to some extent, guessing. A startup might look like it’s succeeding, but you won’t know for certain for a decade. A sector may appear promising, but it may be a mirage. A new partner seems to have a hot hand, but it could be beginner’s luck. Welcome to the land of possibility and probability; there are no sure bets here.
Starting in the early 2000s, Kleiner Perkins set in motion a plan that looked bold, original, and potentially lucrative. And yet, it resulted in the most turbulent decade and a half in the firm’s fifty-year history. With the benefit of hindsight, Kleiner’s troubles seem to have stemmed from market mistiming, split focus, and internal unrest.
John Doerr timed his investments to perfection for the first quarter century of his venture career. He rode the PC and software wave of the 1980s to back Compaq, Sun, and Lotus. In the 1990s, when many treated the sector skeptically, Doerr championed the potential of the internet, declaring it the “largest legal creation of new wealth in the history of the planet.” Among Sand Hill big-wigs, few rivaled Doerr when spotting a burgeoning market and rhapsodizing it into reality.
Starting in the mid-2000s, Doerr identified the next great wave: cleantech. Though the firm had made a few green investments as early as the turn of the millennium, 2005 marked a turning point. That year, Doerr set aside $100 million to invest in a sector he would later call “bigger than the internet.” KPCB raised a dedicated $500 million vehicle to double down on Doerr’s thesis three years later. Across its various funds, Kleiner would invest $1 billion in the sector.
It’s fair to say that it didn’t pay off as handsomely as Doerr’s previous exploits. Companies like Fisker Automotive burned through vast sums of capital before collapsing, and a public narrative solidified that Kleiner had made a costly error.
In retrospect, that assessment appears relatively true, if strictly incorrect. In his book Speed & Scale, Doerr noted that by 2019, the value of KPCB’s “surviving” green investments had risen to $3 billion. (It’s unclear whether that $3 billion includes public companies from which KPCB has already exited.)
That puts Kleiner’s green efforts ahead of the many venture firms that lose money or net out with flat returns, but it’s a far cry from the top percentile performance on which Kleiner had built its name. If Doerr included Kleiner’s cleantech investments in the early 2000s in his calculation, the annualized return until 2019 would be approximately 8%. Again, that’s well short of Kleiner’s pace during its golden age.
As climate tech once again commands venture’s attention, we may discover that Doerr was simply a little early in his predictions. It does not seem impossible for green investments to outperform more traditional venture categories in the coming decades; Doerr certainly remains bullish.
Kleiner’s embrace of cleantech was part of a broader shift at the firm. Historically, KPCB had shone by focusing its efforts, investing in early-stage U.S. technology firms. As venture grew more competitive, Kleiner set out to broaden its boundaries, launching a series of specialist funds.
In 2006, the firm debuted a $200 million “pandemic and biodefense fund.” The next year, it inaugurated a $360 million China-focused vehicle. (When a $250 million follow-up was raised in 2011, managing partner Ray Lane proclaimed, “We will be in China for 50 years or 100 years.” Reader, they were not.) In 2008, alongside the $500 million green fund, Doerr announced a $100 million “iFund,” designated to invest in the applications running on Apple’s new phones.
While these vehicles were ultimately short-lived, there is something admirable about Kleiner’s adventurousness here. At its heart, venture is a game of risk, of seeing where the puck is headed before the rest of the market. Though none of the funds mentioned above would become hallmarks of KPCB, they show an intelligence and willingness to push the boundaries of the asset class. One source remarked that this is one of Kleiner’s fundamental traits and contributed to its triumphs and missteps. “You’ve got to be pushing the envelope all the time,” they remarked, adding that without that drive, Kleiner wouldn’t have capitalized on the internet and biotech waves as well as it did during the 1980s and 1990s.
