Kleiner Perkins

New Year gambling hints at Chinese entrepreneurial vigour — The Financial Times

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FT beyondbrics

With about every major leading economic indicator in a tailspin, it’s easy, even obvious, to be bearish about China. But, one sign of economic activity could hardly seem more robust: the crowds and cash at gambling tables during this year’s Chinese New Year.

The two-week long lunar New Year celebration finally drew to a close on Monday with the Lantern Festival. Here in Shenzhen, China’s richest city per capita, no sooner do the shops all shut down for the long break than the gambling tables spill out onto the street, like the cork flying out of a bottle.

Gambling, especially in public places with large sums being wagered, is illegal everywhere in China. All the same, the New Year is ready-made for gamblers and street-corner croupiers to gather. For one thing, most police and urban street patrols are also away from their jobs with family.

Along with over-eating and giving cash-stuffed red envelopes, gambling is the other main popular indulgence during the New Year. Most of it happens behind closed doors with families gathered around the mahjong and card table. But parts of Shenzhen soon take on the appearance of an al fresco Macau (see photo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year, from what I could see, the number of punters and sums being wagered was far higher than years past. This matters not only as a statement of consumer optimism here but also as affirmation of the love of risk-taking that helps make China such a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

The two forces operating together – not only at street corner casinos — are perhaps the best reason to be optimistic that China’s economy may yet avoid a “hard landing” and continue to thrive.

In my neighborhood, the favorite game on the street is a form of craps where people bet on which of six auspicious animals and lucky symbols will turn up. Hundreds of renminbi change hands with each roll. No small bets allowed. The gambling goes on from morning until late at night.

It’s a game that requires no skill and one that also gives the house a huge advantage, since winning bets only make four times the sum wagered. This puts it in a somewhat similar league with punto banco baccarat, the casino game Chinese seem to like the most. It’s also game of pure chance, where the house has a built-in edge.

In China, gamblers’ capital flows to games with unfair odds, where dumb luck counts for more than smarts. In this there is cogent parallel with the investment culture in China. China is simply awash in risk-loving risk capital.

Street-side gambling is popular during the New Year break in part because the other more organised mainstream forms of taking a punt are shut down. Top of the list, of course, is the Chinese domestic stock market. It’s rightly called the world’s largest gambling den. Shares bob up and down in unison, prices decoupled from underlying economic factors, a company’s own prospects or comparable valuations elsewhere.

The simple reason is that almost all shares are owned by individual traders. Fed on rumors and goaded by state-owned brokerage houses, they seem to give no more thought to which shares to buy than my neighbors do before betting Rmb200 on which dice will land on the lucky crab.

The housing market, too, traces a similar erratic arc, driven far more by short-term speculation than the need to put a roof over one’s head. Billions pour in, bidding up local housing prices in many Chinese cities to a per-square-foot level higher than just about anywhere in the West except London, Paris, New York and San Francisco. Eventually prices do begin to moderate or even fall, as happened in most smaller cities this past twelve months.

The other big pool of risk capital in China goes into direct investment in entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes and calibers. Nowhere in the world is it easier to raise money to start or grow a business than China. In part, because Chinese have a marked preference for being their own boss, so the number of new companies started each year is high. The other big factor, call it the demand side, is that there is both a lot of money available and a great enthusiasm for investing in the new, the untried, the risky.

Before coming here, I used to work in the venture capital industry in California. VCs there are occasionally accused of turning a blind eye toward risk. Compared to venture investing in China, however, even the most starry-eyed venture investor in Silicon Valley looks like a Swiss money manager.

Just about any idea here seems to attract funding, a lot of it institutional. China now almost certainly has more venture firms than the rest of the world combined. No one can keep proper count. Along with all the big global names like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, there are thousands of other China-only venture firms operating, along with at least as many angel groups. In addition, just about every Chinese town, city and province, along with most listed companies, have their own venture funds.

I marvel at the ease with which early-stage businesses get funded, the valuations they command and the less than diligent due diligence that takes sometimes place before money moves. Of course, a few of these venture-backed companies hit the jackpot.

Alibaba or Tencent are two that come to mind. But, initial public offering (IPO) exits for Chinese startups remain rare, and so taken as a whole, venture investing returns in China have proved meager. But, activity never seems to wane. Fad follows fad. From group shopping, to what’s known in China as “O2O” (offline-to-online) thousands of companies get started, funded and then often within less than 18 months, go pffft.

With the New Year celebrations winding down, the outdoor gambling tables in my neighborhood are being put away for another year. Work schedules are returning to normal. For all the headwinds China’s economy now faces, Chinese household savings are still apparently growing faster than GDP. This means Chinese will likely go on year-after-year amassing more money to invest, to gamble or to speculate.

 

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Kleiner Perkins in China — Update

Budai

Congratulations to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers on the successful NASDAQ IPO of its portfolio company AutoNavi, a Chinese mapping company that supplies maps for GPS navigation systems. KP owned 4.3% of the company prior to its recent IPO. At time of IPO, Kleiner owned 6,527,520 ordinary shares of AutoNavi, now worth around $25mn. That equates to a 2.5X rate of return over the four years KP held the investment.

The AutoNavi investment was made by KP’s main office in California, not Kleiner Perkins China, which was set up in 2007 to lead the US firm’s investing activities in China, and is still waiting for its first exit. According to KP China’s website , the AutoNavi investment is managed by KP China.

Two other venture capital firms also held AutoNavi shares at the time of IP, Walden International and Sequoia.

Kleiner Perkins Adrift in China

Gold ornament from China First Capital blog post

No firm in the venture capital industry can match the reputation, global influence and swagger of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (“KP”). KP is accustomed to outsized success and glory  – which makes the lackluster performance of KP’s China operation all the more baffling. For all its Midas-touch reputation in Silicon Valley, KP’s China operation looks more like 100% pyrite. It seems beset by some poor investment choices, setbacks and even rancor among its partners and team. The firm’s Chinese-language website even manages to misspell the Kleiner Perkins name. (See below.)

Two years ago, Joe Zhou, one of the founding managing partners of KP in China left the firm to set up a rival VC shop, Keytone Ventures. Two other KP partners in China have also left. Losing so many of its partners in such a short time is an unprecedented occurrence at KP — even more so that two of these partners left KP to set up rival VC firms in China.

A partnership at KP is considered among the ultimate achievements in the business world. Al Gore took up a partnership at KP in 2007, after serving as Vice President for eight years and then losing the presidential election in 2000. Colin Powell also later joined the firm, as a “Strategic Limited Partner”.

Joe Zhou left KP just 13 months after joining. When he left, he also took some of the senior KP staff in China with him. Zhou also negotiated to buy out the portfolio of China investments he and his team had overseen at KP China. They paid cost, according to someone directly involved in the transaction. In other words, KP sold its positions in these investments at a 0% gain. Factor in the cost of that capital, and the portfolio was offloaded at a loss.

This isn’t going to endear KP to the Limited Partners whose money it invests.  It also signals how little confidence KP had in the future value of these China investments the firm made. Other top VCs and PEs are earning compounded annual rates of return of +50% in China.

There was every reason to believe that KP would achieve great success when it opened in China in 2007. Indeed, when KP opened its China office, it issued a celebratory press release, titled “Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Goes Global;Joe Zhou and Tina Ju to Launch KPCB China”.

Along with having the most respected brand in the VC industry, KP arguably has more accumulated and referenceable knowledge than any other VC firm on where to invest, how best to nurture young companies into global leaders. It’s roster of successful investments includes many of the most successful technology companies in history, including: Amazon, AOL, Sun, Genentech, Electronic Arts, Intuit, Macromedia and Google.

Opening in China was KP’s first major move outside the US – indeed, its first move outside its base in Silicon Valley. KP has only three offices in total, one in Menlo Park , California and one each in Shanghai and Beijing.  On its website, the firm’s China operations receive very prominent position. Two of the firm’s most renowned and respected partners, John Doerr and Ted Schlein, apparently played an active part in KP’s entry into China. Along with the high-level backing, KP also raised over $300mn in new capital especially for its China operations. One can assume KP has already taken over $15mn in management fees for itself out of that capital.

Beyond the capital and high-level backing, KP also prides itself on being better than all others in the VC world at building successful companies. So, it’s more than a little surprising that KP’s own business in China has so far failed to excel, failed even to make much of an imprint. Physician heal thyself?

I’m in no way privy to what’s going on at KP in China, and thus far have not had any direct dealings with them. I’ve always admired the firm, and fully expect the China operation to flourish eventually. For one thing, great entrepreneurs and good investment opportunities in China are just too numerous. A firm with KP’s deal flow, capital and experience should find abundant opportunities to make significant returns investing in IPO-bound businesses.

From the beginning, KP’s operation was  a kind of outsourced operation. Rather than sending over partners from KP in the US, the firm instead hired away from other firms partners at other China-based VCs. While this meant KP could ramp up in China more quickly, it also put the firm’s stellar reputation, as well as its capital, in the hands of people with no direct experience working at the firm.

The KP website lists 14 companies in the China portfolio. The portfolio is very heavily weighted towards biotech, cleantech and computer technology, mirroring KP’s focus in the US. Other tech—focused VCs in China have run into trouble, and are now shifting much of their investment activity towards established Chinese SME in more traditional industries. In the best cases, these SME have strong brands and very robust sales growth in China’s domestic market.

In my view, investing in these SME offers the best risk-adjusted return of any PE or VC investing in the world right now. KP has yet to make the shift. I wish KP nothing but success, and hope for opportunities in the future to work with them. Its technology bets in China may pay off big-time, in due course. But, meantime, KP is in the very unaccustomed position of laggard, rather than leader, here in China.

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It’s surely embarrassing, if not emblematic, that the home page of the Chinese-language version of KP’s own website manages to misspell the company’s name.  Check out the top-most bar on the page, where the firm is named “Kliener,  Perkins, Caufield and Buyers” .

Kleiner Perkins China website


Update: as of May 11, 2010, the Chinese version of Kleiner Perkins’ home page has been corrected.