empty chair

Accel Partners* has been in the top five venture capital firms for the last decade by most accounts – claiming one of the earliest stakes in generation-defining company Facebook (at a mere $100 million valuation) certainly didn’t hurt. Today, the firm announced two new funds totaling $1.475 billion – $475 million targeting the early stage under “Accel XII” and $1 billion focused on growth stage bets within “Accel Growth III.” But it’s not so simple as another fund, same dominating expectations. In fact, the future for Accel isn’t certain at all. It’s going forward without its undisputed MVP.

The headline grabbing news buried in today’s generic fund announcement and first reported by Fortune is that marquee Accel partner and early Facebook investor Jim Breyer will take a “reduced role” in the new funds. [PandoDaily has contacted Accel for confirmation of Breyer’s reduced role. We will update this story if they respond.]

Breyer is on the board of Walmart, Dell, Facebook, NewsCorp, and Marvel, has had 27-years at the firm, and is the three-time reigning Forbes Midas list leader. But now, he will be slowing down and focusing the bulk of his efforts on his personal investment vehicle Breyer Capital, which he first formed in 2006. Breyer will still technically be listed as a partner in the new funds, but he will not be considered a “keyman,” in Accel parlance.

An Accel LP tells Fortune, “My understanding is that Jim will sometimes be investing through Accel, sometimes through Breyer Capital and often through both at the same time. I think he just wanted the extra flexibility, and didn’t want to commit himself 100 percent to Accel for the next five years.”

Sounds conflicted and like a lose-lose for both Accel and its LPs. Indeed, Breyer personally invested in Facebook along with Accel in that early round – a move that is allowed by the firm’s bylaws, but wouldn’t be at a lot of other venture firms and certainly raised eyebrows at the time. But perhaps the thinking is, some Breyer is better than no Breyer.

Breyer has taken a diminished role as the firm’s front man for a few years now, and the firm has worked hard at elevating other partners. Deals like Squarespace, Rovio, SuperCell, Atlassian were done by others. But none of those companies are Facebook, and most of those partners are decidedly low-key and prefer to focus on the work, not their name brand, blogs, Twitter accounts, or public appearances.

Admirable? Sure. But a top five firm needs a mega star and Accel doesn’t have one. At least not working for the firm full time.

That said, it’s hard to begrudge Breyer for the decision. It comes a time when other legendary Valley firms are in transition. This is the challenge with a business that still revolves around personal networks and small cozy partnerships. Sequoia’s Mike Moritz stepped back from day-to-day management of the firm a few years ago for health reasons. And John Doerr has just done a massive reset of the partnership at Kleiner Perkins.

It’s interesting to compare Breyer and Doerr: It may seem like one is cutting-and-running while the other digs in to figure out the firm’s future. But really, Breyer already had his “Doerr moment.” In the aftermath of the dot-com crash, Accel was one of the few firms that LPs swore absolutely without a doubt would not be able to raise another fund. Breyer did the seemingly impossible. He dug in, made wild bets on companies like Facebook at seemingly wild prices, hired and promoted a new generation of partners, and ultimately saved the firm – much like Doerr is trying to do now.

While we can all argue with the exact methodology of the Midas List, the results speak for themselves. Breyer solidified Accel’s top tier reputation, propelling it back to the pinnacle of the venture pecking order. In perhaps overly-simplistic terms: He made the right bet on social media, while Doerr was making the wrong bet on cleantech.

Sure Accel’s bet on Groupon doesn’t look quite so good post-2012, but Accel led its first big institutional round and still made a healthy return on the company’s multi-billion dollar public debut. The firm’s early bet on Dropbox looks like another surefire home run and Atlassian’s imminent IPO should represent another big victory. Meanwhile Accel scored solid base hits in VMWare, Cloudera, Groupon, Braintree, Lynda.com, Squarespace, MoPub, Hotel Tonight, Dropbox, 99Designs, and Supercell. Many of these were early stage bets, but just as many resulted from the firm’s atypical growth investment strategy predicated on leading rounds in mature, but lesser known companies, rather than overpaying for sexy logos on deals they missed earlier on. Of course, Breyer didn’t bring in every winning deal in recent memory, but that’s not to say his presence at the firm, and Accel’s association with Facebook, didn’t help close at least some of them.

Accel will look to replace Breyer’s star power, not with a single new all-star hire, but with a collection of fresh blood including new partner recruit, Brian O’Malley, formerly of Battery, the promotion of John Locke and Jake Flomenberg from principal to partner, and the addition of new venture partner Eric Wolpert.

It’s a risky strategy that leaves Accel as the only firm in our unofficial “elite six” without a superstar partner. Andreessen Horowitz* has its namesake founders, Benchmark has Bill Gurley, Greylock* has Reid Hoffman and David Sze, and Sequoia and Kleiner still have Mike Moritz and John Doerr, respectively, although it’s unclear how long either will stay.

There’s plenty of intellectual horsepower at Accel, but not many partners that entrepreneurs and LPs fresh off an airplane from middle-America could pick out in a lineup. The closest thing the firm has to a brand-name star is arguably Kevin Efrusy, who originally sourced Facebook, and Rich Wong who led the Atlassian deal, but whether that’s enough to attract the best of the best deals remains to be seen. Founders still choose investors, in part, based on pedigree and prestige. The same could be said of LPs, although perhaps to a lesser degree.

This phenomenon has only gotten more pronounced in an age of social media. Consider the rise to prominence of Dave McClure, Fred Wilson, Chris Dixon*, and Mark Suster, largely through blogging and tweeting despite the absence of outsized entrepreneurial success as evidence of the power of online brand building. Wilson, arguably the biggest of the bunch, has never even been a CEO. For many founders and investors alike, that’s heresy in the age of “the cult of the founder.” But his track record and reputation of thoughtfulness have made him a coveted investor.

Nothing can last for ever. After nearly three decades with Jim Breyer in its inner circle, the most recent with him as the firm’s chief rainmaker, Accel will have to forge onward without his full attention. It could be the beginning of a whole new era of dominance for the storied firm, but it could also mark the beginning of its fall from grace.

Whatever happens, Sequoia, Kleiner, and all the other late 1990s mega firms who are in the same tricky succession limbo will be closely watching. Their LPs will be as well.

(* Disclosure: Accel and Greylock are investors in PandoDaily, as are Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon)

(Updated March 20, 2014, 8:45am PST: Accel provided the following statement regarding Breyer’s ongoing role at the firm:

Jim is a highly respected colleague, mentor and friend. He remains a partner with Accel and will continue to lead a number of technology investments in the new funds; similar to the deals that he has recently led (e.g. Prismatic, Circle Financial and Clinkle). Beyond tech investing at Accel, Jim continues to serve on public company boards, remains actively involved with the Harvard Corporation (amongst other non-profit and education initiatives), and manages his non-Accel investment interests beyond the tech sector via his family office, Breyer Capital. We fully support Jim’s continued pursuit of these outside endeavors and are excited to work together as partners on the new Accel funds.)

[Image via InfocusDaily]