Strikeforce: Inside Silicon Valley's Most Unusual Apprenticeship
As robots go, the three telepresence machines that wheeled themselves into a conference room in Culver City, Calif., in mid May were not exactly what one would call lifelike. Flatscreens mounted on stilts rising from a mobile base, operated from afar by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in front of keyboards, the robots were functionally little more than sophisticated teleconferencing gear. Some people Skype into business meetings, but that’s not forward-thinking enough for Peter Diamandis. So when he gathers the dozen or so employees of his company PHD Ventures for their monthly meetings, the off-site participants send robot stand-ins.
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“All right, you rebels!” says Diamandis, after the attendees are all in place. “Let’s go!” He calls this assemblage his Jedi Council; he is Obi-Wan, and they are his disciples.
Nobody blinks an eye at any of this. Rubbing elbows with robots is hardly the most fast-forward aspect of existence in the “Peter-verse.” The job, after all, of the mostly 20-something millennials assembled in this room (or beaming in from New Jersey or Seattle) is to translate Diamandis’ futurism into revenue-producing businesses.
Diamandis is a serial entrepreneur, an author and a public speaker who has started companies dedicated to commercial asteroid mining, zero-gravity flight, and the extension of human longevity, not to mention the XPrize Foundation (which describes itself as “an innovation engine [and] a facilitator of exponential change”) and Silicon Valley’s way-beyond-the-bleeding-edge Singularity University (more on that later). In other words, Peter Diamandis lives in the future. A future he is 100 percent confident will be great. Bring on the robots!
Diamandis says the Jedi Council meeting is his favorite day of the month, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a freewheeling sense that anything is possible. Updates on various Diamandis projects are interspersed with bursts of laughter. It’s fun to work here -- it’s fun to work in the future! Everyone here is a true believer in the “abundance mindset”: Diamandis’ absolute conviction that accelerating technological change will solve all the big problems -- energy, climate change, even mortality.
It’s clear that Diamandis, 57, feeds off the humming millennial energy. But what’s a little less obvious is the extent to which he has institutionalized this cross-generational relationship. Two of the attendees at the meeting, A.J. Scaramucci, 25, and Brianna Lempesis, 26, are not just regular employees. They are the latest members of a special group -- an experiment, really, in what happens when the brightest young minds Diamandis can find are given free range within his ecosystem. He calls this group Strikeforce.
Part 24-7 on-call executive assistants and part entrepreneurs in residence, the Strikeforce members serve two-year terms shadowing Diamandis wherever he goes while simultaneously working within (or operating their own) revenue-generating units of PHD Ventures. They are more-than-willing participants in a quid pro quo. In exchange for being at Diamandis’ beck and call, they gain access to a constant high-bandwidth download of entrepreneurial wisdom. After their stint comes to an end, they can choose to become “lifers” -- permanently employed staff members of PHD Ventures -- or go off to start their own entrepreneurial adventures, potentially with direct financial backing from Diamandis.
On one level, Strikeforce is just a fancy name for a concept -- apprenticeship -- that’s as old as the hills. But the relationship between Diamandis and his millennials doesn’t fit neatly into a classic top-down, employer/patriarch-employee/acolyte rubric. There’s a bit more peer-to-peer two-way flow than you might expect. Even as Diamandis offers guidance, the Strikeforce steers Diamandis. The Strikeforce members aren’t just foot soldiers in the Peter-verse; they’re architects of its expanding Big Bang.
In the rarefied, geeky world where tech moguls plot the commercialization of space and debate the pros and cons of artificially intelligent robot overlords, Peter Diamandis has been a well-known name for decades. In 1995, hoping to kick-start the private space industry, he founded the XPrize, offering $10 million to the first nongovernmental group to get a three-passenger ship into space twice within two weeks. In 2008, together with the futurist Ray Kurzweil, he galvanized Silicon Valley’s adventurous dreamers by founding Singularity University “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
But Diamandis only started breaking through to a broader public consciousness with the publication of his book Abundance in 2012. The combo punch of that plus a widely viewed TED talk, says Diamandis, catalyzed “a phase change.” Requests for speaking engagements spiked. People started recognizing him on the street.
