SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Cohler, a senior Facebook Inc. executive and one of the early employees of the social networking phenom, is leaving to become a general partner with Benchmark Capital.
The departure comes at a crucial time for Facebook, which has risen to become one of Silicon Valley's hottest companies. Microsoft Corp. and other investors last year gave the 4-year-old venture a $15-billion valuation.
The popular social network, which has more than 80 million members, is trying to convert its traffic into profit with the eventual goal of an initial public offering. To that end, it's bringing in seasoned managers, including former Google Inc. executive Sheryl Sandberg, who joined Palo Alto-based Facebook as chief operating officer in March.
Cohler, 31, who helped recruit Sandberg, has distinguished himself in recent years as consigliere to two of Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs: Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and LinkedIn Corp. founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman.
Before LinkedIn and Facebook, Cohler was a consultant in the Silicon Valley office of McKinsey & Co. and worked in Beijing at telecom company AsiaInfo Holdings Inc.
Cohler is widely respected at Facebook, where he is Zuckerberg's right-hand man and vice president of product management. As someone in tune with users and employees, Cohler has been a standard-bearer of Facebook culture while helping drive the company's strategy, organizational growth and product direction.
He will join Benchmark, the powerful Silicon Valley venture capital firm, which has backed such tech companies as EBay Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc., in the fall. He plans to remain a special advisor to Facebook.
"Matt is a valuable member of our team and one of our earliest executives," Zuckerberg said in a statement. "He has been an important contributor to Facebook's growth and success, and we are pleased he will continue working in a formal role as a special advisor to me and the Facebook management team."
The departure of such a senior executive drew immediate scrutiny. But Cohler said he shared his aspirations of becoming a venture capitalist with Zuckerberg before he joined Facebook in early 2005 as one of its first five employees.
About a month ago Benchmark partner Peter Fenton, who joined Benchmark from Facebook investor Accel Partners, made him an offer he could not refuse, Cohler said.
"There is never a perfect time," Cohler said, but added that Facebook had a "great management team" and was "really well set up to move forward." The company has not yet worked out the details of how it will replace him, Cohler said.
Zuckerberg "and I are really, really close. I feel as close to him as I do to my family. I think he's an amazing guy and the real deal," Cohler said.
Cohler said he was drawn to the unique team structure of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Benchmark, where all partners collaborate and share wealth equally. He's the ninth partner with the firm, which manages nearly $2.8 billion.
LinkedIn's Hoffman said Cohler has the instincts, smarts, experience and connections to be a successful venture capitalist.
"Matt has done the exact right approach: Pick up a lot of specific operating experience learning how to scale a company and how to confront the problems you get as an early-stage start-up and convert that into being an investor and collaborator," Hoffman said. "He's someone I would work with."