The Final Frontier with Steve Jurvetson: Part One
The polymath making venture adventurous again
Step through a nondescript Los Altos storefront and into a world of space. Try, if you can, to focus your eyes on a single object. Every available surface, from wall to window-wall, is covered in a jungle of space artifacts. Rocket engines fill corners, meteorites adorn conference tables, and moon maps plaster the bathroom walls—the “Lunar Throne.” Nora, Steve’s long-time executive assistant, whose desk abuts a row of seats from the Apollo Command Module, points to several long pieces of the landing gear of the Lunar Module recently hung from the ceiling. “It was the only space left,” she tells us.
Welcome to Steve Jurvetson’s office.
As you take in the collage before you, your eyes settle on something of clear import—the first Hasselblad camera in space, for example—and then on mystery tubing that might have been pulled from a World War II submarine—an artifact whose name we missed in the melee. To your left are the launch clocks from the Kennedy Space Center control room used for all ten manned Gemini missions. Look right: the prototype of the U.S. flag left on the moon, signed by Buzz Aldrin.
It’s Friday morning and the workday has yet to take flight. Orange sunlight filters through the artifacts, casting long shadows. You notice order here, too, amidst the maximalism. Each object is carefully labeled with a silver plaque.
It’s 8:56, minutes until Steve’s first pitch of the day, when the calm is punctured by a white Model X pulling up outside. Its front doors feature the NASA logo, just like the Teslas that carry astronauts to the SpaceX launchpad—except these decals come from an Estonian Etsy seller. It’s also the second Model X ever sold (Elon beat Steve to writing the first check).
“Bongiorno!” he says, sweeping through the door.
At 6’2” Steve is tall but hardly imposing, with a wide smile, neatly combed hair, and boundless energy. He sports a white-and-purple pinstripe shirt tucked into black jeans. Eclectic touches—cufflinks made of miniaturized gears, a Ulysse Nardin Executive Skeleton watch (serial #0002), and brightly patterned socks—complete his ensemble.
As he sets down his bag, Steve poses a puzzle: “I have one artifact from every lunar module that landed on the moon. How is that possible?” Each lunar module, he reminds us, remains on the moon to this day. He lets the question percolate as he and his partner, Maryanna Saenko, take their seats across from a teleconferencing screen in their small conference room. The artifacts here—hanging from the ceiling, sitting under the screen, lining the walls—have been pushed out of the way to make room for a modest conference table and six chairs. In the video frame, Steve is flanked by a scale model of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, standing proudly on the side table behind him.
His hands rest on an already well-used leatherbound notebook, a SpaceX pen, and a lime LaCroix—his first of several.
As they fire up their first video call, Maryanna jumps in to tell her visitors “two things you need to know about us: We’re visual learners. And we never prey on human frailty.”
Steve’s investments have largely steered clear of social media and other addiction-forming products—an impulse driven by the desire to do good and to escape the competitive herd. While you won’t hear Steve harping on mimesis, a tendency shows up clearly in his portfolio: Steve doesn’t invest like other VCs.
His approach is as simple in theory as it is demanding in practice: Steve only invests in ideas that will have entries written about them in history books, if they succeed. This effectively locks him out of perennial VC investment targets—no enterprise software or e-commerce plays for him.
His investments are often so cutting edge, in fact, that Steve finds himself on a knife’s edge. “Most of the time, the companies I’ve invested in have had no competing offers from other investors,” he says. Home runs like Hotmail, Skype, Tesla, SpaceX, and Planet Labs now make him the subject of jealousy from said other investors. They have lifted him into the rarefied strata of investors who have found consistent success in the murky reaches of deep tech.
Born to Estonian-immigrant parents in Arizona, Steve’s childhood brought him to Texas, where his love for space blossomed; to Stanford, where he completed a combined degree in electrical engineering and industrial engineering in 2.5 years, a Masters in EE, and an MBA during which he got to hang out with Steve Jobs; to his first VC job, where he was hired by Tim Draper and quickly promoted to name partner of their firm—Draper Fisher Jurvetson—in a staggering six months. Later on, Steve took a leap of faith on an up-and-coming Elon Musk when no one else would, pumping investment dollars into Tesla and SpaceX at critical times. He now runs his own firm with Maryanna: Future Ventures.
