Michael Moritz: the journalist who became a billionaire

Steve Moritz © Getty Images
Moritz: consistently successful

Michael Moritz was Time’s correspondent for Silicon Valley, but a falling out with the magazine saw him instead create what he had been reporting on. That was a lucrative move. Jane Lewis reports.

When the British hedge fund Man Group announced in January that it was pulling its sponsorship of Britain’s most famous literary prize after 18 years, some thought the Booker would struggle to find a new sponsor. It has, after all, had a history of generating the kind of high-octane rows that give corporate backers the heebie-jeebies. Man Group was said to have felt “under-appreciated” after being branded “the enemy” by novelist Sebastian Faulks last year. “Man Group are not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes, they’re the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising,” he said.

Crossing swords with Steve Jobs

In the event, the Booker found a sponsor fairly speedily in the shape of the celebrated Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz, whose charity, Crankstart, has pledged to stump up the cash for the next five years. Faulks’s views on the matter go unrecorded, but at least Welsh-born Moritz is no stranger to writing, says Vanity Fair. In fact, he is that rare thing: a journalist who became a billionaire, though not, of course, “by dint of his journalism”.

Born in Cardiff, the son of two child refugees from Nazi Germany, Oxford-educated Moritz won a scholarship to study for an MBA at Wharton and arrived in America in 1976, knowing no-one. He never left. “Unlike most of his fellow MBA” alumni, he “joined the Fourth Estate”, eventually rising to become Time’s San Francisco bureau chief reporting on new technology in Silicon Valley.

Moritz arrived in time to “catch Apple Computer’s cresting wave” and developed a working rapport with founder Steve Jobs. But his “sharp eye” led to his (temporary) undoing, says the Financial Times. After uncovering the secret that Jobs “had an illegitimate daughter whom he refused to acknowledge or support”, he fell out with Time – and then subsequently with Jobs – over the way the story was written up. “Steve erupted and I quit,” he says. Moritz later wrote a more sympathetic book about the genesis and evolution of Apple. That failed to repair the rupture with Jobs, but it prompted Moritz to make the leap and change career.

In 1986, Moritz was taken on by Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s earliest venture capitalists and one of the original investors in Apple. “He took a big chance on me and I will never forget it,” he later told The Times. The risk paid off. Moritz has had some prominent failures, such as the dotcom “flame-outs” Webvan and eToys. But in a world where big investment hits are scarce, the consistency of his success stands out: his early start-up investments included Yahoo, Google, PayPal and LinkedIn. Under his guidance, Sequoia also became a successful start-up investor in China. “We understood that the world had changed and that Silicon Valley was not going to be the centre of the universe for the next 50 years.”

A generous benefactor

In later life, Moritz has endowed scholarships for low-income students at Oxford and Chicago Universities. According to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, “he’s very pithy”: a master of the well-turned phrase, often delivered with an impish chuckle. He quit Sequoia in 2012, but is still investing in tech start-ups, says the FT. “After funding some of the world’s most disruptive firms, it might seem perverse that he is now backing something as traditional as a literary prize.” But “I don’t think anyone’s lost their appetite for good storytelling,” he says. Since he also seems “to relish challenging the prevailing liberal orthodoxy”, there may be hope yet for those who enjoy a good old Booker row.