Kleiner’s most significant addition was its growth fund. In 2010, the firm announced it had raised $1 billion to back later-stage companies. Just as important as the capital accumulated was the investor KPBC selected to manage it: Mary Meeker. Renowned for her equity analysis at Morgan Stanley, Meeker had yet to work as an investor. That didn’t put off John Doerr and lieutenant Ted Schlein. The son of an Apple board member, Schlein had joined the firm in 1996 after a successful operating career at Symantec. Alongside Doerr, he recruited Meeker to the firm. The “Queen of the Net” was joined by collaborators Mood Rowghani, Noah Knauf, and Juliet de Baubigny Recruiting. Meeker and her team proved to be a decision that delivered returns and invited complications.
The impact of these five new investing practices can be seen in the portfolio KPCB assembled during this period. While it tried to split focus between biotech, China, iPhone apps, cleantech, and growth investments, it missed investing in many of the era’s most successful startups – at least at its preferred Series A stage.
In particular, Kleiner seems to have been slow to recognize the potential of social media and the on-demand economy. Between 2005 and 2015, Kleiner failed to back Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Snap, Uber, Instacart, or DoorDash in early rounds. It suffered a similar fate in fintech and enterprise software, neglecting Stripe, Plaid, Robinhood, Affirm, Box, Dropbox, Slack, and Snowflake. As it dallied, rivals Sequoia, Benchmark, and Accel shone, capturing many of these winners.
As discussed, venture firms don’t need a high hit rate to succeed. And, indeed, Kleiner did find its own winners. One source noted that its best returns during this period included Beyond Meat (81x), QuantumScape (61x), Nest (21.5x), Enphase Energy (8.2x), LuxVue (7.2x), and OSIsoft (4.8x). KPCB also invested in Segment and Shape Security at the Series A, both of which secured exits north of $1 billion. Nevertheless, by Kleiner’s high standards, missing out on the era’s biggest winners – the Googles and Amazons of this age – represented a drop-off.
To its credit, KPCB remedied its early-stage errors via its growth fund. Meeker’s three “Digital Growth Funds” (DGFs) circled back to nab many of the names mentioned and hits like Peloton, Looker, Livongo, and Tesaro.
So, how did Kleiner’s mixed performance stack up on a vintage-by-vintage basis? It depends on who you ask – and whether you look at the venture or growth investing practices. One source described several early-stage vintages in the 2000s and the early 2010s as “substandard…especially compared to the 1990s.” An article from The Information in 2019 broadly corresponds to that assertion and adds further data. According to the report, Kleiner scored top quartile returns by net IRR on its 2010 vintage, but the three vehicles following ranked in the second and third quartiles. For a fund of Kleiner’s reputation, ranking outside of the top 25% represents a meaningful decline in performance.
A different source questioned whether Kleiner’s vintages during this period were truly “sub-standard,” highlighting the performance of the 2010 vintage and remarking the 2012 vintage had “more returns to come.” They added that in the past eight years, Kleiner distributed over $10 billion in capital to LPs, indicating that bets made during the 2000s and 2010s yielded payouts. Time may prove Kleiner’s troubled vintages to be sounder than many believed.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the public perception at the time was that Kleiner’s early-stage vehicles lagged behind Meeker’s growth practice. “The growth fund was known as the better part of the firm,” one contact said of the 2010s. However, they were quick to note that DGF’s performance was solid rather than spectacular. “They were not outrageously great,” the source said. “[They] basically performed in line with tech market indices.” The Information piece noted earlier showed that all three of DGF’s vintages between 2010 and 2016 outperformed the S&P 500 on a net IRR basis.
The rise in prominence of Kleiner’s growth practice contributed to some of the internal unrest that marked this period.
First, the departures. In 2004, the brilliant, irascible Vinod Khosla departed to start his own firm. It counted as a considerable loss. Not only had Khosla brought in some of KPCB’s biggest winners, he would continue to deliver. In the following decade, Khosla Ventures invested in the early rounds of Square, AppNexus, Instacart, Affirm, Opendoor, Doordash, Webflow, Upstart, and Oscar Health.
