Interesting article in memory of Tom Perkins, co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers, one of the leading VC firms in the world.
In my career, in the Department of Good News/Bad News, nothing beats my experience with Tom Perkins, the nonpareil Silicon Valley venture capitalist who died June 7 at 84. In my view, he belongs in the pantheon of Silicon Valley — with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. As Perkins’s biographer, I got a glimpse of his greatness. I also saw the darker side.
I first met Perkins in 1998, when I was doing research for The Silicon Boys, a social history of the Valley. He was a master storyteller, gossip and historian — an author’s dream. We stayed in touch, dined, compared field notes about the Valley’s changing culture. Eight years later, he told me about the Maltese Falcon, the monumental $130 million “modern clipper yacht” he was building near Istanbul — as long as a football field, 42 feet wide, with three freestanding carbon-fiber masts rising 29 stories toward the gods. Perkins agreed to cooperate on another book.
But a month before publication of Mine’s Bigger— my biography of Perkins told through the vessel of the Falcon — he turned on me. Over midnight Liar’s Dice in the yacht’s salon, enjoying vintage Cabernet on deck, in long Skype discussions when I couldn’t be in Turkey during construction, I had seen Perkins’s remarkable intelligence, ambition, curiosity, prescience, and charm — along with his petulance and ruthlessness. When he wanted lunch “in 20 minutes,” the crew knew it meant five. When he lost his temper, which happened a lot, he famously stomped on his Dunhill hat; the dance led some of his friends over the years to refer to him as Rumpelstiltskin.
In my many travels around the Valley, only one other individual rivaled Perkins’s range in my view: Steve Jobs. When Perkins would tell me about a grudge with a former colleague he nurtured all his life, or a pissing contest with the chairman of Morgan Stanley over $100,000 of Perkins’s money (that he said wound up costing the firm millions), or the parade of folks he’d never speak to again, I took it all in — and even checked with him later to make sure that it wasn’t too much Cognac that had made him sing. “Include it all!” he urged.
I well knew that Perkins could be vindictive. Caveat emptor, for sure. Never, though, did I expect to become another victim. Call me naïve.
Here’s what happened: Apparently, after sharing so many stories with me, Perkins had decided to write his own memoirs. Never mind my book was finished and I was gearing up for an imminent book tour. Perkins’s work, titled Valley Boy, would be coming out many months later, leaving plenty of runway for both books. But not in his mind. Perkins had made a promotional deal with “60 Minutes” that, he said, depended on CBS alone showing video of the Maltese Falcon under sail.
I of course already had secured such video for my own publicity efforts. The video would appear long before Perkins’s “60 Minutes” segment; if that happened, as the producer himself called to inform me, CBS might kill the piece. So, Perkins tried to solve the problem with the M.O. he knew best, using techniques that had served him well in venture capital, on the boards of two dozen companies, and running the peerless VC firm of Silicon Valley, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
First, he claimed that he alone controlled any images of his boat as a matter of copyright law. That of course was patent nonsense. Perkins raged. He told me I owed it to him to allow him to market his book any way he wanted. He then went to his shipyard that had earlier given me permission to use its promotional videos; when the yard understandably reneged on its promises to me, I managed to find independently produced video — from the yacht sailing on open seas — and licensed it. Now Perkins exploded.
He wrote to the CEO and general counsel of my publisher, demanding that neither it nor I use any video in promoting Mine’s Bigger. Perkins had a basis on which to believe his demands might be honored. My publisher was HarperCollins, a division of News Corporation, on whose board Perkins happened to sit. “I would hope that my role as a director of News Corporation for some 10 years, and the contribution which I hope I have made over these years, would not encourage you, at HarperCollins, to assist Mr. Kaplan in perusing [sic] activities inimical to my interests,” Perkins wrote in an email. Perkins upped the ante two hours later in an email to me, saying “it won’t be a good career move for anyone at HarperCollins who helps” promote Mine’s Bigger in a way he objected to.
To its credit, HarperCollins stood Perkins down, ignoring his threat. I promoted my book, with video of the boat. The book won a major award. Mom and Dad were proud. Perkins came out with Valley Boy and “60 Minutes” proceeded with its piece, “The Captain of Capitalism,” leading to a celebrated clip in which Perkins tells Lesley Stahl of his “embarrassment” over owning expensive toys like the Falcon: “There’s the homeless and charity and there’s lots of things you could do with that money that would improve the world, right?”
Alas, Tom Perkins didn’t relinquish grudges. He emailed me a few more nastygrams, then said he was excommunicating me. We never spoke again. It saddened me. Given my access to his life and his marvelous nautical project, given his hospitality and friendship, I regretted how we parted ways. I also felt sorry for him in the last few years of his life when he occasionally let his various resentments boil into the public sphere, including his 2014 piece in the Wall Street Journal that compared “the progressive war on the American 1 percent” to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.
You learn as a journalist and as an author that people are complicated. That’s what makes them endlessly fascinating to write about. In the case of Silicon Valley, I’ve come to realize that the talents required to create companies — and industries — often required a kind of single-mindedness that in others might be diagnosed as pathology. With Perkins, the persistent flaws came with the admirable attributes. They were of a piece, the darkness with the light.
David A. Kaplan, a 25-year veteran of Newsweek and Fortune, is the author of three books, including the national bestseller The Silicon Boys, and Mine’s Bigger: The Extraordinary Tale of the World’s Greatest Sailboat and the Silicon Valley Tycoon Who Built It, which won the 2007 Loeb Award for best business book of the year. He teaches at NYU and is at work on a book about the Supreme Court.