On this particular morning, Steve is sitting for a pitch from an advanced manufacturing company. It’s an industry they’ve been interested in for a while, Steve tells us. “We’re looking for an a-ha innovation,” he explains. The mood is light. When the founder joins the meeting, Steve and Maryanna exchange greetings. “You’ve earned a full meeting of the partnership today,” Steve tells the founder, eyes twinkling. Steve and Maryanna, after all, are the fund’s two general partners and only investors.
As Steve listens to the pitch, his pen moves swiftly over the pages of his notebook, only ever writing on the right pages. Sometimes he boxes words—these are questions for later. He is polite, always giving the speaker a chance to explain, but insistent, rarely letting an answer escape without follow up. Though he sometimes zooms into the granular—“What’s the regulatory scheme in Austin, Texas?”—he never loses sight of his signature big questions: “What’s the a-ha innovation here?”
When he’s skeptical, Steve cocks his head. “You see that we both have furrowed brows,” he says after the CEO suggests commercial aircraft manufacturing as a role model for the company’s distributed operation. Maryanna takes over—their back and forth seamless.
“I worked at Airbus,” she tells the CEO—her first investing job was with Airbus’ venture arm. She proceeds to explain the risks of stacked faults in distributed supply chains. “You have a small number of manufacturers for these precision-tolerance parts and they have you, the customer, over a barrel. Every screw on the A380 cost $20.”
“I want to phrase Maryanna’s question as a suggestion,” says Steve. He suggests the CEO look for a better analogy, maybe one from a completely different industry. “Processed food manufacturing or… IKEA for example,” he suggests. Elon, Steve tells the CEO, looked to can manufacturing as a parallel for high-speed battery manufacturing at Tesla.
If the pitch has taken a turn, it doesn’t dampen Steve’s focus. He continues asking detailed questions about the company’s revenue and cost projections, quizzing the CEO over numbers that seem too good to be true.
When the pitch ends, Steve scratches his head. “I don’t know how to think about this space,” he tells Maryanna. It’s a good company, they agree, but probably not one for the history books. “I don’t think it came out as a ‘10x’,” he says.
His history-book framework clarifies Steve’s thinking. It stops him worrying about missing the next “hot thing,” about those pesky revenue projections, or about wrangling with lawyers on deal terms. In fact, he rarely hires his own lawyers, instead opting to let the portfolio companies’ lawyers set the terms. “If [the founders are] going to screw me on the terms, I’m going to lose the investment anyway,” he explains.
A day with Steve feels like searching for treasure with Indiana Jones—it’s fun, it’s fast-paced, it reminds you of office hours with your favorite professor. His knowledge runs as deep as it does wide. Over the course of the day, Steve and Maryanna jump from the advanced manufacturing pitch to conversations about deep space and quantum physics to personal reflections over lunch.
Despite his sophistication across a broad range of topics, Steve is fond of saying that he has “never grown up.” The key to being a successful investor, he says, is never to let go of one’s spark of curiosity. Maintaining a “childlike mind” is the key, he says, to staying ahead of the investment curve.
ROCKETS IN THE DESERT
Of his earliest days in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was born, Steve remembers only biblical outlines: his street, a mountain, a flood. And from the beginning, Steve, an only child, was obsessed with scientific creation. He was “extremely interested in how things worked,” his late father, Tõnu Jurvetson, wrote.
Instead of toy cars and backhoes, Steve dove into the metaphorical sandboxes of chemistry, physics, and engineering. When he was just four years old, Steve was given $20 by his grandmother. He used it to purchase a book: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (a book later banned for being “too dangerous for unsupervised children”).
Steve’s father encouraged his early scientific exploration. “My dad worked in the early days of the semiconductor industry,” Steve explains, “and would bring home the occasional awe-inspiring thing.” Steve remembers being particularly impressed by a voice recorder. How cool, he thought, to play back his own voice!
