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Wednesday, December 17, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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In a circle of tech, stock payouts fuel startups

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

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MENLO PARK, Calif. >> Matt Cohler was employee No. 7 at Facebook. Adam D’Angelo joined high school friend Mark Zuckerberg’s quirky little startup in 2004 — and became its chief technology officer. Ruchi Sanghvi was the first woman on its engineering team.

All have left Facebook. None are retiring. With lucrative shares and a web of valuable industry contacts, they have left to either create their own companies or bankroll their friends.

With Facebook’s public offering in mid-May, more will probably join their ranks in what could be one of Facebook’s lasting legacies — a new generation of tech tycoons looking to create or invest in, well, the next Facebook.

“The history of Silicon Valley has always been one generation of companies gives birth to great companies that follow,” said Cohler, who, at 35, is now a partner at Benchmark Capital and an investor in several startups created by his old friends from Facebook. “People who learned at one set of companies often go on to start new companies on their own.”

“The very best companies, like Facebook,” he continued, “end up being places where people who come there really learn to build things.”

This is the story line of Silicon Valley, from Apple to Netscape to PayPal and, now, to Facebook. Every public offering creates a new circle of tech magnates with money to invest. This one, though, with a jaw-dropping $100 billion valuation, will create a far richer fraternity.

Its members will be, by and large, young men, mostly white and Asian who, if nothing else, understand the value of social networks. And they have the money. Some early executives at Facebook have already sold their shares on the private market and have millions of dollars at their disposal.

Cohler, for example, is at the center of a complex web of business and social connections stemming from Facebook.

In 2002, barely two years out of Yale, he was at a party where he met Reid Hoffman, a former PayPal executive who was part of a slightly older social circle. The two men “hit it off,” as Cohler recalled on the online question-and-answer platform, Quora (which was co-founded by D’Angelo). He became Hoffman’s protege, assisting him with his entrepreneurial investments and following him to his new startup, LinkedIn.

Then, Cohler joined a company that Hoffman and several other ex-PayPal executives were backing: Facebook.

Cohler stayed at Facebook from 2005 to 2008, as it went from being a college site to a mainstream social network. One of his responsibilities was to recruit the best talent he could find, including from other companies.

Cohler left the company to retool himself into a venture capitalist. He has since been valuable to his old friends from Facebook.

Through his venture firm, Cohler has raised money for several companies founded by Facebook alumni, including Quora, created in 2010 by D’Angelo and another early Facebook engineer, Charlie Cheever. Other companies include Asana, which provides software for work management and was created in 2009 by Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder; and Peixe Urbano, a Brazilian commerce website conceived by Julio Vasconcellos, who managed Facebook’s Brazil office in Sao Paulo.

Cohler has put his own money into Path, a photo-sharing application formed in 2010 by yet another former Facebook colleague, Dave Morin. Path is also bankrolled by one of Facebook’s venture backers: Greylock Partners, where Hoffman is a partner.

And he has invested in Instagram, which was scooped up by Facebook itself for $1 billion.

“Thrilled to see two companies near and dear to my heart joining forces!” Cohler posted on Twitter after the acquisition.

Instagram clearly was a good bet; it is impossible to say whether any of the other investments Cohler or other Facebookers are making will catch fire or whether the startups they found will last. Certainly, there is so much money in the Valley today that startups have room to grow without even a notion of turning a profit.

Sanghvi, one of the company’s first 20 employees, married a fellow Facebook engineer, Aditya Agarwal. Zuckerberg attended their wedding in Goa, India.

With her husband and a third engineer from Facebook, Sanghvi, now 30, formed in 2010 a technology infrastructure company, Cove. It was recently acquired by San Francisco-based Dropbox, whose founders she knew socially.

The Facebook network is vital to her, she said. D’Angelo has become a sounding board for Cove. She has invested her own money in her friend Morin’s company, Path.

“It’s extremely useful to have that network, not just for tangible things like funding and talent but also emotional support,” she said. “Just having those friends has been incredibly important.”

As Bill Tai, a partner at Charles River Ventures and a veteran investor, put it, “The social fabric of Silicon Valley is a dense set of overlapping spider webs, meaning everyone is connected.”

Tai predicted that the Facebook IPO would be influential throughout the Valley.

“A little tingle on one of the webs, and a lot of people will feel it.”

Cohler, by all indications, has been especially deft at working his connections. In 2007, when he was looking for talented engineers for Facebook, he called a young Stanford Ph.D whom he knew, somewhat distantly, named Benjamin Ling, who was then working at Google. The two men met for lunch in the Google cafeteria. By the end of lunch, Cohler had persuaded Ling to decamp to Facebook. He worked on the Facebook platform for two years, returned to Google for another few and then leveraged his millions and his connections to become an angel investor, one who backs small startups.

Entrepreneurs approach him because they know him from either Google or Facebook. He puts $25,000 to $250,000 into startups he fancies and prefers to go into projects with friends. Often his most valuable contribution, Ling said, was not money but in helping friends recruit coveted engineers. That is what he did for his friend D’Angelo at Quora.

Ling, who is now chief operating officer at a social network, Badoo, compared the Valley’s tech world with a tribe in a more traditional society.

“You help each other, through recruiting, through fundraising, through business development deals,” he said.

In the genealogy of social networks in the Valley, the most famous network effect came from the small coterie known as the PayPal Mafia. One of PayPal’s founders, Peter Thiel, was, along with Hoffman, one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Another co-founder, Elon Musk, went on to build high-end electric cars, under the name Tesla.

Two others, Russell Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman, created the consumer review site Yelp in 2004, which was bankrolled in part by Benchmark, the firm where Cohler is a partner. Yelp returned the favor, when it went public this year; it is now worth $1.2 billion. Ling and Stoppelman are friends. They sometimes invest together.

For a glimpse of what may happen after Facebook goes public, consider the millionaires created by Google’s public offering in 2005. Overnight, these young men, most in their 20s and 30s, made so much money from Google shares that they never had to work again.

Aydin Senkut was 36 years old when Google went public. After splurging on a monthlong European holiday with his parents, he bought a house in Atherton, Calif., and a Lamborghini. He had a lot of money left. So he began investing in his friends’ business endeavors. He kicked in what he described as about 10 percent of his net worth to a dozen startups. One of them, Aardvark, a social search engine, was bought by Google in 2010.

Senkut said he expected many more ex-Facebookers to grow angel wings after the public offering — and perhaps dabble in some far-out ideas with no immediate way to make money.

“Now that you have a windfall, why not take a big risk?” he said.





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