Brainiac Steve Jurvetson On DFJ, Elon Musk And The Growing Divide Between Rich And Poor

Steve Jurvetson is widely recognized as among the smartest people in Silicon Valley, which is saying something. He graduated from Stanford at the top of his class in two-and-a-half years. He hangs out with people like Google cofounder Larry Page (and keeps up with them). As a venture capitalist, he may also have more billion-dollar bets to his name than anyone else, including Kana Communications, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX.

Put another way, when Jurvetson has something to say, it’s typically worth listening. And Jurvetson had plenty to say at a recent San Francisco event organized by this editor. Some of what we discussed there follows, edited for length.

On whether Jurvetson is still “rolling up his sleeves” 20 years into an already highly lucrative career:

“I love what I do. I love to learn,” he offered. Jurvetson went on to say that he’s as busy as he’s ever been and sits on 10 boards, though he “pulled back” for a month or two this past summer to “get my head around the sheer number of things I’m involved with.”

On whether Jurvetson might strike out on his own after all these years, a la Jim Breyer of Accel and others:

“To what end? One reason to do that would be that you’re frustrated with your partners and you can’t stand going to work. That’d be a good reason to leave. The other would be if you think you can do better on your own than with a group. That’s where I think the most profound personal growth and learning for me has occurred. Through much of my career, I just thought of [anyone with a different thinking style] as deviant. Just not good for the world. It was like, Why are you here? And it didn’t occur to me that that was an unusual point of view. If I fast-forward today . . . I’ve actually come to respect the most irritatingly challenging people I’ve worked with as really valuable in improving group decision-making and what to do and what to invest in. Bottom line is: I wouldn’t want to leave and do my own thing, because I wouldn’t attract those kinds of people as easily, and what’s the point? If I’m going to just recreate the diverse team I have already, why would I do that?”

On what Elon Musk – who Jurvetson has known for more than 15 years — is like (and whether he listens to his investors):

“I also worked for Steve Jobs [at his computer company, NeXT] and I see some similarities. Yes, he listens. Unlike Jobs, he’s more engineering-centric than marketing centric, though both are very detailed product architects who have this visceral agitation with imperfection. They just need a product to be perfect.

Elon has a reputation for having strong opinions and sometimes insisting on things . . . and yet, he really respects and needs a team that can execute. So he doesn’t suffer fools. So there are number of folks who are no longer with these companies and face this cognitive dissonance [of] ‘ If I [was with] this A-plus organization and I’m no longer there, there must be something wrong with me.’ And so there are some detractors. There’s a perception that he’s hard. But in board meetings and such, he listens, he’s fascinating, he has incredible insights . . . and he will change his point of view in the face of evidence. He also loves to and just seems to get almost visceral enjoyment  in veering off topic and brainstorming about things like: do we live in a simulation.

On Larry Page and artificial intelligence (Musk has said he worries Page could unleash intelligence-enhanced robots that could, through no design of Page’s, eventually commit evil deeds): 

“I recently spent [time] with [Page] in a small group and . . . Larry was very upset that people at the height of the AI community were debating questions like the role of AI. He thinks it’s absurd that we would try to exert [control over them] and thinks that instead: Might our laws and constitutional democracy evolve in a way to be more embracing of sentient beings like our own [human] beings? [As we] think of rights and privileges as we birth or grandparent greater generations that follow us, why wouldn’t we extend the [robots the] same rights and privileges as we have for ourselves and thereby [co-evolve] with our technologies in a more harmonious way instead of trying to control [this] minority group – the AIs. And if we can live with them in harmony, why wouldn’t that just be better on all fronts?”

At this point, Jurvetson looked out at the somewhat horrified audience, and, with comic timing, added, “This is Larry [talking]. Personally, I also sort of subscribe to that point of view, but I also think there’s a lot of reckless abandon sprinkled about as well.”

On reports that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said he’d buy all of Tesla’s autonomous cars in the future, should the company develop them:

“Travis told me [that] privately at a Goldman Sachs event and I feel so bad that I forgot that and let it slip at some Churchill Club Q&A session after the talk was over. Then a few weeks later it came up as a sound bite on Twitter and now comes up over and over. What he said was, If Tesla would give them access to the autonomous driving control system — so it’s not completely autonomous and they can build some products and features on top of it — that they’d buy all the Tesla cars starting in 2020.

It’s kind of a braggadocio claim. That’s 500,000 cars based on current estimates, so that’s like, ‘I want to buy them all.’ Go Travis. . . And I have to commend him for sticking to conviction and honesty. Eventually, all cars are going to be autonomous. C’mon. It’s true. The average driver may not believe that, though, and that’s a tough place to be. It’s a little awkward. It’s a little early to be talking about it. And that’s why I regret that it keeps coming up as a question. I’m like, Let’s talk about that later. I’m not sensitive about it but I’m guessing Uber is sensitive about it.”

On the valuation of one of Jurvetson’s newer bets, the satellite imagine company Planet Labs, which another of the startup’s backers described back in January as worth “materially above” the $500 million that Google paid for competitor Skybox:

“So, yeah, it’s north of Skybox, and it feels unicorny … I’m not saying it is [a unicorn] or it’s not. But they’ve certainly had offers.”

On erasing the digital divide, which Jurvetson believes will accelerate the rich-poor gap:

“There are two possible futures. The first is the path of abundance that [serial tech entrepreneur] Peter Diamandis paints, where you basically don’t have to work. You can imagine that for much of human history, nobody had jobs. No one used the word ‘job’ when you had slaves and serfs.

I’m not going to advocate a return to that, because humans won’t be cost-effective as slaves or serfs because the robots will be much better. So in the future, the robots are the slaves [in Diamandis’s imagining]. We’re all the indentured rich and can do philanthropy or the sciences or the arts or just debauchery or whatever.

But how do we get from here to there? I don’t see a path. . .

I think entrepreneurship will feel like winning the lottery. That’s what the American Dream will feel like when it becomes globalized and everyone has access to it, writ large [because everyone has come online]. There will be winners, but it’s a winner-take-all dynamic in information businesses [owing to their] network effects. So, yeah, there will be a Google; there will be a Facebook. But there won’t be thousands of companies, and they won’t be in every single small town.

So if you’re not into doing that kind of stuff — if you’re not a Googler or a Facebooker or you don’t want to program for a living — what the hell are you going to do? [That’s why] I think that power law of income inequality will only accelerate. Philanthropy takes some of that pressure valve off, but that’s about the only thing I can think of right now. . .

Entrepreneurs love to solve problems and this is a big problem. This will kill us long before climate change if we don’t do it right.”

Photo by Brittany Powell.