Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you have a pretty good idea even before you reach the title page, that Tom Perkins’s life story is not going to be the typical account of how a poor but extremely bright boy grew up to make literally billions.

Just inside the cover, Perkins — who became rich by providing seed money firms that turned out to be some of the most successful companies of the late 20th century — lists his previous books: Experiments in Physical Optics Using Continuous Laser Light (Perkins went to MIT); Classic Supercharged Sports Cars (at one point, he probably owned the world’s most valuable collection); and Sex and the Single Zillionaire, a novel about an older billionaire widower who is asked to star in a reality television show where gorgeous young women fight for the opportunity to be his trophy wife. (Perkins once got a letter asking if he would like to star in such a show.) No one would ever call his life conventional, and neither is this autobiography. For one thing, it is not chronological. (Perkins doesn’t even bother to mention the year of his birth: 1932.) The book deliberately jumps all over the place. As he writes in the introduction “f we were together over a few dinners, or were traveling on a voyage when it was my turn, these are the stories I would tell.”

As a result, there are fewer than ten pages devoted to his life growing up. What we do learn is that Perkins was the seemingly unwanted child of an emotionally distant father and an unstable mother. He writes, “Mom was obsessed with money. She was a brilliant seamstress and made the latest styles of women’s clothes to sell, copied from magazine photos. When things went wrong for her emotionally, as they frequently did, she was given to the high drama of threatening suicide. I’ll always picture her standing in our little kitchen with a butcher’s knife pressed against her wrists. As a kid, I found these scenes absolutely terrifying.”

Not surprisingly, there is more space given to the activities that made him rich: Perkins’s life as a venture capitalist. The term sounds either grand or off-putting, depending on your perspective, but the job really is very simple: Venture capitalists provide money to relatively new companies looking to grow, usually in exchange for a percentage of the business. If that company turns out to be successful, the venture capitalist sells his stake for more money than he paid. In Perkins’s case, it was a lot more money, since he helped Amazon, Compaq Computers, Genentech, Google, Home Health Care of America (now Caremark), LSI Logic, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and many others get underway. Most of those firms were located in or around Silicon Valley; hence the book’s title.

The “trick,” of course, to being a successful venture capitalist is twofold: First, you want to place a lot of bets. Given that fledging businesses are, by definition, extremely risky investments, the best venture capitalists hope that two of every ten they fund hit it big. (That not only covers the losses on the other eight but is also enough to keep one well shod.) Second, you want to make sure your venture capital firm is well known, so that you get first look at the most promising new companies.

But the venture capital firm that is now known as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers took a far different tack initially. For one thing, it made extremely big bets on a limited number of companies. That obviously increased the risk — and potential rewards. For another, they didn’t wait for new companies to find them. They came up with concepts for companies that they thought would be huge — creating a computer system that could literally never fail (Tandem) and putting together the right executives to create a company (Genentech) that could benefit from the new fields of gene splicing and recombinant DNA. If that practice still seems revolutionary, Perkins minimizes it by observing that “we had found a fund to harness our impatience. I have never been good at waiting.”

The same “see a problem, solve a problem” approach is a repeated theme in Valley Boy. When Perkins buys a used (extremely rare) Ferrari he discovers that the car constantly overheats. Looking at the fan designed to cool the engine, he realizes that it had been installed backward and was “fighting the natural incoming breeze?. The fan assembly was too big to be turned in the proper orientation, so I had to rewire the motor making it run in the opposite direction.”

Perkins makes this sound like the easiest thing in the world to have the motor run backward, and promptly leaves out all the details — a constant throughout the book. Whether he is talking about his tenure as a board member at Hewlett-Packard (an explosive period when the chairwoman hired private investigators to sniff out press leaks) or the stories involving his high-profile sailing exploits — these liberally splashed with jargon such as “spar engineer,” and “mizzen mast” — Perkins tells the tale at such a fast pace that it will be hard for most readers to keep up.

Similarly, while you have to respect his right not to tell tales out of school about what went wrong in his one-year marriage to romance novelist Danielle Steel, his decision to talk about it by “doing” a Q&A with a fictional celebrity magazine is just weird.

In the end, those inclined to play armchair psychologist may conclude that by taking this approach to the book Perkins is telling you more about himself more about his life than his prose ever could. He’ll let readers inside just enough to keep them intrigued — whether he is talking about his sports car collection or his homes around the world — and no more. But taking him on his own terms, you have the story of a smart, self-confident person living the way he wants. That, in and of itself, is refreshing these days.