When Thomas J. Perkins ‘53 decided to build the new superyacht he’s launching this summer, he went about it in classic Perkins style. “Tom didn’t call up a famous boat architect and say ‘Design me a luxury yacht,’” a colleague recounts. “He took a clean sheet of paper and designed something that never existed before. Everything with him is original – and hands-on.”
Perkins, a founding partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB), has made a career of envisioning new ideas. “His influence as a Silicon Valley pioneer is huge,” says KPCB partner Brook Byers. “He was working at Hewlett-Packard and on his nights and weekends driving to Berkeley and starting a laser company in the mid-’60s. The minicomputer division he convinced HP to start has become legendary. When he formed Kleiner Perkins in 1972, it was one of the few venture capital firms in the world.” An astute investor, Perkins helped ignite the boom in the high-tech and biotech industries – and then pitched in to help manage the companies he funded. “His hands-on activist management style has now been propagated throughout the venture capital world,” says Byers. At KPCB, Perkins urged his colleagues to “take risk, be bold, be audacious,” says Byers. “Tom inspired us to do that.”
Although Perkins is now a partner emeritus at KPCB, he hasn’t stopped being audacious. He recently published a romance novel, and his new 289-foot boat, the Maltese Falcon, is the world’s largest clipper yacht, designed to handle big seas and high winds in open-water and long-distance contests. Perkins jokes that when he moors the boat, he’s going to fly a series of nautical flags spelling out this message: “Rarely does one have the privilege to witness vulgar ostentation on such a grand scale.” But perhaps he’s not joking. Perkins is used to making waves.
To see photos of the Maltese Falcon and its adventures, go to www.technologyreview.com/photos/falcon.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and an MBA at Harvard Business School, Perkins headed for San Francisco in 1957. He began his career at Hewlett-Packard when HP and nearby Lockheed were still young companies nestled among the fruit orchards. The first MBA to join HP, Perkins moved swiftly through leadership positions and ultimately led the company’s successful entry into the minicomputer business.
Perkins did more than launch a remarkable career at Hewlett-Packard; he also found a mentor. “Dave Packard was the ultimate entrepreneur,” he says. “I learned everything I know about venture capital from Dave.” Packard even allowed him to start his own laser company while working full time at HP. The result was University Laboratories (UL), which produced durable, low-cost helium-neon gas lasers based on his patented designs. Perkins guided UL through a merger with Spectra-Physics; then he served on the board as Spectra-Physics became a leading laser company.