Cornell University B.S., Mechanical Engineering w/ a concentration in Aerospace Engineering
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How did you get to where you are today? What is your story? What incidents and experiences shaped your career path?

Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I think you see two types of individuals ones that have a very definitive long term plans about their career, who can tell you exactly where they want to be in five years or three years, I tend to be in the other bucket, who is let's say in the right place at the right time. Being passionate about certain activities or certain areas or interests and creating the space for opportunities that aligned with those interests to naturally come your way. I know that sounds a little bit hard to kind of pin down or define concretely. But that's been my journey. So how I got to where I am? You know, I was a Cornell undergrad and mechanical and aerospace engineering. And if you look at my professional career since then, it's not like I was ever practicing as a mechanical engineer, whether it was designing airplanes or cars or anything of that sort. And so it was really being prepared to do critical problem solving critical thinking, being analytical, which is what I took away from my engineering degree. but ultimately a career that first started at Microsoft, and focused on enterprise technology, Enterprise B2B. IT technologies and from there, evolving into roles where I was doing product management, I was doing product planning early on. In my career, I developed a passion for mobile technologies. If you can think about the current excitement about AI, if you rewind the clock back to the early 2000s in the mid-2000s, the hot new Coltec was mobile smartphones and tablets. And so my interests were to be a part of that helped bring new propositions to market on my enthusiasm and passion for space allowed me to take on and the ability to do product management a product planning at Microsoft to create new propositions and ultimately commercialized them. After that, continuing in that kind of function. But getting a taste of what it's like to work in a Time Valley companies that were in the leading space to certainly at old, but also palm as they were working on Web OS and then from there, moving on to work at Samsung. Also doing mobile but really getting a taste of business development. Thinking about how do you work with startups? How do you engage with VCs? You know, in some ways, that role was related to what I'm doing today as a VC. It was understanding what startups build. Why's it compelling, how they can partner with big companies to get scale and bring those propositions to market? That really helped me build my network in the Valley and build the right set of understandings of the leading startups are in different areas. And then who were the leading VCs all that invest in those companies? Moving on to Qualcomm and being able to go really deep on the technical side for all things mobile, everything from silicon to computer infrastructure in this interesting on-device applications. Today we talk about things like machine learning on mobile platforms or doing real-time security analysis or real-time behavioral analysis on mobile devices. We were starting to think about these things back in 2013 when it was not mainstream when it was not something that was in the confronted center for most of the ecosystem. So being a trailblazer, I think that's the other thing that I see is a unifying theme in my career is being on the leading edge of what's next. And that was being driven by my own intellectual curiosity about learning about new areas and connecting the dots and seeing what are the implications of that for how you compete, how other big players will respond, where are their unmet needs that startups conserve and address? And so and while I was at Qualcomm I also got close to the corporate Ventures team and had an opportunity to work with them to develop their thesis on investment in certain areas. I'm also finding opportunities to work with their portfolio companies to see if they could do something with Qualcomm Research. And so about five years there and really kind of having an opportunity go deep on the understanding AI and deep learning as it applies to mobile. And then having this opportunity to come back to Microsoft in an investment role is a managing director on M12 and bringing what I had learned over the last 10 years working in mobile, working at AI and now applying it to seeing what investments would be most interesting for Microsoft to make. So my journey, I would say, is not typical of a VC. I mean, yes, you have people that are seasoned operators and then move into becoming venture capitalists. So, yes, there's some of that, but I think a lot of it is being passionate about what you're working on and being in the right place at the right time. And, others being able to see that passion that you have for taking on certain problems or certain types of job types.

