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How Russian Tycoon Yuri Milner Bought His Way Into Silicon Valley (wired.com)
197 points by razin on Oct 22, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments



"It is his outsiderness that seems most irritating and even alarming" - that's the main issue that people seem to be having with Yuri. If he was American, he would be yet another success story, flashier than the others, but still competent enough to have made it big.

As much as I admire the Silicon Valley investors who live in a normal house and drive a normal car, it's Milner's choice to go all out and get some expensive stuff if he wants - I suspect growing up in Russia, they didn't have access to any kind of luxury items when the Union collapsed, so the desire to get all the big houses, yachts and expensive cars is understandable.

By the way, I like it how he bought Mail.ru when it was cheap - it was certainly a smart investment (it's now the biggest mail service in Runet, not only Russia itself), at a time when most of them thought the fancy American invention, the Internet, went belly up.


No. The issue is that to most of the social class that makes up the Valley, every high net worth individuals from a CIS state is "Russian Mafia". If that's xenophobia, fair enough, but it's a specific brand of xenophobia, and as the amounts of money we're talking about go up --- perhaps past Yuri Milner --- it's a brand of xenophobia that may get less and less irrational.

They don't call it "Russian money" or "Milner money" or "Soviet money" or any other epithet. They call it "Russian mafia money".


If his 'outsiderness' is so irritating and alarming that's just nicely dressed up xenophobia.

And from what I've seen of it SiliconValley is not much prone to that. So why is it different with Milner?


The Valley doesn't care about a person's ethnicity, as long as they generated their wealth through legitimate means. Milner, on the other hand, is nothing more than a frontman for Alisher Usmanov, who basically accrued everything through wholescale theft of state resources. Basically, Milner is a crook, and if there was any justice in the world he and Usmanov would be in jail for what they have done. But there isn't, and there are people in the Valley who are willing to overlook ethics if you have enough money. The fact that Milner is now working with YC is a sad testament to that fact.


VCs are not so high minded that they're offended by who his LPs are, believe me. The reason VCs don't like Yuri is that he is disturbing the cosy world they formerly inhabited by offering more founder friendly terms.

So morally the situation is not as simple as your comment implies.


Actually, it would seem to be just as simple as he implies. VCs in the valley care only about money and don't give a hoot about morality. You haven't debated the fact that Milner is linked to the looting of state resources; you've simply said that anyone else would also take his money if they could.

Makes all you VCs and Angels in the Valley seem like dogs fighting over a doggie biscuit -- or in this case, the looted flesh and bones of the Russian people.


Let me be more precise. When I said the situation was not as simple as his comment implied, I meant that even if Yuri's money was tainted in some way, it was being used as a counterweight to another bad thing.


"The reason VCs don't like Yuri is that he is disturbing the cosy world they formerly inhabited by offering more founder friendly terms."

I greatly respect and admire you pg, and god knows you're far more intelligent than I am, but surely you can't be so naive as to think that Milner is doing what he is doing out of some altruism for founders?

He is spending outlandish amounts on startups for the same reason Abramovich spends hundreds of millions on yachts, why the Sultan of Brunei spends millions on cars, and why the Saudi princes spend millions on trips to the Riviera. Because he never worked hard for the money, and so he doesn't care about throwing it around.

When a man works hard, he is loathe to spend it carelessly, because he knows the sacrifice in time and effort it took to acquire the money. In the words of the great Milton Friedman: "Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own". This applies not only to government officials but to the criminal element as well, from hoodlums to ponzi schemers and everything in between.

People like Milner and others associated with Russian oligarchs spend lavishly because the money they have came with no sacrifice on their part. The sacrifice came from all those miners working in subzero temperatures in the Kazakh steppe for kopeks a day, their bodies broken down prematurely, with the share of wealth that was promised to them stolen away. And instead of those who betrayed them being brought to justice, they instead depart to the West where they are greeted with applause by those who mistake cunningness with intelligence.


...surely you can't be so naive as to think that Milner is doing what he is doing out of some altruism for founders?

pg didn't say or imply that. If you read what he's written about investing (e.g., http://paulgraham.com/future.html, http://paulgraham.com/control.html), you'll see there's a much simpler explanation: pg thinks being founder-friendly is a good (i.e., profitable) investment strategy.