“I’d always been an entrepreneur,” he says. “My art form is starting companies. But when Abundance got published, I ended up with a much higher social profile, and I realized that things I care about and want to teach about were of interest.”
Although Diamandis’ typical pattern is to spin off the companies he starts to other people and not concern himself with day-to-day management, the job of leveraging his own brand, and his own message, required attention and dedicated staff. His first step was to circulate an ad on Craigslist and MediaBistro: “Busy entrepreneur seeks online community manager.”
At the time, Marissa Brassfield, then 28, was toiling in the sweatshop of online health-and-fitness content generation. (By her own count, over a five-year span she wrote 15,000 articles and edited another 230,000.) She saw the ad, followed up, learned that the entrepreneur was Diamandis, read his book overnight and nailed the interview. Brassfield soon took over organizing Abundance 360, an annual conference targeting well-off entrepreneurs with a three-day event of networking and concentrated exposure to Diamandis’ exponential hope thesis. Tickets for the conference weren’t cheap -- they’re now $15,000 a pop -- but Brassfield built up the attendance steadily year by year. In January 2018, a whopping 78 percent of the attendees renewed for the following year on the last day of the conference, and Brassfield received a standing ovation when brought onstage by Diamandis.
Brassfield’s success created a template for what was to come -- a parade of young and talented employees given wide latitude to exercise their own entrepreneurial energy. But Brassfield herself is a full-time employee, a “lifer.” The formalized concept of Strikeforce wasn’t created until 2013, when Cody Rapp, then an undergraduate at USC, arrived on the scene as a prospective intern.
Rapp eventually brought his roommate, Maxx Bricklin, into the Strikeforce fold. Then came A.J. Scaramucci, and most recently, Bri Lempesis. Over the course of several years, the terms of the overall deal gradually emerged. Diamandis is a big believer that to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to have some skin in the game. So all the members of PHD Ventures participate in a profit-sharing plan, in which they are entitled to a share of 3 percent of the profits of the entire group and a share of 17 percent of the profits from the business unit they are involved with. The Strikeforce members got the same deal, on top of a basic salary in the $65K-to-$75K range. The goal, says Diamandis is to “double, triple, quadruple your basic salary.” And the best way to do that was to build your own new business within PHD Ventures.
Cody Rapp helped Diamandis leverage his multiple networks into a platform for angel investment. Bri Lempesis expanded Abundance 360 into an all-year digital forum. Scaramucci took the lead on building out the Abundance Platinum program, in which Diamandis leads highly curated tours of countries such as China. But by far the most striking development was when Maxx Bricklin, at the age of 22, proposed creating a venture capital fund called Bold Capital Partners.
“You’re going to have to convince me of this,” Diamandis recalls telling Bricklin.
Bricklin had joined Strikeforce with that in mind. Once he came to understand how a fund could fit into Diamandis’ worldview -- by investing in companies that seek “exponential transformation” -- he pitched it, arguing that the fund could leverage the connections created by PHD Ventures’ network.
A few months later, Diamandis said yes. Today it manages two funds that total $250 million, with Bricklin as the founding principal. Recent investments include Insilico Medicine, which aims to use genomics and big data to treat cancer and age-related diseases, and Metawave Corporation, which builds radars using “metamaterials and AI.”
“It would not exist had he not had that passion,” Diamandis says of his young VC’s fund. “So part of what this is all about is me asking Strikeforce members what they are passionate about. ‘What do you want to build together?’ ”
After just a few hours spent hanging out with Strikeforce, you start pondering a basic question: Are entrepreneurs born or made? As an undergraduate at MIT in the early ’80s, Diamandis founded the (still going) intercollegiate organization Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but Diamandis ended up far more interested in marshaling the forces of business creation. He has started at least a dozen companies and is always looking for the next opportunity.
