Retail investors love him. Venture capitalists envy him. But pretty much everyone writing checks these days is paying attention to Chamath Palihapitiya, whose star has been on the rise since the outset of his career at an early online media player called Winamp that was acquired by AOL.
Indeed, over the last 20 years, Palihapitiya — whose family moved from Sri Lanka to Canada as refugees when he was five — has been changing up the status quo of nearly everything he touches. At AOL, he became the company’s youngest VP and wound up doing a small deal with Facebook whose “biggest outcome of the deal was the connection Palihapitiya formed with Mark Zuckerberg,” as writer Steven Levy reported last year. (Palihapitiya later said that one of his biggest takeaways from AOL was that, “Most people at most companies are really shit.”)
Hired into Facebook in 2007, his role there would prove more seminal. Though Palihapitiya reportedly floundered at first — even proposing after a year that Zuckerberg should perhaps fire him, according to Levy — he zeroed in on how to make both himself and Facebook more valuable by building a data-driven “growth team” that focused relentlessly on improving and growing the engagement of monthly active users.
Among its biggest successes: Facebook’s “People You Know” feature, which was heavily inspired by a similar LinkedIn feature after Palihapitiya’s team identified that new users needed to discover seven friends and fast.
That period of Palihapitiya’s life would have wide-ranging ripple effects. For one thing, like a lot of people working at Facebook before it went public in 2012, he made a fortune from his Facebook shares, such that around the same time that he was leaving in 2011, he acquired a stake in the Golden State Warriors and founded his own venture capital firm, Social Capital.
Being a “former Facebook exec” also made Palihapitiya more widely famous, including as he began expressing regret publicly over his role with the company, which he began to see as corrosive.
Indeed, in 2017, he told an audience at the Stanford Graduate School of Business what many had already begun to fear about Facebook: “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said.
More drama, more money and more fame have followed. In recent years, Social Capital has shed most of its employees — Palihapitiya now describes himself as a solo GP. He has become a regular guest on CNBC.
He has become closely identified with special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs, owing both to his early and bullish embrace of them. The first SPAC he organized merged with Virgin Galactic Holdings, enabling the space tourism company to begin trading publicly in October 2019. It performed so well that it kicked off a massive boom in SPAC activity, with Palihapitiya — whose many earlier bets include Yammer, Palantir and Box — forming or investing in more than a dozen SPACs since, including one that took public Opendoor and another that took public Clover Health. (Earlier this year, The New Yorker dedicated valuable real estate to Palihapitiya in a profile titled, “The Pied Piper of SPACs.”)
One question is whether Palihapitiya is now moving on. SPAC activity has cooled, with enthusiasm around the vehicles dampened by class-action lawsuits (including against Clover Health) and the widespread expectation that the Securities & Exchange Commission is about to regulate them more closely.
Back in March, Palihapitiya was also believed to be shifting his gaze toward environmental investment, including through the sale of his entire personal stake in Virgin Galactic for more than $200 million — a move he said was designed to help finance “a large investment I am making towards fighting climate change.”
(He also late last month donated $7 million to an organization that is affixing hydropanels that supply clean water to homes in the California counties of Fresno, Monterey, Kern and Tulare, which has become “ground zero” for the climate crisis, observes Fast Company.)
What has come of that large investment he was planning to make? Is he past SPACs? And what else does the inimitable Palihapitiya have cooking? We’re very excited to say we’ll have the opportunity to talk with him about all of these things and much more in roughly one week at TechCrunch Disrupt, our signature annual event, which is entirely virtual this year. While 25 minutes will surely prove too short a time, we’ll cover as much ground with him as we can in a conversation that, if you know Palihapitiya at all, you know you definitely don’t want to miss.
The show is coming up fast. Get your ticket now for less than $100 just for a few short days, and we’ll see you next week.