>Because he never worked hard for the money This is simply not true, most of these people work hard, risk and sacrifice a lot to get their money. There is a cultural tradition in Russia to spend a lot if you can afford it.

(In this particular case it an investment strategy, so your theory doesn't apply either).


Pg is implying that Yuri's LPs are no more questionable than the LPs of the top VC firms in the Valley. They've all taken dubious money.


From reading this post, I am surprised that this story is not on top of the Hacker News....anyway, i agree 100% with what the above comment says....PG and Hacker News sold out and sold their Souls to Yuri and all the corrupt Souls that Digital Sky Technologies (DST) is associated with. Good Going Paul.


This was very well said and I hope entrepreneurs at least stop to think about this before accepting his money.


It was phrased in dramatic language. To be well said it would also have to be true.


I would be hard pressed to not believe it. From my own experience.

I don't know Yuri - you do.

He may as well be the only honest Russian oligarch (or a front for the only honest Russian oligarch).

But what GP posted is the state of affairs everywhere in eastern block and by far the norm.

Thus you must understand if people think less of you because of your associates. It is an prejudice but a well founded one.

In the end it won't matter anyway. But this is the way things work. I believe I read somewhere that yourself are of Russian ancestry? If so I believe you should be familiar with long tradition of tyranny of the few in Russia.


<People like Milner and others associated with Russian oligarchs spend lavishly because the money they have came with no sacrifice on their part. The sacrifice came from all those miners working in subzero temperatures in the Kazakh steppe for kopeks a day, their bodies broken down prematurely, with the share of wealth that was promised to them stolen away. And instead of those who betrayed them being brought to justice, they instead depart to the West where they are greeted with applause by those who mistake cunningness with intelligence>

Pg it~s time yo returm the $$$$ back you sold you sole and sold out Nuff Said


You seem to be implying that breaking up the VC cartel in Silicon valley with money that was potentially stolen from russian peasants maybe OK. I understand that Ycombinator companies need their $150K, but this seems contrary to Valley values. Or maybe you meant something else?


“Founder unfriendly conditions” do not compare to the way oligarchs operate and the consequences of their actions.

Much of the authenticity that comes through in your essays is based on being truly committed to the things you talk about. They are often controversial and authoritative (in a good way), but the possible discrepancy between what you say and what you do could easily undermine that authenticity.

Saying that other VCs do not care where their money comes from, does not make sense here. They are not judged as authorities on topics you write about.

Do you disagree with any of these points?

- You can use the profits from investing tainted money for further investments, but the money still stinks.

- The money that came from DST's partners is tainted.


I care very much where an investors money comes from


Thank you.


I'm not denying this fact, but do you have any evidence for your claims?


Usmanov holds the largest stake in Milner's Digital Sky fund.

It's probably going to be hard to get a bead on Usmanov. He's a CIS state extractive industry billionaire with close ties to Gazprom, itself an instrument of the security state. That's unsettling. But then, it creates a huge incentive for people to villify him.


A significant percentage of oligarchs from the former USSR carry a very bad reputation because the means through which they became rich are often suspect and shrouded in secrecy, which is understandable given the lawlessness of the 1990s in that region, and which to some extent continues to this day. Russia since the collapse of the USSR has been a lot like certain parts of the U.S. were during the time of the Prohibition -- giving orders to physically terminate rivals is or was daily business.

After finding out more about Milner, I am now more convinced that he is not at all the "robber baron" Al Capone type, but a genuine businessman who is both lucky and smart.

Wrote this just to explain the possible reasons behind the initial worry, being myself from the former USSR. I think this also explains why Milner cares about establishing a reputation in the Silicon Valley as opposed to being completely aloof to what other people think.


When part of what makes you "smart" is the hands you choose to shake, and the most lucrative hands are also the ones buying all the television stations and running the shadow government...

Al Capone wasn't a robber baron. He was a criminal entrepreneur. The robber barons have universities, foundations, and financial institutions named after them. The distinction between mobsters and robber barons is germane.


> When part of what makes you "smart" is the hands you choose to shake

Why is picking correct friends wrong all of a sudden?

> buying all the television stations

Surely you mean buying television stations from one of the most vile and controlling governments in the history of the world.


You have a disappointing perspective on what makes friendships "correct", but that might just be because I believe we have an immortal soul.

