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05.11.11

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Start Me Up

The (smaller) future of venture capital

By Daedalus Howell


Money makes the world go around—really, really fast—which is why one's head tends to spin with each new billion-dollar valuation and smug twenty-something on a magazine cover. This isn't anything new; it's even something of a Bay Area tradition. Or at least that's the impression one might get watching Something Ventured, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's documentary exploring the history of venture capital and the men who first saw dollar signs in Silicon Valley.

"We start at the back, and if the numbers are big, we look at the front to see what kind of business it is," laughs the dapper Tom Perkins, early in the film. Perkins is the gimlet-eyed partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who successfully funded companies like Google, Amazon and Genentech. The film, which screened earlier this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival, serves to remind that not only did these swaggering money men make possible companies like Apple, Atari, Cisco and Intel, but they're responsible for recasting the American dream with a geek sensibility.

At the Founder Conference in Mountain View last week, the geeks were in full force, attending panels and seminars with titles like "Can You Really Raise Angel Money with One Email in 2011?" (I wasn't able to get the answer.) Presented by Foundrs.com—that's not a typo, but rather a spelling both predicated on the availability of domain names and a hip, post-dot-com disregard for vowels (think "Flickr")—the conference was crammed. According to its romance copy, organizers promised a "simple alternative to incorporating for Web 2.0 startups," which came in the form of meet-ups and some order of "virtual company product."

Whichever way companies surely sprang from the event, it was evident that cash was flowing. The numbers, it's worth noting, were not in the obscene, let's-buy-a-foosball-table amounts of last decade, but rather sober seedlings of cash that almost seemed quaint. I overheard a sharp-dressed man talking loudly on a mobile phone, insisting to his interlocutor that he "can get you $50,000 in seed money right now, if that's all you want. People love the concept—you're a candlemaker in Marin!"

Sure, candlemaking might not be Facebook material, but here was a guy in a suit obviously excited about the notion. This is what the Bay Area does best—it takes little ideas, infuses them with passion, smarts and drive, and turns them into big ideas. Even my toddler son seemed to get the bug. He filched a penny from my coat pocket and promptly threw it in the fountain—a small investment that turned an otherwise banal water feature into a wishing well.


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