Are Hot U.S. Startups The New Bling For Rich Russians?

A controversial comment on Hacker News makes us wonder if hot U.S. startups are the new vanity purchase for rich Russians.

We weren’t the only ones surprised earlier this year when Facebook raised a new round of financing at a $10 billion valuation. Facebook itself apparently held its nose as it closed the round, but Russian investment group Digital Sky Technologies was offering a far richer valuation than anyone else (and, importantly, they didn’t require a board of directors seat).

Now the investment group keeps popping back into the news. First as a possible buyer of AOL’s ICQ property, and more recently they led Zynga’s robust $180 million financing, and last week when word got out that it had increased its Facebook stake to more than 5%.

DST is a legitimate investment firm, according to the companies and co-investors who’ve looked into them. They do have a colorful past – one of DST’s major shareholders, Alisher Usmanov, spent six years in an Uzbek jail for fraud and embezzlement in the 1980s, says the NYTimes.

What’s interesting about DST isn’t their past. It’s that they seem quite willing to dump very large amounts of money into hot U.S. startups at sky high valuations. No one else wanted in at Facebook at that $10 billion valuation (at least without a board seat). And while Zynga had quality co-investors, DST led and presumably priced the round.

Why is a Russian investment firm willing to pay these prices when other’s won’t? Here’s the comment from Hacker News, which appeared on this thread about the Zynga investment:

(Bias disclaimer – speaking as a native Russian.)
What I think is not so obvious to many commentators is that this sort of juggling of outsized investments is an ego / megalomania play on the part of New Russian oligarch backers & small-time industrialists and financiers. The $180m figure has little to no imaginable correlation to any measurable marketability potential, generalised ROI, or anything else that would be deemed a competent valuation process institutionally in the West on something like Farmville. What matters is that the amount be sensational. I think we can all agree $180m is certainly sensational.

This is not news to anyone who remembers the Yeltsin era and understands how wealth was concentrated^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hdistributed in Russia after privatisation and how it is intertwined with state interests. But despite the numerous outlandish personally flavoured investments Russian wealth barons have made in things UK football clubs, lavish yachts, full-service private jets, summer homes on the French Riviera and in southern Spain, etc. this point still eludes most Western observers.


Among numerous others, a key difference between Russia and the US is that in the US, an Anglo-American capitalistic country by heritage, contemporary super-wealth comes from many sources of varying degrees of legitimacy, depending on one’s perspective. Certainly among them includes honest entrepreneurial ambition, innovation and professionalism in the transaction of commerce. In Russia there is only one kind of mega-wealth – politically-connected 90s wealth. It is all one big “family,” though the term is more meant to emphasise the narrow exclusivity and extreme statistical lopsidedness of the club than to insinuate congenital relation among the actors.

This sort of “investment” is not very different from the sort of tribalistic “make it rain” spectacle you saw blowhard masters of local fiefdoms in Dubai pull, or continue to see in other Gulf Arab states, just to point to one widely-recognised example. The constellation of facts inherent in these examples is one of the inescapable cultural idiosyncrasies of the “backward” East from the perspective of free-market development and/or the capitalistically-themed conception of modernity.

The all-around point of this seemingly disorganised rant is that all talk of what Zynga did “right” or attempts to “learn” from its “strategy” in relation to the particular size of this investment is pointless sophistry. Yes, FarmVille – what do the kids say these days, “went viral?” – but rational speculation about how this merits a $180m capital infusion will turn you prematurely grey and bald on account of its futility.
If you are laying awake wondering how enough value and potential was created to legitimately absorb $180m, you’re missing the point entirely — your thinking is too West Coast, and not enough Near and Middle East. Check these projects out and it will help you get the picture, although my picking on Dubai is purely out of desire to make an analogy with something recently in the news and discussed here:

The symbolic significance of investing a headline-worthy sum of sovereign wealth in a “key” American “new economy” property as a geopolitical move for domestic consumption cannot be overstated either. It is likely, in fact, to be the far more substantial theme here, as there are more efficient ways to flagrantly and gratuitously display opulence and excess, usually involving something tangible, like a personal resort flotilla mounted on a military destroyer frame. You know, Deliverables 1.0 – bricks and mortar, not clicks and mortar. Now, I know Digital Sky did not put up the $180m by itself; what does that matter? They “led the round” — you see, they showed “leadership” here, they “took the lead” while Tiger Global, Institutional Venture Partners and Andreessen Horowitz “participated.” I acknowledge that the enormous importance of this may be difficult to appreciate if you’re not a semi-feudal politician, but work with me.

The bottom line here is that Zynga is the unwitting beneficiary of bread and circus games in faraway places that otherwise have no substantive relevance to them intrinsically. There are no valuable business lessons to be learned here and there is no reason for them to be featured in the next Startup School or anything like that, unless the lesson is “get on the radar of Turkmenbashi and see what falls on your lap next time he goes to exercise his golden systems of elimination in his golden commode.” []

I interviewed DST founder and CEO Yuri Milner, who graduated from Wharton Business School in 1992, just after the Facebook investment. And to be fair, he doesn’t appear to be anything other than a mild mannered and successful business guy. But the man is willing to pour money into companies at valuations that make U.S. investors blanch. Maybe the bling value of Facebook and Zynga help sweeten the deal.