And yes, when the TV stations are bought by companies that are effectively instruments of the state: that's a bad thing. The ruling party shouldn't buy TV stations.

Your beef isn't with me, though. Re-read this thread. I'm hardly the most cynical person here. I can sum my take on it up this way: I'd like to believe I wouldn't accept Milner money, even if I needed it; at the same time, people I consider friends have accepted it, and I don't think less of them for it.


I'm interested in hearing more of your personal beliefs (re: soul).


They aren't interesting but if you'd like to email me, feel free.


If by "friends" you mean people that you can use/be-used to find your way to "financial" success you obviously have a different/distorted take on the term "friendship".


Who do you seek out? Birds of a feather with whom to weep about your own misfortune? The stupid ones whom you can easily brainwash for fun and profit? The ugly ones next to whom you look sexier than by yourself? The weak ones whom you can rule over? The quiet ones over whom your voice is heard? The short ones over whom you can tower over? Perhaps you seek out neither of the above, but I knew a few too many people who did, and incidentally those people were also the first ones to criticize me for being closed and overly choosy with whom I talk to.

As you can probably tell, I have little patience for mediocrity and "beta" strategies.


How about reaching for power and glory without seeing people around you as mere objects with favorable and unfavorable attributes?

Reaching for power with integrity has its own set of rewards. Credibility for one.

People with attitudes like yours are destined to be used and discarded. Because a man of true power knows not to trust such and also knows that using the same standards on people that they use themselves is not amoral.

Superficial achievements are worthless to me. Therefore I believe that only integrity, wit, boldness and favor of Fortune will breed true glory.


Where did I say that I am being superficial? I am a bit hardened by life, but I do not at all see myself as superficial. I simply learned my lessons. I didn't use to be picky with whom I hang out, and then one day it came to me that my closest friend of six years is the most loathsome person I ever met, and, moreover, that he had been friends with me solely because he knew that I am not picky with people, thus he felt comfortable around me. So the "deep" strategy you are recommending (not judging books by their cover and taking tome to know people) hasn't exactly worked out.


So, might makes right.


First of all, an attempt at a correction to one of the motives of the article. I think Milner's jewish background has nothing to do with his success. His family, while Jewish, had and still have a complete worldview that only a member of the russain intelligentsia can have. It is such a bizarre and wonderful world-view and way of life that it defies my abilities to explain — being delicate among a world of merciless brutality. The cultural class of Russia really are a class apart.

I suspect that the influence of growing up surrounded by cultured Russians, as few of them as they were in Soviet Times is why he always stands a little bit disconnected from the crowd.

The air of Russian culture is gentle but always restless.

Russia is a land of big crowds but the intelligent among that people always desire to be a little bit aloof, if not in solitude.


Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear of outsiders. The VC community should rationally dislike him because he is driving down the risk adjusted rate of return for VC investment, and backed by an endless supply of funds that traditional VCs have no access to. Of course, startup founders and tech employees should embrace him for the same reason.

As for his character, I don't think he is picked on anymore than Donald Trump. I reserve the right to make jokes about both of them.


Given the background of Milner described in the article, I'd argue he doesn't care about material comfort and luxury. At all. Like Perelman - who lives with his mother in the middle of St. Peterburg, sees a lot of opera and is happy with that.

His 100M home is probably just another investment. He had bought a part of California state, tiny but pretty impressive one. He can also live in his investment which is a bonus.


His mother and father were relatively hi ranked Soviet officials. He had it "made" in SU. Also, the guy bought a 100 million dollar house. YES, he cares about the material comfort and luxury. If you don't, you live in a regular apartment or a sub- million dollar mansion.


You named the reason why I think he doesn't care. He had everything he needed and it didn't cost them money. The only you could buy with money in USSR is some pompious things. Items.

In USA, you buy better education, better health care, better neighbours, different social circle, better leisure, better future - you buy all that with money. You didn't buy these with money in USSR. His parents had all this because of their status, not because of their high wages. You could only put your money in useless and overpriced things.

If you don't care, you can live anywhere. Might as well invest in some expensive property.


You obviously have no idea about how SU or any other Warsaw Pact country worked.


That's ad hominem, and a pretty funny one at that.


Indeed it is. Upon my realization that I should try harder to disqualify you, Edit timer has already passed.

So I will offer my clarification here.