Tõnu was a “physicist-slash-mathematician in mindset, applied to engineering,” Steve says. “So he’s always been very inspirational to me in thinking about science and engineering with a first principles framework.”
He took Steve to a local junkyard, for example, where Steve would collect circuit boards and piece them together, pretending they were spacecraft bound for distant planets. They also painted model spacecraft and took them for flights in the desert.
Tõnu was teaching Steve to think like an engineer through play.
The same year he picked up The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, Steve remembers his father drawing him technical plans for an automatic car wash they had used. Steve soon took up the pencil himself and drew fanciful worlds stretching across pages-upon-taped-together pages of his notebook.
He turned engineering into drama, drawing “James Bond villain lairs.” Inside, instead of stock-issue ballistic missile siloes, lay rows and rows of IBM mainframes.
For Steve’s father and his mother, Tiiu, who both fled Estonia during its brutal invasion by the Soviets, engineering was more than just a plaything for their precocious son. It offered the family the chance for a prosperous life in America.
The Jurvetsons were Estonian political royalty. Steve’s great-great uncle, Konstantin Päts, was a preeminent pre-war statesman, serving as Estonia’s prime minister five times and the nation’s first president in the late 1930s. His grandparents helped to write the country’s founding document.
In 1944, Tõnu left a smoldering Tallinn with his grandparents bound for Austria and then Sweden, where was reunited with his parents. Tiiu’s story was even more harrowing. She was also separated from her parents, but nearly abducted by the Russian troops. Her family barely made it out alive.
To this day, Steve is outspoken on Russia—comparing what happened to his mother to Russia’s contemporary kidnappings in Ukraine. He refuses to do business with Russia at Future Ventures, saying that Russian profits are “blood money” so long as Putin continues his “reign of terror over his own people.”
The Jurvetson family first moved to Montreal, where they found themselves harder up. They had taken on debt in order to pay for the journey. In order to help repay it, Tõnu, the eldest of three children, had to leave school at 16 to work (his youngest sister Reet was later tragically murdered by Charles Manson’s followers). He later referred to his family as “the poorest Estonians in Montreal.” But Tōnu wasn’t content to work low-wage jobs. After earning his engineering degree via night school, he became a lab assistant at Bell’s Northern Research Lab and helped earn four patents.
Over the years, Steve has maintained his own close connection with Estonia. Over many visits, he has developed professional relationships with Estonians (including the founders of Skype, one of his early portfolio companies) and personal ones. He funded the 2006 documentary, The Singing Revolution, about the Estonian independence movement. He was also the first non-European to get Estonian e-citizenship.
I want to visit as often as I can. Bring friends there….[It’s] absolutely [an addiction to all things Estonian.] No doubt about it.
—Steve, Life in Estonia, 2009
By the time Steve’s parents moved from Canada to Arizona, Tõnu had become a plant manager for Motorola’s chip-manufacturing operation. And when Steve was six, his young life was shaped for the first time by a startup’s formation. The family of three moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, so that Steve’s father could help start Power Monolithics, a semiconductor manufacturer developing discrete high-power transistors.
In Corpus, Steve discovered a new obsession: the construction site of his father’s factory. For the budding visual learner, it was a gripping case of technical drawings brought to life. Tõnu showed him the building’s architectural drawings and “we would go wow, look at all these nitrogen lines!” Steve remembers. “I had never seen liquid nitrogen before. It was fascinating.”
“And also cement! Amazing,” he remembers. “And the construction site, and heavy equipment!”
During the family’s three years in Corpus Christi, Steve’s intellectual development skyrocketed. In order for his classes to keep up, Tõnu and Tiiu decided to move to Dallas to find better schools. Tõnu took a new job at Texas Instruments and the family of three relocated for the second time.
