Adventures of a Global Venture Capitalist

Oh the people you meet in the search for a few million dollars! From armored cars in Colombia to karaoke in Korea, one young entrepreneur learns how to speak money with a global accent.

The world is awash in a sea of capital. Vast pools of money controlled by moguls like Gates, Murdoch, Saudi princes, and new Chinese tycoons, money pouring from London to New York to Tokyo to Hong Kong and on around the globe. Hot money hunting for cool ideas: write a nifty business plan about PCs, the Net, the Web, and watch as the cash cascades in.

My partners and I are itching to be a part of this New Economy. Our plan is to raise a modest LP using OPM (Limited Partnership, Other People's Money). In return for letting us spend their capital, we'll give the moguls 80% of the upside. Our first task is to drill for funds. We don't need a gusher; a small hit, a couple of million, will get us started.

We embark on a two-year search for backers that takes us to the far-flung money pots of the world. And while global capital may have become borderless, we discover that global capitalists retain their own unique rituals. Money still talks, and if you want to grab a piece of it, you have to be savvy about the dialects.

Chairman of the Bored

I schedule a morning with BigCo, a New York media conglomerate. They have Picassos in the board room, big trees growing outside on the 51st floor balcony. Attending from BigCo: Corporate Planning, Corporate Development, New Business Development, and Strategic Marketing -- apologies from Financial Planning, who's on vacation. Everyone orders Starbucks, and then there's a huge fuss trying to sort out the tray of lattes. Finally I fire up the overhead projector.

They've heard it all before, of course. Hundreds of proposals every week, constant meetings. And they already have 80 MBAs reviewing internal investments. And it's so tough to justify investments to the shareholders. And all this pressure from Wall Street. And what if we use the money to buy something that embarrasses them?

"Like pornography?" I snap.

Corporate Development starts paging furtively through our prospectus. Finally they agree that it's impossible for them to make a decision at this meeting. I need to schedule a session with the Corporate Ventures people.

Time = Money

I phone a successful bond trader who cuts me off after 25 seconds.

"You're wasting your time and mine," he says. "And frankly, I'm more worried about mine. I do stuff I understand, like ball-bearing factories. And I never do blind pools. What do you think I am, nuts?"

Are You Sleeping?

He is bald. Drinks Perrier. Sits like Rodin's Thinker, gazing out of the window at the gray Paris roof-scape. He manages one of the largest pools of private capital in Europe from offices that stink of good breeding, longevity, and caution. Ancestors line the walls, and none of them looks pleased to see me.

I start out soberly, then become more animated when I suspect he is asleep. He speaks for the first and only time when I ask if he has any questions.

"Non," he says and then shakes my hand and glides out. His assistant wishes me luck. "It's good to start to build the relationship," she confides.

I'll have to remember to mention these folks to my grandchildren.

Clear and Present Danger

The car that drives me from Bogota's airport has inch-thick bullet-proof glass windows. I slump in the back seat, trying not to be a target, sliding sideways every time we swerve to avoid an oncoming bus. The official U.S. travel warnings mention Colombian taxis where the driver blows powder at you, and you wake up two days later in a trash can with your underwear on backward.

The driver chatters to his accomplices on the radio. "Ingles" is the only word I catch. I'm starting to imagine throwing myself from the vehicle when we skid into downtown and the driver smiles and haltingly counts out my change.

Coming out of the elevator with business cards and eye contact ready, I am met by an imposing steel vault door and half-a-dozen scowling men with stubby machine guns slung carelessly over their shoulders like handbags. There is a burst of conversation while the vault door rumbles open and I walk through nice and slow.

I am visiting a gigantic, aggressive diversified company controlled by one man. My potential investor is larger than life, smooth and impeccably tailored -- like a bronzed presidential candidate among friends. He apologizes for the antikidnapping weaponry. "Makes me look like a drug dealer," he laughs. He waves off my canned presentation and guides me to an armchair for a freewheeling discussion, peppered with tough questions and punctuated by excellent coffee. Two hours of cross-examination and all my cards are on his antique table.

"Very interesting," he says, "but we have so many outstanding opportunities locally. And it's hard for us to be involved when we don't have control."

I leave feeling oddly relieved.

Born to Be Wild

I fly to South Korea to sit down with two Korean billionaires, heads of midsize family businesses. "Let them see the real you," a friend has advised. "If they like you, well, who knows?"

We meet at 8 PM in a room salon, a subterranean club with private rooms lined with plush sofas. When the astonishingly young billionaires arrive, we all bow and swap business cards. Some attractive women bring in whiskey and pour out shots. We drain our glasses, and my eyes water. Everyone except me lights cigarettes. I take a deep breath.

I notice that the women haven't left. The one sitting next to me is wearing a cute white tennis outfit. "My name -- Miss Han," she pronounces, refilling my whiskey. Miss Han is very tall, very thin, very young.

"Good evening," I say, businesslike, and she collapses into giggles. I suspect my wife wouldn't find her amusing.

I launch into a pretty sexy presentation on my laptop computer, which I power up on the table among plates of peeled bananas and strawberries. But the billionaires are paying more attention to the women's suntan lines than my beautiful 3-D bar charts. Only Miss Han is watching loyally. Every now and then she drops a piece of banana in my mouth with long, slender fingers. Doesn't quite go with the whiskey.

Suddenly the door bursts open and huge loudspeakers appear, followed by a guitarist. Soon the two billionaires are crooning "Yesterday," and my computer beeps and shuts down.

Then it's my turn. I massacre "Bridge over Troubled Water," but Miss Han claps anyway. Minutes later we're all shrieking "Born to Be Wild," stomping around like maniacs.

Around 1 AM, we stagger outside. I gaze at a huge neon Goldstar sign that won't come into focus and struggle with the math: Eight people. Four bottles of whiskey. Five hours. The check had been $1,500.

I realize that my red necktie is still fastened around my forehead like a sweatband. "Born to Be Wild" echoes in my head, and I feel giddy.

"Let's do it," one of the Koreans says as he slips into his limo. "I'm in for $2 million."

Giles Goodhead (giles@monty.com) , a managing director of International Information Investors in Santa Monica, California, sings karaoke frequently.

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