How Yuri Milner's Hands-Off Investment Strategy Pays Off
By the look of him, you would think Yuri Milner is the type of guy that wants control.
As the Moscow-born founder of Digital Sky Technologies, he's made a name for himself in Silicon Valley as an investor willing to make huge bets. He invested $200 million in Facebook in 2009 for a 2 percent stake in the company, and $800 million in Twitter in 2011. Milner has also made a promise to fund Y Combinator alums with $150,000--from his own personal fortune of about $1 billion--once they've finished the program.
But what's really remarkable about his investment strategy is not how much he spends, but rather how little influence he demands. As a rule, Milner has said he doesn't take board seats in his later-stage investments, and rarely requires founders to hand over voting shares when issuing company stock.
For a megalith investor like Milner, that's almost unheard of.
"We took [investing] to the next level by allowing founders to vote out our shares--we don't insist on board seats," he said today at SXSW. "We make it so the legal documents reflect this trust in founders. There is a mutual trust that's being developed through this legally binding relationship. I think it's a good thing when there's a growing trust between founder and investor. Maybe it also lends a bit of confidence. It sends an important message to the world that there's a growing trust in the system. Not many people were used [to this investment model] a few years back, but many are using it now."
He added, "We basically came up with this idea that later in the life of the company, you don't have to demand the governance, rights, and provisions as when the company is young."
At its core, Milner's decision to recuse himself from a company's board reflects the importance he places on the founder's abilities to scale a company. And because of this conviction, he says he only invests in founder-run firms.
Milner didn't always think this way, but a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg in 2009 changed his viewpoint.
"I saw someone what was clearly a genius, and who was on a mission," he said. "You don't meet these people often. It's always a miracle when you meet this type of person. It was an easy decision to give up votes because this was a company that was changing the world, and they needed our support."
Ultimately, Milner looks for founders that embody the type of leader willing to sacrifice everything to make the company succeed. His advice for entrepreneurs?
"Think about the sacrifice and think about all the shit that you'll need to go through," he said. "Think about the very low probability of success. And think about the toll it will take on your family and people around you. Think about losing friends."