The latest in the Binary Capital blowup — and what it means for startup investing



Binary Capital, the San Francisco-based early stage fund whose cofounder, Justin Caldbeck, resigned this past Sunday, is shutting down for all practical purposes.

A source tells Bloomberg that the young firm, which had closed its second fund last year with $175 million in commitments but barely begun to invest that capital, will be wound down.

Binary’s portfolio companies, including from its $125 million debut fund, will either be managed by the firm’s remaining cofounder, Jonathan Teo, or its stakes will sold to other investors (presumably with some input from the founders). A third option, says Bloomberg, would be for another investor other than Teo to manage out the firm’s current investments.

A report in The Information published last Thursday set off the chain of events leading to this moment. Its story recounted  numerous occasions on which Caldbeck had made unwanted advances toward women with whom he worked or who were seeking funding from Binary for their startups.

Three of those women allowed The Information to use their names, despite the risk that their accusations would not be taken seriously.

They were.

Though Caldbeck initially downplayed the report, outrage throughout Silicon Valley grew steadily until, the following day, Caldbeck issued an apology that only seemed to further inflame the startup community. By Saturday, Binary had suspended plans to raise yet another new fund. Sunday night, both Caldbeck and a much newer member of the team, Matt Mazzeo, resigned from the firm and Teo, who’d seemingly stood beside Caldbeck at the start, began blowing up his life vest. Specifically, he issued a public statement, calling Caldbeck’s behavior toward women “predatory” and “demeaning” and, for good measure, also “deplorable.”

The move wasn’t enough to buffer Teo, who wasn’t just late to distance himself from Caldbeck but who has a reputation as a charmer with “many admirers,” says one fellow investor. That kind of reputation cuts both ways in a situation like this one. When Teo expounded on his public statement in a Facebook post to his friends, more than 1,800 people — men and women — “liked” what he had to say, with hundreds voicing their support.

Meanwhile, possibly sensing coming accusations of the birds-of-a-feather variety, Teo deleted his Instagram posts (or archived them) so that they couldn’t be used against him.

Fair or not to Teo, the deal is done now. Meanwhile, the implosion of the founders’ young firm — whose break-up has happened at breathtaking speed — holds a few lessons for other investors and founders in the startup world.

First, Binary wasn’t the first venture firm to be dissolved by its limited partners. We can think of at least two precedents. But those situations each took more than a year to play out.

That will never be the case again. Today, it takes one spark on social media to ignite a firestorm. That means that both colleagues and limited partners who once had the luxury of anguishing over how to manage an unprincipled VC no longer do. That should make those who’ve used their position to take advantage of founders very nervous.

Second, LPs need to do a much better job of due diligence. While frustration over the Binary situation has come from every direction, most of the ire has been directed at Caldbeck, Teo, and earlier colleagues who did little to stop Caldbeck.

Lightspeed Venture Partners — which employed Caldbeck several years ago and removed him from a board observer position after Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake complained about him — acknowledged on Twitter today that it “should have done more.” 

You can guess that Lightspeed, which subsequently asked Lake to sign a non-disparagement agreement, will receive more blowback for its handling of the situation. In the meantime, less frustration has been directed at Binary’s LPs and perhaps should be. The venture community has broadened considerably over the last decade, but it still remains tight-knit compared with many other industries. When it comes to Caldbeck, who joined the field in 2005 as an associate with Bain Capital Ventures, it’s  hard to believe Binary’s backers were oblivious to Caldbeck’s reputation.

If they were, it says a little something about the kind of due diligence that institutional investors are doing. That is: it doesn’t work.

If they were aware of Caldbeck’s reputation and turned a blind eye anyway, we hope they’re learning a lesson, too: that while the pursuit of profit may not be evil, backing evil individuals (or unethical ones, anyway) doesn’t pay. Not anymore.

 



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