Sequoia Capital has funneled millions of dollars to scores of well-connected entrepreneurs and academics, who invest and look for ideas
Startup investor Jason Calacanis took a $25,000 gamble five years ago on a company almost no one had heard of called UberCab. That investment in what is now Uber Technologies Inc. has ballooned to roughly $110 million.
Mr. Calacanis has never said publicly where the money came from: Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture-capital firms. Since 2009, Sequoia has funneled millions of dollars to scores of well-connected entrepreneurs, academics and other people known as scouts.
Scouts invest the money in startups and keep their eyes and ears open for ideas that Sequoia might like. Mr. Calacanis introduced Thumbtack Inc.’s founder to a partner at Sequoia, which bought a stake in the local-services website that has since surged 50-fold, research firm VCExperts estimates.
Thumbtack’s founders now steer tips to Sequoia, too. “Sequoia had been great to us, so we were happy to send other high-quality entrepreneurs their way,” says Marco Zappacosta, chief executive of Thumbtack. He has made a few startup investments of his own using Sequoia’s money.
The secretive ecosystem of cash and connections is an unusually powerful example of how venture-capital firms try to gain an edge in the never-ending hunt for the next blockbuster. That search has gotten trickier now that some startups with sky-high valuations are hitting turbulence.
Most of Sequoia’s scouts are entrepreneurs whose startups were funded by the firm. That means they know a lot about what Sequoia is looking for and will recommend the firm to other entrepreneurs.
Forging tight relationships that generate new deals for venture-capital firms is more important than ever as the cost of creating startups falls. The resulting acceleration in company launches has made it harder for venture-capital firms to identify the best opportunities as startups emerge. And competition is growing as new investors who are flush with capital invade the technology world.
Sequoia has been a mainstay of the venture-capital establishment for decades. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., on Sand Hill Road, the Main Street of Silicon Valley’s venture-capital industry, Sequoia made early bets on many of today’s tech titans, including Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc.
It was the only venture firm that backed messaging company WhatsApp, sold to Facebook Inc. last year for $22 billion. Sequoia invested about $60 million for a stake valued at $3.5 billion in the deal. Sequoia now owns stakes in 33 private,venture-capital-backed companies valued at more than $1 billion apiece, more than any other venture-capital firm.