It would be a point of pride for any entrepreneur to start a single company and achieve profitability, but Max Levchin has done a bit more than that. He’s had a hand in creating an entire string of notable and influential startups.
Levchin co-founded PayPal, the now-ubiquitous online payment service, and served as its CTO until they were acquired by eBay in 2002. (Which indeed earned his place in the facetiously nicknamed “PayPal Mafia“, a prodigious group of entrepreneurs that includes Elon Musk.)
But that’s just one of the many companies Levchin has had a hand in creating, advising or influencing in their nascent stages. He started a media-sharing service called Slide that was acquired by Google, provided some of the initial funding for Yelp, invested in Evernote where he also served on the board and is now the CEO of Affirm, a financial company making consumer credit more accessible and transparent. And that isn’t even the full résumé. We caught up with Levchin to learn a little about how he works.
Location: San Francisco, CA
One word that best describes how you work: Relentlessly
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook Pro
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I foremost see myself and approach problems as a computer scientist and mathematician. My view of life is built from first principles. I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. Pretty much every person in my family was a scientist. I’ve co-founded and invested in hundreds of companies (primarily through my innovation and investment lab, HVF), most notably PayPal, Yelp, Slide, Glow and Affirm.
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without?
My bikes. Even if I am travelling, if I go somewhere for more than a week, I usually take my bike with me. My backpack typically holds my laptop; really nice headphones; a nice, high-quality notebook (I still like writing things down on paper) and a good pair of sneakers. If I can’t ride my bike, I can run.
What’s your workspace setup like?
At work, I have a standing desk with a big monitor, and headphones are essential. If I don’t have headphones, I’d rather have earplugs than nothing. At home, my kids have taken over my nook, so now I just work from my laptop.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I tend to come up with precise routines and repeat them obsessively every day. In perfect detail, every morning at home looks the same. By cutting out the contemplation of what to do next, I achieve extreme efficiency. For example, I know it takes precisely 90 minutes between waking up and getting onto my bike. I know how to cut that to 75 minutes if needed. I have a very specific set of steps, and once I find a routine that works, I codify until it’s perfected, minute-by-minute. This works with well with anything that doesn’t require creativity.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I use Evernote a lot. It has a good checkbox mode to it. I don’t use it for everything, however. I typically start my day by flushing out my inbox, then I create a to-do list for the day, typically in Evernote. I start by copying yesterday’s list and then add and adjust. During the workday, I will sometimes make notes on paper or email myself, then at the end of the day, I go back to Evernote.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Bluetooth headphones. I also wear a heart-rate monitor every day and often a bike power meter for my workouts. They help me to not only get the workout I want, but I also know if my body is under stress. If at the start of my ride, my heart rate is over 50, I know I didn’t get enough sleep.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I can execute almost any recipe with extreme precision. I have zero creativity when it comes to cooking, but a recipe — even with 30 ingredients and 50 steps — I can execute pretty well. I’m also pretty good at making coffee.
What do you listen to while you work?
It depends on what I’m trying to accomplish. If I need to think through something, I match the beat of the music to the rough pace that I expect my brain to work. I listen to a lot of classical music, and if I’m not working, something more sombre like Chopin or Bach. If I am trying to rip through a hundred emails, and it’s not as much about analysing, rather just responding, I seek out high beats-per-minute, and I may listen to music that does not have languages that I understand or is fully instrumental. French techno/house, Spanish ska, Argentinian or Brazilian ska or rock, Japanese techno, et cetera.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished A Gambler’s Anatomy and I read a lot of books like that. Double Your Profits In Six Months or Less. The Paper Menagerie, which I discovered because I thought Ken Liu did a great job translating The Three-Body Problem, then I found that he writes his own science fiction, too. I typically read a lot of non-fiction business books, and I also read one science-fiction or spy novel per month. I read four to six books a month.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
Cook. As I mentioned before, I try to make sure my days follow a pattern. I try to get home in time to cook or help prepare dinner for the kids. I’m hopelessly uncreative in the kitchen, but I take instruction well.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m fortunate that about 10 seconds pass between my head hitting the pillow and falling asleep. I can fall asleep under any circumstances and have insomnia maybe once every two years. I often miss takeoff when on aeroplanes. I usually get to bed by 10:30 or 11PM. My goal is to get seven hours of sleep, but I only need five.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Hmmm, I’ve actually asked a lot of people these types of questions already. Such as professional cyclists.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know, but I think all of it came from my wife.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]