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Daniel Scrivner

To Pixar And Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy

This is part of my book summary collection which includes The Essays of Warren Buffett, Poor Charlie's Almanack, Special Operations Mental Toughness, and 50+ more. Browse them all to find the best ideas from history's greatest books →

Book Summary

This is my book summary of To Pixar And Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy. It contains some of my favorite interviews and is my favorite book of interviews of all-time. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

Video Book Summary

On Outliers with Daniel Scrivner, I recorded a video summary of To Pixar And Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy.

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The Book in Three Sentences

After he was dismissed from Apple in the early 1990s, Steve Jobs turned his attention to a little-known graphics company he owned called Pixar. One day, out of the blue, Jobs called Lawrence Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and executive to whom he had never spoken before. He hoped to persuade Levy to help him pull Pixar back from the brink of failure. This is the extraordinary story of what happened next: how Jobs and Levy concocted and pulled off a highly improbable plan that transformed Pixar into the Hollywood powerhouse it is today.

Pixar’s Business in 1994

The book begins by setting up the terrible state of Pixar’s business when Lawrence Levy took over as CFO in 1994.

Steve Jobs purchased a majority stake in Pixar for $10 million when George Lucas spun it out of Lucasfilm in 1986. But the Pixar of the 1980s and early 1990s was very different than the Pixar we know today. It was originally much more hardware and software centric.

Pixar released the Pixar Image Computer about 3 months after Steve Jobs purchased the company in 1986. It ultimately sold less than 300 units and Pixar decided to exit the hardware business shortly afterwards.

Similarly, Pixar has always built Renderman, its rendering software, internally. It sold that software to external customers when Lawrence Levy took over. But after a review of the business, he decided to layoff the sales team and stop selling Renderman.

Pixar’s animation films, a byproduct of its technology and team, ended up being incredibly valuable. Pixar was eventually acquired for $7.4 billion by Disney. But it took 16 years, from Pixar’s founding in 1979 to the release of Toy Story in 1995, for Pixar to enjoy its first real taste of financial success.

Here’s what Lawrence Levy discovered when he arrived at Pixar:

When I first started talking to Steve about Pixar, a little more than ten years earlier in late 1994, the company had burned through almost $50 million of his money, with little to show for it. The value assigned to Pixar's stockholders on its financial statements at that time was negative $50 million. Now, Steve's investment in Pixar had made him one of the wealthiest individuals in the world.

My tenure at Pixar lasted from my first conversations with Steve in 1994 until the sale to Disney in 2006. This opportunity was one of the great privileges of my life. Although much has been written about Pixar's legendary creative and production processes, my side of the story looks at Pixar from a different angle. It is about the strategic and business imperatives that enabled Pixar to flourish.

It is perhaps easy to look at Pixar's film accomplishments and imagine that they emerged in a blaze of creative glory, that Pixar was created as a storytelling, artistic utopia. This wasn't my experience of it. The making of Pixar was more akin to the high-pressure grinding of tectonic plates pushing up new mountains. One of those plates carried the intense pressures of innovation: the drive for artistic and creative excellence in storytelling and the invention of a new medium, computer animation, through which to express it. The other of those plates carried the real-world pressures of survival: raising money, selling movie tickets, increasing the pace of production. These two forces ground ceaselessly against each other, causing many quakes and aftershocks.

This is the story of how the little company that made the world fall in love with toys, bugs, fish, monsters, cars, superheroes, chefs, robots, and emotions emerged from the forces at work beneath it. It is about the choices and the absurd bets and risks that made it possible.

It is about the tension between creative integrity and real-world necessities, and how that tension shaped those involved with it — Steve Jobs Pixar's creative, technical, and production teams; and me. It is a story about what it means to put the creative impulse first, and why that is so very hard to do.

Pixar’s First Contract with Disney

Most of “To Pixar and Beyond” revolves a single element: Pixar’s first movie production and distribution contract with Disney, which Steve Jobs signed on September 6, 1991. While it gave Pixar its first real prospect of producing a feature film and distributing it in movie theatres, the contract was heavily weighted in Disney’s favor.

