Want a VC deal? Go fly a kiteboard
A lot of Silicon Valley networking gets done the old-fashioned way on the golf course. But the hippest of the tech set are communing 75 feet above San Francisco Bay.
In Silicon Valley, where some of the best networking has taken place on a bike trek or the golf course, the hippest techies are now regularly out in the surf with a board, a kite, and a 75-foot-long tether.
For the uneducated (that's the rest of us), kiteboarding (or kite surfing) is the trendiest adrenaline-junkie sport among Valley venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs. In fact, mention you're an amateur at a technology social function, and it could provide an entree to a conversation with the kite-savvy Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Second Life's Philip Rosedale, or venture capitalists Bill Tai and Ken Howery.
"I always joke that to kite-surf, you either need to be a venture capitalist or unemployed," said Chris Sacca, a former Google executive who's now a technology investor, referring to the flexible schedule that people need to surf between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., which are peak wind times. The cars at the kite beach parking lot on 3rd Avenue near San Mateo, Calif., (a spot about 20 miles south of San Francisco that accesses San Francisco Bay) typically reflect that theory.
"You see G-class Mercedes or rundown VW vans. It's like at a ski resort. You're either rich enough to take the time off, or you're stretching your dollars on Ramen noodles," Sacca added.
The Ramen crowd won't likely be out this month at the annual Mai Tai Kite Camp in Maui, Hawaii, the kite-set equivalent of the old golf weekend for venture capitalists. Mai Tai Kite Camp 2008 has a Facebook group whose members include former googlers and angel investors Georges Harik and Aydin Senkut; Matt Sanchez, founder of Videoegg; and Dave Morin, a Facebook executive who was previously with Apple.
The camp is put on by Bill Tai, the Pied Piper of Valley kiteboarding and a partner at Charles River Ventures. Tai, who jokes that he's a kiteboarder with a VC problem, said his gathering evolved out of a boys' windsurfing trip he started in 2000.
Now in its fourth year, the event is attracting record numbers of technology executives. Tai expects 100 surfers at Maui's Kite Beach, near the hippie town of Paia, up from 36 last year. Kite professionals and stars like Susi Mai and Cameron Dietrich (of popular kite maker Cabrinha) also come out to the weeklong gathering to show people the ropes or help them test new gear. (The camp is named after Mai and Tai.)
"We can't even fit 100 people on Kite Beach," Tai joked.
Valley VCs and entrepreneurs have long mixed their sports and networking, just like other business executives. A large swath of Silicon Valley executives lean toward weekend bike-a-thons or days at the links, but a subset of the culture is drawn more toward risky sports like extreme skiing and windsurfing. Some in the industry say kiteboarding (and its cousin, snow kiting) are resonant of a faster-paced Web 2.0 tech environment.
"This sport attracts a certain early-adopter type with a bundle of energy and a lot of confidence. That personality set just happens to overlap with what makes a technology entrepreneur what they are," Tai said. He got his first kiteboard in 2001 as a hand-me-down from pro surfer Laird Hamilton, by way of Savvian venture capitalist and friend John Murray.
"It also doesn't hurt that Sergey (Brin) and Larry (Page) do it," Tai added, referring to the Google co-founders. "They helped legitimize it in the tech community."
One Bay Area software engineer said he met a Google employee at a party, and their conversation eventually died out. But then it was resparked when he mentioned his kiteboarding.
"A lot of people at Google do it, and they're quick to point out the Larry and Sergey connection. It's kind of like they bless it," the engineer said.
Like skiing, the equipment-intensive sport isn't for the faint of heart or pocket. Enthusiasts need a lot of gear, including a board, which is similar to a wakeboard, with footholds that can be slipped or strapped on to the feet. They also need a kite, tether lines, and a bar that holds the lines. Finally, for protection: a harness, helmet, and wetsuit. New, all that gear can cost $2,000 or more.
Like other "techno" sports, such as scuba diving or rock climbing, the technology behind the gear can change quickly, so enthusiasts often need to replenish their stuff. Most enthusiasts have a "quiver" of kites, meaning that they will own several kites that vary in size and number of sails, working differently at varying wind speeds. The size of the kite correlates to power, so a person might use a large-sail kite on a low-wind day (say 15 mph winds).