Though Khosla’s exodus was a major blow, other talented investors also departed in this chapter of Kleiner’s history. In 2003, Steve Anderson left to found Baseline Ventures, which backed Instagram, Expensify, Stitch Fix, TaskRabbit, Pocket, and PagerDuty. In 2012, Aileen Lee ended a thirteen-year association with KPCB to kickoff Cowboy Ventures, which backed Dollar Shave Club, Crunchbase, Philz Coffee, and Guild Education. Losing out on Anderson and Lee’s deal flow and taste will also have stung.
No decampment caused Kleiner quite as much damage as Ellen Pao’s. The same year that Lee left, Pao filed a discrimination suit against the firm, alleging that she had been passed over for promotion because of her gender and as retaliation for an affair with a married colleague, who she also claimed harassed her. (That person is no longer at the firm.) While a jury found in favor of KPCB on all counts in 2015, the acrimony tarnished the fund’s reputation at a time it could ill afford bad press. One source familiar with the years following the Pao case cited its effect on the organization. “It had a huge impact on the team,” they said. “Everyone had a lot of scar tissue.”
As alluded to earlier, departures were only half of the problem. Adding Mary Meeker to the fold brought star power but also created friction. A debate has defined the asset class’ last couple of decades: can venture be industrialized, or must it be a small-scale, craft-based practice? Megafunds and platforms like Softbank, Tiger Global, a16z, and Y Combinator sit at one end of the spectrum; artisanal capitalists like Union Square Ventures and Benchmark cluster at the other. Both are viable, interesting strategies but require fundamentally different resourcing, leadership, and cultures.
Historically, KPCB had aired on the small-batch side of things. Though it had never been shy to raise large fund sizes, it flourished by building personal relationships, carefully picking in, and pitching in. The goal was to find outliers, not index a swathe of top tech performers.
The introduction of Mary Meeker and the Digital Growth Funds pulled KPCB in competing directions. Suddenly, it was a firm with two power centers, and two masters, each operating under different principles. “Mary Meeker’s influence was outsized,” a source said. “[DCG] was very clearly her fund.” Meeker sourced her investments by printing out profit and loss statements on massive sheets of paper, pouring over figures for hours to determine whether a business was ready to take flight. According to one source, Meeker had a “very consistent” way of evaluating companies that suited momentum investing in a bull market. Peloton was cited as a particular example of Meeker’s “very specific type of genius”; she backed the fitness company at $1.2 billion, riding it up to $20 billion before exiting. That approach differed greatly from Kleiner’s early-stage investors’ more personal, intuitive, vision-based approach.
Tacking in multiple directions at once and fighting several negative narratives, KPCB reached 2013 with its illustrious reputation under fire. In an article around that time, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham said that Sequoia, Accel, Greylock, and a16z had all jumped Kleiner in entrepreneurs’ rankings. “[They] are not in the top of founders’ minds when they think about VCs.”
Kleiner Perkins needed to make a change.
If John Doerr and Ted Schlein had had their way, Mamoon Hamid would have joined Kleiner long before August 2017.
Hamid had been on Schlien’s radar as early as 2005 when he began working at U.S. Venture Partners (USVP) – Schlein’s father’s employer. Schlein junior was said to have been quickly enamored with the young investor, impressed by his intelligence, integrity, and leadership potential. In the succeeding years, the Kleiner partner kept a close eye on the Harvard MBA graduate, catching up for tea in San Francisco. “It was a kind of multi-year courting process,” a source said.
When Hamid moved on from USVP to co-found Social Capital in 2011, Schlein’s interest increased. Not only had Hamid built a strong initial track record, he clearly had the ambition and capability to run a firm of his own. Over the next few years, Social Capital showed it was a player in the ecosystem, building mindshare that, by some measures, surpassed KPCB’s. It also shouldered into deals for Slack, SurveyMonkey, Box, and Yammer.
As it became clear Kleiner needed to revamp its early-stage practice in the mid-2010s, Schlein and Doerr approached Hamid and his Social Capital co-founder Chamath Palihapitiya with an unusual offer. They didn’t just want the two investors to join them at KPCB; they wanted to buy their firm. Talks progressed through the last weeks of 2014 before falling apart in January 2015 – purportedly because Palihapitiya’s plans for Kleiner didn’t jibe with its leadership.