This notion, that somehow in Eastern Block everybody had their basic needs covered in an egalitarian fashion while in Western Capitalism, to get any kind of (fair?) treatment one better be lined with cash is sorely mistaken.

In reality Eastern Block was very much as your average 1% > 99% scenario. The ruling elite (Cream of various Party organization and their relatives) had it all (doctors, money, travel, education,...).

If an unprivileged person wanted some of the services that were reserved for the Party elite - one would have to pay bribes all the way to destination.

Average folk didn't get any meaningful service level on security, education, health,...

So basically the only difference between East and West is/was that in West you don't have as high probability of being imprisoned/killed/have property confiscated while trying to go about doing business.

Furthermore in regards to Yuri - his parents were obviously well liked by the regime (high, excellent positions) which enabled them lucrative careers and lifestyles.

In Soviet Russia - you didn't get to travel round the world and do business - unless Regime could be certain that you can be trusted (e.g. are a part of the system).

p.s.: For reference check Northern Korea, whats going on there was pretty much the golden standard for socialist regimes.


An interesting description, but how does it contradict with things I said earlier in the thread?

More specifically: that he might not care about wealth as something one buys with money.


Not sure if serious...

We are talking extremely corrupt societies here. Saying that one does not need money at all - would imply that this someone is a member of top of the top of a corrupt regime, thus having anything one would desire available at mere whim (due to sheer terror one's position instills in others).

But for everybody else - money (or another medium of exchange) is essential to get basic services or indeed keep ones liberty or life intact.

What you are saying is that Gang Lords have no need for money, since they will get everything they desire on a whim, while civil people need to trade and barter to get goods and services that they require.

Thus you are painting Yuri as an ascet who deals with insane amounts of money out of sheer joy of helping rich Russian magnates increase their holdings. However according to you he has no other (especially) material goals for himself.


I can't agree about late USSR being "extremelly correct society". It wasn't on the whole, not much more than current USA is one (I should agree that I probably not qualified to appraise the latter).

I don't say he is an ascet. I'm just saying that he isn't motivated by being able to buy a huge house or a shiny car. And he probably wasn't, never in his life. They just come organically because of other, real things he achieve.


I couldn't possibly imagine what people with billions of dollars of assets at their disposal feel like.

What are his motives? Beats me. He may be after a better high, better orgasm, fast cars, eternal life, global domination. Or he may just want to live a tranquil life with Jane Average and make babies and peacefully pass away.

Either way it certainly cannot be inferred from this article.

But comparing Yuri Milner to Perelman is interesting in an ingenious kind of way.

Perelman and Milner are from two completely different faces of Russia. And I'd wager that Perelman's disenchantment has a lot more to do with people like Milner than vice versa.


They are very close age; Both had jewish parents; Which were part of soviet intellectual elite/science. I can guess that the environment in which they both were raised is nearly the same.

Perelman's disenchantment is caused by his mathematical institute stupid old professors who didn't care about math as a science (i.e. way to figure out new things), only focused on art of reiterating same things over and over again. Which led him to think that the official math scientific community is dead. He said it in interviews.

It does not seem to have anything with "people like Milner".


s/correct/corrupt/, sorry, happens to me.


If there's one mistake this story makes, it's in trying to come up with complicated theories about why Yuri does well. He's simply smart. That's what DST has in common with Andreessen Horowitz, though they have little else in common.


Come now, Paul. Yes, Yuri is smart. But he also has huge sacks of money to throw around, most of which comes from oligarch Alisher Usmanov. Wolff confirms here for the first time (I believe) that "Milner has created a separate fund to invest in international—and especially American—Internet companies, with Usmanov taking the biggest stake."

And we've yet to see any sort of track record for the piles of money Milner throws around, at least the big new money he is spending in America. In what sense is he "successful?"

It's kind of sad, to me at least, the extent to which a sort of amorality has really taken hold in Silicon Valley. It's nice that he's helped your investments out, Paul, but where does Yuri's money come from? Have you looked into him and Usmanov? I mean, the sad thing about Yuri Milner to me isn't that he's an ostentatious outsider, it's that he fits in so darn well in Silicon Valley. I wish this was the sort of place that looked completely alien to someone from Moscow or Wall Street. Every year, it seems that's less and less the case, at least in terms of culture.


