I am a bush pilot and headhunter. I work for the investor that backed Facebook, PayPal and Palantir and use my open-cockpit plane as a calling card to meet people we hope to recruit or to back. During these unusual times it’s a slow but unique work-around to the cattle call of airports. And flying a single-engine, fabric-wrapped plane lends a certain romance to hunting down founders and builders — many hiding out in “zoom-boom” towns or even just back at home with their parents.
My daughters say I hunt spies, mostly because of my history with Palantir, but it would be more accurate to say that I hunt the people that hunt the spies. These days I find myself working more in robotics, companies that trace and track money, or the industrial production of vaccines. I think there are a lot of threatening trends out there but I’m also finding optimism in pockets; this is a weekly recap of those conversations.
Monday I flew to Austin, via Death Valley, Las Vegas and the border town of El Paso. At 130 miles per hour top speed, and a lot of interesting dry lake beds to land on, it took me three days. I chased wild horses off the desert floor crossing Nevada and looked morbidly across to Ciudad El Juarez, one of the most dangerous towns in the world.
I saw compounds in the middle of nowhere (dystopian “plan b’s” of wealth?) and of course random cabins or trailers placed out on the Texas plain like ships broken away from humanity’s fleet. The expanse of western Texas gave way to the Hill Country and soon all rivers seem to converge on Austin. I called up Approach about twenty miles out and announced I was over Horseshoe Bay at five hundred feet. I hadn’t been using my radios the last two days (a privilege unique to the “low and slow” of my aircraft type) and the response cracked through like a beer can opening: “G’day Super Cub 864 Gulf, position check, advise when you have the field in site”. These are uncommon radio commands for an executive airport that normally gets a lot of traffic, but as I said, we are in unusual times and they had no problem slotting my slow moth of a plane into a tarmac that stretched out on the edge of town. I had time to count 27 different construction cranes on my final approach north of Austin’s skyline.
My first meeting was with Jake Loosararian, founder of Gecko Robotics. Jake came to California with $100, a new wife and an invitation to Y-Combinator. They shared a two bedroom apartment with three other guys. He had a dream to build robots for things people shouldn’t be on, like the tops of giant electricity generating windmills or the sarcophagus of the Chernobyl reactor. It’s the story of software: for $10,000 from a utility company he built a small magnetic robot that saved $10 million dollars of lost downtime in the first year. He waved off an acquisition and brought his little robot to San Francisco where they struggled to come up with stats to meet YC’s “10% growth metric every week”.
Gecko got voted best in their class.
Jake is now building offices in Pittsburg, Houston and Austin and their perambulating little machines gather data that predicts failure and saves lives. This is also the purpose of technology: to improve our lives and make things better.
My current mission is to put together the founding team of The American Robotics League. As a response to the rise in investments from other parts of the world (notably China), we are looking to foster competition at the collegiate level in robotics. It’s a unique collaboration between folks at the DOD and one of our founders, Palmer Luckey (who sold Oculus at 19 years old for $2.5 billion dollars). These kinds of long horizon projects where governments are involved often have three things in common: they are backed by a billionaire (who has the resources to go up against long term incumbents), and they have to be willing to do crazy things, like sue your first customer — just as Elon Musk did for SpaceX and Peter Thiel did with Palantir.
We hosted drinks with Joe Lonsdale (who co-founded Palantir with Peter) to talk about his move to Austin this month. Our thirty-five minutes with Joe was squeezed between Michael Dell and dinner with Elon Musk. I asked Joe how he thought about how the people that are leaving California are often the ones that benefited the most. “They squandered the greatest tax base in history” he replied. It was our first pandemic era tech talk and Joe’s comments were a mix of caution (working remotely erodes culture) and optimism (one of his companies is the lead on scaling up the vaccine). The audience was as interesting as the speakers, including 27-year-old McKenzie Scott who is learning to fly a plane while coding for Indeed and Chet Dreyfuss, a former NASA engineer who now works at Yonder, which helped the U.S. government identify the factions behind ISIS radicalization and Russian interference of the 2016 U.S. election.
I flew north from Austin up to Santa Fe, our oldest state capital, founded over a century before the US became a country. I stayed in an old mission next to the Loretto Chapel which is known for its helix-shaped spiral staircase and is the subject of legend. The paradox of a staircase that can’t be explained by physics and robots that climb nuclear reactors wasn’t lost on me but made my flight home in a simple fabric covered plane something of a simple joy.
I spent Saturday with my friend Adyashanti, and while looking for his link I stumbled upon one of his better lines:
“You are here for two fundamental reasons — to be free and to love in such a way that your presence here redeems the sorrows of life.” ~ Adyashanti
Sunday I spent putting a new carburetor on my plane and checking in on my friend Calvin who managed to put a whole new transmission in his Land Cruiser:
This week I fly south again and will eventually cross over into Mexico and fly the Sea Cortez for Thanksgiving week.
People, founders, hackers and builders in review:
Ben, as a side project, helping two people build a Venmo-enabled service for delivery pesos on the beach in Mexico; love that he lived in a tent in Alaska and started an organization in college that was the first of its kind in Texas, channeling to date $25m towards environmental causes.
Chris who was on his way to take the MCATs but got a call from an investor for a side project and went to the airport to fly to Qatar instead. Stanford volleyball player on the national team; built a medical device that got acquired and another that ranks surgeons.
Paul turned me down to work to work on a billionaire’s pet project using AI for drug discovery.
Spoke with Elliot, a river raft guide working in fintech, a kid at Northrop to help us disable drones remotely, Steve, a PhD from Georgia Tech that built the surge pricing algorithms for Instacart and Uber and finally a piece of their dashboard on system capacity (which is basically delivery window) that goes right to the CEO on a weekly basis; Trey, who restores cars and builds things that fields questions like “when was the last time I talked to my mom” and “how many documentaries did I watch this year” or turns lights on and off and unlocks doors. He’s getting married in July and asked me if I knew anybody with a background in dual licenses. Didn’t understand why!. James is working on Uber’s flying car, Andy that is trying to get kids on earl financial aid tracks to motivate them to do better while they have time to make changes. Talked to one guy, we’ll call him Collin, that built all the mapping functions for Lyft and claimed to have coded the first Office 365; another Russian guy that got fired for writing “FU” in his cubicle and Tim who got published and started two businesses before graduating from college and went onto inventing an biometric devices clobbered by Apple. And speaking of Apple, I decided to not do any more candidate calls people from the so-called “Fang” companies: did a call with Dale who was great (built most of the health features on the Apple watch and the “fall down” feature for elderly) but is paid a million plus dollars a year and has 100+ people at his disposal. So hard to grind it out on your own thing after a run like that.
I preferred my next meeting with a junior engineer with a small company in the Mojave, flying a DC8 and two C130s, building sensors for climate change.
Things I coveted this week:
My neighbor cut the top off an old Ferrari for his 40th birthday.
My office mate said she wanted to go mobile and do away with our offices.
And I wanted to go really mobile, with a trailer that can haul my plane.
People I would have liked to meet this week:
Paul who flew his Super Cub from Alaska to Argentina.
Book I read this week:
Robert Morgan’s historical fiction, Gap Creek, based on his grandparents’ first year of marriage, facing a changing world and the harsh realities of South Carolina’s uncommon winters.
Songs I liked:
Finally, which I’ll share simply for visual richness, I was supposed to be in Tuscany this week on an annual guys mountain biking trip which I got locked out of due to Covid. They went on without me, covering some astonishing new country in a relatively more safe Switzerland. Thanks @Frischi who is truly next level: