Crucible Moments: The Pivotal Decisions That Define Us
In 2012, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang noticed something strange. The GPUs his company was producing for gaming consoles and computer graphics were starting to pop up in research labs and academic circles. Machine learning computations that had been taking weeks to complete shrunk to hours when run on Nvidia processors. There were no commercial applications for this technology—but Jensen saw a far-off opportunity and pounced, leading what he calls a “wholesale pivot” to reorient Nvidia toward enabling AI. Most saw this as profoundly risky. It took a full decade, until ChatGPT launched in 2022, to comprehend the magnitude of Jensen’s audacious decision.
This is what we at Sequoia call a crucible moment—an inflection point where a choice you make today has an outsized bearing on your trajectory for years or even decades. Crucible moments define companies. They also shape our careers and lives.
I can identify a handful of decisions that disproportionately influenced the trajectory of my life. I grew up in South Africa. The country’s history cast a shadow, and I always felt that the innovation pushing the world forward—which I longed to be a part of—was happening elsewhere. Leaving my home, where I had deep roots, and setting off for the unknown in California was unnerving and lonely. It was full of risk. But it was also full of promise. Embracing uncertainty and moving to the heart of Silicon Valley just as the internet was taking off in the late 1990s profoundly altered the course of my life.
I faced another crucible moment soon after arriving in California for business school. A currency collapse in South Africa in 1998 wiped out my savings. I had a stark choice to make. I could rejoin McKinsey (where I’d worked briefly in South Africa), which generously offered to pay for my education. Instead, I was drawn toward a scrappy startup I’d met that was facilitating payments over the nascent internet. The company was burning cash and had offered me a scant salary to work part-time while finishing my degree. But it was building a magical product with transformational potential. It wasn’t the obvious choice, but I joined PayPal—and once again my life changed course.
At Sequoia, we have had the privilege of partnering early with many of the most iconic founders of the past half-century. Time and again, we’ve seen how their willingness to make bold decisions in crucible moments—to optimize for long-term impact over short-term wins—is what enables them to build legendary companies.
Sometimes these moments are proactive, like Jensen pivoting to AI long before its time. Sometimes external factors create a forcing function for transformational change. A powerful example is Brian Chesky radically repositioning Airbnb through the pandemic. Airbnb’s revenue plunged 80% as lockdowns took hold—just as the company was preparing for an IPO. Less than two years later, after doubling down on its community and adapting its product for long-term stays, Airbnb went public at a valuation double its initial plan. That’s the impact of a crucible moment.
Crucible moments typically don’t announce themselves. They can sneak up on you. I believe learning to recognize them and having the courage to act decisively—even when it requires defying conventional wisdom—is the single biggest determinant of sustained success.
Following through on the initial insight often requires making painful changes. You may discover you need a new set of capabilities on your team—or that capabilities you’ve toiled to build no longer serve you. In every case, navigating a crucible moment requires conviction and the grit to overcome naysayers, near-term obstacles, and the possibility of failure.
For over 50 years, Sequoia has faced its own crucible moments. When I joined in 2003, the scars of the 2000 dot-com crash remained fresh. Most firms had afforded themselves a “mulligan,” telling LPs that funds raised in the lead-up to the crash had been written off. Sequoia chose to do the opposite. We forfeited fees and reinvested proceeds until the funds yielded gains for our LPs. The decision established a defining principle that we would not let our clients lose money and helped crystallize core values of performance and stewardship that still guide us today.
More recently, we have made foundational changes: we established the Sequoia Capital Fund, an innovative open-ended structure designed to weather short-term market fluctuations in order to attain the best long-term performance. The trust we earned with LPs following the dot-com crash and our continued performance allowed us to pioneer this approach. And in early 2023, after 15 years of growing leading firms under the Sequoia banner in China and India, we collectively decided to become fully independent partnerships across all five business units. Separating was not an obvious choice given each unit’s success—and yet it was the right decision for enduring impact in the coming decades.
Recognizing the opportunities and risks inherent to crucible moments is core to how we work with founders. Each company will face a unique set of pivotal decisions that shapes their trajectory, and we spend most of our time helping identify and navigate them. Occasionally, we convene our companies to help them see around corners when seismic shifts create a crucible moment for everyone—as we did in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, at the start of pandemic in 2020, and early in the 2022 market correction.
Most recently, we convened founders at our AI Ascent event in March, 2023 to call attention to the collective crucible moment we all currently face. The era of low-cost capital and easy fundraising has ended; meanwhile, an era of unprecedented innovation potential and productivity growth driven by AI is just beginning. The convergence of these factors requires us to adapt. How we do will define the next decade. Careers will be made. Companies will be formed that change how we live, work and play.
We created our new podcast series, Crucible Moments, to offer a window into this mindset and this critical aspect of company-building. Legendary founders like Max Levchin of PayPal, Jack Dorsey of Block, Jensen Huang of Nvidia, Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, Brian Chesky of Airbnb and Julia Hartz of Eventbrite will bring you inside their decision-making and reveal how they navigated the crucible moments that shaped their journeys. Jensen will break down that pivotal pursuit of AI; you’ll learn how Airbnb navigated the pandemic to emerge stronger, and much more.
At Sequoia, we help the daring build legendary companies from idea to IPO and beyond. We hope this series will prove useful and inspiring to a new generation of ambitious founders—and anyone curious for a new perspective on how to navigate the most important decisions you face when the answers are unclear.
Listen here, at CrucibleMoments.com, or on Spotify, Apple or wherever you listen to podcasts.