Huge sacks of money to throw around and huge cojones as well to make those bets, most of his investments had everyone saying "That's crazy!" at the time, yet they've paid off for him so far. Time will tell if they're successful or if he's making money off of a bigger fool, I guess, but he looks pretty good right now.


Criminals routinely invest lots of money in losing enterprises. This is called money laundering. They'll take a hit from 30 to 70% or even worse just to be able to get their money back in a way that they can spend it legitimately. They may not even care to win overall, as long as some of the bets pay off that's great. It will give influence and legitimacy.

The hard part is always to find places that will take large amounts of money, no questions asked and that have a gambling element in it which could explain large returns in a plausible way, and in a way that will stay.

That's why casinos are very popular, ditto with antique dealerships, the real estate sector and financial services such as banking.

It's really not that much of a stretch of the imagination to use venture capital as another money laundering setup, essentially it has all the elements of a casino, large amounts of money go in, lots of it disappears and some relatively small bets pay off huge.

Another reason for making 'silly bets' is to diversify whatever the cost, because being the owner of former state enterprises and a bunch of mines always has a risk of nationalization, silicon valley investments have returns in hard currency and on top of that are unlikely to ever be taken away at the whim of some ruler.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alisher_Usmanov has an interesting profile and if that's Milners main source of capital there are definitely some pointed questions that should be asked. This is not who you want to be indirectly involved with your startup, assuming that it is true and that this guy really is the power behind the investments Milner is making.

Pecunia non olet but some money is better refused than accepted, 'success' on the back of stealing from the people of the former Soviet Union is not something to be proud of.


When talking about Usmanov, people seem to lean more heavily on the fact that he was convicted, and thus "pointed questions should be asked", rather than the fact that he was rehabilitated because the charges were fabricated.

Since I don't know Alisher, I can only speak generally, but: I was born in Uzbekistan, and know a few things about the region, and the political history there, so here's my two cents:

Fabricated charges during the Soviet regime were as common as, say, marijuana arrests in the US. This has happened in my family as well: my grandfather was a state judge in Uzbekistan, and his rival framed him on bribery charges, for which he was sentenced to 7 years in a labor camp. My grandfather has always maintained that he was innocent.

How come I believe my grandfather? Because, in the court documents, the sum of money which he allegedly accepted as a bribe was ludicrously low: 50 rubles. That's like taking a bribe for $150

During the 1990's, he was also rehabilitated with the same conclusion: fabricated charges.


But those charges aren't the only reason people ask questions about him.

In fact, the charges are convenient for him, at least with respect to his public image in the West, because he can argue that he was vindicated; PR 101: leverage that vindication to ward off all other claims.

The links to Gazprom and the general public image of CIS extractive industry tycoons presumably contributes as much (if not more) to the cloud over him as the Soviet-era charges.


Money laundering = disguising the path money takes. These transactions are extremely traceable.

It is equally ridiculous to propose the goal is to get money out of Russia. How does investing in startups make that any easier? If the money can get to a startup in the US, ipso facto it can get out of Russia, to any other investment.

I would not be surprised to see such an obviously mistaken comment upvoted on reddit, but it is an alarming sign to see it happening here.


> Money laundering = disguising the path money takes.

indeed.

> These transactions are extremely traceable.

Sure they are.

But the source of the original fortune behind all this is pretty murky and money laundering does not stop at the first stage.

Think of it as onion routing, going further and further into the legitimate world until those that handle the money have no way of proving or even knowing that the original source wasn't legit. It's all about provenance.

> It is equally ridiculous to propose the goal is to get money out of Russia.

Are you familiar with the name Berezovsky?

( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Berezovsky_%28businessman... )

You can go down as fast as up in Russia, and it doesn't take all that much to cause a fall from grace.

Spreading your assets in multiple countries seems like a good idea in an environment that volatile.

> How does investing in startups make that any easier?

It's a great way to ensure yourself future income and influence, surely one or more of them will pay back big time.

> If the money can get to a startup in the US, ipso facto it can get out of Russia, to any other investment.

Sure, but that won't get you in on the ground floor of a bunch of companies that will likely be very important in the near future. The return on investment in terms of influence could be enormous, it's a risk worth taking.

Better than buying standard oil or microsoft for an equivalent amount of money.