What is your investment philosophy? What type of founding team, industry domains, business models and stages do you invest in?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I would say I'm probably the most oriented towards deep tech and early stage. And by deep tech, meaning these are not just the pure execution play to stand up a SaaS business or, sell widget A or widget B and just do it faster than the other guy. Deep tech means there's a concerted effort to develop defensible IP that can take more time than a company that's just about to launch some cloud service or launch a mobile application, and you do a land grab for users or revenue. And so then, if you think within Deep tech, I mean, there are many different sectors, but I focus on all things AI, that includes applied AI, looking at AI across verticals. But it also includes horizontal AI where you're looking at innovations in the field of the AI itself. It includes things like autonomous systems and robotics, everything in the self-driving ecosystem, but also extending that to things like logistics warehouse automation. I also look at silicon and specifically silicon to accelerate AI workloads, and I also take a look at to lead our investments on anything related to quantum computing. So again, it just turns out that these are all areas and personally passionate about. I don't distinguish between spending time researching or getting smarter or knowing what's happening in these segments because that's what I would do with my personal time. And so having that very, let's just say very kind of smooth transition from what's for work and what's personal is a great opportunity. It allows me to really work on things I'm passionate about. I think it's it's a great opportunity to doing that at Microsoft M12.

What information, statistics, or slide deck do you like to see in a founders' first email?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I don't know if there's a standard template. I think there are a few signals that we look for. What are you building or before revealing, what is the problem that you are claiming that you have identified and that you have done your homework to know that no one is in fact solving that in a way that meets a market requirement our customer needs? Then why you're in a position to go and tackle that problem? Why should I believe you that you're gonna be successful in solving that problem and then as a founder, depending on you know, how early or late you are getting a sense of who are the other participants in this venture in what kind of team have you built are one of the skill sets of those people? Are they complementary to yours? Does it create a well-rounded set of expertise to be able to do all of the hard things that are required to successfully execute a startup? Why are you raising venture funding? I mean, I would ask that at your very early stage. Obviously a later stage I would ask, why are you raising? Now, what have you accomplished? From the last fundraise that would justify asking for more money or asking for another round. No matter what industry you're betting on, your betting on people. And so to get a sense that the person you are potentially investing in has a vision that you buy into as a way to bring others along in putting the effort in to realize that vision have some clear-eyed view on how they're going to go about doing it in the short term, the midterm and the long term, why they're differentiated, why they're able to sustain that differentiation. And then, of course, what is the plan for how they will create economic value? What is the business model? What evidence do they have in that business model that will work? What evidence do they have that customers buy into what they're building on the proposition that they created? So those are kind of high-level themes, and you tune on one versus other parameters, depending on the stage and depending on how much they're looking to raise and what their expectations are.

Can you walk us through the due-diligence process and timeline from a founder's first email to cutting out a check for any of your funded startups?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
So this also varies quite a bit. I mean at Venture. You have the full spectrum of on the most relaxed and you whether it's opportunistic or it's a directed introduction. You meet a founder and you hear about what they're building or what they would like to build. In an ideal world, you would want a good amount of time to get to know that Founder, you get to really interact with them, see how they think, see how they execute, see how they make decisions and doing that well ahead of any imminent funding round. But the reality is, we know things don't work that way. The other extremes of the spectrum are you made me a founder introduction. Otherwise, it's a fast-moving investment deal. If you want to participate or if you want to get in, you have to be very quickly decisive, and you may have to move as quickly as a couple of weeks to go from meeting a founder to say I'm either putting a term sheet down to lead around, or I'm telling you that I can participate in a meaningful way in a syndicate or someone else bleeding around I don't think anyone prefers that second category where you're very, very compressed. You have to compress the signals and information you received to make a decision. But that's just the reality. And there you do have to lean on more on your gut, on your instinct to see the patterns you're observing or the little information you have. Does that make you comfortable? Does that make you hesitant? Is that a hard no? The first one is great. It gives you all the time to diligence everything to exhaustion. The reality is somewhere in the middle. I would say, typically, it's, from time to meet the founder to actually, in the process of writing a check is usually 3 to 4 weeks. And that, I'm happy to say, is actually more in line with financial and institutional investors. Even though M12 is a corporate venture capital fund. But we behave and act like more efficient institutional investors. Corporate VCs sometimes earn a reputation for the deal diligence process and taking an extraordinarily long amount of time, and that can become a frustrating experience for entrepreneurs. So we do whatever we can to avoid that and keep things as streamlined as possible. So yes, I'd say, averages out to 3 to 4 weeks, you know, a few weeks on the real type onto the schedule, and then several months. And sometimes you could have met somebody a year ago and you didn't participate in the round, But you kept in touch with them and their progress so that when the next round happens, you're actually in a position to have high conviction and move quickly.

