Early Uber investor Bill Maris suggests he’d buy shares again, but all the sellers “have disappeared”

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While Bill Maris was the CEO of Google’s venture unit, GV, the outfit made a bet in 2013 that drew snickers: it poured $258 million into the ride-share company Uber at a roughly $3.7 billion post-money valuation.

The investment was by far GV’s biggest investment at the time. Yet while seemingly rich, the investment looks brilliant in hindsight. (It also looks complicated, of course, with Google spin-off Waymo now suing Uber for allegedly stealing its trade secrets.)

Maris has more recently launched his own venture firm, Section 32, but as the founder of GV, he maintains a meaningful interest in Uber’s future, and he suggests that after this week, he’d buy Uber again — at its current $68 billion valuation — if only he could find a seller.

We talked with Maris earlier today about his renewed enthusiasm for the company. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: You closed on a $150 million debut fund in May. How many investments have you made since?

BM: It’s quite a long list: BloomAPI, Embark, Freenome, Coinbase, Auris. About ten have been made public and some are in stealth mode.

TC: You’ve told me you’d consider investing in Uber at its current valuation. That would require a lot of money. Can you write any size check you like? 

BM: I have broad latitude to make investments that I think are worthwhile.

When I look at Uber now, I don’t think of it as expensive. I’m very optimistic and bullish on the company’s future. I’m excited about new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who seems very much like a values-driven, principled leader. And I feel like Uber is a buy now, not a sell.

TC: You say “now.” Did you feel differently recently?

BM: Earlier, I might have felt more pessimistically. Now I can say there’s a light there.

What I’ve observed in talking with other investors and folks involved is that this feeling of fear has now shifted to optimism and excitement.

TC: You own a stake through your previous employer’s venture fund. Have you tried buying secondary shares from another seller more recently? Have you been approached?

BM: It’s best I don’t comment on that. I will note that groups that were sellers have disappeared and I think it would be foolish [otherwise] given what has transpired. There’s a lot of risk, of course, but the company has so much potential, especially given that people who work there are fired up again. If you believe Khosrowshahi can lead the company successfully, you see it as a unique investment opportunity.

TC: At $68 billion. Do you think that, as Benchmark has said, Uber will “comfortably” be valued at more than $100 billion in the not-too-distant future?

BM: I said [as much some time ago] and faced a lot of laughter and derision, but certainly I think so. Companies that reach exit velocity of $10 billion plus more often than not don’t become worth zero. The company is facing a lot of risk, but the numbers it revealed last week showed stunning growth and shrinking losses, and this was without a CEO or CFO, so you can imagine what it can do with a great management team in place, one that employees believe in.

TC: Have you ever met Khosrowshahi?

BM: I have not, but he’s saying and doing all the right things and I think he’s just a brilliant choice.

TC: What do you make of Benchmark alleging in a lawsuit that Kalanick duped the board?

BM: What I know of these things, I read in the paper. It’s sort of like with the White House. I don’t want to look, but it filters through and it’s cringeworthy, like: What happened now?

It’s always unattractive when disputes play out in the public sphere, whether it’s the President and his staff or a venture fund and a startup. Hopefully, [this lawsuit] is resolved happily and if not, that both sides are equally dissatisfied with the outcome.

There are such huge problems in the world; [stories about Uber] are a cognitive load that none of us needs. If I had to never read another story about boardroom drama at Uber again, it would be fantastic.  It’s not interesting at this point, don’t you think?

TC: And yet there’s always a development, including, most recently, that the Justice Department has opened a preliminary probe into whether some of Uber’s managers breached the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. As a shareholder, does that worry you?

BM: Any time the DOJ opens an investigation, it’s not a good thing. It’s something you need to pay attention to. I know at Google, we were made to be very cognizant of those rules, and with a fast-growing company you need to be especially cognizant. But I don’t want to speculate. If wrong was done, then justice will hopefully be served and if not, hopefully nobody suffers needlessly.

TC: And this Waymo lawsuit?

BM: I’m sure it will work out  Someone will win or it will get settled.

TC: Khosrowshahi told employees today that Uber could go public in 18 to 36 months. That must be music to shareholders’ ears.

BM: It’s a completely reasonable estimate to get the management team in place and win the hearts and minds of employees and drivers. All those things take time.

And [yes, it’s a relief] to have a timeline. What’s with the cloak-and-dagger games [under Kalanick, who actively avoided talk of an IPO]?  That [Khosrowshahi] said what he did just gives me more faith that this is an experienced executive.

Employees in particular have been left out of the equation, and I think [Khosrowshahi] wants to help them feel like they’ve been on a winning team, especially after the scandals and so much bad news.

TC: Let’s say you can’t buy more shares in the company until it goes public. Do you invest at the IPO?

BM: Ask me then! Market cap is just discounted future cash flow, and at that time, it would depend heavily on all the issues: the Benchmark lawsuit, the Waymo lawsuit, the management that’s in place, the company’s historical growth record and whether its growth will continue. That’s a call you make at the time.

I mean, if you’d been an investor in the Google IPO and held your shares until now, you’d probably feel pretty good about that.