Last March, Kleiner Perkins partner Joe Lacob stood in the middle of a room, more awkwardly than in any board meeting when a portfolio company was floundering. That room happened to be center court at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, as thousands of fans booed him mercilessly.
Let’s back up a bit: In 2010, Lacob and Mandalay CEO Peter Gruber bought the Golden State Warriors with a small group of other investors for a record $450 million. The team was a perennial bottom dweller in the NBA, and Lacob promised its desperate fans a trip to the playoffs during his first year as owner. Not even close. Then Lacob traded away two players, including a beloved fan favorite, Monta Ellis, for an injured 7-footer Andrew Bogut. The jury was still out on whether the trade was a good or bad move, but frustration from the fan base had reached a fever pitch.
Which brings us to last March – the day after the trade – during a ceremony where the team retired legendary former Warrior Chris Mullin’s basketball jersey. When Lacob stood up to speak, boos rained down.
After a decade of mediocrity (to put it mildly), the luck is changing for professional sports teams in the Bay Area. The 49ers just last night clinched a playoff berth. The San Francisco Giants are reigning World Series champs, winning twice in three years. The Oakland Athletics are the scrappy “Moneyball” squad reincarnate, who overachieved last season despite having the second lowest payroll in the MLB. The Oakland Raiders are…okay, not every team in the Bay is in tiptop shape.
But luckily for Lacob, the biggest surprise in the Bay Area so far has been the Warriors, who this weekend capped the best road trip in the franchise’s history with a 6-1 record, which included a win over the current champs, the Miami Heat. Don’t get me wrong. The NBA season is still young, but one thing’s for sure: Lacob must be breathing a bit easier.
The Silicon Valley veteran is used to the high stakes game. As a partner with the heavyweight investment firm KPCB since 1987, he’s made several investments in green tech companies like AltaRock Energies and Internet companies like Autotrader.com. He made his NBA debut as a minority owner of the Boston Celtics team that won the championship in 2008.
It might seem weighty to liken the career of an investing partner to the performance of a basketball team, but sports fans – in their quasi-superstitious compulsive way – always perform crazy, seemingly irrelevant analysis to try and gain insight to their beloved teams. Perhaps it works the other way around too, and portfolios companies can glean some perspective by examining an investor’s win-loss column on the court. At least it’s not as ridiculous as asking the Washington Redskins to predict the next president.
Although, since becoming managing partner and chief executive of the Warriors, Lacob has not been a general partner for going forward partnerships, according to the KPCB website. But he still plays an active role in previous partnerships, and still sits on many of their boards, his bio says.
There are certain things that straddle both the venture capitalist world and sports management. For example, splashy, big-named trades rarely work out as quick fixes immediately. Dwight Howard and the Lakers are discovering that right now. And even the Miami Heat needed a season together to get Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh on the same page. Overpaying for a big name is usually not the answer.
Same goes with venture capital. When the Facebook circus was at its peak before the company went public, several investors wanted in to get the sexy name in their portfolios. Now, many of those companies are under water.
For Lacob, most of his fits and starts are the typical snags that come with rebuilding a team in earnest – the depleted rosters, the young players, the yet-to-be developed chemistry. But other things were mismanaged. The team outright lied to the public about the condition of Bogut, the prized acquisition. When the trade was first announced, the fans knew they were getting an injured player, but the ailment was reasonable: a bum ankle, possibly healed by the start of the season. But as the season started and Bogut played minimal minutes – and eventually stopped playing altogether – the story from the Warrior’s camp began to get murky. The team first said he had undergone a simple clean up procedure on his ankle, when in reality he’d had more severe micro fracture surgery. “We don’t want to fool anybody anymore,” Bogut said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Now he is out indefinitely.
Of course, misleading the fans is not illegal. It would be a different situation if Lacob were on his normal turf. If a company lied about the health of a corporate acquisition, the Securities Exchange Commission would get involved, there would be allegations of fraud, and people could be looking at jail time. But for Lacob, it merely cost him bad faith from the fans – which may be more or less precious when you’re at the helm of a $450 million organization that relies on consumer confidence probably more than any other type of company.
But success is the best perfume. In the last few weeks, the young team has gelled, even with Bogut missing from action. And Lacob’s deal might look a lot better now – if only by addition through subtraction. As beloved as Ellis was, he was widely considered a ball hog, and his departure has cleared the way for a more free-flowing offense. And if a company is killing it on the bottom line, none of those other things seem to matter to people, at least for the time being.
But companies – portfolio companies and sports franchises alike – are long-term games. Lacob’s Bogut trade has still not been fully tested. The Warriors are winning now, but it’s a long NBA season. And beyond that, in business it always takes a few years to see how things shake out. Then we’ll see if Lacob really deserved those boos.
[Image courtesy j9sk9s]