No firm in the venture capital industry can match the reputation, global influence and swagger of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (“KP”). KP is accustomed to outsized success and glory – which makes the lackluster performance of KP’s China operation all the more baffling. For all its Midas-touch reputation in Silicon Valley, KP’s China operation looks more like 100% pyrite. It seems beset by some poor investment choices, setbacks and even rancor among its partners and team. The firm’s Chinese-language website even manages to misspell the Kleiner Perkins name. (See below.)
Last year, Joe Zhou, one of the founding managing partners of KP in China left the firm to set up a rival VC shop, Keytone Ventures. Two other KP partners in China have also left. Losing so many of its partners in such a short time is an unprecedented occurrence at KP — even more so that two of these partners left KP to set up rival VC firms in China.
A partnership at KP is considered among the ultimate achievements in the business world. Al Gore took up a partnership at KP soon after losing the presidential election in 2000. Colin Powell also later joined the firm, as a “Strategic Limited Partner”.
Joe Zhou left KP just 13 months after joining. When he left, he also took some of the senior KP staff in China with him. Zhou also negotiated to buy out the portfolio of China investments he and his team had overseen at KP China. They paid cost. In other words, KP sold its positions in these investments at a 0% gain. Factor in the cost of that capital, and the portfolio was offloaded at a loss.
This isn’t going to endear KP to the Limited Partners whose money it invests. It also signals how little confidence KP had in the future value of these China investments the firm made. Other top VCs and PEs are earning compounded annual rates of return of +50% in China.
There was every reason to believe that KP would achieve great success when it opened in China in 2007. Indeed, when KP opened its China office, it issued a celebratory press release, titled “Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Goes Global;Joe Zhou and Tina Ju to Launch KPCB China”.
Along with having the most respected brand in the VC industry, KP arguably has more accumulated and referenceable knowledge than any other VC firm on where to invest, how best to nurture young companies into global leaders. It’s roster of successful investments includes many of the most successful technology companies in history, including: Amazon, AOL, Sun, Genentech, Electronic Arts, Intuit, Macromedia and Google.
Opening in China was KP’s first major move outside the US – indeed, its first move outside its base in Silicon Valley. KP has only three offices in total, one in Menlo Park , California and one each in Shanghai and Beijing. On its website, the firm’s China operations receive very prominent position. Two of the firm’s most renowned and respected partners, John Doerr and Ted Schlein, apparently played an active part in KP’s entry into China. Along with the high-level backing, KP also raised over $300mn in new capital especially for its China operations. One can assume KP has already taken over $15mn in management fees for itself out of that capital.
Beyond the capital and high-level backing, KP also prides itself on being better than all others in the VC world at building successful companies. So, it’s more than a little surprising that KP’s own business in China has so far failed to excel, failed even to make much of an imprint. Physician heal thyself?
I’m in no way privy to what’s going on at KP in China, and thus far have not had any direct dealings with them. I’ve always admired the firm, and fully expect the China operation to flourish eventually. For one thing, great entrepreneurs and good investment opportunities in China are just too numerous. A firm with KP’s deal flow, capital and experience should find abundant opportunities to make significant returns investing in IPO-bound businesses.
From the beginning, KP’s operation was a kind of outsourced operation. Rather than sending over partners from KP in the US, the firm instead hired away from other firms partners at other China-based VCs. While this meant KP could ramp up in China more quickly, it also put the firm’s stellar reputation, as well as its capital, in the hands of people with no direct experience working at the firm.
According to the KP website, the firm now has 14 companies in its China portfolio. The portfolio is very heavily weighted towards biotech, cleantech and computer technology, mirroring KP’s focus in the US. Other tech—focused VCs in China have run into trouble, and are now shifting much of their investment activity towards established Chinese SME in more traditional industries. In the best cases, these SME have strong brands and very robust sales growth in China’s domestic market.
In my view, investing in these SME offers the best risk-adjusted return of any PE or VC investing in the world right now. KP has yet to make the shift. I wish KP nothing but success, and hope for opportunities in the future to work with them. Its technology bets in China may pay off big-time, in due course. But, meantime, KP is in the very unaccustomed position of laggard, rather than leader, here in China.
It’s surely embarrassing, if not emblematic, that the home page of the Chinese-language version of KP’s own website manages to misspell the company’s name. Check out the top-most bar on the page, where the firm is named “Kliener, Perkins, Caufield and Buyers” .