Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- A few months after struggling to raise a new fund in 2005, Accel Partners bet $12.2 million on a website run by a college dropout. Seven years later, that wager is poised to be the most profitable ever for a venture firm.
Accel, whose partners include Jim Breyer and Kevin Efrusy, is the top outside investor in Facebook Inc., owning about 10 percent. Assuming Facebook is valued at $100 billion, Accel’s stake on paper is worth about $10 billion.
When Accel made its Facebook investment, the site had just 2.8 million users -- all on college campuses -- and was run by a 21-year-old Mark Zuckerberg. Now it has 800 million members worldwide and an estimated $4.27 billion in 2011 sales, according to EMarketer Inc. That explosive growth is poised to deliver an 800-fold return on Accel’s money, catapulting the firm to the forefront of the venture industry.
“This is what makes venture capital and Silicon Valley unique in the world,” said Steve Blank, who helped found eight companies and now teaches entrepreneurship at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University. “It’s what VCs do incredibly well. Accel, in this one, deserves all of it.”
Accel’s prospective payday shows the hits-driven nature of the venture business, where one investment can make an entire fund profitable and establish a firm as the market leader. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had that distinction from early bets on e-commerce and Web search companies, before missing out on most of the social-media leaders. It later bought shares of Facebook and Twitter Inc. at less favorable prices.
Facebook plans to raise $10 billion in the IPO, with a filing coming soon, a person with knowledge of the matter said in November. The offering would value the Menlo Park, California-based company at more than $100 billion, according to the person.
Accel, located a 10-minute drive away from Facebook in Palo Alto, isn’t the lone winner among investors. Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies and PayPal Inc. co-founder Peter Thiel are due for a payback too. Greylock Partners and Meritech Capital Partners also are investors, as well as Elevation Partners, co-founded by U2’s Bono.
Founded in 1983 by Arthur Patterson and Jim Swartz, Accel was an unlikely investor in Facebook. The firm focused on hardware companies such as UUNet Technologies Inc. and Redback Networks Inc. rather than Internet companies during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and Netscape Communications Corp. went on to produce billions of dollars for other venture backers.
Accel began raising money for a more Web-focused fund in the mid-2000s, though that effort faced challenges. Harvard University and other prospective investors backed out of the fund, forcing Accel to cut the size of it to $440 million -- smaller than any investment pool it had raised since 1998.
In May 2005, less than six months after completing the fundraising, Accel made one of the first investments: a startup that was then called Thefacebook. Zuckerberg had begun the company during the previous year in his Harvard dorm room.
Breyer and Efrusy oversaw Accel’s $12.2 million investment, which assumed a $100 million valuation, and Breyer gained a seat on the Facebook board.
“It was a big leap of faith at the time,” Efrusy said in an interview in March. “Any one of these investments you do, in hindsight they may look obvious, but at the time they look scary.”
Accel declined to comment for this story, as did Jonathan Thaw, a spokesman for Facebook.
Investors in Accel’s fund have already seen some of the rewards. By selling 17 percent of its original Facebook stake last year at a $34 billion valuation, Accel paid back investors in the 2005 fund, while holding onto the bulk of its stake for future gains.
Accel’s potential payday would generate more than twice the combined gains of Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins in Google’s 2004 IPO, the biggest venture-backed offering until now, according to the National Venture Capital Association.
Still, Accel’s fortunes will depend on what happens to Facebook’s stock after its IPO. While the venture firm may sell some shares in the offering, it will probably be required to hold the rest for six months, the so-called lock-up period.
Google shares more than doubled in the first six months after the Mountain View, California-based company’s IPO, boosting the value of Sequoia’s and Kleiner Perkins’s holdings. In the 1990s, Web companies such as Yahoo and Amazon also gained most of their value after their IPOs.
At $100 billion, Facebook would already be the eighth-biggest U.S. technology company by market value. It would be half the size of Google, even with only 15 percent of the revenue. Facebook stayed private longer than its Internet predecessors, meaning the bulk of investors’ gains may have already been realized, said venture capitalist Maha Ibrahim.
“Facebook has changed the model a little bit,” said Ibrahim, a partner at Canaan Partners in Menlo Park. “Before, it was very rare for a company of their size to still be private.”
As the social-networking market in the U.S. matures, Accel’s partners are scouring the globe for new deals. Breyer is handling investments in China, while Efrusy and Andrew Braccia mine startups in Brazil. Other partners are focusing on Europe, India and Australia.
Accel’s recent success isn’t limited to Facebook. The firm was among the biggest venture winners last year, thanks to its stake in daily-deal site Groupon Inc. In last year’s U.S. IPO market, Accel ranked behind New Enterprise Associates, another Groupon investor, and Sequoia, the biggest venture backer of LinkedIn Corp.
Most of Accel’s companies and venture investments in general produce less dramatic results. Coremetrics, a software company backed by Accel, was acquired in 2010 for an undisclosed price, and semiconductor maker Artimi Inc. merged with a competitor in 2008.
Even if Facebook generates a record return for the venture industry, it’s unlikely to spur other startups to file for IPOs soon, said Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association in Arlington, Virginia. Facebook’s size and brand are unmatched by any other private, venture-backed company, he said this month in an interview on “Bloomberg West.”
“I don’t think Facebook will have these huge coattails that people are saying it will have,” Heesen said. “Every other possible IPO that’s out there will have to stand on its own.”
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