Which makes sense in hindsight because at the time the contract was signed it was a risky bet on totally unproven technology, approach to animation, and director in John Lasseter.

But signing it nearly sealed Pixar’s fate as the terms were so egregious that Pixar’s only chance of survival was if their first film was the most successful animated film of all-time — earning more $100 million in the domestic box office. Luckily, that happened, Toy Story earned nearly $200 million, Pixar gained leverage, renegotiated the contract, and lived to thrive.

In the book, Lawrence Levy shares his take on why Steve Jobs signed the original agreement with Disney:

I reasoned that around 1991, Steve was ready to let go of Pixar. He had never set out to build an animation company. In 1986, when he took control of Pixar, Steve dreamed of building a technology company, a graphics powerhouse that would stun the world with machines that could do computer imagery like no other. Storytelling was an afterthought, a way to demonstrate the technology. The hopes of that graphics company had rested in part on the Pixar Image Computer, which had failed. By 1991, that division of Pixar had been shut down completely.

At that moment, I concluded, Steve was ready to give up on Pixar. He must have wanted out. The burden was simply too great, and the dream dashed. He was in a very tough spot, however. It was five years since his departure from Apple, and he had not had a hit since. If he couldn't chalk Pixar up as a win, he badly wanted to avoid another highly public loss. That was the instant when the Disney opportunity came along. To Steve, the deal with Disney was a way to stop the financial bleeding.

Steve's guard was down, and in that negotiation with Disney he had been bested by Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who handled the deal on behalf of Disney. Steve had signed up for terms the implications of which he either didn't fully understand, or to which he had simply yielded in order to get the deal done.

What is an entertainment company?

One of the fascinating elements to Pixar’s story is that the company didn’t originally set out to make blockbuster feature films. It was created to develop the software needed to bring computer animation to life. And it ran a small animation studio, that mostly did commercials and small one-off projects.

Pixar had to learn what building an entertainment company meant. To do this, Lawrence and Steve studied the entertainment industry, the business of film distribution, and what it took to build Disney.

Disney’s history and parallels with Pixar:

  • Walt Disney had long had an interest in newspaper cartoons. After returning from service as an ambulance driver in France in World War I, he encountered animated cartoons for the first time and quickly fell in love with the field. Ironically, he feared that he had entered the field too late, that there was no growth opportunity left in it. He ended up creating that opportunity by pushing the field into new territory, both creatively and technologically, just as Pixar was doing now.
  • In 1928 Disney released a short black-and-white cartoon that changed the course of animation. Called Steamboat Willie, it ushered in breakthroughs on two fronts. It introduced the world to the most fully formed cartoon personality audiences had ever seen: Mickey Mouse. It was also the first cartoon to use synchronized sound, meaning that the sounds were timed to the action, making the overall audience experience far more immersive than ever before.
  • After the success of Mickey Mouse, Disney set his sights on the first animated feature film. It took him until 1937 to release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a virtuoso accomplishment that ushered in many more breakthroughs in story, character, color, sound, and the way animation displayed depth. The film also introduced the world to the Seven Dwarfs and quickly sealed their place as icons of American culture.
  • Other parallels between Disney and Pixar were less inspiring. Like Pixar, Disney had struggled financially for years. Walt Disney had bet it all on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including mortgaging his house and a risky bank loan. The success of the film paid off financially, but it wasn't long before Disney was struggling once again. Animation was proving to be a very fickle business, and soon Disney was diversifying.
  • In 1953, he started a film distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution. In 1954, he went into television, with the acclaimed Disneyland television show that first appeared on ABC. In 1955, he opened Disneyland, a daring adventure to re-envision the theme park experience; he also went into live-action films, culminating with the breakthrough Mary Poppins in 1964. The enormous degree to which Disney had diversified made the idea of a pure animation company seem even more doubtful.

