The Crazy Life Of Billionaire Tom Perkins – The Man Who Invented Venture Capitalism As We Know It

By on March 20, 2015 in ArticlesEntertainment

Tom Perkins is a very wealthy venture capitalist who founded the famous VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers, and who helped create the VC model in use by tech startups today. In fact, he's often called the "Father of Silicon Valley." He's long been known for his seemingly golden touch and idiosyncratic ideas. He is one of the most intriguing figures in the business world. Perkins has had a remarkable life filled with great success. Controversy has also followed him at nearly every turn. He has net worth of $8 billion. He's also pretty eccentric. Let's look at his colorful life, shall we?

Tom Perkins was born on January 7, 1932. He received his B.A. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1953 from MIT. He earned his MBA in 1957 from Harvard. In 1963, he was recruited by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard to be the administrative head of the research department at Hewlett-Packard. He was HP's very first general manager of the computer divisions, and is largely credited with ushering HP into the home computer business.

While Perkins was at HP he started his own laser company called University Laboratories (UL) and shepherded it through a merger with Spectra-Physics. He was then a member of the board of Spectra-Physics, which became one of the leading laser companies. This is where he got the money to start his own venture capital firm.

In 1973, Tom Perkins and Eugene Kleiner founded Kleiner Perkins, one of the first Sand Hill Road venture capital firms. (Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California is a road that is notable for its many venture capital companies' offices.)

Today, Kleiner Perkins is known as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), and is still one of the leading VC firms in the Valley. While at Kleiner Perkins, Perkins invented today's tech VC model.


At Kleiner Perkins, he helped invent today's tech VC model, leading them to be considered one of the founders of Silicon Valley. When KP invested, it wasn't just a silent partner as VC's had been in the past. They took direct management roles with the companies they funded. Eventually, the firm added two more partners and came to be known as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers (KPCB). KPCB funded AOL, Google, Amazon, and Netscape, to name just a few.

At one point, Perkins was chairman of 14 of the companies he funded, including three public companies.

But none of this career success speaks to the controversy, scandals, eccentricities, and insane behavior that have followed Tom Perkins from company to company, and decade to decade. His life story is a tale of over-the-top behavior, filled with the excesses of the wealthy, boardroom dramas, and even a manslaughter conviction in a French court.

We mentioned he's led a colorful and controversial life, right?

He Was Convicted Of Manslaughter In France

Back in 1996, Perkins was racing his yacht in France when he got into an accident with a smaller boat. The collision killed a French doctor on board the other boat. A French court found Perkins guilty. His jail sentence was suspended and he was ordered to pay a fine of $10,000. In his 2008 memoir "Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins" he described it:

"Arrested and tried in a foreign court in a language you don't understand, by judges indifferent—or worse—to justice, represented by an inappropriate lawyer with the negative outcome preordained."

Tom's Yacht - The Maltese Falcon

Tom's Yacht – The Maltese Falcon

The Hewlett-Packard Board And Compaq Fight

Perkins joined the board of HP back in 2001 when HP acquired Compaq, where he had formerly served as a director.

He helped then-HP CEO Carly Fiorina in her war against the HP founder's heirs–the men who recruited him when he was a young post-grad in the early 1960s–who did not want to buy Compaq. Perkins and Fiorina prevailed in the case and Compaq acquired HP.

He stayed on the board until 2003, and then resigned. It would not be long before he would be back at HP.

The Epic Battle With HP's Carly Fiorina

In 2005, HP's board asked Perkins to return and he did. His main mission? To oust Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina from her post.

On an episode of "60 Minutes" covering the drama at HP, Fiorina accused Perkins of orchestrating her firing. Perkins denied that. What he didn't deny, however, was working behind the scenes to get Fiorina's successor as chairman, Pattie Dunn, fired. He went after Dunn so aggressively that she hired private detectives to obtain the phone records of board members to find out which one of them was leaking info to the press. Perkins resigned from the board in fury in May 2006, in part over the actions Dunn took to suss out the board-level source of media leaks.