What are the common mistakes that you see founders making before and after funding?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I think there are. There are a handful. And again, the variation is are you a first-time founder? Are you a serial entrepreneur? And if you're a first-time founder, obviously you are going to make mistakes. And the question is how quickly you learn from those mistakes. How open are you to getting input and advice from your board and from your existing investors to help you navigate, minimizing those mistakes and leaning on their experience? If you're a serial entrepreneur then you, you have obviously been through it once before or more time. So hopefully there are things you learn to do things more efficiently. Each subsequent time you're looking at fundraising. So one of the things that, to me is usually a warning flag is when founders don't know how much they actually want to raise. When someone tells you, I could raise anywhere from 5 to $20 million. That's a very big range for around. So the first question I would ask is, Well, do you have a sense of what you want to do with the money and how would you deploy the capital? I give you $5 million. There's clearly a much more constrained set of things you can do with five versus what you could do with 20. Have you really thought through what your capital requirements are? Have you thought through how many solutions you wanna give up? How much ownership do you want to give up? Of course, these are easy things to say if you are in a position of people throwing term sheets at you because you've got something really incredible. Many times you don't have that luxury, and you have to take whatever is put in front of you so that you can survive while you can build it. Building company, more to have that optionality in the next round. I think the other thing that I worry about is when you look at the team or you look at a company and the only one that speaks the only one that is kind of showing his big influence is the founder himself or herself. Whether they're the CEO, are there another kind of founder and they do have an executive team, but they don't say much. They don't. They don't weigh in. They don't participate in the conversation with investors that also causes us to pause. Hey, is this entrepreneurs this founder of been thoughtful, building up the rest of the organization, having a ability to take critical feedback, the here, other points of view to gather that insight into how they make decisions versus they're just, it's their way and they're dictating everybody else what's gonna happen and how it's gonna happen. In detect they're one of the other things that I see is, I don't want to say it's dismissing it. But if you think about the non-engineering talent and non-technical talent, not realizing the importance of early on the heads of product, the heads of marking, and understanding that while you know these are more or less technical functions than your Ph.D. or you're a full-stack engineer in order for you to successfully bring to market what you're building on these functions and it may not be immediately but will become a critical element of how you're going to go to market, how you're gonna scale, I'm gonna realize your business model adjuster, business model execute partnerships so be thoughtful about these functions in addition to building a strong technical bench. So those are that kind of a couple of my top things that I sometimes see founders doing which, you know, you could say our mistakes.

How do you set goals and track the progress of startups? How much do you get involved in the day-to-day operations? When do you intervene?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
One of the things that M12 does, many good investors do is really ask the founder's the CEO every year and also in a long term basis to identify a set of KPIs for the company and also for themselves as leaders of that organization and then tracking progress against those on a quarterly basis or an annual basis. And the way you formalize that is when you take on board seats as a board director, you are approving those as part of the company's annual plan. You're gonna need checking against those KPIs and then be able to say yes, you spend forecast for this year or your budget for this year. The board is going to approve or your bonus or your new equity grants are going to be approved because it all has to be tied to immeasurable performance. And the most common best practice way of doing that is having a set of KPIs on the operational side. On the technical side, on the revenue and customs side.