Schlein did not give up on recruiting Hamid, though. The more time he spent with Social Capital’s co-founder, the more he became convinced of his capabilities and the impact he could have on KPCB. What was it about Hamid, of all the venture capitalists in the Valley, that so bewitched the fifty-year-old fund?
Multiple sources paint a consistent picture of an investor with an unusual combination of humility, perceptiveness, intellectual horsepower, and skill. One person referred to Hamid’s track record as “unassailable,” while another called him “the consummate SaaS investor” and “one of the greats.” Routinely, he is described as a keen listener who can cut to the heart of an issue with “exactly the right number of words.”
As the outcome suggests, Hamid’s conversations with KPCB proved enticing. Though it was logistically and emotionally complicated to leave a firm he had co-founded, the opportunity to take over a historic franchise appealed. One source noted that Hamid valued the chance to put his “spin” on the “iconic brand.”
Nearly three years after Doerr and Schlein explored purchasing Social Capital, they announced signing its managing partner. An interview Hamid gave The Wall Street Journal at the time suggested he was under no illusions about the scale of the challenge before him. “There’s a long history of reverence toward the brand,” he said. “Our job is to recreate that with a younger cohort. It’s not a given. We have to work at it. We’re not taking it for granted that people love us or like us for being Kleiner Perkins. We can’t assume that. We have to assume we’re starting from a negative.”
Though Doerr and Schlein had already begun to course correct by hiring Hamid as the firm’s new managing partner, he was ultimately responsible for leading the transformation.
In typical Hamid fashion, he began by listening, spending months getting to know Kleiner’s current and previous team. He is said to have come away from those discussions convinced the firm needed to focus its efforts, build around a small group of investors, and foster a “challenger’s mindset.” Kleiner may have been in business for fifty years but couldn’t afford to rest on its laurels. It needed a new hunger to emerge.
Hamid wanted a partner to assist with the firm’s renewal. He made an Excel spreadsheet with fifty names. The first name on the list? Ilya Fushman.
Like Hamid, Fushman had spent part of his childhood in Germany before emigrating to the United States. Indeed, in a coincidence, the pair would only discover later, Fushman had been in the same middle school class as Hamid’s sister in Frankfurt.
From that point onward, the pair’s paths seemed to trace each other. Both received undergraduate engineering degrees, both moved on to Master’s programs at Stanford (albeit in different fields), and both found themselves starting venture capital careers in the late-2000s and early 2010s.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Stanford, Fushman started work at Khosla Ventures. It feels fitting that he began his investing career at a fund within the Kleiner diaspora. At that first job, Fushman is said to have witnessed Doerr and Khosla battling it out for different deals, feeling the “interesting history” between them.
Though Fushman had attempted to build a business during Stanford, it hadn’t taken off. (“Phenomenal technology, terrible business,” one source quipped.) Keen to experience hyper-growth at a tech company first-hand, Fushman left Khosla Ventures after roughly 18 months to take a job at Dropbox. Over four years, Fushman got to experience that hockey-stick growth, rotating through roles as Head of Corporate and Business Development and Head of Product. Bettered by the experience, he returned to investing, becoming a general partner at Index Ventures.
Stewart Butterfield was the first to put Fushman firmly on Hamid’s radar. Though the Slack founder rarely raved, he was said to be deeply impressed with Fushman’s performance at Dropbox – so much so that Butterfield attempted to recruit him as Slack’s Head of Product. When Fushman chose to go to Index instead, Butterfield told Hamid that he wanted Index to lead the next round and its newest GP to serve on the board.
