Allen & Co.’s Chosen Startups: Airbnb, Dropbox And Quora

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The Allen and Co. conference at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho is a peculiar beast. Press aren’t allowed to attend or cover any of the panels and aren’t allowed in the storied Duchin bar.

In addition, attendees are not allowed to talk to the press about the content of any of the meetings which makes for some interesting adventures in reporting.

Still, despite restrictions, attendance is totally worthwhile; After all it’s the place where mythical investor Warren Buffett rubs elbows with Zynga founder Mark Pincus rubs elbows with actress Salma Hayek rubs elbows with Groupon CEO Andrew Mason rubs elbows with fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg rubs elbows with Facebook investor Peter Thiel and so forth.

And, more importantly, the wall of curtly congenial yet ultimately deflective PR people is nowhere to be found. For journalists hungry enough, it’s paradise.

The conference has been primarily media focused since the 1982, and only last year did the tech to media mogul ratio achieve parity. As an example of its commitment to all things Internet, Allen & Co investment bank throws another more tech-focused conference in Arizona early in the year.

It’s amazing when the people who are doing new things (and that you’re used to covering day in and day out) are literally put on the same podium as Oprah. The big draw this year was Bill Gates interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, and it was rumored that the talk show queen herself had changed her flight in order to catch the before-noon panel on Saturday morning. According to friend Gayle King she ended up missing the panel after all.

It’s probably a good thing. From what I heard, Zuckerberg and Gates didn’t say anything particularly newsworthy, with Zuckberg dropping talking points about Facebook’s success and its user to engineer ratio (750 million users divided by 2,000+ employees) and his curious Law of Social Sharing. The highlight of the talk for one attendee (which consisted of questions along the lines of  “Do you like being CEO of Facebook?) was when Gates joked that Allen and Co. had brought together two of the best interviewers and then paused, “Oprah and Charlie Rose.”

What’s more interesting is that the investment bank has taken to inviting small startups to present at panels. Last year it was Square, Groupon, Pandora and oddly enough, the somewhat mysterious startup ThingD. This year it was Dropbox, Quora and Airbnb.

So why those three? Well Allen and Co. is an underwriter focused on building relationships with particularly lucrative clients and is seeking out the most promising of the Silicon Valley brood in order to whet the tech sector appetites of investor attendees and secure further business as the companies grow (Allen and Co. is said to be an advisor in Groupon’s upcoming IPO and is an investor in Pandora). All three also presented at Allen and Co.’s Arizona conference in March.

The triumvirate gave their talks on Saturday morning, with 15-minute presentations of their products; CEOs Adam D ‘Angelo and Brian Chesky presented examples of Quora questions and Airbnb listings and Drew Houston gave an overview of Dropbox. “Most people at the conference didn’t know what any of the products were,” said one participant.

While all three CEOs declined to give comment on why they thought they were chosen this year.  (None of them have the “Forget You” money of Eric Schmidt, who unabashedly talked to reporters for a crazy 70 minutes on Thursday) one investor had a theory, “Airbnb is printing money. They operate more rooms in Manhattan than all the [big] hotels combined.”

The same investor theorized that Quora’s invitation was due to the Facebook effect (Zuck essentially gave the keynote) and the fact that it has done a great job of giving people a venue to expand upon their online reputations. Dropbox has earned its place in the Sun Valley sun because the fact that it was one of the first champions of the cloud in addition to its impressive usership numbers – which makes it a prime acquisition target (and potential Allen & Co client).

In terms of where they stand regarding financing, Airbnb is about to officially announce raising $100 million at a $1 billion dollar valuation, Quora has a modest $11 million in funding (and is said to be raising more) and Dropbox is basically turning away term sheets, I’ve heard.

But even a 15-minute time slot on an agenda that includes King Abdullah of Jordan and New Jersey governor (and Republican Presidential hopeful) Chris Christie is huge; For the Sun Valley startups it means that that they get to pitch in front of idols Bill Gates, Mark Pincus and Mark Zuckerberg. But the benefits go both ways. Rumor has it that Dropbox was swarmed by potential investors at a BBQ during the conference’s first night.

Allen and Co. obviously doesn’t share what criteria it uses to invite startups (which it does, quaintly enough through snail mail) but common sense holds that it’s probably what it thinks would be a good bet (and return). My predictions for next year’s invite list: Instagram, Uber and Spotify.