Perkins's residential phone records were obtained. AT&T confirmed that someone pretended to be Perkins, using his phone number and his Social Security Number. HP confirmed that the investigative firm they hired used a method called pretexting to obtain information on the call records of the directors. HP's investigation found that Dr. George Keyworth was the source of several leaks. At the May 18, 2006 board meeting, Dr. Keyworth admitted to leaking information but refused to resign even after the board passed a resolution calling for his resignation. This was the same board meeting at which Perkins resigned.

Dunn was cleared of all charges of wrongdoing.

Of the incident, Perkins told "60 Minutes:" "I realize that I'm gonna be accused of 'he hates women and he fires them or he can't stand them.' Or whatever."

The News Corp. Controversy

Is it coincidence that controversy follows Perkins wherever he lands–or does he create it?

In 2007, Perkins joined the board of directors of News Corporation. In July 2011, Joel Klein and Viet D. Dinh (who represented Perkins in the HP board brouhaha) took over the investigation into the News Corp phone hacking scandal. In 2011, the company was accused of eavesdropping on the voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians, and royal family members.

Perkins once again found himself at the center of a phone hacking scandal. He resigned from his long-standing board position at News Corp. in 2011. He insisted the phone hacking scandal wasn't the reason he was leaving.

(David Paul Morris - Getty)

(David Paul Morris – Getty)

Big Houses. Lots Of Houses.

Tom Perkins is well known for his lavish real estate holdings.

Once upon a time, he owned an actual English manor house called Plumpton Place. The manor's previous owner was Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. It had six bedrooms and a moat, and was listed for $12 million.

For decades Perkins' main home was in the San Francisco suburb of Belvedere. The 10,000 square foot mansion was once listed for more than $20 million.

Today he lives in a 60th floor, 5,500 square foot penthouse in San Francisco that was featured in a Wall Street Journal piece. The penthouse features floor to ceiling windows, cedar ceilings, and a kitchen that looks like a ship's galley.

The Wall Street Journal Scandal

Early in 2014, Tom Perkins opened his mouth and inserted his foot in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal in which he stated that people who criticized the rich were like the Nazis who persecuted the Jews in the 1930s.

He Was Married To Danielle Steele

Tom Perkins has been married twice. His first marriage was to Gerd Thune-Ellefsen for over 30 years, until she died in 1994.

In 1998, he married his longtime friend, the best-selling romance novelist Danielle Steel. He was Steel's fifth husband. They divorced, amicably, in 2002.

He used an incident where the local newspaper made fun of how huge the hedge was in front of Steel's home to compare critics of the rich to Nazis:

"We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in The [San Francisco] Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades."

Rich People's Votes Should Count More

Perkins once again caused a media firestorm when he offered his views on how he would go about changing the world in an interview with Fortune Magazine. Perkins said that only U.S. taxpayers should be able to vote in elections. But that is not all. Perkins also went on to say that those who pay more in taxes should get more votes. That is, wealthy people should have a bigger say in elections than those who have less money.

He's An Actual Knight

In 2000, he was dubbed a knight in the Kingdom of Norway, in gratitude for the charitable contributions he's made in that country.

He joked that being a Knight is part of what inspired him to write the letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, comparing critics of the rich to Nazis. He was riding in on his metaphorical white horse to rescue his ex-wife Danielle Steel from the criticism she was facing in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Say what you will about Tom Perkins' colorful life. He's had great success, reinvented the VC model for tech startups, and lived high on the hog pretty much doing, saying, writing, and buying whatever he wants. With a net worth of $8 billion, I'd say this 83-year-old has deserved that right.

Articles Written by Amy Lamare
Amy Lamare is a Los Angeles based writer covering business, technology, entertainment, philanthropy, and pop culture. She spent 8 1/2 years covering the entertainment industry for She attended the University of Southern California where she majored in Creative Writing. An avid long distance runner, weekends she can be found running the streets of Los Angeles training for 1/2 and full marathons. Follow her on Facebook.
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