Soon after settling, Steve’s parents discovered that even Dallas’ public schools weren’t Steve-grade. They decided to enroll him in a private school: St. Marks, where he finally found a good academic fit. Steve feels affinity for the school to this day—he has returned to deliver the school’s commencement address in 2010 as well as in 2020 and has received their Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Steve’s science education continued apace outside of the classroom as well.
He discovered programming on a TI calculator, programming games on its red display. “Not like floppy disk games,” he explains. “You would actually have to type, from a printout, the whole damn thing.”
The process was tedious, but Steve loved it. “There was this little spark,” he says, “of seeing the thing you just entered do something.”
Soon after moving to Dallas, Steve’s parents upgraded his programming setup with the newly released Apple II—a gift that still makes him smile. “Aha!” he remembers thinking, “this is incredible!” For the first time, Steve could design full-fledged programs of his own. He was hooked.
He amazed his mom by programming the game Mastermind on his new computer (think Wordle, but with colored pegs instead of letters). He also wrote a program for his speech and debate team to print prep material on three-by-five competition notecards.
And then there was space.
Though he can’t remember ever watching a moon landing on television, the Apollo missions served as the era’s cultural backdrop. Steve created a vivid space world of his own with Tõnu. Father and son transformed into Star Trek crew members, sending voice messages to each other across space on the voice recorder. The family shed, with Steve’s junkyard circuits on display, was the spaceship and his jungle gym the lunar lander.
In the great space state of Texas, more formal space opportunities abounded as well. One summer, Steve took part in a summer camp at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. While there, he hopped on the Center’s Apple II and programmed a Zork–esque adventure game—his game password? Quasimodo. Steve ended the camp with a presentation to his peers on the parallax method of determining an object’s distance from the earth. He was eleven years old.
He also met Richard Garriott (with the gamer name Lord British) there, the astronaut and creator of legendary video game Ultima. “I remember being impressed by Ultima on the Apple ][ and the adventurous spunk of this young Lord, and went off to spend more time programming games than looking to the stars,” he wrote on Flickr.
Steve remembers America’s space achievements as “pillars of pride for [the country].” And while he identified with American scientific achievements, Steve also remained deeply proud of his Estonian heritage. He grew up thinking that he was the great-grandson of Konstantin Päts, the first Estonian president. He believes this was due to hand-waving on the part of his mother (in reality, he is Päts’ great-great nephew.)
“People would joke about me being the Prince of Estonia,” Steve says. It wasn’t true, but “it made me feel like I was special.” The story gave Steve a boost of self-confidence when he needed one. A self-described late bloomer, high school wasn’t easy. Steve dreaded rites of passage like dates and school sports (“nobody wanted me on their team”). Steve found refuge in the solitude of cross-country running. One semester, he ran over 750 miles, more than anyone else on the team. He kept the shirt until recently (“Alas…the spousal unit has given away all of my old t-shirts to Goodwill”).
He attributes some of his social challenges to being an only child. “At the outset,” Steve says, “that has a big influence on people…the splitting of attention, mom’s love. It’s weird.”
Steve excelled in the humanities as well as in science and math. His big extracurricular activity, speech and debate, provided preparation for one important aspect of his VC career—Steve is today the longest-running participant in the Churchill Club’s Annual Top 10 Tech Trends event. (Stay tuned for Part Two, in which we’ll recap his legendary record.)
It has been my observation that the people that rise to the top of any organization—from companies to non-profits to politics—are good public speakers.
—Steve, St. Mark’s commencement 2010
He excelled in all of his classes, taking all of his school’s available AP credits. This would later help him graduate college more quickly.
When it came to choosing a college, Steve’s heart was set on Stanford. “It was the best engineering school located in the heart of Silicon Valley,” he says. “They did not have early admission then, so I applied to one other ‘safety’ school early—Princeton—and after I got in, I only applied to Stanford [for graduate programs].”
By the time Steve left St. Mark’s to attend Stanford, he had spent a dozen years in Texas. “Occasionally,” he says, “the accent comes back.”