How most entertainment companies work:

  • Think of an entertainment company as a portfolio business. Each year studios earmark funds for a slate of films using three general buckets: low budget, medium budget, and big budget. Then they do the same with marketing, allocating amounts to market each film. Then they cross their fingers and release their slate, hoping that they created enough hits to make up for the ones that don’t perform.
  • Filmmaking is not a great business. Because it’s hard to succeed by releasing new films. The value often comes in the library — where a successful film will continue to earn revenue for years.
  • Once a film has enjoyed its theatrical run, both here and abroad, it becomes part of a studio's film library. If it's a good film, it stands to be watched again and again over the years. New technologies like home video make that even more likely. The major studios have built up enormous film libraries that continue to provide value to their film businesses.
  • The big studios are really about providing capital and distribution. They don’t focus on making one single great product. It’s a business model completely.

Why carrying costs were a concern for Pixar’s business:

  • There was also another issue that was unique to animation, a pesky detail that went under the title of "carrying costs." Which are the costs of paying employees when they are not working on films. When animation finished on Toy Story, for example, Pixar still had to pay its animators even if it had nothing for them to do.
  • It was a problem that had dated all the way back to the time of Walt Disney, and one of the reasons it was so difficult to go into animation. This problem did not exist in live action film because the crew making the film, from the producer and director to the film's stars, to the cameramen, extras, and everyone else, comes together for the sole purpose of making the film. They are paid only during the time they are involved. As soon as that ends, they all disperse and there is no further obligation to pay them. Animation studios don't work this way.
  • Lawrence’s conclusion: The cost of continuing to pay studio employees when the studio is not in the heat of producing a film could grow enormous. If Pixar didn't have well-planned solutions to keeping its people productive between films, even a hit film could be drained of its profits by the overall carrying costs.
  • Lawrence Levy thought the carrying cost issue had the potential to be the Achilles heel that might, even if Pixar’s films did well, could eat away at Pixar’s business vitality.

Pixar’s Four Pillars Business Strategy

In 1995, just as the team working on Toy Story was in their final sprint toward the film’s release date of November 22nd, Lawrence Levy and Steve Jobs finalized the Four Pillars of Pixar’s business strategy.

They were:

  1. Quadruple Pixar’s share of the profits from their films.
  2. Raise at least $75 million through an IPO to pay for production costs on their films.
  3. Move from releasing 1 film every 4 years, towards releasing a film each year.
  4. Build Pixar into a worldwide brand that’s loved by kids and families.

They had to start by moving Pixar’s share of their film’s from 10% to 50% of profits. This necessitated renegotiating their three-film contract with Disney.

They had to raise at least $75M during their IPO to be able to cover the production costs of their films. Which would also help them renegotiate their contract with Disney.

But increasing their share of film profits and raising money wouldn’t be enough.

They also had to increase the frequency with which Pixar released films. The issue with making one film every 4-5 years, was that if they had a flop it would take another 4-5 years for another shot. Potentially waiting 8-10 years between hits was too big of a risk.

And finally, Pixar couldn’t build a thriving company without building their brand.

But under their agreement with Disney, all of their films including Toy Story would not have any Pixar brand or name associated with them. Toy Story was released under Disney’s name with the movie posters and credits all saying simply “Disney Animation Presents.” Pixar needed to get at least equal co-branding on everything.

Lawrence Levy, Steve Jobs, and the team at Pixar accomplished all of these things within 2 years:

  • On November 30, 1995 Pixar went public under the ticker symbol PIXR and raised $140 million.
  • On February 25, 1997 Pixar closed and announced their new 10-year, 5-film deal with Disney that gave them 50/50 profit share and equal branding.
  • And in 1998 Pixar released their second film A Bug’s Life, followed by Toy Story 2 in 1999 — doubling Pixar’s initial pace of 1 movie every 4-5 years.

Renegotiating Pixar’s Contract with Disney

The most valuable part of this book is the two chapters covering Pixar’s approach to renegotiating their contract with Disney — titled “Anatomy of a Deal” and “Poker Time.”

Steve Jobs is known as an incredible negotiator and dealmaker. From his 18 months deal with AT&T to become the exclusive distributor of the iPhone upon release, to Pixar’s initial contract with Disney (a first for a studio and director that had never released a feature film), to the final acquisition of Pixar by Disney. Steve Jobs negotiated himself into fortunate positions time and time again.

