A Private Social Club for Silicon Valley VCs and Entrepreneurs? Simply Cuckoo.

VC aims to turn vacated Willow Garage robotics lab into a Silicon Valley version of the smoke-filled room

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Actors Jack Nicholson and Danny Devito are among the performers in the movie version of Ken Kesey's
Advertisement

A couple of Silicon Valley venture capitalists think that the Valley needs a place “where entrepreneurs can find each other and hang out.” That, according to Fortune Magazine, is what Tim Draper, managing director of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, is telling the people he is recruiting to join The Cuckoo’s Nest, a soon-to-be-realized social club. He and his cohorts plan to lounge in the former Menlo Park offices of robotic research lab Willow Garage.

Point man on the club’s creation is Tony Perkins, a VC at Draper Fisher Jurvetson who runs the AlwaysOn conferences. (Full disclosure—my husband was editor-in-chief of Perkins-founded and Draper-funded Upside Magazine for close to five years.) The club is officially a joint venture between AlwaysOn and VC firm BootUp Ventures. It plans to recruit, according to its website,  “1,200 thinkers and actors pioneering the future of innovation and culture,” including “founders and CEOs of top private break-out technology companies and the risk-taking investors backing them.”  Membership will cost $2,500 for members 30 and older and $1,000 for those under 30.

There’s so much wrong with this plan I hardly know where to begin.

But let’s start here. Draper and Perkins have been around the Valley for a long time; don’t they get how the Valley works? The sparks that start companies aren’t generated by a small, incestuous group of people, isolated behind a velvet rope, with a doorman who is instructed not to let in anybody who doesn’t have a membership card. Sparks happen when: diverse strangers connect and ideas cross-pollinate; when a conversation is overheard at the next table at a coffee shop and prompts a discussion of possible synergies; when an entrepreneur connects with an interested investor during halftime at a kids’ soccer game; when startup employees wearing different hoodies with different logos compare notes at a crowded bar on a Friday night; and when companies throw their doors open and offer a free lunch to engineers from across the street. The Valley culture is about all doors being opened, not closed.

Other issues may dog Perkins’s plans for a private club. The location looks good on a map—about halfway between the Facebook campus and the Sand Hill Road offices that house many VC firms—and the former Willow Garage building has a few amenities including a pleasant, shrub-surrounded patio out back. But no matter how you dress up this suburban outpost, it’s still going to feel like basic office space, and I don’t know too many people who want to leave the office to go hang out at another office. In fact, the biggest draw for this site has been the nearby pedestrian bridge that crosses the creek and gets busy techies quickly to the real bars and restaurants in downtown Palo Alto.

And consider the name. Perkins says he picked it to pay homage to Ken Kesey, who found his inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the nearby Veteran’s Hospital, and to honor Steve Jobs, who said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” But let’s not forget that real cuckoos are called “brood parasites” for a reason: they lay their eggs in nests built by other birds. I wouldn’t think Silicon Valley’s VCs and entrepreneurs want a mascot with that kind of reputation.

So why do it? Here’s one clue from the Cuckoo’s Nest Club’s website: “The Club is a place where the entrepreneurs leading this change may present their vision of the world in an open dialogue with representatives of established industries and institutions, including aspiring presidential candidates.”  Perkins likes politics—he served on President George W. Bush's Information Technology Advisory Council and was the founding chairman of the Churchill Club in Palo Alto. He likely wants to be a player in the next round of presidential primaries, and the Menlo Park location—on a quiet but wide road that would be easy to close off—would handle security forces and motorcades better than just about any spot around.

Here’s another clue: The website says, “The stated club goal is to reach a membership that is 51 percent women, with 20 percent of the members under the age of 30 years old.” My interpretation? The founders are worried that they are losing touch with the new wave of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and it’s just too awkward to go hang out at the hot new bars this crew frequents, like downtown Palo Alto’s Lure & Till. So the Cuckoo’s Nest founders are building a mousetrap for young entrepreneurs (members under 30 pay far less to join than regular members). I hate to be snarky about the club’s posted plan to limit its male membership to 49 percent (which on its surface is a laudable attempt to break with the Silicon Valley boys’ club mentality), but I fear this is also part of the mousetrap aspect.

Or consider this need The Cuckoo’s Nest might fill: the wannabe rockstars of Silicon Valley have bands, but rarely have gigs. Examples? Elevation Partners’ VC Roger McNamee’s Flying Other Brothers/MoonAlice/Doobie Decibel System, Magisto’s Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust, SnapFish’s Raj Kapoor and CoverFlow, Randi Zuckerberg and Feedbomb, and others. From the website: “Silicon Valley has very few venues that regularly feature professional and amateur musicians and artists. The Club fills this void by purposely identifying and recruiting top talent for its membership, and working with them to produce regular live music.”

Given that many of these bands tend towards 70s and 80s rock, I’m not sure they’ll be youth-bait.

The Cuckoo’ Nest is scheduled to open in early 2015.

About View From the Valley blog

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.