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Network: Venture capitalists and matchmakers in Silicon Valley heaven

Preposterously in Silicon Valley, even some of the `failures' are producing huge financial gains
MATCHMAKING IS suddenly a big deal here in Silicon Valley. Its mating rituals are, like everything else here, a bit different from what you'd normally expect.

One couple I know of met in the fast lane on Route 85, which bisects Silicon Valley from east to west. He, in a BMW, spying her in a Lexus, flashed fingers sequentially to broadcast his mobile phone number: she dialed, they talked, they pulled off at the next off-ramp. Then bliss ensued.

But I'm not writing about that kind of matchmaking - the usual boy-meets- girl (or girl-meets-girl or whatever) stuff. Nope, we're talking about a brand-new Darwinian niche that's sprung up here in the Silicon Galapagos. When we're not busy inventing the Internet IPO, we're out there building really crazy stuff.

Some background: there's a big problem here in the valley: not enough venture capital-backed companies are failing. Worse, the ones that are succeeding are succeeding too well. Even more preposterously, some of the failures are producing huge financial gains.

Take Netscape. Most observers pronounced its sale to America Online a "failure" since they didn't beat Microsoft for Internet supremacy. However, one local venture-capital firm is believed to have realised $400m for its stake, which initially cost just $4m.

So, with failures paying off at 100-1, it's no wonder that there are huge piles of cash around. Most of these folks have something like 100 times the amount of money that they had four years ago.

Now, since the basic VC business model calls for keeping all of their available capital invested all of the time, this means that they're having a real problem keeping all of that money invested in future Netscapes, or, even better, successful companies.

One problem is staffing. There are lots and lots of business plans floating around - for every potential Netscape, there may be 10,000 less-than-Netscapes (and remember, Netscape "failed"). A lot of VCs now require one-page business plans, and schedule 15-minute meetings, but it's still not making up the gap.

Anyway, VCs only like to be associated with success; so, even though they can afford lots of failures, and even though many failures will return profits, they don't want to do them because it looks bad.

Another issue is that, try as they might, VCs haven't been able to recruit people as fast as they've recruited profits. This means that they can only do so many deals a year, which, in turn, means those have to be bigger deals if they're to stay fully invested.

Thus, startups such as pets.com receive $30m in funding (and its two competitors, Petopia and petstore.com, didn't do badly, either). So, the easy answer to the VCs dilemma is to just do bigger deals.

There are a couple of problems with this strategy, however. One is that, when you're making $30m investments, versus paltry $3m and $4m antes, you have to be a lot more careful. You have to check out the concept very carefully, and the team even more carefully. So the deals take more effort to put together, and this further limits the number of deals even the valley's notoriously hard-working VCs can do.

The other problem is that most phase-one startups, even the good ones, don't often need $30m. When a company first comes together, the founders usually have a concept and a technology that's been proven in principle. What they need is a small, innovative team and a quiet place to work; the better to refine things and work out the best way to go about making money from the technology.

Small companies don't need to be worried about the logistics of managing tens of millions of dollars. They want to be free to focus on getting their ideas right.

So, if the VCs can't do small deals any more, how is this mighty Silicon Engine to continue nurturing the crazies-from-the-garages who are thefoundation of Silicon Valley invention?

Enter the matchmakers. Matchmakers are typically savvy Silicon Insiders, often people who cut their chops by bringing a startup or three to a successful IPO and who specialise in scouting for The Next Big Thing.

Matchmakers pan the Silicon Valley grit looking for golden nuggets. When a matchmaker finds a potential winning idea and team, she goes to work; simultaneously finding money and coaching the nascent team. Money means the principals can leave their day jobs and work full-time on the dream technology. Coaching means that the team will be directed to find useful and profitable uses for that technology, and will learn how to present its benefits clearly to potential investors.

Guy Kawasaki is among the best-known matchmakers. His startup, garage.com, just received $12m in funding from local VCs, who appreciate the service. And how did Guy get his dot-com going? He went to another valley matchmaker, Heidi Roizen!