Thomas Perkins, the influential Silicon Valley investor, died last week, at the age of 84. It’s hard to think of anyone on the investment side of the tech industry who looms as large as Perkins, a notorious character who might be best known outside of the Bay Area for launching the world’s largest (privately owned) sailing yacht, the Maltese Falcon, in 2006. As well as being a pioneer in tech investing — providing funding to companies that would soon become some of the most influential in the world — Perkins also pioneered another Valley trait: squandering that goodwill by casting himself as the aggrieved and persecuted.
Perkins was the “P” in KPCB, the powerhouse Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which was founded in 1972, when personal computing was in its nascent stages. Among the firm’s investments were Netscape, America Online, Amazon, and Google. Prior to investing, Perkins was an early employee of Hewlett-Packard.
But in the last couple of years of his life, Perkins was heard from and seen almost never, cast out from the tech world after writing an exceptionally stupid letter to The Wall Street Journal comparing criticism of the superrich to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.
“From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent,” he wrote. “This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
Perkins followed up the letter with an interview in which, in the midst of half-apologizing for the comparison, he bragged that he could “buy a six-pack of Rolexes” with the enormous, gaudy watch on his wrist.
This kind of brag wasn’t entirely out of character. From the New York Times’ obituary:
Mr. Perkins was flamboyant with his wealth, though he had said that he was a multimillionaire and not a billionaire, as many believed. At one point he was an avid collector of Bugatti cars; at another, he commissioned a state-of-the-art 289-foot clipper yacht called the Maltese Falcon, telling the CBS program “60 Minutes” in a profile that it had cost at least $150 million and less than $300 million.
In 1996, another Perkins yacht, the Mariette, caused a smaller boat to capsize, killing one of its passengers. Perkins was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by a French court. His one-percent lifestyle literally has a body count.
As anyone who’s gotten rich investing will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with being a good businessman and getting rich from it. But Perkins sometimes seemed to believe that it should shield him from complaint. At the very least, he let his money and his lifestyle deafen him to criticism. You can still hear that attitude echoing through the actions of current tech entrepreneurs — Peter Thiel, for example, who recently bankrupted a media company he didn’t like because of its lengthy history of reporting on his failings.
Which ultimately makes Perkins a true pioneer: the man directly responsible for many of the tech industry’s most important developments and ideas, but one who also provided a prime demonstration of how Silicon Valley insulates itself from criticism, and cries foul whenever some of it manages to sneak through.