This book is a rare glimpse at how Steve Jobs approached negotiating. Including how he analyzed leverage, separated strategy from tactics while negotiating, avoided positional bargaining, and fiercely negotiated from a position of conviction.

Here 5 principles extracted from those chapters about how Steve Jobs renegotiated Pixar’s contract with Disney and saved the studio:

#1 - Don’t engage in positional bargaining. Dig in where you have extreme conviction and don’t budge.

To start, it helps to understand Steve Job’s approach to negotiation. Which was an all-out rejection of the standard approach called “positional bargaining.”

The natural tendency in negotiations is to engage in positional bargaining. This means taking a position knowing that it is not a final position, and holding in reserve a backup position.

The danger of positional bargaining is that it forces you to think about backup positions, which weakens your conviction in your original position. It's like negotiating against yourself. Plan A may be your optimal outcome, but inwardly you have already convinced yourself to settle on Plan B.

Both Steve and I had a strong distaste for approaching negotiation this way. We preferred to develop our positions without thinking through a backup. Once Steve decided what he wanted in a negotiation, he developed something akin to a religious conviction about it.

In his mind, if he didn't get what he wanted, nothing else would take its place, so he'd walk away. This made Steve an incredibly strong negotiator. He would dig into his positions with a fierce, almost unbreakable grip.

The risk, however, was in so overreaching that we would end up with nothing. If we were not going to have a backup plan, we had to be very careful about knowing what we wanted.

Know what you want and what your non-negotiable items are. Then don’t bargain with yourself and hold onto those things with an unbreakable grip.

#2 - Understand the difference between strategy and tactics when negotiating.

I found this breakdown of leverage versus negotiation incredibly insightful.

In business relationships, or virtually in any relationships for that matter, there are two factors that determine one’s capacity to effect change: leverage and negotiation.

Leverage means bargaining power. It is the muscle you have to bring about change in your favor.
The more leverage, the better your chances to get what you want. In poker, leverage would be the equivalent of the actual strength of your hand.

Negotiation describes the tactics you employ to extract the best terms you can, given your leverage.
It is about how you play the hand. Courage, fear, tenacity, trustworthiness, creativity, calm, the willingness to walk away, to behave irrationally—these all play into negotiation.

Leverage is an assessment of bargaining strength; negotiation is how you put that bargaining strength to work for you. A good negotiator can make more out of the same leverage than a not-so-good one.

In Pixar’s first agreement with Disney, Pixar had fared poorly in terms of both leverage and negotiation. Pixar had not had much leverage because it had just closed down its hardware business, was struggling to remain afloat, and had never made a feature film.

In terms of negotiation, I felt Steve had been caught in a rare weak moment. This was more than four years ago, though. Steve liked to cite the adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” What had occurred four years earlier was not going to happen again.

Understand your bargaining strength and then how to put it to work for you.

#3 - Analyze where you stand in relation to the other party — especially your points of leverage.

Analyze your leverage compared to the other party rationally. Then make a judgement call on if it makes sense to proceed negotiating.

One Friday in late January 1996, when Steve was at Pixar, we stepped into the small, windowless conference room near my office to discuss where we thought Pixar stood in relation to Disney. As we often did, we wrote down the main points of discussion on a whiteboard. There was one in the front of the room, with a wooden casing around it.

We had discussed all of these points before, but it was helpful to see them in one place. Steve took a whiteboard pen and made two columns: Disney and Pixar. Under the Disney column, he would write the points that gave Disney leverage. Under the Pixar column, he would write the points that favored Pixar.

The column-by-column breakdown ended up looking like this…
It was difficult to assess how this would shake out. Both of us had leverage. But did Pixar have enough to force a negotiation now, and on favorable terms?

I felt we had enough to find out. Just one of our points might be sufficient to bring Disney to the negotiation table. And we were not afraid to wait if it didn’t materialize now. “I think we should go for it,” I said to Steve.

First understand your position, then create a strategy to make the most of it.

#4 - Get clear on what you want and why it’s important to you. You have to know what success looks like.