What was the hiring process like for your job? What were the roles of people who interviewed you? What kind of questions were asked?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
So like I said, my journey is a little bit non-traditional. I interviewed with M12. It included speaking to some of the existing partners in M12, sharing with them examples and experiences of my journey, working with certain startups, sharing with them my thesis on what I was seeing at AI. That was a big part of it. Now, something I was very proud of it as something I had developed point of view on, after several years of being in an operational capacity in that role at Qualcomm and then starting to think about that what does it mean from an investor's standpoint and what kinds of startups are interesting for AI investment at that time, vs which ones aren't, you know these days there are countless startups with dot AI in their name. The reality of who's actually doing AI vs who's just saying that's an AI startup is very, very different, and so being able to help and M12 land a process for how they would filter, which were the interesting ones and which ones aren't was something I discussed during my interview process. So I would say, if I was coming in like the traditional finance background, venture background, role and the kinds of questions I would have been asked or similar to what we ask the associates interviewing for our team, which is doing case studies, doing the financial model, doing the exit analysis and field dynamics. But in my case, it was more relevant to talk about the nuanced intricacies of the ecosystem.

What are different entry-level jobs and subsequent job pathways that can lead students to a position such as yours?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I'll have to restate that my journey was not with the intent of being where I am today. So it's hard for me to say if you do the things I did, you'll end up in a partner-level role at Venture. But my advice to students and those seeking their first career move after school. Let's just do what you're passionate about. Don't do something because others think it's the right thing to do. Don't pick a domain or an area or a function, because that just seems like if I do this and I'll get n plus one, and I'll get the impulse to impose three. Focus on what you would get satisfaction out of doing there at that moment in that particular role or what excites you. My one common unifying theme across everything is intellectual curiosity. You could be intellectually curious about many, many different things. You know, whether it's learning in my early days about Windows Server and Active Directory and ID server products, or learning about smartphones and tablets for learning about AI or learning about him computing the unifying thing there is. I was curious about all of these. If you feed your intellectual curiosity, you will build experience and expertise and a passion that will then inform you what do you do with that? What is the function in which you can contribute and still get that rewarding experience on what you're working on? It could be in the venture. It could be product management. It could be product planning. I think that is a secondary consideration, too. What are you passionate about?

What qualities and accomplishments does your team look for while hiring associates or interns? What is the interview process and what type of questions are asked?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
For when we're hiring associates, a couple of things we look for. And typically, if you think about the associate function in VC partnerships, it's treated as an apprenticeship. And it is a time-bound activity where you essentially work as an associate with a firm for a couple of years, and then you're expected to move on to another firm and either as a senior associate or, in some cases moving on to the principal level. And that's your journey in the apprenticeship that getting towards a partner-level role. It doesn't have to be that way. But you know, when we interview new associates, we're looking for is the ability to do the kind of analysis on a deal. Are you able to kind of validate financial model, financial projections that a company is putting in front of you to justify their progress and how much they think that they're worth? Are you able to build a model to forecast or come up with an exit hypothesis whether it's in acquisition or no, in the rare case, they're gonna go all the way to go public and being able to look at the comparables in the industry, the ground, your analysis and what are the right set of comparables? As you know, one of the things we ask people that interview for Associate roles is to do case studies, so we will present them with an investment that we've made. We will give them the deal dynamics, company dynamics, and then we'll basically ask them to analyze that opportunity, tell us how they would value that deal. Would they make the investment or not? What gives them a conviction? What gives them pause? We'll ask him to do that for a couple of deals Now, depending on the type of associate, maybe they're specialized. They have some domain expertise that could be in health care, in retail automation. And so if they are more of a specialist type, and we would ask them to present what are the key trends and ecosystem dynamics in that particular field? And what are the implications then from investors or our capital markets in that industry receptor? So those mean really looking for analytical problem solving, the ability to synthesize signal. How do you filter and get to a decision? And then the other things we do ask our associates to do is you do have responsibility for deal flow, for sourcing opportunities, hunting and scouting for opportunities that the rest of the partners can evaluate as part of our deal pipeline. So those the typical things we were looking for.

