Every so often, a rumor that at first blush seems meager, malnourished and a little, well, skinny, turns out to be pregnant with possibilities and sequels. Take last week's unverifiable tale of serial Net entrepreneur Jim Clark's $52 million Woodside estate--it just had triplets.
First off we have more details of the transaction. Skinformants say the former estate of Bank of America heiress Claire Giannini Hoffman went on the market for $35 million and got jacked up to its astronomical sale price at auction. Rumor has it that participants in that bidding war included Intel legend Gordon Moore and Oracle's Larry Ellison.
Ellison already has a Woodside crash pad, valued around $70 million to $80 million, but that property is woefully exposed to passersby. "You could drive right up to it and throw rocks through his window," said our Skinformant, who wasn't necessarily suggesting an activity for Bill Gates on his next trip to San Mateo County.
Clark's new joint, by contrast, is prized for being quiet and secluded--apart from the camera-equipped helicopters now a regular fixture in the skies above Woodside. Real estate types consider it a prime spot, even though it's only 8 acres (it shrank by 4 acres since my last column) and even though the house on it burned down several years ago. Until he builds his dream house, Clark apparently will be living in a ramshackle barn.
Speaking of the homeless, our second Clark rumor concerns his investment in ill-fated teen site Kibu.com. It's no secret to newshounds that, upon closing, Kibu returned leftover funds to investors, giving their respective home down-payment collections badly needed infusions. But now the staffers who were Kibooted out of their jobs are grousing that the fledgling start-up not only didn't run out of money before getting stuffed and trussed by its investors, but it wasn't even close!
"Five months is an awfully short time to ask a Web site to prove itself," said one disgruntled former Kibuster. "It had nothing to do with Kibu but with the main investors."
Rumor has it that Clark and Kleiner Perkins VC Tom Jermoluk pulled the plug on Kibu over the objections of fellow board members (which, in the interest of full disclosure, include CNET Networks CEO Shelby Bonnie, whom the Rumor Mill could not reach for comment. Jermoluk also couldn't be reached for comment).
The usually elusive Clark provided this response through a representative:
"The management and investors considered the options in light of the lack of success of the site thus far, plus the lack of interest in B2C companies with advertising-based business models. Their conclusion was that even if the company could achieve significant market penetration, it would not be valued appropriately. Thus the best interests of all were served by shutting the company down."
"Well, it is their money," I pointed out as the Rumor Mill staff hashed over the affair.
"It's irresponsible to the employees," said Ammonia Blossom, my 12-year-old son Vermel's perspicacious paramour. "It's not taking people's lives seriously. It's boys playing with their money."
"Come now, Ammonia," I replied. "Surely you can't reduce this hard-nosed business decision to a skirmish in the battle of the sexes."
"Oh, can't I?" Ammonia demanded. "Think about it, Skinny. Site aimed at girls. CEO's a woman. Two big-shot male investors get cold feet. Do you think they would have cut her off at the knees, with half the cash still in the bank, if one of their yachting buddies' careers had been on the line?"
Methought the lady did protest too much. But the next day a call came from a trusted Skinformant recalling Clark's appearance, some years back, at a local forum for executive women in technology. In his keynote speech, Clark told his Netscape war stories, richly peopled with male entrepreneurs, male venture capitalists, male executives and male engineers.
"Where were the women?" an audience member wanted to know.
Clark then proceeded to barricade himself into a feminist doghouse, first by claiming women didn't tend to go into engineering because they were too smart to spend nights under a start-up desk; then saying Netscape did have a woman engineer--who married another engineer at the company and had to leave as a result; and finally by citing women in powerful positions at Netscape: the head of PR and the corporate secretary.
Clark didn't stay for the panel discussion afterward, in which the female executives "ripped him a new one," our Skinformant colorfully recalled. Famed former Cisco engineer and executive Judy Estrin summed up the crowd's feeling as she called Clark a perfect example of a guy who "just doesn't get it."
Does this last item count as a quadruplet? Kibu's pain is being felt across industries! Local fashion house Levi Strauss--News.com's present landlord, by the way--is using Kibu's staff as its premier "role models" in its marketing campaign for its Slates brand. But on second thought, maybe this is a lucky break for Levi's--in the future of the New Economy, our role models are bound to be unemployed. Unless my investors get cold feet, I'll still be employed next week and anxiously awaiting your rumors.