Michael Moritz: Billionaire venture capitalist on leadership and his new book with Sir Alex Ferguson

Harriet Green
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Michael Moritz (Source: Greg Sigston)
If you meet Michael Moritz, you’re speaking to a venture capitalist whose investments include Google, PayPal, Yahoo and LinkedIn. He was the man Steve Jobs described as Apple’s “historian”, and went on to write the first history of the company, The Little Kingdom. His firm, Sequoia Capital, forms close relationships with young founders, whose companies are now worth nearly $1.5 trillion – more than any private investment firm in the world.
Moritz’s latest venture is somewhat different. He is a long-time friend of Sir Alex Ferguson, and a football and Manchester United fan – although, he writes, “I don’t qualify as a diehard fan” – and he asked Ferguson if they could author a book together. Moritz felt Leading needed to be written, because “there was a lot that had not been said. It’s not a criticism, but most people had written about football, and the winning teams that Sir Alex had been able to build, rather than about the story behind that – about how you build an organisation that is a winner. Sir Alex’s product happens to be football, and a football team. For other leaders, it might be a Boy Scout group, a local church organisation or a multinational company.”


In the epilogue to the book, Cardiff-born and raised Moritz courses through the qualities of a successful leader. The ultimate hallmark, he tells me, is “their relentless pursuit of perfection, or their idea of perfection.” Their unquenchable thirst, he writes, exists because a “more perfect vision of their success always beckons.”
Staying at the top, according to Moritz, requires two things: being good with people, and obsession. “Anyone who does anything remarkable in any walk of life has to be obsessed. There are lots of other people interested in the same pursuit and, although luck clearly plays a part, it is obsession that propels you forward. Sir Alex had players who didn’t have the most natural talent, but they had the grit and drive and determination to push themselves to extremes and make themselves succeed.” Of course, the title ‘venture capitalist’ makes it difficult to know what Moritz’s obsession is. “Oh, I’m a serial obsessor!” I point out that serial obsessors have the challenge of ensuring that they’re also finishers – “true. Otherwise, you’re just a dilettante.”
You might describe Moritz as a special breed of structuralist. He believes, and it is a clear theme of his in Leading, that the leader is what will make or break a company; the figurehead who instils success from the top, right down to the bottom. “Winning organisations tend to be expressions of the personalities at the top.”
As someone who has made billions choosing companies with the right combination of leadership and product (worth over $3bn, he is signed up to Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, and has already made record-breaking donations), Moritz knows something about how the two should interact. “If a leader isn’t interested in a great product, and unless they have a really great product, their business will wither. In the world of technology, it’s easy to miss a beat. Microsoft being late to search, for instance. Google being late to social networking. The lack of attention in the first instance gave rise to Google; in the second, Facebook. If Microsoft had been paying close attention, neither would have occurred.”


But not all structures have the capacity to work in an effective way. “Government is not embodied by its leader – the Prime Minister – it is embodied by the civil service. And a Prime Minister in this country is a meddlesome, temporary interference that the people in the civil service have to endure until the next changing of the guard. It’s the civil service that runs the country. I’m obviously being a little glib, but it takes an enormous force to change the course of a bureaucracy. And the civil service is, in this country, the biggest bureaucracy there is.”
Moritz, who lives in San Francisco, was a noted supporter of Barack Obama’s candidacy for President. But his feelings towards next year’s US elections seem to be rather different: “It is background noise and irrelevant to the lives of mere mortals. Just tune it out. None of that is germane to helping form a company, making sure you have a product in the market when you want it to be there, recruiting great management teams. It’s all just utterly irrelevant.”


I ask Moritz if he can talk about anti-business sentiment – where it emanates from, and why people are so quick to lambast big companies (we met the day before the VW saga began). He seems to be caught on the previous topic, answering in just one word: “Corbyn. Actually, he should read this book, since he’s never led anything. He won’t survive 18 months. Two hundred and fifty thousand people? There’s a long way between that and the millions you need to win an election.”
Moving himself on to the question, Moritz points out that anti-business sentiment isn’t new, and that the roots of its are borne out of envy, and often a rightful sense of oppression. But times have changed. “The well run company can do tremendous things for the people who work for it. There was a trend in America to pillory Walmart, but people forget how Walmart has made hundreds of thousands of products much more affordable for hundreds of millions. People get antagonistic about Google, while forgetting that Google has helped people all over the world find information that they couldn’t previously access. The way the New York Times went after Amazon the other week, that was wickedly unfair. I suppose people will always want to throw brickbats at winners.”
Despite his many obsessions, Moritz’s response to what else he might have done in life demonstrates the value of having a singular focus: “Having retired from football? That’s a good question – I have no idea, really. I’m doing what I want to be doing.”

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