Never as a boy growing up in Wales, as the son of parents who had escaped extermination in Nazi Germany, did I imagine that one day I would be standing – thanks to the gracious invitation extended by the leadership of your university – in front of some of the most talented and capable young people in Turkey, in one of the world’s most beguiling cities, to offer your some thoughts about the journey that lies ahead for each of you.
Do not expect any great wisdom from me. As I grow older, I have a keener appreciation for how little I know. Also, do not expect people like me to lead. We are too imprisoned by our past and our heritages. We will not have fresh ideas. Those will be yours.
Sometimes your days will seem long, but, before you know it, your life will seem brief. Make the most of every tomorrow.
All I can offer are a few ideas from my own journey and I will try to provide something less prescriptive than the advice I received when I was leaving high school in Wales. It was then that one of my teachers said that there he had three vital suggestions for what would equip us perfectly for life. His advice was to get a short haircut, buy a strong pair of walking boots and to learn how to ballroom dance.
As I left university, I realized that, for the first time in my life, the train tracks had suddenly ended. That passage of time, when so much is prescribed by others, from birth, through school and more advanced studies had finished. The tracks had run out. There were no signposts. There were no landmarks. There were no milestones. At best, there were a few breadcrumbs.
So now that you too have reached this point, I will just leave you with a few notes from my own journey. The first is about dealing with rejection and failure.
At every significant stage of my life, I have teetered on the edge of failure.
When I left high school in Wales, I applied to Oxford. I hadn’t been an especially talented schoolboy, my examination results were middling and, as a result, I was rejected by five Oxford colleges and was resigned to going to study elsewhere. Then, I was summoned for an interview by one last Oxford college where I was accepted.
As my three years at Oxford approached an end, I decided for various reasons I wanted to go to America. It was impossible to get a work visa and there was no way that I could afford to pay for college. My only route was to win a scholarship. I applied for four programs – and was rejected by the three schemes that would have taken me to Harvard, Yale, Stanford or MIT. But, with only one option left I got lucky.
After my two years in America, I expected to return to Britain and try my hand as a journalist. I applied for the BBC and several jobs on the large British newspapers but was rejected by all of them. I didn’t even get any interviews. I then tried my luck in America and again received nothing but rejections. Just when I thought I had exhausted every avenue, I was finally offered a job as a junior reporter at TIME magazine. It was my only offer.
Later, in the early 1980s, when I started thinking about life in the venture capital business there were just a handful of firms. They were all small and staffed by white men. I applied to six. All their leaders were kind enough to meet me. Five of them said I did not have the background to succeed in the venture business. I was a history major. I was not an engineer. I was not a computer scientist. I had never done real work – by which they meant I had not worked for a technology company. I was just a journalist. However, again, when failure loomed, Don Valentine, who had started Sequoia a few years earlier and who was then managing a $45M fund with four other people, said he didn’t know what made for a successful venture capitalist – and offered me a job. I had learned never to give up.
My second suggestion is not to do the obvious or feel compelled to live up to the expectations of others. The best path to follow is the one shaped by your own instincts. Most people struggle with this. Some, those that discover a talent for drawing at a young age, pick up a crayon at the age of four or five and die in their eighties with a paintbrush in their hand. The same might go for a child with a gift for music, or a teenager who picks up a video camera. They may die with a after a concert tour or on the set of their last movie. For the rest of us, not blessed with unusual natural abilities, we have another challenge. We have to resist the impulse to do what is expected of us or what we feel others expect of us.
My father harbored hope that after I finished my studies in America, I would become a lawyer. My classmates made no secret of their horror when I chose to become a journalist. Several tried to persuade me that I was making a big mistake and should, instead, go to work for a large multinational firm, or pursue investment banking or consulting. They said I would not earn much money as a journalist. That was the one thing they were right about.
But I did follow my instincts and joined TIME. After a couple of years – including one in Los Angeles where I was lonely and unhappy – I managed to get a transfer to San Francisco. I knew nothing about Silicon Valley. I’m not sure I had even heard the name. I also had never heard the term ‘venture capital’. It was life as a reporter that introduced me to the idea that young people could start companies and that there were people who helped them build their companies who were called venture capitalists. There was nobody that I knew of my generation in Britain who had even thought about starting a business and certainly no groups that would provide money.
As a reporter I met the founders of many companies. One was Steve Jobs at the time when Apple was doing about $200M a year in sales – about what these days the company sells every five hours. Another was Bill Gates when Microsoft was doing less than $1M a year in sales. Both Steve and Bill were about my age. I was astonished.
After a spell at TIME in San Francisco, I began to feel like an unessential part of a large, corporation. And so I left to write a book about the early days of Apple and later to start a publishing business with a partner. After a year or so, I decided that this would always be a small business and left – uncertain about what I would do or if I would be forced, tail between my legs, to return to Britain.