Still, Steve doesn’t feel any great affinity for the state. At a moment when other prominent VCs and entrepreneurs are abandoning California for Texas, Steve doesn’t see the appeal. “They’re shutting down abortion access, it’s like ‘really?’ Why would you want to go there?”
In 1985, Steve made the reverse journey, moving from Texas to California. He remembers being wowed by California’s diversity. “I don’t think I had any Asian food—Chinese, Indian—prior to coming to California,” he says. “It was just such a blossoming of opportunities in contrast.”
EDUCATION: RULES TO GAME
Level One: Stanford
Steve describes his undergraduate education like a rebellious founder. “I looked at the various rules for graduation,” he told Tim Ferriss, “and it felt like a simple system of equations.” Stanford used a computer-based course sign-up software. Steve realized that the system itself could be gamed.
It wasn’t the hard-Valley-core approach to college it appeared, though. Steve’s middle-class family didn’t qualify for financial aid, and he felt guilty for spending down their hard-earned savings on an expensive private education. “When you boil [the rules] down,” Steve told Ferriss, “they’re just trying to get four years of tuition out of you.”
Steve’s parents moved to California soon after he did—the family remained tight knit.
Steve’s gaming of the Stanford credit system started with those transferred credits, initially from his high-school AP classes, and then from night school courses he during his summer jobs. But the revelation was discovering that the schools’ computerized course selection program mistakenly allowed students to say that a given class was worth fewer credits, but not more, than it actually was.
Where he had previously been limited to 5 classes a semester, now he could take as many as he wanted—entering 0 or 1 for each class’s credit value as needed. This way, he could double program his courses, taking prerequisites at the same time as his major coursework and setting him on track for an early graduation.
The hard part, he says, was not taking his 8 classes at a time (the typical student takes 3-4), but rather convincing teachers to let him take their upper-level courses as a young student, without the required prerequisites. Here his debate skills came in handy.
Through this maneuvering, and thanks to his famously speedy intellect, Steve graduated Stanford with a combined degree in electrical engineering and industrial engineering in a mere two-and-a-half years—as valedictorian. A tour-de-force performance, it was just the start of his formal education, which would continue over to master’s degrees, and a step along his informal one, which would continue for the rest of his life.
Schools are stepping stones on a path of lifelong learning.
—Steve, St. Mark’s commencement 2010
Level Two: Master’s
By the end of college, Steve decided he actually needed more college. In his rush to complete his undergraduate academics, he missed out on other things, namely a social life. So he returned to Stanford, this time to pursue his master’s in electrical engineering.
Steve secured a research assistantship with his computer science professor and thesis advisor, John Hennesy. A legendary researcher, Hennesy would go on to be the president of Stanford, and later, the chairman of Alphabet. Steve’s assistantship with Hennesy offered him something more important than proximity to greatness, though: it would pay for his master’s degree.
With cost off the table, Steve felt free to enjoy his college redux. He even found a way—by being a residential computer coordinator—to reside in a freshman dorm. In practice, he says, this simply meant re-filling the dorm’s printers with paper every few days.
Steve taking part in an elaborate treasure hunt across the Bay Area in which “the only prize is learning.” (Steve’s Flickr)
While in school, Steve helped design computer chips at HP over a three-year period. It was his first job in technology. He liked engineering, but worried about its long promotion timeline to become a manager. It occurred to him that maybe he could expedite the process by gaining some business-based experience.
And so, after finishing his MSEE, Steve left Stanford with an unusual prize: a job at Bain Consulting. It was an unorthodox choice for two reasons. First, it was an entirely foreign path for electrical engineering graduate students, who were much more likely to go into a PhD program or get R&D jobs in industry. In fact, they looked down on the “fuzziness” of the management consulting discipline.
Second, he knew nothing about consulting. He applied at the suggestion of his father, who had hired Bain consultants during his time as CEO of Varian’s Semiconductor Equipment Group. Before applying to Bain, Steve “had never heard of a consulting firm,” he tells us. “They had never seen a candidate who hadn’t even heard of McKinsey.”