How would new industry developments affect the job market? What skills, majors, and upcoming job roles would you encourage students to consider?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
So I think there's a couple of areas. So, one that I'm personally passionate about quantum computing. And if you look at since 2012 the interest in people wanting to get advanced degrees in machine learning and learning explode because there was a lot of demand for this talent, giants, including Microsoft, were buying up startups to acquire that talent rating academic labs in some situations to get that talent and so that created awareness that if you go now and you seek degree as, no masters or Ph.D. and deep learning, the job market outlook for you will be really great. There'll be lots of demand. You know, I'm sure you've heard the stories of how competitive it has come to hire researchers. Now, even machine learning engineers, the salaries that they have the opportunity to get and how competitive that environment is. Now, if you believe that in the next decade in computing will become more real, will become more commercially interesting. I look at the opportunity for people to grow expertise in quantum information science. And the demand for people with that expertise. I see a similar track, but I see today the available talent pool for that skill set. It's probably a couple of orders magnitude even more constrained. And people doing data science, AI and machine learning. So if I were to advise students today that we're interested in, what's next and aligning their careers with it? That would be one that would be at the top of my mind. AIs, it's intellectually very interesting, but I think it could be very compelling from a job market standpoint. Later on this decade and certainly in the next decade, the other one, which I think it's not new, but clearly the urgency around it is growing is climate change. And then, if you think about all of the technologies and that will need to be deployed to address this problem, whether it's alternative energies, whether it's carbon sequestration, whether it's other forms of green energy efficiency, that's also an opportunity to think about, even if you're on the business side business model, innovation or technology innovation. If you're more technically oriented in either starting businesses in these areas or joining big companies on the help fear. Oh, sustainability and climate change of different angles and building expertise and being seen as an expert in one way, shape or form or another to address this problem.

How did the program prepare you for your career? Think about faculty, resources, alumni, exposure & networking. What were the best parts?

Based on experience at: B.S., Mechanical Engineering w/ a concentration in Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
It's an interesting story. I think Cornell's mechanical engineering program has a reputation for being more grounded in helping you with the analytical problem, solving more theoretical work verses a lot more hands-on your building stuff you are doing cat modeling, more practical skills. So, if I think back to my undergrad at Cornell, maybe that was the one complaint I had that if I wanted to practice mechanical engineering I would have liked to have more of the hands-on experience. But given that my career after school was not mechanical engineering, I very much appreciated the rigorous focus on complex, analytical thinking, complex problem-solving. Whether it's math, physics, different flavors of engineering domains. I think my takeaway from that is how do you take big problems, how you decompose them and you're able to then think about them in a part wise fashion and then assemble an overall solution. That kind of critical thinking and analytical thinking has pays dividends, even if you're not an engineer, and I think that's my biggest takeaway from that experience. If you think about faculty, resources, and alumni, Cornell's got a great network. I think there's no way around it to say if you're Cornell alumni, it does get people's attention. It does open opportunities for networking. I've had the privilege of meeting founders who are also Cornell alums, and that's clearly something that is then a shared experience. You can connect with them on, I've met other investors who are also former Cornell students as well. And again, it's a great way to kind of build a connection with those folks. The faculty question is really interesting. Wanna believe it or not? About six months ago, I got an email from one of my undergrad professors of statistics. And if I think back to myself more, you're a Cornell. All the classes that I was taking that I was having the hardest time in I were struggling with, it was that class. And I had a lot of back and forth with that professor at a time, complaining that if I don't do well in this class, what the downstream implications and literally. 19 years later, out of the blue, I get an email from this professor. Yes, I guess. Archived all of our email correspondence and I don't know what he was doing, but he apparently came across one of these emails. They said, Hey, Sameer, just reaching out. I saw this email exchange. I told you things would turn out okay, so I'm just wanting to check that everything turned out okay, so that just kind of left me floored that 19 years later, this professor would reach out and the things I was having anxiety about at that time. And you know what my concerns are today or how much those anxieties matter. Just getting that perspective was really interesting. I think one of the best professors I had at Cornell was in my fluid mechanics class and it's because I concentrated in aerospace fluids with something. I really enjoyed and his teaching style and how he got students excited about the topic, how I got them to get some of the more nuanced, profound aspects of the subject material. I really appreciate it. And I frankly wish Cornell Engineering undergrad had more professors like him.

