Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pejman Nozad - Silicon Valley's Hottest VC Is a Rug Dealer

It’s a balmy February evening in Palo Alto, and Pejman Nozad is sipping tea on the deck of the Rosewood Hotel, the hot spot of venture capital’s capital, Sand Hill Road. He’s chosen a table situated just central enough so that he can see everyone who walks in. As usual, it’s packed with the startup crowd— ­entrepreneurs in thick-rimmed glasses and jeans mingling with their backers, finance types in pressed slacks and camel-colored Italian leather loafers. Nozad has the peppered-hair look of one of the money guys, but in his soft blue blazer, adorned with a pastel paisley pocket square, he buoyantly bridges both groups.

“There’s Mike Abbott. You know him? One of the smartest guys I know, just brilliant,” says Nozad, waving him over for a warm hello. He asks about the kids. Abbott just left Twitter, where he ran engineering, for a partner spot at venture shop Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. As Abbott leaves, Nozad leaps up. “My gosh, how are you?” he says, motioning over Lorenzo Thione, the Italian-born cofounder of search firm Powerset (which sold to Microsoft for $100 million four years ago). “I knew you wouldn’t last at Microsoft,” says Nozad, an early investor in Powerset. “Starting things is in your DNA.”

Thione beams a wide smile as he describes his latest “passion,” a Netflix-like service for high-end contemporary art. He mentions how much money he’s looking for. Nozad leans in a little: “This is so fascinating. I have people you should talk to. I know the top interior designers in New York. And I want to meet your cofounder. I never invest without that.”

As the patio cools, Nozad, 43, scans the bar. The Rosewood is morphing into the night. The tech set has scuttled their iPads, settling in for cocktails, as a few coiffed call girls work the crowd—perhaps the surest sign yet that money again flows freely in techland. (Rosewood’s management denies there were call girls in the bar.) Nozad wants the L-shaped couch just at the corner of the entrance. “I’m afraid my friends might not find me,” he tells a buxom waitress.

Ensconced in his new perch, he spots Darian Shirazi, who joined Facebook out of high school as its first intern and early hire. Within minutes Nozad is listing names of key investors and possible board members Shirazi should seek out for his business data startup, Radius. In the same breath Nozad mentions a friend Shirazi should set up his cousin with. “He is the nicest guy, but she has to move from London,” says Nozad emphatically. “She belongs here.” Shirazi chimes in, acting as cultural translator: “Persians are always matchmaking.”

And, yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing, all day of every day. Nozad is one of Silicon Valley’s greatest connectors. Top investors take his calls. Hit-making entrepreneurs consider him an uncle. And somewhere in between he’s piling up small stakes in some of the hottest startups in the world. Yet Nozad doesn’t have the staple calling card of Silicon Valley. No M.B.A. No Ph.D. No “technical background whatsoever” (his words). He’s never even worked at a technology company.

Nozad’s path to Silicon Valley power broker—and VC investor with a net worth in the ballpark of $50 million— was a far simpler one: He sold carpets.

University Avenue reflects Palo Alto’s diversity in full. It starts as an exit off the Dumbarton Bridge, which cuts across the southern edge of San Francisco Bay, runs though rough-and-tumble East Palo Alto, then tree-lined stretches dotted with multimillion-dollar mansions, and eventually hits, as the name implies, the Stanford campus. A few hundred feet before that terminus, across from a Starbucks and a Thai restaurant, sits the Medallion Rug Gallery, a warehouselike store where for 34 years the Amidi family has been selling “exquisite art forms” that just happen to cover your floor.

In 1994 the family patriarch, Amir Amidi, found himself on the phone with Nozad, who despite no tangible experience and poor command in English had answered a television ad for a salesperson. “Have you ever sold anything?” Amidi asked the brash caller in Farsi.

“No, but give me a chance,” Nozad responded. “How can you deny someone you haven’t even met?”

Nozad had already learned that you can’t get something if you don’t ask. He grew up in Tehran, but in the 1980s Nozad’s family fled to Germany. Nozad intended to join them after his compulsory stint in Iran’s military service, which he would satisfy by playing soccer for the country’s premier team. When a military officer questioned his discharge, on account of his sporty tour of duty, Nozad found a high-level cleric and published an interview with him on the benefits of soccer—and then had that cleric expedite his discharge.

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