Who Made the Bigger Mistake in the Botched Series C for Tesla: Elon Musk or John Doerr?

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 17, 2012

From The News Desk

By now thousands of you have watched our hour-long PandoMonthly interview with Elon Musk. It was one of my favorites to date -- and given how many excellent guests we've had, that's saying something.

But there was one nugget from the conversation that didn't get as much play as the futuristic Hyperloop and Musk's other outrageous ideas for the future. It was about raising money. He shared the advice that a lot of entrepreneurs give: Don't maximize for valuation, no matter how tempting it is. Go with the best firm to work with.

This is one of those maxims that people say all the time, but rarely follow -- especially in a period of time like this where being in the $1 billion club is doable as also-ran VCs seek to have investments in name brand companies no matter what the cost.

Musk has never told the full story of what happened with Tesla's Series C, but I'd heard from people who know the company well that he deeply regretted his decision to give the deal to VantagePoint Venture Partners and felt the firm treated him less than fairly.

I cajoled him into telling a little bit of the story last Thursday, where he disclosed that VantagePoint offered a 40 percent premium to valuation offered by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Here's the clip where he talks about it:

The ostensible take away from the story -- as it was set up -- was that he wished he hadn't taken money at the higher price. But the story is clearly more nuanced than that. As Musk explains, the reason he picked VantagePoint wasn't merely the valuation -- it was that Kleiner Perkins superstar partner John Doerr was unwilling to be the partner to join Tesla's board. Had Doerr been willing, he would have gladly taking the lower price.

At this point in the story, it occurred to me that this wasn't really a story about what Musk had done wrong. He just quite understandably wanted a say over what partner joined the board. I think any entrepreneur should demand the same. Sure, it didn't work out great for Musk (although he still has never disclosed exactly why). But you could argue it worked out worse for Kleiner. After all, Tesla is still here and a multi-billion dollar public company.

Instead, Kleiner invested in Fisker, another electric sports car company that is now struggling in comparison. As Musk snarked at the event, he hopes they stay in business through the election. Tesla succeeded where Fisker failed, in Musk's view, because it focused on technology not just design. And that's why several other major automobile companies are now buying engines from Tesla.

This is the blessing and curse with a superstar partner who dominates a firm, and why venture firms worry so much about succession planning. They simply don't scale operationally the way the companies they invest in can. Someone like Doerr clearly can't sit on every board, but when he says no sometimes the superior company walks, and the firm loses out.

At the end of the day, Musk found a way to get Tesla past this mysterious VantagePoint-induced rough patch. And considering how much better Tesla is faring than many of Kleiner's other clean tech bets, you could argue they lost more in the transaction than Musk.

Since I was already writing yet another post on the event, I asked the video team to also pull my favorite anecdote of the night: The story of Musk and Peter Thiel's uninsured McLaren F1 car accident on the drive down to meet with Mike Moritz. It tells you everything you need to know about their relationship. As Musk deadpanned later, he's a bit more of a risk taker than Thiel. I would love to hear the story from the point of view of the guy who picked up the now billionaire hitchhikers.

(Note: You may notice we have cut out the CrossCampus branding from all of these videos. As is our policy, I'd like to be honest and upfront with our readers about why we did that. That level of signage is something sponsors pay quite a bit of money for. In this case, it was unauthorized, as CrossCampus did not pay to sponsor the event. Our staff asked repeatedly that they take the sign down. They refused. We were told it wouldn't show up in the video, but there was clearly a miscommunication. We've since altered all of the videos from that evening as a courtesy to our sponsors who do pay for this level of branding. We'll also be looking for a new LA venue for these events going forward, so if you have suggestions please email me at Sarah at PandoDaily dot com.)