If you’ve used Twitter long enough, you’re probably aware of the term “Fail Whale” — the image of a smiling whale that used to show up every time Twitter unexpectedly crashed.
Twitter had outages so often in its early years that the Fail Whale mascot almost reached a cult status. It had an online fan club and adorned t-shirts and coffee mugs. Conan O’Brien even used it to promote his own radio show in 2010.
But Fail Whale started to appear less frequently after Mike Abbott was hired as Twitter’s VP of Engineering in May 2010.
During his 18 months there, Abbott increased the number of engineers from 75 to 375, and built a much more reliable service that could handle over 250 million tweets a day (5X the amount it saw when Abbott was first hired). Eventually, Twitter fixed its outage problem and Fail Whale faded away.
Abbott is widely credited with solving Fail Whale, and to this day, he proudly writes on his LinkedIn profile, “No more fail whale.”
Now, Abbott is taking on another challenge: rebuilding Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the storied, 43-year old venture capital firm that’s going through a transitional phase to reclaim its glory days.
Brought in as a partner in 2011, Abbott has a unique set of experiences that makes him somewhat of a rarity in the VC world. Unlike many VCs who tend to have a business background, Abbott comes with a strong engineering pedigree, having worked on Microsoft’s early cloud computing service and Palm’s WebOS software (the smartphone maker HP bought for $US1.2 billion). He’s also the founder of Composite Software, a data processing software that was later acquired by Cisco for $US180 million.
That blend of engineering and business acumen makes Abbott stand out in a crowded VC market. He says it helps him relate better to the engineering founders and technical startups, which he tends to invest in more frequently. He also gets to be more involved in the hiring and recruiting process, as well as the overall business strategy of the companies he invests in. His portfolio companies include Snapchat, CoreOS, and CodeAcademy.
“I think it’s unique to have someone on the venture side who’s started companies, scaled teams like at Twitter, built mobile operating systems like WebOS, and also wrote some software,” Abbott told Business Insider. “I’m kind of a weird dude (laughs).”
Rebuilding Kleiner Perkins
Abbott is also considered to be one of the first in line when it comes to taking charge of Kleiner Perkins — once its iconic, 63-year old leader John Doerr retires.
And that may very well be why Kleiner Perkins brought in Abbott in the first place. It’s no secret that Kleiner Perkins has struggled to make that generational transition to bring in a younger breed of talent. Aside from Doerr, Mary Meeker and Ted Schlein – both in their 50s – are perhaps the only investors that have the kind of top-notch star power to lead Kleiner Perkins. Abbott, at 42, is one of the youngest and most recognisable partners at the firm now.
Abbott doesn’t deny the notion that Kleiner Perkins needs a fresh infusion of young blood, although he doesn’t think it’s going to be just one person doing it all.
“I need some more people around the table that are younger – that is absolutely correct,” Abbott tells us. “But I don’t think it’s an individual. We need a partnership of people for the next generation to kind of lead us forward to get back to being great.”
Kleiner Perkins’ decision to over-invest in green technology, while failing to see the opportunity in mobile and social media early on, is one of the main stumbles of recent years that Abbott must fix. Even before the Ellen Pao trial, in which a former partner unsuccessfully sued the firm for gender discrimination, Kleiner Perkins had lost its reputation as the Valley’s top performing and most venerable VC firm.
“The firm had arguably over-indexed in green technology and probably under-indexed in some of the digital companies. So there was some transition that needed to happen,” Abbott said.
“And looking at my background, I built things from scratch or I tried to fix things. So I thought, ‘Wow, this could be an amazing group of people and an interesting challenge to get Kleiner Perkins back to being great again.”
For what it’s worth, Kleiner Perkins has been able to make late-stage investments in some of the hottest Silicon Valley startups, including Uber, Snapchat, and Slack. But turning that perception around and rebuilding its legacy may take some more time, Abbott says.
“We’re seeing great companies and winning competitively,” he said. “Perception is what it is, but time will tell with the returns and the companies we get involved with.”
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