Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Email: Chamath Palihapitiya Decries Airbnb’s Recent $112M Funding for Founder Control and Cash-Out

Here’s some electric weekend reading for those interested in the push and pull between venture investors and start-ups in the frothy Web 2.0 environment.

In an email to Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky (which I obtained, embedded below), former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya, who now runs an investment fund called the Social+Capital Partnership, is passing on participating in the recent $112 million round for the hot online rental site that was announced in July.

The deal — which values the company at $1.2 billion — has not officially closed yet, but includes venture firms such as DST Global, Andreessen Horowitz and others. Previous investors include Sequoia Capital.

Palihapitiya confirmed to me that it was his email and that his possible investment in Airbnb was small.

That said, his concerns center on how much voting control of new investors’ preferred shares the founders have in the latest round and also a $22.5 million cashing out, $21 million of which is going to those founders.

Another $9.6 million is being used to buy secondary stock from current Airbnb shareholders, who have to render parts of their vested stakes for the money.

Such wrangling between investors and entrepreneurs is not uncommon in Silicon Valley these days, as ever-dumber money chases ever-more-powerful geeks. But Palihapitiya’s email is a smart, reasonable and well-written argument to stop the madness.

According to sources close to Airbnb, the numbers that he refers to below are accurate, as is what appears to be an unusual level of voting control by its founders. Presumably, it is to protect the company from possible future sales on the secondary markets and to keep control with its founders as the number of investors grows.

In any case, the Palihapitiya email to Chesky is well worth the read (I have removed email addresses as a courtesy):

From: Chamath Palihapitiya
Date: Sat, 1 Oct 2011 11:16:05 -0700

To: Brian Chesky

Subject: Airbnb financing…

Brian,

Cc Marc, Reid, my deal team

Thanks again for giving me the chance to participate in your latest financing. I had a chance to review the docs at length yesterday and I wanted to follow up as, quite honestly, I’ve never seen a deal like this over ~60 investments I’ve done and I’m pretty concerned.

I’m all for getting the best valuation you can, minimizing dilution and maximizing control. We did this brilliantly at Facebook…all of our financings (except our first $$$ from Peter Thiel) were done not out of necessity but opportunity. As such, our investors had virtually no control and it resulted in a much better outcome. As we’ve discussed, I generally don’t believe investors add much to a success story and so minimizing their impact is a great strategy when you are onto something that is working.

This said, while several of these concepts are reflected in the current deal, there is one big thing that I am fundamentally against and violates my principles and will prevent me from participating in your round. When I saw that you guys were taking $31M out of the company, I didn’t think much of it as I just assumed it would entirely be via a secondary sale.

But as I understand the deal, it seems that you are doing only $9.6M in secondary and $22.5M as a dividend to common (of which $21M goes to you and your co-founders). I am really uncomfortable with this and don’t think its in the spirit of building a good, long term business. Effectively, it is a strategy that allows you guys to take money out of the business and not dilute yourself — I’m not sure why this is such a big deal when you guys are almost 90% vested and the financing is at $1.2B where your dilution is marginal. Further, it excludes many of the employees that probably have helped you and your co–founders get the company to this place as most of these folks probably don’t have any stock but have unexercised stock options and thus won’t get a dividend.

My basic principle on this stuff is that if you want liquidity, that’s fine, but you should make it available to everyone. Otherwise, no one should get it. Your current deal is the farthest away from this principle that I’ve seen in a while…this strategy has been done once before — at Groupon. We can see how “well” they are doing and how short term the investor community is now viewing their motives. I really think you can do better than this…and that you are better than this.

Separately, when you look at successful tech companies, it seems that dividends are an approach used by cash rich operations to distribute excess earnings — in fact, the most successful, cash rich tech company in the world, Apple, hasn’t issued a dividend and they have more than $75B in cash! Again, while I think Airbnb will be a good company, this is nowhere near the truth now — you guys still need to scale and build this thing for the future.

I really think you are onto something but I would implore you to not take the easy way out. Treat your employees the same as you’d treat yourself. Do things that you will be proud of and can defend to anyone including your Board, employees, prospective hires etc. In such a competitive hiring market, you are competing with not just your obvious competitors, but also any successful tech company who is also looking for great talent. A principle that treats your employees as well as you’d treat yourself is a huge strategy for differentiation, retention and long term happiness of the exact types of people you will need to be successful. In contrast, if you are viewed as self-dealing and shady, it will only hurt your long term prospects…

In summary, I’m passing on this financing because I strongly disagree with what’s going on. I’m not sure who advocated this approach but I did mention this to Reid [Hoffman, another Airbnb investor via Greylock Partners] last night and he was of a similar mind to myself and surprised this was the approach being taken. If you want some good advice — I would ask that you consider pinging him about different ways to think about going about the liquidity portion.

If you change your mind on how to close this financing, let me know and I’d love to reconsider. Otherwise, good luck and lets keep in touch.

Take care,

Chamath


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