And if it is monopoly money to them anyway, why not buy that nearly free lottery ticket?


The point is that these money already laundered, most likely it's just basic deversification.


Moreover, you "launder" the proceeds of a numbers racket or a heroin dealing ring. When you control over 1/10th of the metals industry in one of the world's largest industrialized nations, you don't "launder" the proceeds; you create banks to hold the money.

The "money laundering" charge does a disservice to any legitimate qualms one might have about Oligarchy funds.


When Soviet Russia imploded in the former USSR and in lots of satellite states huge amounts of state owned real estate and means of production changed hands for peanuts.

It was probably the largest theft in our lifetime and whether you call eventually turning that into assets in western countries laundering or not is arguing semantics.

Ill gotten gains get converted into more diversified and more respectable assets.

Basically these men (and their predecessors) stole a country, the fact that that gives them access to mechanisms that ordinary criminals can not afford does not place them morally above them at all in my opinion.

This period is sometimes referred to as the rape of Russia, but that makes it sound like it is over, which is far from the truth.


Exactly. The real question is whether it is a difference in type or a difference in scale. "Laundering" may be a dirty word used to make things untracable, but it is equally possible to do unseemly things so well that no one can call you to account. If so, you do not need to launder your money -- but the question remains as to whether or not what you are doing qualifies as a difference in type.


I would not be surprised to see such an obviously mistaken comment upvoted on reddit, but it is an alarming sign to see it happening here.

This comment implies you peek at the number of points a comment gets before responding. Do you?


Well, we don't know if it's upvoted since we don't see the score.


I think, what 0x12 is trying to say, that highly-leveraged investments are a great way to launder money: i.e. you may have only 10% in "clean" money, leveraged 10:1 to cover over 90% of "dirty" money.

I don't think this is the case with DST. This is just a usual case of envy.

I'll take DST money any day. Hell, I'll give 10% of my company to Yuri Milner, any day, even without the investment (this is not a legally binding promise).


One may think, that early bet on Facebook is not a per-say highly-leveraged, because it must be paid in full cash.

In practice it's such a risky investment, so it should be considered more like an option or outright gamble.


There are legal reasons why you do it as well..lets say you legally got out of paying high 45% corp tax rate by parking profits offshore in Europe. Than obviously you would re-invest those profits in Europe Social-Media start-ups as you would only have ot get a return of 70%.

Prices of raw material inputs to energy, Metals, etc went from high to low and back again during Russia's past recent history and we are making unfounded assumptions in this thread that have very little to no basis in fact.


In what sense is he "successful?"

Financially, in the same sense Mark Zuckerberg is.


I though Zuckerberg's success is in the creation, not in the bank balance? Really, 'financial success' and life's success (for achieving something worthwhile for the history of this planet) must be two absolutely different achievements..


That's why I qualified my answer by with "financially."

That is the type of success mapgrep is asking about: his returns as an investor.



Based on subsequent valuations it would seem like Facebook, Groupon and others are doing very well. It only takes a few home runs to cover a lot of strikeouts and singles.


Only when you sell the stock. So the money to buy all that stock still had to come from somewhere.

Macaroni somehow doesn't cut it.


Right. We can bound this by getting the total market size of the macaroni business in Russia, and comparing to public investment numbers by Milner in other companies. Does the top down (revenue, profits) match the bottom up (sum of investments)?

Unless he built the Russian Chef Boyardee, it strains the imagination to believe that macaroni was anything but a front for money laundering, from the Russian Mafia, Usmanov, or who knows where.

Though I doubt YC companies are at risk of having their legs broken by Russian gangsters should they fail, because Milner is in the US and wants to play by American rules (though the US itself is rapidly moving towards the cynicism/crony capitalism/venture socialism of the Soviet bloc).

Sort of like Michael Corleone becoming a pillar of the community, these sorts of transactions buy respectability.

All that said, Americans shouldn't be too self satisfied. We'll probably realize in a few years that the $787B stimulus and the $9T Federal Reserve bailout ended up in the pockets of a few politically connected American oligarchs like George Kaiser, as the euphoria of 2009 Obama America was similar to the euphoria of 1992 Yeltsin Russia. Massive amounts of money flew around with little accountability and the hangover will be a bitch.