Before you enter a negotiation, it’s paramount that you know exact what you want and why it’s important to you. Here’s how Lawrence and Steve got clear about what they wanted their new deal with Disney to look like:

Steve changed the whiteboard pen for a new color, and in a different part of the board he wrote: NEW DEAL

Below that he wrote: 1. CREATIVE CONTROL

"We need control over our creative destiny," Steve asserted. "We’ve proven we can make a great film. We can't go on indefinitely beholden to Disney to approve our creative choices."

Unless you were Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, or another celebrity director, it was almost unheard of for an independent production company whose films were being funded by someone else to have creative control. That usually belonged to whoever was putting up the money. We had already decided that John Lasseter and his team would have creative control within Pixar. Now we wanted to diminish any outside influence over them.

"It will help that we are willing to fund our films," I added, "but Disney will be nervous about this so long as they're putting up even some of the money."

Nevertheless, we both agreed that creative control was essential to Pixar's future.

"Another must-have is favorable release windows" I said.

It mattered a lot when films were released, especially big-budget family films. There were two optimal dates: early summer and Thanks-giving, which runs into Christmas. No other time periods came close in terms of box office opportunity.

Any contract we entered, with Disney or anyone else, would have to guarantee that Pixar films enjoyed optimal film release windows. Steve wrote on the whiteboard: 2. FAVORABLE RELEASE WINDOWS

"Disney has to treat Pixar film releases like its own," Steve added to emphasize that point.

Then he wrote: 3. TRUE 50/50 PROFIT SHARE

This was a big one. All of our financial projections told us that we had to keep at least so percent of the profits from our films.

"A true fifty-fifty," Steve said. "Calculated fairly."

"Not using ancient Hollywood accounting terms that favor the studios," I added.

"That leaves the branding issue," I went on. "Pixar's films under Pixar's name."

We had discussed this endlessly. Steve wrote 4. PIXAR BRAND

"We made the films," Steve said. "The world needs to know that." That was the fourth pillar of Pixar's business plan.

"Anything else?" Steve asked.

"Of the big issues, no,” I said. “These are the ones we stick to, no matter what."

Now the whiteboard had a column that said:






We understood there would be many other issues in any renegotia-tion, but on these four matters our plan was to hold firm. If we gave up on any of these, Pixar's future would be jeopardized too much. These were our deal breakers.

"I think we're ready," I said.

"I'll call Eisner," Steve replied. "I'll tell him what we have in mind."

Map out what’s non-negotiable for you and stick to those items. You have to have conviction in every item on this list — no exceptions. And you have to be able to articulate why they’re important to you.

#5 - Wait to negotiate until you have maximum leverage.

Once you’re mentally and physically prepared to negotiate, wait to strike until you have maximum leverage. At Pixar, this meant waiting to reach out to Disney until after the release of Toy Story — which was a smashing success. The halo effect of Toy Story’s success, significantly improved Pixar’s odds of getting the terms they wanted.

Always wait to negotiate until you’re in the most advantageous position possible.

This is how Lawrence and Steve reasoned through this when timing when to try and renegotiate with Disney:

“If we’re going to make a move to renegotiate with Disney,” I suggested one night in early January 1996, “we should start thinking seriously about it right away, while Toy Story success is still fresh.”

“Or maybe we’re better off waiting,” Steve said, “until we’re free to negotiate with other studios and have more flexibility to pick our best distribution partner.”

Making the move now made sense only if we thought we could negotiate a deal that would be strong enough to justify giving up our options in the future.

They ended decided to negotiate then rather than wait until the end of their original contract with Disney. And they were able to achieve a fantastic outcome.

Timing matters.

Finding the Healthy Tension Between Being Confident and Collaborative

Related to the themes in the book, Lawrence also wrote this opinion piece in Harvard Business Review that's worth reflecting on.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with people doing extraordinary things: inventors, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and even a Buddhist master. They are pioneers who shatter norms, change paradigms, and delight us in new ways. Despite vast differences in their styles, personalities, and fields of endeavor, they have striking parallels in what made them successful. Namely, they combine their talent with an important balance between self-confidence and collaboration.

