Mark Zuckerberg cashes out?

Venture capital's ancien régime is on the verge of being overturned. We hear Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, may have cashed out — before an IPO, before a sale, and before his investors. In the company's recent financing round, insiders believe, he sold about $40 million worth of stock. A tiny portion of his $5 billion stake, but in cash rather than on paper, and "enough that he never has to think about money for the rest of his life," says a person made privy to details of the sale. On the Sand Hill Road of old, this is simply not how things are done.

But Zuckerberg's most important backer, Peter Thiel, does not work on Sand Hill Road. From his offices in San Francisco's Presidio, he's set about changing the rules of how startups get funding and how founders make their fortunes. Through his Founders Fund, he has begun issuing "Series FF" shares to the entrepreneurs he backs, giving them the right to sell shares alongside their companies to new investors. Thiel, who felt unjustly treated as the cofounder of PayPal, wants to let his protégés build companies without worrying about how to make rent.

Old lions like angel investor Ron Conway will probably view this development with outrage. They feel entrepreneurs, with no capital at risk, should not become rich until well after their already wealthy backers get paid, Today's startup generation begs to differ. The IPO market is still a shadow of its former self, and sales to large companies are an unreliable route to wealth — and a sure way to lose control of one's company. Meanwhile, vast pools of private money are waiting to be tapped.

Zuckerberg still owns nearly a third of Facebook . If the rumors are true, even if Facebook flops, the 23 year old would be set for life.

Update: An unimpeachable source says the sale didn't happen. Was I played? Perhaps so. Read my followup on why I think this rumor spread — and what its purveyors may have hoped to accomplish.