Virtual worlds are endlessly mutable. As are the wildly implausible schemes their boosters concoct for making money off them. The latest idea Linden Lab has for Second Life: Profit, in some vague, unspecified way, from the world's free 3D design tools. The perpetually gullible BusinessWeek bought this story, pointing to examples of toy designers and architects building digital models and showing them off to customers in Second Life. There's a certain beauty to it: An entrepreneur's fantasy, used to peddle other entrepreneurs' fantasies. Not that there's much of a business here, since Linden Lab gives away its design software.It does suggest a graceful exit strategy for Linden Lab's investors, which include Benchmark Capital: They should persuade Autodesk to buy the company before its free design tools erode the market for that company's profitable design software. Not that I think that Second Life actually poses a threat to the AutoCad franchise — just that Mark Kingdon, Linden's adman-turned-CEO, is slick enough to make the pitch.
Salesforce.com spent $31.5 million on August 4 to acquire San Francisco-based call center software company InStranet. It's Salesforce.com's largest acquisition ever. Careful with the champagne, though.InStranet went through its third round of funding way back in 2001, when it raised $14.7 million at a $50 million valuation in a round joined by Benchmark Capital. So it's not a huge exit. Then again, at least it's an exit. Salesforce.com will also report its second quarter earnings today. Analysts expect $260.56 million in revenues for a 47.6 percent year over year growth.
Shall we all pretend to be shocked by a new study that shows that the venture-capital industry is overwhelmingly — no, disgustingly white and male? A National Venture Capital Association survey found that 88 percent of general partners — the people who can actually greenlight an investment at a firm — are white, and 86 percent are male. On the VC blog Private Equity Hub, Alex Haislip takes hope, noting that the junior ranks of VC firms are more diverse — and that some less lily-white firms have delivered good returns lately. Greed and the relentless herd-following instinct should take care of the industry's inequities, he seems to argue. Good luck with that!
Facebook's vice president of product management, is reportedly leaving the company to join Benchmark Capital. Two possible interpretations leap to mind: Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO recently hired away from Google, is pushing out, one by one, the executives closest to Zuckerberg, leaving him increasingly isolated. Or Zuckerberg, loathe to give up control over Facebook as a product, is doing it himself. Update: Cohler is joining the VC firm as a general partner, not an entrepreneur-in-residence, as we'd first reported — a considerably more prestigious role, where he'll be investing money in startups himself, rather than waiting to get funded. He'll stay tied to Facebook a "special advisor" to Zuckerberg — which suggests that any falling-out was not with the Facebook CEO. Cohler, for his part, tells Swisher he got along well with Sandberg, and helped recruit her to the firm.
Venture capital has a talent problem. (Some wags might say the problem is a complete lack of talent, but not this one.) The difficulty: Potential hires are either too junior, and hence useless as anything but a startup-hunting associate, or too senior to be brought in as anything but a full partner, a process which is difficult and expensive. Benchmark Capital has found a clever solution. It's hired Jonathan Teo, a former Google engineering manager who played a key role in the company's international expansion, as an "investor," according to his LinkedIn profile. (A source close to the firm tells me his exact title may not be settled yet.) Teo's non-partner hire at Benchmark is an indicator of a venture-capital industry in flux — but one that seems willing to experiment. A healthy sign. (Photo via Jonathan Teo's Friendster)
How awesome is the private-equity business? Private-jet awesome. That's the message that Bertram Capital vice president Michael Chang likely hoped to send to friends when he posted an album of photos to Facebook from his firm's trip to Cabo San Lucas. Slightly less awesome reality: Bertram had to borrow the jet from Benchmark Capital, and investors who put money in Bertram may not be that impressed with the firm's goofy display of extravagance. Selections from the photos, which show Bertram executives behaving like high-schoolers on a museum field trip:
Benchmark Capital's second-generation VC Peter Fenton has put his San Francisco home on the market. The 2,621 square-foot, four-level, cedar-shingled manse has gorgeous bay views and is being offered for $5 million, just a little over the appraised value — though you'll have to spend to repair what's been done to the yard, picture here, what with the mirrors and blue running lights and open-flame outdoor heating elements. Why would the Stanford alum and triathlete be moving? I'm guessing he's hedging for a long-term investment in his latest venture, marriage.
As a business, Second Life is a bust. As a technology, the virtual world is a joke. Using snake-oil metaphors to describe it would seem an injustice against toxic cure-alls — were that not Second Life's new marketing peg. The autistic and near-autistic with Asperger's syndrome are flocking to Second Life to learn how to interact with other human beings, CNN reports. This follows Newsweek's discovery last July of Second Life as therapy for the housebound. A suggestion for Benchmark Capital and the other VCs who sank money into this boondoggle: Why not market it as the next Prozac, and sell it to Eli Lilly? That seem easier.
AOL's new social network Bebo is based in San Francisco, but it does most of its business in Europe. So it's fitting that Benchmark Capital's spun-off European wing — Balderton Capital, led by Irishman Barry Maloney — took home the $140 million jackpot. Maloney and his partners sold the firm's entire 15.7 stake in Bebo, which they purchased for $15 million back in 2006.
With its 15 percent share, Balderton Capital cashed out big on Sun's $1 billion MySQL acquisition yesterday. But Benchmark, from which Balderton was spun off, took an even bigger risk on open source back when doing so seemed more than a little crazy."When we first invested in Red Hat it was thought to be totally insane. When we funded MySQL it was only partly insane," Benchmark Capital's Kevin Harvey told the FT after Sun announced its buy. Benchmark owned 26 percent of MySQL before yesterday's sale, providing the firm a much-needed big hit, the likes of which the firm hasn't seen since eBay.
The rehabilitation of Nirav Tolia is not just complete — it is, at long last, confirmed. The cofounder of Epinions, though tarred by old controversies, will announce tomorrow morning that he has, indeed, landed a long-rumored spot at Benchmark Capital as an entrepreneur-in-residence. (Back in March, Valleywag emeritus Nick Denton was told by several people Tolia was heading to Benchmark.) He'll be joined there by Sarah Leary, a former Epinions executive, and both hope to look at startup ideas having to do with online community and user-generated content. (We'll hold our tongue.) Tolia called Valleywag to share the news.
Loan site Prosper wants everyone to know it's no Zopa. When Valley venture blog alarm:clock asked why Benchmark Capital invested in two competing loan companies, Prosper whipped up a little chart showing what it's got that its UK counterpart doesn't: collection agency options, public listings, whiter teeth and cooler toys.