Hail Mary

The internet economy hasn’t always been kind to its oracles. Consider Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto, who preached relentlessly that the second coming was at hand. Then, after the world caught up with him, he failed twice at pulling off an IPO. Mary Meeker’s oracular credentials are impeccable. She was a 33-year-old analyst at Morgan Stanley when she first put AOL on her buy list in 1993. At the time, the stock was trading at 52 cents (adjusted for splits), and Steve Case was better known for his Friday beer parties than for his business acumen. Then, in 1995, Meeker predicted that there would be 150 million people online by the end of the decade, which seemed, to say the least, rash.

Now, of course, the world she envisioned has come to pass, which means she’s in the difficult position of being both a near-mythic figure and just another analyst, albeit a rather well-paid one – she’s rumored to have pocketed some $15 million last year, and some on Wall Street believe she’s worth even more.

Living Dangerously These days, Meeker’s every pronouncement is put under a microscope. Earlier this month, after Amazon reported that fourth-quarter sales had come in north of $650 million, up more than 100 percent from the same period a year ago – news that sent the stock down 15 percent – CNBC highlighted comments Meeker had earlier made to Barron’s predicting that those sales “could be closer to $1 billion than $500 million.” The following weekend, Barron’s took her to task as well. “No matter how you slice it,” chided the paper’s leading columnist, Alan Abelson, “$650 million is closer to $500 million.” Tired of being a prisoner of celebrity, she adopted a Greta Garbo policy this winter – she’s not talking. “Mary feels she’s been overexposed by the media,” explains former Morgan Stanley Dean Witter spokesman turned e-commerce banker Wesley McDade.

Moneymaking Mantra Perhaps more than anyone else, Meeker is credited with popularizing a Net-stock-valuation approach that looks far beyond company profits (which most of them lack, anyway). “How big’s the market, how high is a company’s market share, and who’s No. 1” are her fundamental concerns. “I fully expect one of my favorite stocks to be a disaster,” she is fond of saying. “What drives me crazy is that I don’t know which one.”

Where She’s Headed In 2000 It is the Street’s current $64,000,000 question: Will she or won’t she leave Morgan Stanley for the even more lucrative pastures of Silicon Valley? She’s reportedly bought a house in Woodside, California, where her neighbors include Oracle’s Larry Ellison and venture capitalist John Doerr, among other Internet superpowers. And last month came word that Meeker was joining Pasadena business incubator Idealab. Morgan, Idealab, and, ultimately, Meeker denied it was true.

The new story making the rounds is that Morgan Stanley is paying Meeker to sit tight while it courts Merrill Lynch’s Internet analyst Henry Blodget, the only other name brand in the field. “Mary has no plans to leave the firm,” insists Morgan Stanley spokesperson Jean Marie McFadden. As for whether Morgan Stanley is talking to Blodget, McFadden replies, “Wouldn’t that be silly?” Blodget also denies the rumor. “I’m happy where I am,” he says, laughing.

But Blodget does have some kind words for Meeker. “She has a spectacular banking track record,” he says. “She’s taken, I believe, ten companies public that have then gone up tenfold.” According to Blodget, though, her most enduring influence has been subtler: “Just by saying, ‘These are the companies you should focus on, and here’s why we like them,’ that’s what she’s done so well.”

Hail Mary