Steve Jennings

Today, I received an unusual email. The message came from an investigator at Derish Associates, a San Francisco-based private investigation firm, with the subject line "Looking for insight on Lyft Co-founders." It read:

Hi Kevin,

If you have a few minutes to spare I would love to chat with you regarding your knowledge on the company founders. I've been hired to do a background check on them for a potential investor. Please feel free to call me anytime.

The email raised a ton of questions. Who was this mysterious "potential investor?" Why were they snooping around Lyft's co-founders? And what kinds of dirt were they looking for?

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I called the number in the email, and reached the investigator. The investigator, a pleasant-sounding woman, said she didn't know the identity of the client who had hired her firm to run a background check on Lyft's co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green. But she said that these kinds of investigations are quite common among investors preparing to cut a deal.

"They're looking for anything ugly that anyone could know about those two guys," she said. "Every article written seems to praise them."

It was puzzling, given the veil of secrecy that normally surrounds venture capital deals, that this investigator had chosen to email a reporter for inside information on Green and Zimmer. But, as I'd interviewed Zimmer once for a story, she must have figured I knew something useful. (I don't.) Somewhat surprisingly, she never asked that our call be off-the-record.

I asked the investigator what kind of information she was hoping to get.

"I don't need to know anything about their personal lives," she said. "Things like, if it seemed like [Zimmer] was more aggressive, or he falls through on business deals, or he's not a man of his word. If you just have a good sense that he was a good businessman on the right track, that's basically all they're looking for." As examples of findings that might throw up a red flag, she hypothesized about a founder who was caught lying on his résumé about past jobs, or embellishing his college degrees.

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Private investigations are a fascinating, little-known part of what's called "due diligence"—the stage before a financial transaction where each party tries to make sure they're cutting a sound deal. These investigations are common, but it's rare to find one taking place so openly, and involving members of the media. (Granted, it's not a terrible idea to call reporters. While the investigator does run the risk of a journalist writing a story about it, she might find out tidbits a reporter has picked up about a company and its founders that weren't worthy of publication, but might be of interest to a potential investor.) On its website, Derish Associates boasts, "We have been known to 'kill' quite a few deals — saving our clients millions."

Lyft is best known as the smaller competitor to Uber, which has famously used cutthroat tactics to undermine its ride-sharing rivals. I asked the investigator if there was any chance that Uber had hired her firm to dig up dirt on its competitors. She firmly insisted there wasn't.

"I definitely have not been hired by Uber," she said. "I do know that."

So, who is investigating Lyft's co-founders? The investigator would only say that she believed her client was an "international investor." Lyft's most recent funding round, announced in March, came from investors including Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten and Chinese Internet conglomerate Alibaba, but it would be odd to call either one of those companies a "potential investor." More likely is that Lyft is on the cusp of yet another major fundraise, involving a new overseas firm that wants to make sure they're not pouring money into an ethically-challenged venture.

The investigator said that her investigation of Green and Zimmer—who are both in their early thirties, and founded a start-up called Zimride together before Lyft—hadn't turned up much of interest so far.

"They're so young, they don't really have a background," she said. "So far, they've come out pretty clean."

A Lyft spokesperson declined to comment.