Anyway, from a blackbox perspective Milner's presence is good for startups at all stages, as even if he is only a threat to invest his presence forces better terms from others. I think that is the pragmatic perspective: he is a feature of the landscape, so might as well benefit from him.

(still, that macaroni calculation would be a damn interesting public spreadsheet. should be done anonymously of course...)


So, let's do the macaroni calculation.

The first step would be to answer, "What is the name of the Macaroni factory Milner bought?" (Answer: "Extra M JSC". Source: http://forum.prisonplanet.com/index.php?topic=196698.0 )

The next step might be to figure out the size of that Extra M deal, in order to gauge its then-profitability. (Even though that has no bearing on its profitability afterwards, it is at least a starting point.)

Some sparse Extra M performance information from 2007: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/julia-malofeeva/5/98a/39a

Financial information about the Consumer Goods sector: http://biz.yahoo.com/p/3conameu.html

This is little bizarre: http://search.appliances-china.com/Look.php?ID=CaoGP4TW%2F%2... ... Extra M "company details" reads as follows: "We are international purchaser of Machinery & Industrial products for long time." It's proving difficult to find much info about Extra M.

Here's some company backround: http://enc.ex.ru/cgi-bin/n1firm.pl?lang=2&f=1143


He bought into Russia's mail.ru (through a merger; he's considered a founder, even though mail.ru's roots go back years before), during the first dotcom boom.

He led it and helped it get huge. A lot of people got rich, including Millner, and Russians had great mail service. It went public on the LSE a few years ago, and is worth billions.

So, on top of substantial personal wealth, he became a known successful tech entrepreneur, so it was possible for him to get LPs for his fund.

If you change the countries and company names around, he's basically Marc Andreessen or one of the PayPal mafia.

It's not so much that silicon valley is like the Russian finance economy, it's that tech businesses are pretty similar the world around.

It's a lot more probable than a journalist becoming one of Silicon Valley's top VCs (Mike Moritz).


> and Russians had great mail service.

Just wondering, have you actually used it?

I have and my experience is that it might have been one of the best free ones available in Russian, but it surely was not great. In fact when I stopped using it a couple of years ago it was terrible: routinely dropped connections to their POP server, a web interface overladen with copious flash ads that slow you machine down to a crawl, and on top of that your email address ending up in spammers' databases without being EVER used on the web (and I even tried registering a relatively random looking address to prove the point). But the worst thing I didn't like about them was that they had the terrible practice of spamming my contacts with invites to their new social networking sites making them look like it was me who actually sent them.


It was pretty good back in 2002. Not sure about now. (I worked with them for remailer stuff back in the day)


I was referencing where his returns came from, not his capital. That's another story which I haven't dug enough researching to figure out.


yeah it's not like VC world is full of idiots, most of those guys tend to be smart.


Judged by their returns, all but the top tier of VCs (of which Milner is now a part) are idiots.


Actually only the top few are smart.


Is it that the top funds are packed with smart people, or there are smart people at the top of a lot of funds with lots of less-intelligent junior people?

From what I've seen, the top funds (at least the smaller ones) are 75+% smart people (at partner level; I never met enough associates/principals to evaluate them); there are entire bad funds full of mainly dumb people from the top down.

This is kind of different from operating entities, where even stupid-dominated organizations often have some great people hiding out, or even entire great teams.


I think pg has a different definition of smart than you do. Think Chuck Norris smart and you'll be on the right track.


Is this supposed to allude to, "Fred Wilson's doesn't want his companies to IPO, IPOs want to Fred Wilson" or something like that?


"... If there's one mistake this story makes, it's in trying to come up with complicated theories about why Yuri does well. He's simply smart. ..."

Smart in Russia isn't unique.

Opportunity is the scarcity. Smart also doesn't fully explain the "new money" problem. Timing might. Instability in the 90's meant opportunity but opportunity only happens in Russia with influence, in Yuri's case, "Usmanov". Expert knowledge of western economics & Russian business could also explain the ability to conceive & create a western style business in emerging Russia of the late 90's. [0] For me though, it's the link with Usmanov that clouds the "new money" problem. [1] The article also mentions Milner's religion. Highlighting Milner's religion, then questioning his integrity could be viewed as a smear attempt.

