A Conversation With Sebastian Thrun


At O'Reilly's Next:Economy conference in San Francisco, the academic turned entrepreneur talks about his early influences, how he balances thinking and execution and what advice he would give to his younger self.

Sebastian Thrun has set his sights on democratizing higher education. He is the co-founder and CEO of Udacity, a startup that brings accessible, affordable and engaging higher education to the world. He is also a former Google Fellow, as well as the inventor of the autonomous car and project lead on Google Glass.

Fast Company has named him the 5th Most Creative Person in Business, Fortune put him among the 50 Smartest People in Tech, and TIME highlighted his work in the 50 Best Inventions of 2010.

He is also a Research Professor at Stanford University, where his research focuses on robotics and artificial intelligence. He led the development of the robotic vehicle Stanley which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge.

What were some of your early influences that shaped your thinking?

I had a happy childhood. I was the third kid in a family of three. When I was born there wasn't much attention to go around. Instead of having every minute planned for me, I was left alone and had to find out what to do with my life. As a result, I learned how to spend time with myself, how to excite myself. In hindsight, I'm glad that my parents weren't helicopter parents that tried to get me into Yale or Harvard.

How do you bridge your thinking with your execution?

My secret recipe to what I do is to pick a really big vision that I believe in, and then execute on it without regrets. To me, execution is a constant innovation cycle. Instead of building an elaborate plan, I love the idea of putting something out fast, seeing the reaction of the customer, and then learning from it and improving it. I maximize for the shortness of the innovation. If feedback is negative, then I try to learn from it. I see fast innovation cycles as a secret of Silicon Valley.

How did you learn to think independently?

I'm still learning every day. I find people that inspire me, and I listen to them very carefully. I feel that a lot of common thinking is embraced in the past. I often ask the question how should the world look like fifty years from now. And then I wonder if this vision can be accomplished in five years instead of fifty.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think I shouldn't have stayed a professor as long as I have. It was fun learning to become a professor, but at some point there wasn't that much to learn. Today I habitually take risky paths. For example, when I left Stanford for Google, and then Google for a startup, I gave up my secure financial future for something completely unknown. But the fact that I exposed myself to these risks ultimately made me grow. I would optimize for growth and learning, not for safety.

How do you deal with emotions in this state of uncertainty?

That is where the big vision comes in that motivates you. When I believe I am changing the world, then learning becomes fun -- even though it carries uncertainty. And if you have a great team -- like the Udacity team -- you have partners that are sharing their journey with you. I find this extremely empowering.

How do you strike a balance between focus and staying a renaissance man where you are trying to draw insights from different fields?

In the early stage of my company we were trying a lot of things, but we had to find a business model that works. Now that we have done that, the goal is focus on the business and build it up. Even with a clear understanding of my business, there is still enormous potential for experimentation. This gives me a lot of opportunity to innovate.


How do you deal with the guardians of the status quo?

I let them say whatever they want to say. I'm sure there have been people who until recently said that taxis are a defensible monopoly, before Lyft and Uber came along. I know there are people who will say that governments and doctors will never change. Let them talk. History will prove them wrong.

What are the three most important skills for starting a venture?

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have to be extremely arrogant and humble at the same time. You have to be arrogant when it comes to proclaiming a vision, like: democratizing education, or building self-driving cars. At the same time, you have to be extremely humble when it comes to daily progress. You need to learn from failures, which requires a growth mindset. You need to be open to the fact that you just don't know the path to your success.

How do you motivate your team?

It is easy. Wouldn't you want to change educate and empower people? On top of this, I strive to create the best work environment for my people that they ever experience in their lives. I work hard to empower individuals, and I try to instill great values in my team.

Is there something that you thought prevented you from doing something but now you realize it doesn't?

The single thing that holds me and others back is fear. Fear is the enemy of everything. And sadly, fear and complacency are like fingernails. You can cut them off, but they grow back.

Do you have a daily habit?

I love bicycling. I love running.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

My PhD thesis advisor Tom Mitchell taught me to only work on things that really matter. Larry Page taught me to aim high. He says if you don't aim high, you don't shoot high. You might as well pick something really big, because the amount of work you put in is the same that you put into something small.

What is a book that you are likely to gift to friends?

I love Eric Schmidt's How Google Works and Peter Thiel's Zero to One.