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Catching up with Gary Kremen after

from – Here’s something that I’d never expected to say about Gary Kremen, 46, founder of and one of Silicon Valley’s most mercurial entrepreneurs and investors: He seems downright serene these days.

Kremen chalks it up to getting married and recently adopting a baby. But there’s something else to it.

After more than a decade, he’s finally put the long and tortuous legal and financial saga of his involvement in the website behind him and used the money he made along the way to reinvent himself as an investor in early-stage cleantech startups.

I hadn’t seen Kremen in a couple of years, but when was back in the news I decided it would be a good time to catch up with him.

The secretive group of investors that bought the domain name from Kremen in 2006 for $14 million announced a couple of months ago they were going to auction it off. Those plans were scuttled when the new owners were forced into bankruptcy by creditors, touching off what is likely to be a long, painful and expensive legal fight.

The failure of this new group and Kremen’s own struggles to turn into a robust business are perfect examples of how wrong the conventional wisdom turned out to be. Online porn is not a license to print money.

“If it were so easy to make money, everyone would do it,” Kremen said. By the start of the past decade, the online adult business was suffering from too much competition, falling revenues and an abundance of free content that made profits hard to come by.

I first met Kremen in early 2001, not long after he won a three-year legal battle to recover the rights to, which had been stolen by Stephen Cohen, a convicted felon. Cohen had turned the site into an online adult empire. In November 2000, a federal judge ordered Cohen to return the site and pay Kremen $68 million.

Thus began an unlikely odyssey into the world of online porn, as Kremen tried to turn into an adult search engine. But the business consumed him, in an unhealthy way, causing enormous stress and fracturing friendships along the way. Though it was modestly successfully, Kremen eventually decided to get out.

Besides the $14 million he got from selling the domain in January 2006, he also received a $15 million settlement from VeriSign over its role in mistakenly handing the domain over to Cohen. And last year, Kremen sold a house in Rancho Santa Fe he’d acquired along the way for $4 million.

And what did he do with that windfall? He invested in a Walgreens. In Hurricane, Utah. That’s about two hours northeast of Las Vegas.

“I’m getting more conservative with my money,” Kremen said as he proudly showed me a picture of the store on his iPhone.

This is the part of Kremen’s outlook and career that has long fascinated me, because it sets him apart from most Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors, who too often run in packs. Kremen has an ability to spot unorthodox opportunities in the niches of the economy.

He once bought a stake in a San Jose company called Cool Heat, which makes outdoor heaters that look like palm trees for restaurants. Several years ago, he bought a patent he previously had authored from a company in bankruptcy and then flipped it for a $1 million profit. Kremen even spent a year trying to get adopted by a California Indian tribe so he could invest in their casino rights.

But after years of playing at the fringes of the legitimate business world, Kremen has landed squarely back in the mainstream of the valley by becoming an active cleantech angel investor. His biggest bet at the moment is Clean Power Finance, which provides financial software to companies that install solar systems. His other notable investments include Recurv, Enmetric, Solar Universe and People Power.

After being primarily funded by Kremen since launch, Clean Power raised $6.9 million in January from three other venture partners, including Claremont Creek Ventures.

Nat Goldhaber, a Clarement managing director who now sits on Clean Power’s board, first met Kremen in the early 1990s when he tried to persuade some other venture partners to invest in Goldhaber said with Clean Power, Kremen was demonstrating the same ability to see an opportunity before others, as he did with online classifieds in the early 1990s.

“I think he really had the vision that one of the interesting places to make money in the solar world was not in having boots on the roof, but by providing all of the other things that folks with the boots on the roof needed,” Goldhaber said.

In all, Kremen has invested in 50 private companies, most in the cleantech space, and he’s a limited partner in 15 venture funds.

But for the first time since I’ve known him, his frenzied business activities seem to have taken a back seat to his private life. Two years ago, he got married, sold his other home in San Francisco, and moved to the Peninsula for what he describes as a healthier lifestyle. It’s an astonishing change for someone who, among other things, claims he started all those years ago to get himself a date.

And three weeks ago, he and his wife, Petia, adopted a newborn, Isaac. He flips past the Walgreens photos on his iPhone to show me pictures of him cradling Isaac. “He’s so cute,” Kremen said. “But nobody warned me how tired I’d be.” I smile as he says this, recalling evenings years ago watching him drinking tequila while surrounded by adult industry starlets at his Rancho Santa Fe home.

I’m happy for his newfound peace. Still, as we get ready to leave, I ask him what’s next.

“I’m kissing some frogs right now,” Kremen said.

I’ll be watching to see if he finds any princes.


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