At Bain, contrary to his classmates’ expectations, Steve found intellectual challenge. After two-plus years of dealing with problems across diverse industries, “I felt like I had a small business degree already,” he told Ferriss.
Steve learned another valuable lesson from consulting: he didn’t have to settle for one professional track. “I enjoy learning new things in perpetuity, and that there are actually careers where you can do that,” he told James McKinney. “I got my first taste of the possibility of…a portfolio career strategy….You're doing many things, you're leveraging one to the next.”
Bain, BCG, and McKinsey lure bright graduates from top universities by promising to pay for their business school educations. Steve took Bain up on the offer and enrolled in Stanford for the third time. He liked the idea of meeting classmates who would be at transitional points in their careers. “You have all the consultants leaving consulting. And you have all the I-bankers leaving I-banking,” he told Ferriss. “What better place?”
He took advantage of the transition point in his own professional development, as well deciding to explore product marketing—which he hoped would inform his eventual return to engineering. “I don’t want to design a widget that’s going to sit in a room and never get used just because I like to design widgets,” he told Ferriss. “I really would love to have something be meaningful in the world.”
During his business school years, Steve pursued another Steve—Jobs—determinedly. Steve may have been shy in high school, but now as a business student armed with a good excuse, nothing was going to stop him from learning from his childhood hero.
That excuse came in the form of Stanford’s High Tech Club, where students interested in technology could mingle and hear from industry leaders and investors. Steve was the group’s president.
So he invited Jobs to speak to his club—in Steve’s living room.
Jobs accepted the invitation and soon found himself seated cross-legged in front of Steve’s fireplace. Here was the designer of the computer that started Steve’s tech obsession just talking to him and his friends.
SJ: I just asked.
Jobs ended up staying for almost four hours and answered every student question. After the group dispersed, Jobs and Steve hung out together in Steve’s kitchen. Steve asked Jobs to sign his Apple keyboard—which Steve Wozniak had previously signed.
Jobs agreed, but only, he said, if he could make the keyboard right. “This keyboard represents everything about Apple that I hate,” Jobs said. “It’s a battleship. Why does it have all these keys? Do you use this F1 key?”
“No,” Steve replied.
And, pulling his car keys out of his pocket, he pried it off.
“How about the F2 key?” And on Jobs went, stripping the entire function row off of Steve’s keyboard. “Changing the world one keyboard at a time,” he said, dead serious.
Impressed by the younger Steve’s perceptive questions, Jobs asked him to work at NeXT. Steve took the opportunity to “just ask” once again: if he joined NeXT, could he shadow Jobs over the summer?
Again, the answer was yes.
At NeXT, Steve was responsible for compiling a competitive analysis of NeXT’s position in the workstation market.
The two SJs grew close. They went on walks and exchanged emails. Steve recalls Jobs’ obsession with Apple, even while CEO of NeXT. Sometimes he would pose the question, “What should Apple do about X?” It was clear to Steve that Jobs was in love with his old company and wanted Apple to purchase NeXT so that he could return. But Steve thought the possibility so remote that he didn’t see the point of thinking about it. “What CEO of Apple would ever invite Jobs back and expect to keep their job for long?” he wrote on Flickr.
For Steve the work of compiling a market report for NeXT was easy. “Like falling out of bed in the morning, process wise,” the ex-Bain consultant says. When Steve turned it in at the end of the summer, Jobs immediately shot over an email: “How much of this did you do?” Steve’s analysis was so extensive that Jobs assumed Steve had outsourced it to an insight group like IDC or Gartner.
“I did it all myself,” he replied.
Jobs was impressed. Before Steve left NeXT, Jobs had Steve meet with Ed Catmull and John Lasseter at Pixar (before Toy Story’s release). He hoped Steve would join the company. Even if Steve wasn’t going to stay at NeXT, Jobs wanted him in his orbit.
So when Steve took his next—er, subsequent—internship at Apple itself, Jobs must have felt some kind of way. On the one hand, Steve was going to work at the target of his obsession on behalf of the people who had broken his heart. On the other: the young dynamo might actually have a shot of helping the beleaguered company improve.