Would you like to share something that is not on your resume? This may include your passions, facing setbacks or adversities, a unique experience, or an unexpected help.

Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
I'm pretty transparent on my resume. Like I said, my passions align with the work experience that I seek out. So my personal interests, as I look at why my passion for quantum computing, Why my passion about AI? Because they align with a personal, deep curiosity about how the universe works, why things are the way they are, what quantum computing will tell us about the nature of reality. What does AI tell us about the nature of being intelligent and being conscious, self-aware beings? Hey, the journey towards solving AI is in part to look inward and understand ourselves better. So for someone who has this curiosity about the world, given that that curiosity that shows up in my hobbies and things I read about in my personal time than having the opportunity to then say, Well, I can also actualize these in what I do in my career in my professional life, I think the other thing that I truly believe and I can probably say that it's something that I've done, and I've already seen that now the idea of karma, what you good things you do. You're not looking anything to return. You never know when they will come back to you. And the same is true for if you treat people the transactional attitude versus with care, that will also be something that will be recognized and people will be aware of that. Whereas if you take the time to help others when they're seeking something and it's something in your network and it's not something necessarily enough for you that also earns you goodwill and there when you, for whatever reason, need others to help, they'll be more than, keen to help you out. So I've had a few experiences like that where have helped founders, even back when I was a Samsung. You know, one founder was looking for C funding. A first-time company I kept in touch with him over the years, provided just advice and help. I did not look for anything in return. There was no like, I need a percentage of your company or I need some kind of advisory fee. But ultimately that founder landing to a very nice exit to Microsoft one of the biggest Canadian. I started to exist and did that person have all this happened because of you? And I think that's maybe a little bit inflating and my contributions. What experiences like that just make you feel good. So you help somebody and you never know how things are gonna pan out, and it ends up in a great outcome for them.

Do you have any parting advice for students and professionals hoping to get to a position such as yours? What 3 dos and 3 don'ts would you suggest?

Based on experience at: Managing Director, M12 - Microsoft's Venture Fund
Summarized By: Jeff Musk on Thu Feb 13 2020
My advice again. It might be a bit biased because I didn't go down the traditional path. I see a lot of people interested in venture and thinking that the right path to venture is, you build a background in finance, you go work in banking or investment banking on Wall Street, you try to land an associate big in venture capital or private equity and you work your way up that way. I would say that is a very noisy path and a much harder path to standing out above the crowd so that you will be successful in landing the right role in Venture. The more I would encourage students just again. What are you passionate about? Is that a technology domain? Is it a function and not the technology is really kind of lean in and immerse yourself in that. And if you get satisfaction out of that, you build expertise that will become visible to your network. That will create opportunities. And as you develop into that, seek out differences. Different experiences don't just do one thing your whole career. I think if you want to be in Venture, you do need to be able to have a diversity of experiences to draw from, whether they're operational, whether their analytical and financial, whether they are, on the investing side. If you can draw from a diversity of experiences that would make you a better investor, it will really help your pattern-matching skills. Look at a particular situation from different angles, and I think ultimately, in VC, you will live or die by those pattern-matching skills, and that basically means what the experiences that you can draw from historically, where you can say this fits this picture. This is different or new, or and you know you would lean on this the next time. That's what makes a good VC are the ones that can take whatever signal, match it to a pattern and then make a judgment call on is this something that they would lean in, do or not. Three Dos and Dont's, do what you're doing with passion. Get a diversity of experiences, and I don't think there's just one path into the venture, and there's something to be said for spending a lot of time an operational role in your career before making the jump in the venture. Bring in that experience. Because if you if you're passionate about startups, you wanna work with founders other than capital, what else are you going to bring to the table? Once you've made the investment, how are you going to help them on their journey in building their company and making those hard decisions? And so, for that, what they're looking for is experience, and the best experience you could have is if you've been in their shoes doing what we're doing. I'm not saying it's the only thing, but the closer you can get to that, whether you've done it, a big company where you've done your own startup, that's the experience that will really help you stand out in eventually.