The art and science of kiteboarding
But what attracts many techies to kiteboarding is art and science. Sport geeks, for example, like to research the wind direction and speeds on sites like iKitesurf.com before heading out, and then reassess those elements at the beach. Like a golfer asking a buddy what club to use, kiteboarders will analyze the waves and winds to pick the right kind of kite (with one or two or three different sails) for any given day, factoring in crowds, boats, and other objects.
As Tai puts it, "With the changing water, wind, and waves, no ride is ever the same."
Then they must have a willingness to risk their personal health.
Sacca is a biker, runner, extreme skier, and surfer, so taking to kiteboarding was no big stretch. He learned the sport about three years ago, but he said that only recently has it gotten more appealing to a wider audience. That's because manufacturers are making kites safer, with levers for depowering the sails in high winds. Before that, kiters could get launched up 20 feet in 30 mph to 40 mph winds. That's what kiteboarders call a "kitemare."
(A classic kitemare can be seen in a YouTube video of a surfer in Maui who was propelled a few hundred feet because of a runaway kite.) With the new kite designs, if a kiteboarder lets go of his or her bar, then the kite will fall out of the sky.
Unlike surfing, kiteboarding is a much more collaborative sport, a quality that draws techies. Kiteboarders literally need the help of another person to launch and land their kite. That's why so-called bro-vangelists like Tai try to encourage others to learn the sport and help negotiate their kite's ups and downs. Also, people in the sport often use hand signals in the water to communicate with one another. Tapping your head with your palm is the signal for needing help to land your kite, for example.
"If you're an ass at the kite beach, it's nearly impossible to launch your kite. It's very communal," Sacca said.
Making friends--and cinching deals
For that reason, kites have cinched more than one Valley deal or job. Don Montague, a professional kite surfer and designer of Naish kiteboards, is co-founder of Makani Power, an Alameda, Calif., green company that's developing technology to use kites for harnessing wind power and generating electricity. The Google founders are investors in Makani Power.
Jack Hodges, a software engineer at NASA Ames who runs a Webcam site for a popular kite-surfing spot among Valleyites, said he's hired at least one person he's met on the beach.
"One fellow was bothering me for quite some time for a couple of years. Then I saw him at 3rd Avenue and told him we have an opening," Hodges said.
Hodges was referring to the site most Valleyites go to kiteboard--3rd Avenue, at the intersection of Highways 101 and 92 near San Mateo. It's an ideal spot because it's closer to Silicon Valley offices than San Francisco or Santa Cruz, and the wind direction runs parallel to the shore, creating a roll of waves that's particularly conducive to long rides, jumps, and tricks. The wind there is also fairly consistent--good winds are in the range of 18 mph to 20 mph. At 30 mph, a kite surfer can easily get jerked around by the wind.
The spot is a little like the bat cave, given that people regularly spot Page and Brin out there like normal surfer guys.
The Google founders don't attend Tai's Kite Camp--they're more private about their holidays. But the gathering is inherently about networking. Tai has hosted dinners with local Maui venture capitalists or at the home of Olympic ski racer Julie Mancuso.
And all that surfing leads to new friendships. Sacca, for example, met Facebook executive Morin on a Tai-hosted Utah snow-kiting trip in February. The guys on that trip bonded when one of the kite pros led them to a vacant but snowed-in field that seemed to be the former site of a subprime-housing development (so they called the site "subprime").
Since then, Morin has advised Sacca on his start-ups that are developing Facebook applications. After meeting PayPal co-founder Ken Howery on the trip, Sacca has also sent entrepreneurs to Howery's Founder's Fund.
Sebastian Thrun, a Googler, said he started kite-surfing partly because so many people in his social circle were talking about it. He joined Tai on a recent snow-kiting trip in Utah, and at some point, he lost a ski and fell about 3 meters deep into the snow. "This might be a first instance of scuba kiting," he joked.
"It's been a lot of fun, and a great way to get together with cool people in the Valley," he added.