Max Levchin, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, wakes up at 6 a.m. on a foggy Saturday in October. He does some squats (40) to jump-start his heart rate and logs the effort on his phone. He then checks his weight (163 pounds) and body-fat percentage (4%). He has a bite to eat—a bite that Levchin has determined through extensive trial and error should be one ounce of Greek yogurt, with a 3-to-1 ratio of protein to sugar, to shift his body’s metabolism into fat-burning mode. Then he goes downstairs in his San Francisco townhouse and gears up for the activity he’s been looking forward to all week: a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, past the hills of the Marin Headlands and up a road that winds alongside the sparkling bay.
Long before he became one of tech’s most high-profile investors, Levchin was a computer-science prodigy blessed with a calculator-quick mind and a knack for solving complex problems. He co-founded PayPal in 1999, became the first backer of Yelp in 2004, and sits on the board of directors for Yahoo. In 2010 he sold Slide—his app-making company for social networks—to Google for more than $200 million. Levchin’s success can be attributed in part to his almost pathological urge to numerically measure, analyze, and optimize everything he attempts. “Max isn’t simply the wunderkind who hits on a great idea,” writes Sarah Lacy in her book Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0. “He’s the guy who figures out what the great idea is through painstaking trial and error.”
Even by the Valley’s wonky standards, Levchin is renowned for being metrics obsessed. Somewhat less known, however, is that he applies the same statistical scrutiny to himself: Levchin relentlessly collects personal data with a goal of achieving his Apollonian ideal of perfection.
He wants to be stronger, fitter, faster. He strives to eat and sleep more efficiently; to feel as physically and mentally vigorous as possible. His approach is that of a hacker: Collect data, crunch it, and take action to manipulate the biological machine that is his body. The behavioral changes he adopts—like tweaking his morning portion of yogurt— are typically small. But Levchin says that mining the “super granular data” of his life yields insights that would be overlooked if he operated by intuition alone. “If you improve by 1% every day, you will grow amazingly,” he says.
After he leaves the townhouse with his bike, Levchin arrives at the Rapha Cycle Club in the trendy Cow Hollow neighborhood, at a little before 7 a.m., where he’s agreed to meet me for a pre- ride espresso. Standing amid the racks of neon cycling attire, he looks more like a competitive racer than a titan of tech. Levchin has close-cropped dark hair, angular features, and a sinewy build clad in retina-frying yellow Lycra. He is a young-looking 39 years old and wears the faintly mischievous expression of a boy used to outsmarting his teachers.
Sitting down with his drink (four ounces), Levchin explains that he sometimes runs and swims, but his passion is road biking. He logs more than 600 minutes per week in the saddle. He gestures toward his bike, a limited-production Cervélo Rca, which hangs from a wall- mounted rack near our table. Matte black, it has all of the sleek charm of a stealth bomber. The bike is loaded with sensors, he explains; its handlebar-mounted computer displays nine performance variables, including his GPS coordinates, power output, pedaling cadence, and speed. “The Tour de France is pretty much out of the question,” Levchin jokes, but that isn’t stopping him from trying to be the best cyclist he can possibly be.
“Obsessive quests” (as he calls them) to optimize cycling performance and countless other life metrics aren’t for everybody. They’re time-intensive and occasionally strange. (In one digestive speed experiment, Levchin would eat something distinctive, like beets, and measure how long it took before he produced reddish-tinted stool.) He foresees a future, though, in which personal data-geeking will become far more automated and easy. With his latest project, a start-up incubator called HVF, he is among the technological leaders trying to bring that vision to life. “We’re looking for questions that, if answered with data,” he says, “will profoundly change people’s lives.”