At Apple, Steve worked in the PowerBook product marketing division and did tear-down competitive analyses of the other laptops on the market. “I was amazed to find that the Dell $999 subnotebook used double sided tape to hold a daughter board (column drivers for the display) in place,” he says. “That was a manufacturing expediency Apple would not approve of.”
Steve didn’t end up taking a position with either NeXT or Apple, but the experiences left an indelible impression of Jobs. He thinks much of his genius was intuitive rather than strategic—Jobs was more likely to say that something was “shitty” or “really great,” based on a gut feeling rather than a long-term, strategic plan. And where people were concerned, Jobs could be especially mercurial, a trait Steve refers to as the “hero-shithead rollercoaster.”
I never heard Steve Jobs articulate future plans or trends. He would say, for example, ‘Hey, can we get rid of all the buttons on the phone? This is shit.’ Not thinking about the fact that they could move all the services to the cloud, and we'll be able to iterate our software stack faster.
For Steve, who has always taken a more rationalist approach to decision-making, Jobs’ intuitive management style brought him face-to-face with “the black art of something I didn’t do well myself,” he says. “My tendency is to operate at the notion of ideas.”
He noticed Jobs’ leadership skills as well. “Steve Jobs was turning around an employee who was quitting,” Steve remembers, “challenging them. ‘I know you can do better, I know you can do better, I know you can solve this impossible problem.’” He admired what he saw, even if he didn’t feel capable or desirous of emulating it (Steve also noted the ways in which Jobs could be toxic to people he employed).
Years later, Steve formed a close personal and business relationship with Elon Musk, making him perhaps the only person in the world to have watched the two great tech visionaries up close.
Because of this, Steve is often asked to compare the two legends. He leads with reverence, pointing out that their shared obsession with design is more fascinating than their differences.
Then, pressed, he contrasts the intuitive approach of Jobs to Musk, the master planner (see The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan from 2006).
Steve has watched Musk’s approach sharpen over time. At the beginning, Steve remembers Musk taking a more physics-based approach to problem solving. Now he employs “asymptotic thinking”—drilling down to first principles to pinpoint the direction a particular market is going to take.
Elon asks, “What's the inevitable future? All vehicles will be electric. Simple reasons: There's not going to be enough gas.” Or autonomous vehicles: “The moment you believe that they’ll be better drivers than humans, then why would you let humans drive? Because it's so cheap to do autonomy. It's a Moore's Law thing. Therefore, all cars will be autonomous.”
He pushes his leadership team to think through scaling 1,000x beyond where anyone's trying to do something today to ask the question of, “What is the ultimate cost economy?” And then to do that exercise, you…have to go to first principles to say, "Well, what's my raw material cost?" He made a simple spreadsheet when founding SpaceX. He went, ‘Okay, there's X amount of aluminum, etc. in a rocket’—he was amazed that the cost of goods for a rocket was 3% of what people were charging for it. He went, "And there's no patents or royalties being paid?" Like it's literally the human labor. And he's like ‘I could lower cost 10x’ and still have amazing profit margins.
That’s what I mean by asymptotic thinking. Whenever change is afoot in a market…what you have to ask is, “Where's this gonna end up?” That seems pretty basic, but I don't hear anyone else talking about it.
This approach, incidentally, has a lot of overlap with Steve’s thinking (see Venture Life, in Part Two, for more).
Steve is also a sharp observer of social dynamics, and one of his fascinations is with the “political leadership” required to run an effective company. While Jobs was more apt to get what he wanted by generating fear and demanding the impossible, Musk takes a different approach, showing solidarity with his employees. One time, when Tesla was facing manufacturing challenges, Musk set up his desk on the factory floor and worked through the night.
Steve also admires Musk’s ability to select candidates. When interviewing, “he evaluates people quickly and gets to conviction,” Steve says. It’s a skill Steve envies. “When I interview someone, I can’t quite tell if they’re good or bad—the spectrum in between is hard.”
