Startup Story: Anthony Levandowski

How do you sell a company you started 3 months earlier for $680 million? That’s what Anthony Levandowski just did. He started his company, Otto, in May, and sold it this to Uber.

Here’s 3 steps that Anthony took in one of the fastest startup-to-sale stories in history:

  1. Ride A Wave

At 16 years old, in 1997, Anthony started his first business building websites. But then thought “there was no barrier to entry there, so I’d better think of something more specialized.”

So he decided to take his passion for Lego and build robots instead. The journey paid off when he won the first Lego MindStorms Challenge in San Francisco in 2001. His winning robot? He called it “BillSortBot” and its one function was sorting monopoly money.

Even at that early stage, Anthony saw the power of robots to connect with humans, saying “Adding the purple antennas and large eyes gave it a little bit of character.” The judges didn’t just love what the robot did. They loved the robot.

Anthony jumped on the robot revolution wave, and started his company, Anthony’s Robots.

His big break? It came from his mother. Anthony recalls: “My mom called me up and said, there’s this robot race it would be interesting for you to find out about.”

The race was the DARPA Grand Challenge for self-driving cars, and Anthony got to work on “Ghostrider”, a robot motorbike that entered, but failed to win, the race.

Even so, Anthony had caught the bug for self-driving cars: “It struck a chord deep in my DNA. It was almost like discovering electronics. I didn’t know where it was going to be used or how it would work out, but I knew that this was going to change things significantly.”

  1. Get A Job

While many entrepreneurs believe going it alone with your own company is the key to success, the most successful entrepreneurs invested time working with mentors and companies who have already achieved greater success.

That’s what Anthony did. Along with DARPA Challenge winner, Sebastian Thrun, Anthony was offered a job with Google to work on their mapping technology. He took the job, and that led to the Google X self-driving car project, which Anthony became the project leader for.

For the next 10 years, Anthony worked quietly in the background as Google’s self-driving cars and the entire self-driving car wave grew – until he was ready to step out on his own.

  1. Pick A Niche

With every major car manufacturer announcing their own self-driving car projects this year, Anthony wondered how he could choose a niche that most of them weren’t focused at. His solution? Trucks.

In May, Anthony left Google with some of his team and created a new startup, Otto, named after German engineer Nikolaus Otto, who developed the internal combustion engine.

Otto would focus at self-driving trucks, and Anthony gave his reason for picking this niche:


“While trucks drive just 5.6 percent of all U.S. miles, they’re at fault for nearly 9.5 percent of all driving fatalities: in recent years, on average, eight people die on the road due to truck accidents every day.”

With self-driving trucks, he would increase productivity and cut fatalities – or at least that was the plan…

This week – just 3 months after Otto launched and before they have sold a single product, Uber has bought the company for $680 million in stock in a deal that gives Anthony and his co-founders 20% of all future trucking profits that Uber makes.

Anthony now also gets a new job. As Uber Founder, Travis Kalanick wrote in a blog this week, “Anthony Levandowski, Otto’s co-founder, will now lead our combined self-driving efforts reporting directly to me. If that sounds like a big deal – well, it is. ”

“Otto plus Uber is a dream team. Anthony is one of the world’s leading autonomous engineers: his first invention, a self-driving motorcycle called Ghostrider, is now in the Smithsonian. Just as important, Anthony is a prolific entrepreneur with a real sense of urgency.”

The price Travis paid for Otto was not the value of Otto. It was the value of Anthony.

Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent Alphabet, has accused Levandowski stealing trade secrets and intellectual property and bringing them to its ride-hailing rival, an allegation that could, depending on how the proceedings shake out, yield criminal charges. Uber, which faces billions of dollars in liability if it is found guilty, has denied any wrongdoing.

Despite having lost his job for failing to fully cooperate with Uber’s internal investigation, Levandowski has apparently not lost his faith.

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