Butterfield got his wish, and Hamid gained the opportunity to observe Fushman’s abilities up close. Like Hamid, many describe Fushman as an extremely thoughtful individual endowed with a fierce intelligence. One person called him “genuinely one of the smartest people”’ they’d ever met, highlighting Fushman’s ability to grasp new concepts rapidly. As the Butterfield anecdote suggests, the physics Ph.D. also has a gift for connecting with founders – something he does by leading with candor. One entrepreneur spoke (favorably) of Fushman’s “brutal honesty.” “He’ll be the first one to tell you an idea is terrible. But he’ll also explain why.”
Slack’s two board members quickly meshed, meeting for walks around Palo Alto to pitch each other on teaming up. Would Hamid ever consider joining Index? Could Fushman see himself jumping aboard Social Capital’s insurgent shop? Neither budged.
Hamid’s move to Kleiner reset the board. In late 2017, Hamid started at the top of his list and reached out to catch up. This time, the conversation quickly became more tactical. Fushman shared Hamid’s belief that joining Kleiner represented the “opportunity of a lifetime,” according to one source. If they could combine Social Capital’s hunger with Kleiner’s brand recognition, Fushman felt they’d have a formidable firm capable of winning even the most competitive deals. It didn’t hurt that when Hamid showed Fushman Kleiner’s homespun deal tracker, it featured “literally” every deal he’d done at Index. Perhaps KPCB had taken a hit in the 2000s and early 2010s, but this new incarnation seemed to be clicking.
In March 2018, Ilya Fushman officially joined as a managing partner. The new era was about to begin in earnest. Over the following five years, Hamid and Fushman executed a comprehensive reboot. The evolution touched brand, organizational structure, talent, and culture.
A few months after Fushman joined, his new employer announced it was heading “Back to the Future,” rebranding as “Kleiner Perkins.” Though a simple shift in some respects, it served as a narrative hook for the firm’s next phase and demonstrated a desire to get back to basics.
When it came to streamlining the organization itself, Doerr and Schlein gave their successors a head start. In February 2017, news broke that Kleiner was spinning out its “green growth” practice into a separate organization called G2VP. It marked the end of Kleiner’s formal pursuit of cleantech, though the firm has invested in the sector since. The debut of G2VP was followed by biotech partner Dr. Beth Seidenberg leaving KP after thirteen years. She went on to found Westlake Village BioPartners. Once again, it showed Kleiner’s desire to pull back on the experiments of the previous period. Though KP’s China fund is not fully deployed, Hamid and Fushman passed on raising a new vintage, setting it on the flight path to obsolescence.
The most significant shift was Kleiner’s severing of its growth practice. Though one source remarked that the break wasn’t as dramatic as many might have believed, there had been friction between the early-stage and growth practices for several years. Doerr and Schlein had started the offboarding process before Hamid and Fushman took over, but if there had been any remaining hopes of retaining Meeker and her team, they quickly dissipated. The same issues chafed, even under new leadership.
Meeker, Rowghani, Knauf, and de Baubigny left in 2018, going on to raise $1.25 billion for a new fund, BOND. In addition to investing that capital, BOND manages the portfolio accumulated during the “Digital Growth Fund” era. Several of KP’s partners invested in the breakaway firm.
“[It] was a bit of a blow,” a source said of the schism. “Having Mary and those partners leave represented a talent exodus…[It was] a big structure change and perceptual change.”
To Hamid and Fushman’s credit, they took it on the chin. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks to have been the right move for both teams. BOND has become a significant player in its own right, and KP has freed itself from political strife.
Looking at Kleiner’s current investing roster, two things stand out. Firstly, it’s a lean team with just nine full-time investors. Factoring in KP’s advisors like Schlein, Doerr, and Byers, the figure hits a dozen. (All three are said to remain very active.) Compared to rivals and contemporaries, this is almost a skeleton crew.
Secondly, almost all of the full-time investing team are recent additions. Only Wen Hsieh, who has been with the fund since 2006, predates Hamid’s 2017 arrival. (Josh Coyne arrived the same week.) This team was hired almost entirely by Hamid and Fushman and inculcated in their new culture.
Kleiner’s new stewards have emphasized the importance of a hungry, united culture. Sources describe it as collaborative and even familial. Hamid and Fushman are approachable leaders but “compassionately direct” when they need to be.