Though his respect for Musk is clear, Steve doesn’t suggest that other founders try to imitate his approach. “I’m not sure I believe that people should all be like Elon,” he says. “They should be like themselves, find their passion, and maybe learn some tools that allow them to think more agilely about a changing world.”
In business school, Steve learned about venture capital for the first time. His classes featured several venture investors as guest lecturers, including Dixon Doll of Accel (now DCM), Peter Wendell of Sierra Ventures, John Doerr and Vinod Khosla of KPCB (now Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures). They “blew [Steve’s] mind.” He made sure to attend every talk given by a venture investor on campus, and even hosted several at the High Tech Club.
Steve compares discovering VC to learning math. “It’s like, before I could add, what was the world like?” he told McKinney. “It’s hard to reverse back.” Steve had found something that might save him from being stuck in a single field or industry for the rest of his life. It would also pay him handsomely for his range of expertise—in technology, engineering, and hard science.
When he started to job hunt, a Bain friend referred Steve for an interview at Greylock. At the time Steve was graduating business school, “maybe one or two venture firms in the world had a website,” he remembers. So the only way to discover the difference between firms was to talk to them.
So Steve found his way into 60 individual interviews across 13 different firms. Greylock—known at the time for its conservatism—ended up not working out. By the 8th or 9th round of 13 interviews, he slipped up by suggesting that the word “conservative” might have a negative connotation in the entrepreneurial world.
“That was an important filter,” he says.
More promising was an interview he had picked up by responding to a paper flier on a Stanford job board. Without fancy marketing or recruiting materials, Steve took a chance on the firm and its founder, Tim Draper.
Draper was also a Stanford-trained engineer and HP alumnus. His grandfather, William Henry Draper Jr., founded what was arguably the first modern VC fund in 1958, three years before the “Dean of Venture Capital,” Arthur Rock, created Davis & Rock. Tim’s father, Bill Draper, is regarded as another founding father of the industry, having started both Draper & Johnson in 1962 and Sutter Hill Ventures (now best known for being the home of Mike Speiser) in 1965.
Despite his storied lineage, Tim Draper was anything but traditional. Though he wore a suit and tie, he ended Steve’s first interview it by sliding down an office banister as he escorted him out. Here was someone, Steve thought, who had retained his childhood mind. “That’s perfect,” Steve told McKinney. “That’s the place I want to be.”
Steve made his way through the interview process and finally received an offer from Draper. “I took a 50% salary cut twice in my life,” Steve told McKinney. The first time was leaving HP to join Bain. The second time? Joining Draper and Associates. And by bucking Bain, Steve would now also be responsible for repaying the entirety of his business school debt.
“It was the best decision of my life,” he told McKinney. “Taking that short-term sacrifice for the long-term gain of better learning, better trajectory, better mentors and a better life.”
Thank you, as always, for reading to the end. This has been Part One of The Final Frontier with Steve Jurvetson: The polymath making venture adventurous again. In Part Two, we’ll be exploring Steve’s career and diving into his philosophies—in life and in investing. We’ll also delve into his love for rockets, pranks, and ultimate frisbee, as well as how he maintains his childlike mind.
We’d also like to thank Steve for allowing us to spend a day with him and answering our many, many questions. You can learn more about Steve via his photo blog, KG’s compilation, or follow him on Twitter @futurejurvetson.
Next up, we’ll be returning with Part Two of Life of Bryan: The poker champion revolutionizing web3, where we’ll cover Bryan’s adventures in poker, meeting his wife in Budapest, and his various entrepreneurial pursuits.
We’ll be continuing our coverage of technologists, financiers, and operators in the coming weeks—starting with Josh Wolfe. Other people we’d love to cover include Marc Andreessen, Alexandre Arnault, Jim Breyer, Jack Dorsey, Paul Graham, Miles Grimshaw, Vinod Khosla, Mike Moritz, and Dan Rosen. If you know any of these people and feel moved to give us warm introductions, or even just personal stories, please reach out over email or Twitter.
See you next time,
Dan Scott and KG
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This article is great to read. Kudos!