Thefacebook.com, a popular online social networking directory that has taken college campuses by storm in the 14 months since it launched, has raised a Series A round of funding from Accel Partners.
The deal was hotly contested in Silicon Valley, and sources estimate the funding was between $10 million and $12 million.
;A lot of firms were clamoring for that deal. I’m disappointed it wasn’t us,” says one Menlo Park, Calif., VC. Sources familiar with the situation say that Accel is Thefacebook’s only institutional investor. PayPal.com co-founder and former CEO
Peter Thiel, currently president of his own San Francisco-based hedge fund, Clarium Capital, is also an investor. It is not clear whether Thefacebook, which recently signed a lease in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., has raised funding from other sources. At least one likely candidate, well-regarded angel investor Ram Shriram, says that he did not participate. Shriram, one of Google’s earliest investors, had invested in the social-networking-cum-dating site Friendster and the online contacts-database company Plaxo.
Plaxo’s founder, Sean Parker, is helping Thefacebook grow its business as a full-time staffer. (Parker has also reportedly allowed Thefacebook’s young founders, several Harvard University students, to crash with him on an as-needed basis at his Los Gatos, Calif., home.)
The investment is a coup for Accel, which has quietly trumped a number of firms that thought they were still in the running to invest in the social networking company. It is also an enormous gamble for the firm, which typically invests in networking and software and is betting its status on Thefacebook. Not only has Accel shied away from Internet-related investments in recent years, but also it is veering into territory that has not been too kind to VCs.
Several top-tier funds have bets on various social networking sites that had enjoyed flashy launches, but have been quiet since the startups were announced. Online classifieds company Tribe Networks raised $6.3 million from Mayfield, Washington Post Co. and Knight Ridder Digital, but has yet to gain much traction. Last week, its founder, Mark Pincus, was elbowed out of the CEO’s spot.
Friendster, meanwhile, gathered $13 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Benchmark Capital, but it is losing popularity. Its founder, Jonathan Abrams, was fired early last year, as were two CEOs who succeeded him. Another startup, LinkedIn, a business networking site targeting professionals, has snagged $14.7 million from such investors as Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners. LinkedIn began charging users for premium services several months ago.
Thefacebook was launched in February 2004 at Harvard by student Mark Zuckenberg. The intercollegiate directory asks users – which now number more than 2 million – to register at its site using a valid school email from one of a growing list of more than 300 schools, from Ivy league institutions to state universities. Once a member, students can log on to create personal profiles that include a picture, basic information and interests and political affiliations. Users can also request other members at other universities to be their friends and take advantage of various features, such as a file-sharing program that allows only users of Thefacebook to share files with designated friends.
Though once the domain of students, Thefacebook has begun to be used by faculty members, too. Thefacebook does not charge users for its services. And the company is, similar to a growing number of Internet businesses, depending on advertising dollars for revenue.
The site competes against ConnectU.com, another social networking site for college students. Zuckerberg worked at ConnectU prior to founding Thefacebook, and he the site has filed a lawsuit again him. But it is too early to predict whether the model is sustainable. And not everyone is envious of Accel.
;They’re operating on a wing and a prayer,” says one VC who met with Thefacebook, but didn’t invest. “They don’t have any valuable [intellectual property]. Those kids got lucky, but I don’t know that [their business] will prove any better an investment than the other social networking sites we’ve seen.
Messages to Accel and Thiel were not immediately returned.