[0] The investment could be explained knowing that Boris Zakharovich Milńer PhD (father) is member of the "Russian Academy of Sciences" ~ http://www.gbata.com/jgbat.html & member of "Russian Institute of Economics" ~ http://www.guu.ru/files/gbata/english_program.doc

[1] Bill Powell, Jessi Hempel, Fortune, "Who is Alisher Usmanov?" ~ http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2010/10/04/who-is-alisher-usmano...


It seems that the author had to come up with those complicated theories b/c he couldn't get Milner to open up. The loan insight that he uncovers about the perception that led to investing in SV is that YM foresaw that social networks could generate huge margins from advertising. Well, that certainly was smart of him, but how did he get there and how did he pick the companies he did? He buys Mail.ru and then ... he buys facebook? One dinner with Goldman people in Moscow and voila!?! The article provides a decent biographical sketch but the author is left to speculate on all the whys. I wonder whether he asked tough questions and was simply rebuffed or whether YM provided access but laid strict ground rules. If so, the author should have let the readers know this.

That he would prefer to remain enigmatic rather than open up about his process means that he is at least partly responsible for the overly complicated theories about him. Maybe he has good reasons not to or maybe it reflects a different culture. But I find it more than a little ironic that someone so tight-lipped is a social network tycoon.


Paul are you going to comment on the following?

People like Milner and others associated with Russian oligarchs spend lavishly because the money they have came with no sacrifice on their part. The sacrifice came from all those miners working in subzero temperatures in the Kazakh steppe for kopeks a day, their bodies broken down prematurely, with the share of wealth that was promised to them stolen away. And instead of those who betrayed them being brought to justice, they instead depart to the West where they are greeted with applause by those who mistake cunningness with intelligence.


If you think that the only needed quality to be a billionaire in Russia is being smart, you are in fact disconnected from reality and shame on you for that - you should know better.


While smartness seems necessary it was almost never enough to succeed in Silicon Valley or in Wall Street or in the sciences. Smart is such a generic term that is almost meaningless.


Interesting. When I see success, it always seems like there is something additional to intelligence - like work ethic, or conviction. In this case it seems like his place in society allowed him to understand social media before a lot of other smart people. Additionally he had money when others didn't - he could invest in mail.ru and Facebook when other investors were in retreat.


Exactly. That's what I got out of this article, insight into why he may be so successful. His ability to appreciate the value of social media more than some other investors and him being in a position to bet on it.


> When I see success, it always seems like there is something additional to intelligence - like work ethic, or conviction.

I usually see luck. Luck is a huge variable.


The wealth in hands of all these xUSSR oligarchs (Usmanov etc) was once a social wealth of all Soviet people. It is nice to see this wealth is now being converted 'back to social'. Our Facebook accounts are supposedly worth $100+ already, so it seems like a very clever plot to pay these money back to where they belong. Let's hope Mark will provide payouts for those choosing to close their accounts.


The former owners of this wealth are likely not on facebook but for the most part on vkontakte.ru and mail.ru, which they apparently also own.


> so it seems like a very clever plot to pay these money back to where they belong

Um... you seriously believe this?


of course it was sarcastic, how could a sane person believe in that? you scare me with such question.


pg is extremely naive if he thinks the this guy's money is not tainted. Actually, it does not take a genius to figure this out. IT IT IMPOSSIBLE to make that kind of money in Russia by playing according to the rules.


Why not anybody thought that what Milner does is he paves the road to even more money coming from legit and not-so-legit investments from Russian oligarchs. Once Milner gets settled in the SV and proves his operations are successful, then Russian money will start flowing in in amounts that's hard to comprehend.

Why is this desirable for oligarchs? Simple: businesses in Russia are profoundly insecure - remember Khodorkovsky? So, Milner will find a great amount of willing investors among the second-tier oligarchs once he's ready to start doing money heavy lifting.

And when you pave the road that will go "pay-to-pass" you can spend few unnecessarily billions.


Sounds like money laundering.


I wonder if it is possible for a YC startup to take Andreessen-Horowitz $50000 investment and pass on Milner's investment.


Sure it is. But nobody did.


The story angle is wrong. Why would someone like him care if he bought into anything, when he can buy everything. It reads like an insecure fable which I doubt.


The man is making people's dreams come true and taking chances on young and hungry entrepreneurs, legally. Some of you make it sound as if he's a murderer. Leave him alone and let him and all the companies he's funding be great.




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