The Excessively Networked VC Behind SherpaVentures
Here’s what happens when you set out to profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar.
On Monday, July 7, Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, calls at Pishevar’s request to attest that the Iranian-born entrepreneur has brought him several high-profile investment opportunities and had a hand in introducing him to his future wife. On Tuesday, DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg rings to praise Pishevar as “a great networker” and says, “There is nobody more loyal.”
On Wednesday, Elon Musk, founder of electric-car company Tesla Motors, is on the phone recounting how the pair traveled to Cuba last year with Sean Penn and ended up negotiating (unsuccessfully) with the Castro government for the release of an American imprisoned there. On Thursday, it’s Edward Norton, who says Pishevar advised the actor and his wife on building their charitable-giving website, CrowdRise, and later persuaded Norton to make an investment in the booming ride-sharing startup Uber. Finally, on Friday, New Jersey junior Senator Cory Booker calls to explain how Pishevar has become a crucial link between Washington and Silicon Valley—bundling donations for President Obama’s reelection campaign and spearheading an effort to create a new kind of “startup visa” for foreign entrepreneurs. “There are guys that can write big checks, and there are guys that can bring people together to write checks,” Booker says. Pishevar “inspires people to give and does it in a way that is not icky.”
Pishevar, in case it’s not already clear, is one of the most excessively networked guys in Silicon Valley. The former tech-entrepreneur-turned-investor has backed Uber, e-tailer Fab.com, and eyeglass purveyor Warby Parker, among other startups. Now he’s running his own venture capital firm, SherpaVentures, which has raised $154 million from a group of investors that includes Condé Nast and the private equity firm TPG Capital. In the process, he has turned himself into one of the most visible members of the California technology and media scene, frequently showing up onstage at tech conferences and backstage at Hollywood awards shows. When Obama met with a select group of technology executives last December to discuss revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, Pishevar was at the White House, standing Zelig-like next to tech luminaries, including Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer.
Pishevar, 40, embodies a new kind of venture capitalist, bringing contacts and visibility to his startups in addition to—or perhaps instead of—operational or technical know-how. A tireless self-promoter who prefers a Los Angeles-style hug over a handshake, he’s based in fashionable San Francisco instead of the stuffy suburban enclave of Menlo Park, the traditional cradle of the VC industry. He’s also known for his public displays of enthusiasm: He once shaved the initials of several of his portfolio companies into his hair.
His exuberance and ubiquity have come at a price, though. The gossip website Valleywag once referred to him as a “humble-bragging, attention-grabbing startup financier” and suggested he’s obsessed with being liked and famous. Pishevar admits that a rival investor once called him “a clown” to his face.
SherpaVentures is Pishevar’s bid to graduate from angel investor into a full-fledged venture capitalist—and prove those naysayers wrong. He has teamed up with Scott Stanford, 44, the former managing director of Goldman Sachs’s global Internet investment banking division, and is targeting companies that, like Uber, operate at the intersection of the Web and the gritty physical world. SherpaVentures recently invested $25 million in Munchery, a San Francisco startup that cooks and delivers ready-to-eat meals.
Pishevar’s route to Silicon Valley was circuitous. His father, a successful TV executive in Iran in the 1970s, fled the country when Pishevar was 5. The family followed two years later, settling in the Washington, D.C., area. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Pishevar founded WebOS in 1997, a firm that created a computer-operating system tailored for the Internet. A decade later he started Social Gaming Network, a maker of iPhone apps. He sold both companies for modest gains and used his winnings to bet on the budding wave of tech companies. Pishevar joined the VC firm Menlo Ventures in 2012 for a two-year stint that was remarkable primarily because he steered the firm into Uber—an early bet that has since produced exponential returns. He has “an immigrant’s mentality,” says Douglas Carlisle, a Menlo managing director. “He’ll do whatever it takes to be successful.”
At a tech conference in 2012, Pishevar met Stanford, who arranged Goldman’s investments in Facebook and Russian Internet giant Mail.Ru. With the earnestness that characterizes many of his proclamations, Pishevar says, “we fell in love with each other’s brains.” The pair acknowledges there’s already a flood of capital sloshing around Silicon Valley, but they think they can offer not just advice to founders but full access to their formidable connections in L.A. and Washington. “Very rarely is tech alone a sustainable competitive advantage,” Stanford says.
Pishevar and Stanford also want to open up their networks to big companies in New York and Hollywood that covet a place at Silicon Valley’s movable feast. So they’ve created a separate firm running out of the same office, called SherpaFoundry. Its mission is to help corporations develop and in some cases spin off digital assets that may be undernourished inside their massive organizations. SherpaFoundry members pay regular dues and include EBay, DreamWorks, and Condé Nast, says SherpaFoundry CEO Tina Sharkey, a high-tech veteran who ran BabyCenter, a Johnson & Johnson website for parents.
Pishevar knows that to be taken seriously as an investor and adviser he needs to tidy his public image. Earlier this year, Stanford persuaded him to cease his prodigious postings on social media. Pishevar was averaging more than 13 tweets a day and in the process drawing flak for frequently posting pictures of the stars he hobnobs with, such as Bieber and Miley Cyrus. “I made the mistake of sharing too much,” he says.
It’s unclear whether he can stay off social media for good, but Pishevar’s reputation, at least, looks to be improving. That guy who called him a clown? Pishevar says he recently e-mailed, asking for a job.