Past and former Strikeforce members fit the same entrepreneurship-in-the-blood profile. Cody Rapp researched a transportation service for students while studying neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Maxx Bricklin devised an innovative electric car while still in high school. Bri Lempesis hacked her way out of high school by figuring out how to get credits without attending class, taught herself the basics of cryptocurrency so she could buy a fake ID on the Silk Road “dark web” emporium, and then, after skipping college, talked her way into a full-time job at a Palo Alto startup that made telepresence robots (the same robots, in fact, that attended the Jedi Council meeting).
And then there’s A.J. Scaramucci (yes, he’s a son of that Scaramucci). In high school, he occupied his hours by semi-professionally singing opera, searching for exoplanets at a local observatory, and conducting research on mice spleens. During college he interned at Planetary Resources (the asteroid-mining startup cofounded by Diamandis) and worked full-time for Tesla. Somehow he also managed a stint at Google before arriving at PHD Ventures.
Fast-talking, articulate, effortlessly self-promoting, the Strikeforce members weren’t so much drawn into the gravitational pull of the Diamandis orbit as they were self-hurled into it via the power of their own custom-built booster rockets. From his dorm room at Tufts, Scaramucci watched an announcement video for Planetary Resources and decided right then and there he had to work for the startup. Around the same time, Rapp read Abundance and cold-emailed Diamandis seeking an internship. At her last job, at a data analytics firm, Lempesis decided she was too bored to do anything but jump ship to the Peter-verse. A few phone calls later, she was meeting Diamandis at Silicon Valley’s Moffett Field airport. The first lesson one draws from extended exposure to the Strikeforce is that entrepreneurship is inextricable from the pure exertion of will. And you have to wonder: What could such a go-getting pack of self-starters learn from Diamandis?
Persistence, says everyone. “The belief that you can do anything,” says Lempesis. “How to sell people,” says Bricklin. “Understanding how the world works,” says Rapp.
“Vision,” says Scaramucci. “Peter is the fucking Picasso of vision.”
That vision -- of a world of infinite possibility, a world that scoffs at scarcity, a world with colonies on other worlds and hover cars and an end to cognitive decline -- speaks to a crucial part of the bond between Diamandis and Strikeforce. Everyone alive today is buffeted by a constant barrage of negativity, but millennials in particular have matured in an era bracketed by the recession, imminent climate change doom and cartoonishly broken politics. Meanwhile, Diamandis, in addition to showing his Strikeforce what the inside of a board meeting looks like or demonstrating the raw mechanics of startup formation, is also selling hope.
And that, right now, is a very underserved market.
“People want hope,” says Diamandis. “People want to know that the world is getting better. If I can offer them data-driven optimism, I think that’s a really great value proposition.”
The morning before the Jedi Council meeting, Diamandis delivered a keynote speech at a conference before an audience of 70 or so “high net worth” real estate investors. Aside from a few references to the onset of 3-D-printed housing, he didn’t tailor his remarks to the industry. It was his stump speech, a gung ho elucidation of the-future-will-be-better thesis.
Diamandis believes we are not hearing about all the good news there is in the world because journalism is incentivized to give us an endless deluge of “it bleeds, it leads” clickbait. He’s on a mission to turn back that tide. In the past century we’ve doubled the human life span, he tells the audience. In the next century, we’ll double it again. Just a few months ago, he reports, Japanese researchers exploring the ocean floor discovered deposits of the rare earth minerals crucial to our smartphone age that are so plentiful, the whole world won’t exhaust them for 500 years. Scarcity is a myth!
“Empowering individuals into an abundant future of unlimited potential has always been a theme for me,” he tells me later. What may be most remarkable about his personality is that he has somehow managed to hold on to the same “bright, unencumbered enthusiasm” (his words) he felt as a child watching the first man walk on the moon.
The Strikeforce members absorb that enthusiasm and reflect it back with blinding intensity. Lempesis and Scaramucci, in particular, both radiate with the conviction that we are teetering on the edge of an age of marvels.
