CC#7: From 'Battle Bots' to self-driving cars

Kyle Vogt, Founder of Cruise, shared his story of how he came to be one of the pioneers of autonomous vehicles on the GOOD TIME show Wednesday night.

Kyle grew up being fascinated with Battle Bots, a popular show on comedy central that came out in the year 2000. He recalled “When I was 12 or 13 in middle school, I would save up all my money and spend it at radio shack over the Summer so I could build my own battle bots. One year, there was an open competition in Las Vegas, and my father and I got in the car and drove from Kansas, where I grew up. I had just gotten my learner’s permit so I drove part of the 10-15 hour trip. I remember sitting behind the wheel, looking out the window and thinking why am I doing this?” At that very moment, the seed of autonomous vehicles had been planted in Kyle Vogt.

When he went to college, this hobby of his shifted to self-driving cars. He spent a lot of time with a student organization that would enter in competitions with other universities to see who could build a self-driving vehicle that would make it’s way through desert terrain. Even though he really enjoyed all the hours he spent on this, they never won a competition and it never led to anything meaningful.

After college, Kyle spent a large part of his 20s working at Twitch, which sold to Amazon for $970m in 2014. He remembers meeting Justin Kan and Emmett Shear, 2 of the co-founders who had just dropped out of Yale after selling their first company on ebay for over $250,000. They said they had this idea, and they were going to strap a camera to Justin’s head and he would walk around with a 15-lb backpack and stream his life 24/7 - they called it Justin.tv, which later became Twitch. In the early days, for Kyle, it was all about solving technical problems and it was very rewarding for him. He worked 10-12 hour days for years.

After Twitch, Kyle began to think about his next move “If I’m going to do this again, at 28, I’m going to sign up for something that is really important cause I think it’s going to take a decade to do something that’s really meaningful”

”I narrowed it down to something that the tech itself is the product, because I wanted to be able to directly grow the company by simply improving the tech. I also wanted to make a high societal impact, because it meant it would be a larger market.” Kyle looked at possibly creating a gmail replacement client, but it didn’t check all the boxes for him. He started to think back to when he was younger, and it occurred to him that he had a lot of fun working on self-driving cars when he was in college. He realized Google had spent hundreds of millions of dollars working on this for years and he thought he could simplify it by finding a more affordable and quicker way to go to market. The MVP would help fund the holy grail of the company: actual self-driving cars.

Host Sriram asked “If google had spent hundreds of millions of dollars and years working on this, what made you believe that you could do it - with far less resources?”

”Google has a reputation for focusing on technical correctness rather than being scrappy and putting a product together in a short period of time. Getting to product-market fit is difficult for a brand new product in a brand new market is something that everyone struggles with, especially a company like Google who’s very focused on building a highly technical product.”

Kyle’s approach to raising capital in the early days was pure brilliance. “Fundraising was a process because even I knew that trying to go up against Google sounded crazy, so I had a shotgun approach to raising money. I called every investor I knew in the valley, pitched them and asked them who else I should pitch.” Kyle pitched over 120 investors in just 6 months, all while putting parts together in his garage. He always tried to have something to demo so that investors would believe they could actually build something functional. “We hooked up a playstation control to the car and let investors drive it using the control in empty parking lots. I don’t think it was very convincing but I think people had so much fun doing it and thought it was so crazy that they would just throw money at it in case it actually did work. I ended up scraping just enough money to make it happen.”

That first round he raised was half a million dollars, and it was the hardest money he’s ever raised “The $2b+ round of funding announced yesterday was far easier than the first $500k round we raised.” The company is now valued at $30b.

But here’s the most impressive thing I learned about Kyle Vogt during this entire 60-minute interview on the GOOD TIME show on clubhouse:

In February 2020, Kyle set a world record after running 7 marathons across all 7 continents in less than 81 hours and 40 minutes.