Like many venture firms, Kleiner holds its partner meetings on Mondays. Before the investment team reviews potential financings, the entire Kleiner staff convenes. This includes portfolio support functions like marketing, talent, and communications. The message from Hamid, according to one source, is this: “I don’t care what your role is, it matters. And, by the way, you’re expected to do it great.”
When it comes time to decide on an investment, the process is informal. There is no set voting structure for early-stage deals; the team simply discusses the company at hand and reaches a conclusion. Notably, this kind of process is only possible with a small group.
Across the board, slimming down has borne fruit for KP. Five years is not enough time to know definitively which of KP 4.0’s investments will be monster hits – but there are strong signals. For one thing, Kleiner seems to have set a very high win rate, even when computing against Tier 1 rivals like Sequoia or Benchmark. In 2018, the firm apparently had a 100% win rate over competitors; today, it sits at 90%.
How does it hit that mark? Beyond Kleiner’s brand, the fundamental appeal of working with the firm seems to be the partners themselves and the attention they promise. Hamid and Fushman have established themselves as impressive pickers and do the work to earn founders’ trust. This more intimate, focused approach can make a real difference when choosing between elite firms.
That value proposition has appealed to an impressive range of founders. Since Hamid’s arrival in August 2017, KP has backed several fast-growing companies at the seed and Series A, including Persona, Productboard, Viz, Loom, Glean, Rippling, Modern Health, Bison Trails, Watershed, Secureframe, and Settle. As part of a revamped growth practice (more on that later), Kleiner has backed later-stage rounds for businesses like Netlify, PlanetScale, UiPath, AppliedIntuition, Synesthesia, and Figma.
Kleiner will be pleased that, in many instances, elite firms are now chasing its portfolio rather than the other way around. After KP backed Persona at the seed, Index and Founders Fund led the growth rounds. After splitting Glean’s Series A, General Catalyst and Sequoia Capital followed. Eighteen months after financing Rippling’s Series A, Founders Fund grabbed the B, with Sequoia leading a $250 million Series C. Naturally, this is not always the case, but it demonstrates that Kleiner is competitive once again.
The greatest success of Hamid and Fushman’s Kleiner so far is Figma. Though a Series B round, in many respects, it’s emblematic of the modern KP style. CEO Dylan Field had raised from elite firms like Index Ventures, but his design platform had yet to take off. However, while other investors fretted over Figma’s viability, Hamid pored over usage figures. By doing so, he recognized that Field had built a product with extraordinarily deep engagement. With the right development, it could become a massive business. That thesis was validated in September 2022 when Adobe announced its intention to purchase the firm for $20 billion.
Time will tell whether the deal goes through, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a boost for Kleiner’s leadership. “They have one very important proof point there,” a source remarked. “[Because of the power law dynamic], that’s enough to say things are in good shape.”
Despite excluding Figma’s potential sale from the calculations, Hamid and Fushman’s Kleiner appears to be performing impressively. A source revealed that KP’s fifty-year IRR is 37%, indicating its remarkable consistency. For context, early-stage funds aim for 30% or more, while growth vehicles target 20%. Since 2018, KP’s IRR is 65%. If the Figma acquisition goes through, this return will push even higher.
What can we learn from the remaking of Kleiner Perkins? Is there a playbook that other organizations might leverage in moments of generational change? And how can KP keep the good times rolling?
At its most basic, Hamid and Fushman’s transformation can be distilled to five imperatives.
Find your focus.
Create the right culture.
Do the work.
Develop from within.
The growth of the venture asset class has pressured firms to move beyond their core capabilities. Early-stage firms have started moving later, and growth firms have begun competing for earlier deals. Funds focused on the U.S. have expanded to Europe, Latin America, and Asia; sector specialists have broadened their scope to incorporate new categories.
Kleiner is taking the opposite approach. Fundamentally, this team believes that venture capital cannot be scaled. It is a craft business that rewards focus and specialization. More than any other move KP has made, this is the most pivotal. By stripping back its green, biotech, China, and legacy growth practices, it has gained the space to excel in its zone of genius.
If Hamid and Fushman want to continue their hot streak, they must protect this organizational clarity at all costs. One potential pitfall is Kleiner’s introduction of a new later-stage “Select” fund. In 2021, the firm raised $750 million to double down on its best investments and hoover up those it missed. It added to this first vintage in 2022, with a further $1 billion.
The Select vehicles may represent some “focus creep,” per a source. “Benchmark would never do that,” they added.
Though the firm should be vigilant of drift, Kleiner’s recent history means Hamid and Fushman should be particularly attuned to this risk. Notably, there is no specialist growth team – the same group of investors decides on early-stage and growth deals. Hopefully, this should protect against fiefdoms forming, as they seemed to during Meeker’s time.
Secondly, Hamid and Fushman succeeded by retooling Kleiner’s culture. The firm is fond of touting its commitment to the value of “one team, one dream.” Various sources suggest this is more than mere rhetoric. While the old DGF funds purportedly didn’t have the most familial atmosphere, the modern Kleiner relies on close bonds, trust, and collaboration.
Thirdly, by narrowing its focus, Kleiner seems especially well equipped to do the work a lead investor should, supporting portfolio companies across functions. Some of this is done via a portfolio support team that many describe as excellent. One founder remarked how impactful KP’s marketers had been in raising their firm’s profile. They also cited how KP’s talent partner had assisted in building out their executive team. The KP Fellows program – which connects promising college students to tech internships – is another source of talent. (It’s also a neat advanced sourcing strategy: 20% of Fellows become entrepreneurs. The Fellowship also has an even gender split – not the norm in tech.)
What may be most impressive about Kleiner’s support is its “no job too small mentality.” Back in the 1990s, the firm’s partners were renowned for being maniacally accessible; it became a meme that KP investors had pagers strapped to their belts. The new leadership seems to have emphasized this quality – with some help from the old guard. One founder noted that John Doerr had joined in on in-person sales calls, helping them pitch their business to customers. “He was really passionate,” they recalled. “[He’s] one of the best salespeople on planet earth.”
Across the board, KP seems especially eager to pull its weight. “They’re just way, way, way more involved than our other investors,” one founder said.
It’s a sign of lessons learned that Kleiner seems committed to developing its investing talent in-house. Historically, venture has been an apprenticeship business. Young investors learn from previous generations and then step up to take the helm. Legends like John Doerr and Brooks Byers started as associates before snagging partnership positions.
During Kleiner’s troubled period, the firm missed out on this generational handoff, losing many of its most talented young investors. It will not make that mistake again. In the past five years, Hamid and Fushman have elevated Annie Case, Bucky Moore, Josh Coyne, and Everett Randle into its partnership. Assuming it can retain this talent and it develops as expected, KP has a cadre of talented investors capable of leading future generations. “The team there looks really good,” one source remarked.
Finally, though Kleiner has changed substantially under fresh leadership, Hamid and Fushman have been careful not to over-correct. The fund shortened its name but didn’t throw it out completely. Though KP was burned by cleantech in the past, it hasn’t sworn off the sector completely. Indeed, one of Kleiner’s buzziest recent investments is Watershed, a platform that helps enterprises measure and reduce their carbon footprint. Doerr may have been a bit early from an investing perspective, but the firm he helped define can now benefit from his acuity.
“Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. It takes a team to win.”
In 2015, John Doerr outlined those three points during a speech at The University of California Berkeley. Though the great investor was talking about tech companies, that three-part plan, in miniature, neatly encapsulates the turnaround Mamoon Hamid and Ilya Fushman have undertaken at Kleiner Perkins.
There is no magical idea at the heart of this new era, but rather a return to what the firm knows it is exceptional at. Instead, the secret of its success is found in the execution of this renewal and the team assembled to undertake it. After a period of darkness, Kleiner Perkins is once more living in the light.
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The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.