MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Something about Roger McNamee hardly seems fair. How can one guy live such a baby boomer fantasy?
In his day job, McNamee, 48, is the consummate Silicon Valley player. He knows everyone. Has his fingers in everything. Is sought by entrepreneurs the way pilgrims seek a mystic on a mountain top. Got rich investing early in tech stars such as Electronic Arts and helping rescue established companies such as Seagate Technologies.
"He's an amazing guy," says Gordon Eubanks, CEO of software company Oblix. "He thinks big and bets big but doesn't act big."
Now, McNamee is raising money for his new private equity firm, Elevation Partners -- and one of the partners is U2's Bono.
At night, McNamee plays in a rock band with other, real rock stars, such as Pete Sears, who used to be in Jefferson Starship. He's friends with the Grateful Dead and took guitar lessons from rock legend Jorma Kaukonen.
McNamee wrote his first book, The New Normal, released late last year, about how technology and globalization change life and business. It recently hovered at an impressive 3,000 on Amazon's sales ranking.
And he carries nearly as many communication gadgets as a Circuit City store, sometimes wearing six or seven clipped to his belt. "At airport security, I'm like a clown car," McNamee says.
On top of all that, "People like him," says Mark Wong-Van Haren, a partner at venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures. "That's not as trifling as it sounds. Likability increases trust and connections, and those things are valuable."
Maybe that's the secret behind this long-haired dealmaker. Or maybe it's this:
"As a kid, I wasn't particularly good at anything -- sports, school," McNamee says. "I was OK. But I was tenacious. Everything I do, I have thought: 'I might not be great at it, but there's a way to get great at it.' "
Others bring different insights into the quintessence of McNamee. Marc Andreessen first met him around 1994, when Andreessen and Jim Clark were co-founding Netscape Communications. Netscape was funded by venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. McNamee ran an equity firm, Integral Capital Partners, that worked closely with Kleiner Perkins.
McNamee "used to have this LBJ-like thing he'd do where he'd corner you in a hallway at a conference," Andreessen says. "He had these huge windshield-size glasses, and he'd push right up against you, in your face, and talk at you extremely urgently for like five minutes, get you nodding yes and pressing yourself further and further back into the wall, his face like 2 inches away from yours.
"You'd be looking into those huge square glasses, and then all at once he'd just stop and stare at you and let the silence hang, and if you weren't extremely careful, it was at that point where you'd just spill your guts and tell him everything he wanted to know," Andreessen says. "It's no surprise he always knows whatever's going on."
McNamee's career has been a series of fortunate events. In the 1970s, he left Yale after his sophomore year, moved to San Francisco with a girlfriend and sold ads for a biweekly French-language newspaper there. He later returned to Yale, got an MBA at Dartmouth and landed at financial firm T. Rowe Price in 1982.
The firm needed a tech analyst. McNamee knew nothing about tech. But in the early '80s, tech was a dog on the stock market, so the rookie got it.
Around 1990, he wanted to make a venture investment in a financial software start-up called Intuit, but he lost the deal to Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr.
"I said, 'I'm on the wrong team,' " McNamee says. By 1991, he'd started Integral -- an unusual hybrid that invested in stocks and venture deals. Integral partnered so tightly with Kleiner that the two firms' offices in Silicon Valley connected.
In 1997, sensing insanity in Silicon Valley's emerging bubble, McNamee left Integral to help start another firm, Silver Lake Partners. The plan was to make equity investments in tech stalwarts that were in trouble but had great promise.
Silver Lake made huge amounts of money during the tech bust by betting on companies such as disk-drive maker Seagate and tech services company Flextronics.
Through the years, McNamee met tech's elite and its hottest up-and-comers. They have typically been impressed by McNamee's knowledge of the industry, boundless energy and willingness to help even if he doesn't have money in the deal.
"Roger has been an excellent sounding board for me," says Kim Polese, who turned to McNamee when she was CEO of Marimba and more recently as she started software company SpikeSource. "I can always count on him for a laser-sharp insight and a frank opinion, often accompanied by an especially pertinent anecdote."
And he's still the guy to see. On a recent evening at his office, who should drop in but Blake Ross, the spark plug behind the Firefox browser. The sizzlingest whiz kid in Silicon Valley had come to pick McNamee's brain about what he might do next.
An ear for music
McNamee has played music most of his life. He and his brother, Giles, formed a duo that played at happy hours. They called themselves The Other Brothers. McNamee's wife, Ann, is a music theory Ph.D. (They have no children.)
At tech conferences, McNamee would organize jam sessions. By the late 1990s, an extended version of The Other Brothers was playing benefits, once opening for The Temptations. Because Giles, who lived on the East Coast, had to fly in for shows, the band became the Flying Other Brothers -- the band's name today.
The FOBs started getting more serious -- writing songs, playing paid gigs, getting lessons from Kaukonen, working with the likes of G.E. Smith and T-Bone Burnett. Sears joined the band. So did guitarist Barry Sless and drummer Jimmy Sanchez. Both had played with some of the biggest names in rock history.
The band was McNamee's doorway to the music world. He started spending one day a week advising the Grateful Dead on business and technology. "I got to know the music business very well," he says.
While investigating an idea for the Dead, he met with U2. McNamee was taken by U2's business savvy. The group had, for instance, cut a rare deal with its record company, so U2 owns all its music rights.
In 2003, McNamee's cellphone rang, and Bono was on the other end. He wanted to discuss an investment idea. McNamee and another partner at Silver Lake, Marc Bodnick, talked over the idea with John Riccitiello, then-president of video game giant Electronic Arts. That same day, Fred Anderson -- a McNamee buddy -- said he was retiring as Apple Computer's CFO. He was pulled into the conversation.
The conversation led to others about opportunities investing in media. Late last year, McNamee, Bono, Bodnick, Riccitiello, Anderson and another friend, Bret Pearlman, formed Elevation.
A quiet period
That's what is public about Elevation. McNamee won't talk about anything else because the firm is raising a fund and is in a quiet period, according to Securities and Exchange Commission rules.
Here's what people familiar with the fund say: It will make equity investments in intellectual property in media and entertainment -- most likely music, video games and online content. The firm will use the Silver Lake model of investing in older entities that might be able to do something with new technology to spur growth.
Elevation will actively advise management where it invests but won't get as involved as venture capitalists do in start-ups. Elevation will finish raising its fund in April or May.
Bono is apparently more than an attention-getting hood ornament. He joins meetings by conference call, has an office at Elevation and keeps in touch with the partners via BlackBerry wireless e-mail.
Which is why McNamee has two BlackBerrys holstered on his belt. One is for Elevation e-mail; the other, for Silver Lake, where he's still involved. McNamee's belt also holds two cellphones: a Motorola StarTac and a Motorola Razr -- the latter because it's cool, he says.
Most of the time, McNamee adds a Danger wireless Web device to his belt and a Photo iPod. And because he likes to test the latest stuff, he's been carrying Sony's new PlayStation Portable, too.
By contrast, over on McNamee's office shelf sits his book in all its low-tech splendor. It is McNamee's philosophy and guidance bound in paper. Of all that he's done, the book seems to surprise him the most.
"I look at that thing and say, 'Holy s - - -, I wrote a book!' " McNamee says, as if that were the icing on the fantasy.