It was then that the benefits of following my instincts – without a map or a guide – slowly came into focus. Had I decided, after Oxford, to stay in Britain, I would not be standing here today. Had I not followed my desire to be a journalist – rather than a lawyer, a banker or consultant or an advertising man – I would not have found myself in San Francisco. And had I not been in San Francisco, I would never have met Steve Jobs. And had I not met Steve Jobs, I would never have thought of helping to start a company. But more importantly, it was Steve and Apple that had, originally led me to meet Don Valentine at Sequoia because it was Don and Sequoia who had invested in Apple’s first round of venture capital. I marvel at the unexpected nature of this route. The Nazis. Wales. Oxford. TIME. San Francisco. Steve Jobs. Apple, Sequoia and now….Istanbul. All I did was the follow the breadcrumbs.
Now a few words about the importance of storytelling. I say this because, unless you have studied literature, there is a very good chance that your studies in mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, or biology – have not dwelled on the importance and power of stories and narrative.
Story telling is vital for leadership and investing. And, unlikely though this might seem, it was studying history and my stint as a journalist that prepared me for the rest of life’s journey. Here’s why.
Oxford’s tutorial system demands that history students devote a week to composing an essay about a subject with which they are unfamiliar. This requires reading half a dozen books, the distillation of copious, and occasionally contradictory information, and a 2,000 – 3,000-word in response to the one essay question.
At TIME, the challenge was the same. Usually, I reported on topics which were new and for which I had a limited amount of time to sort fact from fiction. The major difference between being a history student and journalist is that for reporters – unlike historians – most of their subjects are alive and have lawyers. This places an onus on assessing the honesty or duplicity of a source and of thorough homework. It also develops street smarts. In both pursuits, being able to form an opinion on imperfect information is a necessity.
Storytelling, which a necessity for any historian or journalist, should be a pre-requisite for any manager or person who aspires to lead or for those who want to start a company or become investors. As I acclimatized to Sequoia and the venture trade, I discovered that these habits were indispensable. I had learned, armed with only rudimentary knowledge on every topic, to form a story in mind and to convey it clearly.
I had escaped the need to feel compelled to collect every piece of data before making a judgment in an unfamiliar area. It is just too easy in our line of work to be blinded by detail. Every investment decision should be easy to explain to a moderately intelligent twelve-year-old.
Far more importantly, storytelling is perhaps the most crucial element of leadership – especially when you are trying to create something from nothing or trying to persuade people that all will be well when the world seems dark. Stories are expressions of imagination and of being able to relay a dream or a compass setting or a distant destination. They are the picture of what might be possible.
Nobody can start a business without explaining, first to themselves, where they intend to head. Thereafter, storytelling is what persuades potential employees to quit their job and join the quest; it’s what convinces customers, who have never heard of the business, to buy its products; and, eventually, a spell-binding tale (supported by demonstrable facts) attracts other investors. The currencies with which I am most familiar aren’t dollars, euros or renminbi, they are storytelling, patience, persuasion and perseverance.
The skill that I lacked and, to some extent still do, is empathy. It was not a trait I witnessed growing up nor was it anything I associate with my early years at Sequoia. It has taken marriage to a woman whose feet are firmly on the ground, fatherhood, and years of help from a wise and gentle man for me to even begin to develop a keener sense for the circumstances and emotions of others and to understand my own limitations.
Decades ago, as a friend told me about a walk he had taken with his two-year-old daughter who had stopped to inspect every puddle, I knew that my reaction would have been to tug the child’s hand from a desire to press ahead to do something that I considered more important. It was then that I got my first glimmer of the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of a two-year-old and, by extension, everyone else – family, friends, colleagues, competitors.
Putting others at ease and establishing trust, especially in the workplace, is the foundation for all else. Managing by instilling fear or seeking love will not help people flourish. It is better to be quietly respected.
These then are the waypoints that have steered me through life. It is also what has brought me all the way from Cardiff to Istanbul. And it is also why just below my signature on my email, I have a little three-word reminder for myself and for others. That is the reminder I will leave you with today. The three words are “Anything is Possible.”
Michael Moritz is a partner at Sequoia Capital, which he joined in 1986. He was the principal architect of Sequoia’s adjustment to the profound changes in global technology investing and was one of the co-founders of its business in China and India as well as Sequoia Global Growth, a global technology fund; Sequoia Heritage, the firm’s single pool of globally diversified, long-term assets; and Sequoia Capital Global Equities, a public market fund. Today, Michael represents Sequoia on the boards of Instacart, Klarna and Stripe.
He was also a longtime board member of Yahoo!, PayPal, Google, LinkedIn, Kayak and Flextronics. Prior to joining Sequoia, Michael co-founded Technologic Partners and was a correspondent for TIME, where he was the San Francisco Bureau Chief. He is the author of several books including Return to the Little Kingdom, the first major book about Apple published in 1984, and more recently LEADING with Sir Alex Ferguson, the longtime Manager of Manchester United. Michael graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1976 with a MA in History. Crankstart, the foundation started by Michael and his wife, Harriet Heyman, supports those with the ambition and grit to tackle what often seems impossible. He received a knighthood from the Queen of England in 2013.