Greylock's David Sze: Newsweek profile "makes us uneasy"

By Michael Carney , written on June 6, 2014

From The News Desk

Three months after alienating much of the technology industry with an irresponsible cover story purporting to out the mysterious creator of bitcoin – a story that was resoundingly debunked – Newsweek appears intent on winning those readers back. How else to explain this month’s bizarre cover story highlight Silicon Valley VC firm (and, disclosure, Pando investors) Greylock Partners under the headline, “Finding the Next Facebook: Meet the tech investors with the midas touch?”

We’re not the only ones that think so. Greylock partner and early Facebook investor David Sze found the profile “uneasy” enough that he sent an email to friends of the firm clarifying the backstory of how it came to be and the way he hopes it will be received.

Sze declined to comment for this story, but sources close to the firm tell Pando that the note was sent to a list including Greylock portfolio companies, founders, and others partners of the firm. Perhaps naively, we're told the expectation was not for it to make its way into the press.

It’s not that Greylock isn’t necessarily deserving of recognition, or that identifying up-and-coming tech giants isn’t a compelling story. Indeed one reason it is a story is Sze's unease: Greylock is notoriously press shy, "aw shucks" about its track record, and consistent in giving credit to its portfolio entrepreneurs before itself. Combined with Venture Capital not being an obvious beat for Newsweek, it makes for a strange read.

Sze writes in his email, “This was not some scripted puff piece like others push. That’s not our style as you know.” He goes on to explain that reporter Katrina Brooker evolved the direction of the article from its initial focus on “showcasing a few early stage companies that ‘could be the next Facebook,’” to the final version which focuses more on how “Greylock works with consumer technology companies to help them grow.”

(Somehow the headline and cover image didn’t seem to keep pace. But how better to sell magazines than highlighting Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, rather than Greylock and Sze, who were in fact the focus of the piece?)

“We agreed only if it were to be through the eyes of our companies – what they said, not us,” Sze writes.

The email goes on to address what Sze views as major omissions in the article, namely giving him too much credit over other investment partners, ignoring Greylock’s enterprise practice amid the focus on the consumer Web, and failing to highlight the firm’s portfolio companies and their leaders. The enterprise bit is particularly strange since Workday -- co-founded by Greylock's partner Aneel Bhusri -- was actually a bigger financial hit than Facebook. Greylock actually got into Facebook relatively late at a $500 million valuation -- although it was a ballsy deal at a time when mega-valuation rounds simply weren't done.

According to Pando's sources, Newsweek had access to the full Greylock portfolio, including star companies and duds, consumer and enterprise. That this lagerly positive story is what the magazine came away with should thus be viewed as a compliment to Greylock, as well as a reflection of the author and her editors' own priorites.

Maybe Newsweek and Brooker were simply trying to boil the venture game down to Main St.-worthy lowest common denominator. Certainly they were trying to sell magazines.

Read Sze’s full letter below:

Since a number of you have noted or been kind enough to tweet about it, I wanted to share some back story about the Newsweek cover piece on Greylock just published (see below if not already encountered). We are unused to this kind of piece, and it makes us uneasy, as we try to do all things in service of our companies and this risks not seeming that way.

First, for friends of the firm, I think it is important to know that this was not some scripted puff piece like others push. That’s not our style as you know. Initially, the reporter was focused on writing a story that showcased a few early stage companies that “could be the next Facebook” in 5-10 years from now.  We were happy to help showcase our companies and the great Founders/CEOs that run them.

However, through the course of her reporting, she kept hearing the same story from the CEOs with whom we work - that we are incredibly valuable investment partners, that we help them navigate treacherous waters, that the talent wars are brutal and we help them build their teams, and that we are operators with real world experience who can help them build enduring technology companies. These were naturally occurring conversations and not scripted in any way — in fact they were kind of off topic. Nevertheless, as a result, she decided to change the direction of the piece to focus on how Greylock works with consumer technology companies to help them grow. We agreed only if it were to be through the eyes of our companies – what they said, not us.

Second, I do think it is important to note some major omissions in the article given how little control or sense of final product we had:

> It gives way too much credit to me. Those of you who know us, know how important the whole team is to our success. I am very disappointed all my partners weren’t covered as they each are doing and have done amazing things.

> It totally ignores the incredible Enterprise practice we have — the wonderful companies, passionate CEOs/Founders, our great Enterprise Partners, and our great history of successes. I think our team is the best in the business, hands down, and to not have them properly credited is painful.

> It also leaves out the leadership role provided by Aneel Bhusri in the 2000’s: building out the West Coast office, pushing for Consumer, and making incredible investments. It also misses the critical roles that Bill Helman and Henry McCance played by embracing change and facilitating our unprecedented triple crown: simultaneous geographic change, generational change, and domain evolution. They were key architects.

> Most importantly, our companies and their great leaders are the reason we exist and why we keep doing what we do —  we are indebted to each and every one of them.

Lastly, thank you all for allowing us to work with you and have you as part of our extended Greylock network.

Best regards,

David [Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]