Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Sequoia’s Michael Moritz Q&A: Venture Capital Is ‘High-Risk Poker’

The technology investor isn’t turned off by controversy. Moritz says: “Have you met anyone who isn't controversial who's done really interesting things?”
Sequoia's Moritz: Venture Capital Is 'High-Risk Poker'

During the 2008 financial crisis, Sequoia Capital coined a phrase that neatly encapsulated the pain felt by its fellow venture capitalists and technology companies: "RIP Good Times." Michael Moritz, the firm's chairman and a British honorary knight, has been mulling over new ways to describe what's happening now.

The former journalist, who authored one of the first books about Apple and Steve Jobs called The Little Kingdom, has coming out a book co-written with Alex Ferguson, the former manager of storied English soccer club Manchester United and a fellow knight. Leading discusses the traits and management styles of strong leaders. Having spent time close to generations of Silicon Valley's brightest stars, Moritz has a thought or two on the topic.

You boiled down the traits of a distinctive leader to just two. One is obsession and two, a capacity for dealing with people. Is that it? Is that all it takes?

There's a fair amount more, but if you think about (at least in Silicon Valley terms) the people who have been very successful at building technology companies—today you might look at Jeff Bezos or Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg—these people are obsessed with, at the beginning, the products they want to build and then their companies. I think the very successful people are great at building teams around them and dealing with people.

You are so well known for your time chronicling the early days of Apple, and you spent time with Jobs. You were in favor with him; you were out of favor with him. I wonder what you learned, by watching Steve so closely, about what makes a good leader and what makes a bad leader.

The thing that Steve has in common with Sir Alex is the pursuit of perfection—obviously, in many ways. But for Steve, the product was never good enough, whether it was a computer or a phone or a tablet. So he was always thinking about the next thing.

Where did you leave it with him?

Sadly, unfinished. Polite on business terms, but that was about it.

You wrote the famous Time cover story about the "machine of the year," and you were a journalist at the dawn of the PC revolution. That's depicted in the new movie. You said you're not going to see the movie. Why?

I lived through those years, and the memories are vivid enough. I just don't feel the need to see it.

Sir Alex Ferguson's Lessons in Leadership

I want to talk to you about some up-and-coming leaders in technology: Brian Chesky—you guys are an investor in Airbnb—and Travis Kalanick at Uber. What do you see in Brian Chesky, for example?

Brian exemplifies the wonderful traits of a leader. He's obsessed with his company. With him, there's always another hill and mountain to climb. He pushes his team very hard. He's always trying to stretch them. He's always trying to persuade them to the impossible.

What about Travis Kalanick?

Travis is somebody I don't pretend to know.

He's so controversial.

Yeah, well, have you met anyone who isn't controversial who's done really interesting things?

If the headline of Seqouia's slide deck was "RIP Good Times" during the financial crisis, what would the headline be today?

"Gravity Hasn't Been Repealed."

What do you mean by that?

That things eventually will fall down to earth if they're not properly constructed.

So how do you see this playing out? Does this bubble burst, or is there a soft landing?

To me, it's a more rational time than 1999, because I don't think there's a sort of universal feeling that every company is going to be a massive success. People are more discriminating.

How protected are late-stage investments in this environment?

Many late-stage investments aren't really investments. They're just disguised forms of debt. Many of them are well-protected because of the terms that many investors have put around them—the ratchets, the liquidation preferences.

But is that a dangerous trend—these ratchets and the guarantee that investors will get a certain amount back?

If the company doesn't perform, yes. It's high-risk poker.