In my personal experiences with leaders such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter of Pixar, and Buddhist master Segyu Rinpoche, I saw their confidence come through in several ways:

First, they live by vision, and they have the courage to stick with it. Long before a computer-animated feature film was technically possible, Catmull and Lasseter were determined to make one. The many obstacles kept them on the edge of failure for years, but they held onto their vision. Similarly, Jobs never gave up on his dream for Apple to become the next great consumer electronics company — even during the 12 years he was away from it. And Rinpoche is deeply committed to a higher purpose: resurrecting a tradition of meditation that heightens human contentment by balancing outer attainment with inner mastery.

At the same time, these pioneers focus on the details. They believe they know best about how their ideas should be realized and won’t let up until their high standards are met. Jobs is legendary for this: He weighed in on everything from a product’s functionality to the design of its packaging. I saw Lasseter bring the same attention to every frame of Pixar’s films. And I know that Rinpoche considers no detail of a meditation practice or ritual too small for his attention.

Another factor magnifying the self-assurance and resolve of these individuals is how deeply they know the history of their fields. Jobs studied and could recount the past of not just the computer industry but also the consumer electronics industry. Catmull has often said that any filmmaker who wants to experiment with storytelling must first master traditional story structure. And Rinpoche is a walking encyclopedia of the 2,500-year history of meditation, having studied with some of Tibetan Buddhism’s finest teachers for more than 30 years. However, these types also flaunt convention. They have an infectious, rebellious energy and are always seeking to break barriers, fight bureaucracy, and question the status quo. Their deep knowledge of history enhances their confidence to make these paradigm-shifting changes.

While all these aspects of confidence are necessary to achieve greatness, the collective effect can careen out of control if left unchecked. The well-publicized Apple Lisa, original Macintosh, and NeXT Computer debacles were blamed on Jobs’s arrogance, and Pixar’s production of Toy Story ground to a halt due to unresolved story problems.

We need a counterweight: collaboration. The challenge is that the self-confidence needed to boldly push forward conspires against the yielding necessary for great collaboration. Leaders like Jobs, Catmull, Lasseter, and Rinpoche overcome this challenge in two ways.

First, they surround themselves with the right people. The standard is talent — a superb capacity to contribute. Politics and seniority have little place in this consideration. Pixar honed it to an art with its now-famous “Brain Trust,” the small team of accomplished storytellers tasked with assisting directors in developing their films. Even top executives were excluded. Jobs is famous for tolerating only A players. And Rinpoche maintains a close circle of his own teachers and select students that have studied with him for years.

They also listen to ideas and criticism. This does not mean they’ll change their vision or their opinions on execution. But successful collaboration means that even self-confident leaders keep themselves open to hearing and evaluating what trusted others have to say, and they resist what is often the downfall of great collaboration: confirmation bias, giving too much weight to views that validate one’s own. When he was at his best, Jobs had a very small circle of hand-picked advisors and put aside his stubborn intensity to pay attention to their advice. With an inspiring combination of mastery and humility, Rinpoche partnered with four of his students to found the Juniper Foundation to achieve a similar result.

Excellence requires two attributes that make for uneasy bedfellows: bold self-confidence and a willingness to collaborate. When a leader has both, I have seen great things happen.

Originally published in the Harvard Business Review.

Who is Lawrence Levy?

In his own words:

In 1994, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Steve Jobs to see if I had any interest in running Pixar’s business. Over the next twelve years, I served as Pixar’s Chief Financial Officer, a member of its Office of the President and later as a member of its board of directors. During this period I developed and put in place the strategy that would transform Pixar from a money-losing graphics company into a multibillion-dollar entertainment studio, and I was instrumental in the sale of Pixar to Disney.

I was born and raised in London, England, educated in the US where I studied business at Indiana University and law at Harvard Law School, and I live in Palo Alto, California with my wife, Hillary.
Pixar's exec team in 1997: Lawrence Levy, Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, Josh Lasseter, and Sarah McCarthur

For more, I highly encourage you to order To Pixar And Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History and read the entire book yourself.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion,, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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