The child of a computer programmer and a professor who specialized in early childhood psychological development, Lempesis was practically a laboratory experiment designed to explore how much a motivated autodidact could learn about the world via the internet. She recalls having a cellphone in third grade: “It was so fascinating. I had no one to talk to other than my parents, but I just thought transmitting information was so cool. Look at this little tool in my hand that can contact anybody on Earth.
“I was a very strange kid,” she says, and then pauses for a moment. “I’m still very strange as an adult.”
Lempesis talked her way into Suitable Technologies, the telepresence robot maker, because of her faith in the transformative possibilities of the internet. With these robots, a disabled person could transcend the limitations of the body and be anywhere. Edward Snowden could appear (with Lempesis’ help) at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. People could connect through technology. The same wonder she felt in third grade was still driving her forward.
What makes Lempesis an outlier is not her “strangeness” but her ability to hang on to her faith in technology in an environment where the downsides of our digital lives are increasingly well-publicized. It’s something that all the Strikeforce members have in common with each other, and with Diamandis. They are far more excited than cynical.
By the time I visit PHD Ventures in May, Maxx Bricklin is fully ensconced working long hours at Bold Capital, from an office up the road in Santa Monica. Cody Rapp is in the preliminary stages of starting his own company but not ready to go public. (He doesn’t even want to tell me whether Diamandis is investing in it.) Lempesis is still serving out her two-year term and isn’t sure what’s next. She could easily see herself becoming a “lifer” like Marissa Brassfield (who says Peter will never let her leave) or striking out on her own.
Scaramucci is months away from finishing his stint as a Strikeforce commando when I arrive. Next up for him: Stanford Business School. He is really interested in the future of artificial intelligence. And biotechnology as it applies to human longevity. And Chinese advances in automation.
Those are all huge topics, I point out to him.
“Sure, they’re huge,” says Scaramucci. “But I don’t care. I mean, I’m going to live to at least 150, so I have plenty of time to study things.”
And then he laughs long and hard, as if to underline the wackiness of it all. But at the same time, he sounds serious.
The optimism and unbridled ambition of Scaramucci and Lempesis and all the rest seem to be necessary tools in the entrepreneurial arsenal. Too much exposure to the real world can get you down, and that’s just not useful. Brassfield theorizes that “you almost have to be in a bubble to protect the mindsets of people who need to be visionary and creative.” Too much naysaying and you’ll never get the courage to go for that moonshot.
Diamandis says the crucial elements of entrepreneurship are “having a vision of where you want to go, then being able to pitch it to others and raise money.” The “unfair advantage” he gives to his Strikeforce corps is the ability to tag along with him and see how the game is played at a high level, to see living examples of wild optimism being transformed into lived reality.
“My third week on the job,” remembers Rapp, “it was me, Peter and Richard Branson sitting for two hours talking about space and where the industry was going and what Branson was doing with Virgin Galactic. I’m like, Holy shit, that’s Richard Branson.”
But the block-and-tackle mechanics of entrepreneurship don’t fully explain the liveliness of the Jedi Council meeting, or the playfulness with which Diamandis and the millennials banter.
“I’m clear that this should all be fun,” says Diamandis. “This should all be aligned with one’s mission and purpose in life. This shouldn’t be about just making money. This should be about being in line with what we call our massively transformative purpose. And if it is, then it’s a game. Then it’s joyful. It’s not work.”
Diamandis’ massively transformative purpose is to “inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the Earth.” But even the man preaching the gospel of hope sometimes loses sight of the point of it all. And that’s when it really helps to have a 25-year-old sitting next to you.
“Just the ability to reset and to see the world through those non-jaded, youthful eyes is a gift,” says Diamandis. “Once, I was with Cody and we were rushing to a speaking engagement in Manhattan. And it was really tight, so we land at JFK and the helicopter picks us up and we’re flying down the Hudson at 200 feet above the water and I’m pounding away at emails.
“And Cody says, ‘Stop!’ He says, ‘Look out the fucking window; it’s amazing! We are in a helicopter going down the Hudson! This is awesome!’
“And I was like, ‘Dude! You are so right!’ ”