Michael Moritz is not ready to retireJune 24, 2013: 11:05 AM ET
The recently knighted Silicon Valley venture capitalist talks about investing, which companies are exciting now, and Sequoia's reputation.
FORTUNE -- Michael Moritz, the renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist, recently became Sir Michael, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his promotion of British economic interests and his philanthropy, including a large gift to his alma mater, Oxford University. Long ago a writer for Time magazine and author of what remains one of the finest books ever written about Apple, Moritz has led some of Sequoia's most successful investments of the last 20 years. These include Yahoo, Google, PayPal, and LinkedIn. Moritz still writes occasionally, but he infrequently sits for interviews with the press. (Fortune profiled him nearly a decade ago; he also drew attention more recently for his role in a San Francisco political campaign over pension reform.) Last year Moritz shocked Sand Hill Road (home of many VC firms) by announcing that he was stepping away from active management of Sequoia because of an unspecified and incurable ailment. He hasn't stopped investing, though, just managing. In the wake of his knighthood, Moritz, who will give a mainstage interview at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in July in Aspen, phoned from Britain to discuss his honor and a host of other subjects with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky. A transcript follows:
Q: Can you explain to me the process of knighthood? Do you get advance warning or does your name just show up on the list?
MICHAEL MORITZ: Someone calls you up pretending to be and actually being a representative of Her Majesty's government who asks you the hypothetical question -- swears you to the strictest of confidences and then poses the question, "In the hypothetical case, if you were offered an honor" -- whatever the honor is -- "would you accept it?" They obviously don't want the embarrassment of people bestowed an honor and then rejecting it. And you answer "yes" or "no" to that, and if you answer yes, a bit of time goes by, and then you get the official notification that seeing as you haven't rejected them, they're not going to reject you.
Q: I think of you as being one of the more American people I know. What's your reaction to this honor from the country of your birth?
Well, I discovered that there was no need for a sword or a white horse. And I was relieved because I have a real allergy to being on horseback and the weight of the armor was going to be too much for my frail frame anyway. I was immensely flattered actually and somewhat surprised. There's a big part of my life that revolves around having grown up here and being British and the fact that you can never get your boyhood out of your manhood.
Q: I want to ask you about how you've been spending your time. You've taken on a different role over the last year, but you're still actively investing. Would you tell me about that?
I'm very involved with all of our investments and continue on behalf of Sequoia to make new investments. I just happened to join the board of a seven-person startup -- and whose name needs to go unrecorded right now -- and will continue to do that. I'm deeply involved in the investment side of the business, just not involved in the management of the business. I think there was a bit of misconception about that. But I am eager and willing to work on Sequoia's behalf on new investments.
Q: When you say there was a misconception, you mean the conception was that you were retiring?
Q: And you are not?
No, no, no, no. People got confused and misunderstood that managing and heeding the business was different from working on investments. And I'm just working as one of the investors on the team of Sequoia Capital.
Q: Can you tell me one of your current investments that you're excited about right now?
Of the younger ones, there's one in San Francisco called Stripe which is a payments company and then another one in of all places Stockholm called Klarna, that provides credit as well as in Europe and is the leading company of its sort online in Europe. And so those are two. Both of them are private companies.
Q: At a high level what are the themes that Sequoia is most interested in right now to the extent that you think about the investing world thematically?
Q: Well, you've done quite well at that, wouldn't you say?
Yeah. Survival and scratching out a subsistence. See, I never want to talk about those things. I think it's like asking -- I don't mind obviously people asking the question -- but I think it's like asking people to talk about products that they're working on if you're a product company. And so, I always say we're just working on making sure that we're relevant tomorrow.
Q: I want to make sure I understand you. Would you agree then that as a firm or as an investor yourself, you do in fact have themes. You have areas of focus and you prosecute those and you prefer not to talk about them because why would you want to attract attention to them?
Q: Can you put your finger on why Sequoia has been one of the most durable venture firms that also has had more than one transitional change successfully while most firms have zero successful transitional changes?
Well, we've always been worried about surviving, and we've also always tried very hard to work as a team where no one or two individuals are indispensable. And I think that's the way that we've approached the business, and we've also always tried to stay fresh and vital and have new ideas and young blood as part of the team. It's working on a team that I think has held us in good stead or stood us in good stead. And not wanting to let down the team.
Q: What's your opinion of the reputation of Sequoia as being very direct with entrepreneurs. When there's bad news to be delivered, Sequoia doesn't flinch from delivering it as opposed to other firms who may say "well, we're the friends of the entrepreneurs. We're in it with you." Are those fair descriptions of Sequoia's attitude?
They're caricatures in large part devised, as we've learned, by competitors who needed to differentiate themselves and realized that they couldn't say, oh, it was tough to compete against our strengths and therefore they had to carve out a fictional market position for themselves that they could try to delude people into thinking it wasn't Sequoia's. But if you look at our more successful investments, those are ones where the founders started the company, the founders built the company, and the founders are at the helm of the company.
The people who know us well really like being in business with us. We've been in business multiple times with the same people and we always invite founders who've heard, perhaps, of some of these things, just to talk to all the people we've been in business with and make up their own minds. And to the best of my knowledge in the last 15 or so years we've never had people do checks on us who have then elected not to do business with us.
Yeah, for sure. Or, today, Green Dot or ServiceNow or Palo Alto Networks or Nimble Storage. A raft of private companies. These are decade-long relationships.
Q: A few quick personal things. I know some of the coverage around your knighthood has focused on some of the philanthropy you're doing, including with Oxford University. Talk to me a little bit about that.
My wife and I gave a gift to Oxford last year, a sizeable gift, designed specifically to help talented students from low-income families who would be priced out of Oxford by the tuitions now being levied at British universities to afford them the opportunity to have an Oxford education. The first of those students entered Oxford last fall. We hope this will help establish a pattern of giving in Britain for these sorts of scholarships because it's just not as widely accepted as it is in the United States because there's been far greater government involvement in funding university education throughout the U.K. And at the private schools, there aren't really counterparts to the big private U.S. schools like Stanford and others.
Q: Are you giving in other areas as well?
Yes, yes. Some of the stuff isn't public, but we gave a gift recently to the Julliard School in New York, again, to help in that case underprivileged New York kids who have been deprived of music education.
Q: When you wrote your letter last year to your Sequoia's investors that you were changing your role, you made reference to how you'd spend some of your time, including on "trivial indulgences." What were you referring to and how are you enjoying those?
It's endurance biking and master swimming. And then reading, writing, and painting.
Q: Endurance biking and master swimming is an interesting segue to my next question. There was obviously a lot of concern about your lack of detail on the illness, the incurable illness you have. Do you want to talk anymore about that?
No. But all the docs say that there's a great correlation between longevity and fitness. And so I just take an extra special care on trying to stay as fit as a fiddle.
Q: Good for you. Last thing, you're a noted football fan by which I mean soccer.
I wouldn't have thought any other sport, yes.
Q: Who do you predict will win the next World Cup?
Oh, the English Premier League is far more important than the World Cup.
Q: I'm sorry, did you say the English Premier League?
Yeah. It's far more captivating than the World Cup. And I know that's heresy to even think that.
Q: And remind me, who's your team?
Q: And Manchester United fans always think that they will win the next Premiership, right?
And usually they're right.