Dustin Moskowitz, co-founder and CEO of Asana.
A typical playbook for a successful tech founder looks like this.
Create a wholly owned company. Sell significant chunks to venture investors as the business progresses. Eventually become a minority owner. Take the company public. Sell more shares over time.
Dustin Moskowitz of Asana took this book and completely rewrote the ending.
Moskowitz, still known to many as the co-founder of Facebook, started Asana in 2008 to make work more collaborative through software. By the time he took the company public through a direct listing in 2020, his ownership stood at about 36%.
Then he started buying. After buying 480,000 shares of Asana in June, Moskowitz’s ownership swelled to 111.4 million shares, representing more than 51% of shares outstanding. In March, Asana revealed that Moskovitz had a trading plan to buy up to 30 million more of its Class A shares this year, sending the stock up nearly 19% the next day.
“It’s been a wild two years in the market and there have been some interesting buying opportunities,” Moskowitz said in an interview with CNBC.
Even after rallying 66% this year, Asana shares are more than 80% below their record high since late 2021.
For Moskowitz, whose net worth is more than $12 billion — mostly from his early stake in Facebook, now Meta — becoming a majority owner of Asana doesn’t mean control. Rather, he sees it as the best way to invest to support his philanthropy.
In 2010, Moskowitz signed the Giving Pledge, a pledge by some of the world’s richest people to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity. Moskowitz and his wife, former journalist Carrie Tuna, distribute their funds through Good Ventures based on referrals from Open Philanthropy.
When it comes to spending that money, there is no greater concern for Moskowitz than the future of artificial intelligence.
Good Ventures donated $30 million to launch OpenAI over a three-year period in 2017, long before generative AI or ChatGPT entered the public lexicon. OpenAI, now worth about $30 billion, was set up as a non-profit organization, and Open Philanthropy said at the time that it wanted “to help play a role in OpenAI’s approach to safety and governance issues.”
One of the 10 areas of focus that Open Philanthropy lists on its website is “potential risks from advanced AI.” The organization recommended a $5 million grant to the National Science Foundation to support research on methods to ensure the safety of artificial intelligence systems and $5.56 million to the University of California, Berkeley to “create an academic center focused on AI safety “. In total, Open Philanthropy says it has provided more than $300 million in the focus area through more than 170 grants.
“I definitely think there’s a lot of risk — something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Moskowitz said.
Moskowitz co-founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin at Harvard University in 2004. He became a billionaire after Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012, owning more shares than anyone other than Zuckerberg.
Even after acquiring additional Asana shares in 2022 and 2023, his ownership stands at about $2.6 billion, less than the $4.6 billion in Facebook stock he owns, according to FactSet.
“I’m just in a unique position where I came to the table with an existing source of wealth,” Moskowitz said. “So even things that look like giant purchases, it’s still a relatively normal kind of part of my net worth compared to other founders.”
Moskowitz has agreed not to buy all of Asana’s stock or even acquire ownership of 90% of the common stock. It will also keep a majority of its directors independent, in accordance with New York Stock Exchange rules, according to the filing.
Moskowitz declined to say whether he was buying shares to prevent activist investors from coming in and trying to force change. Activists have been busy in the cloud software space, most notably in Salesforcewhich responded to the pressure by expanding its buyback program and increasing profits.
Samuel Altman, CEO of OpenAI, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law in Washington, DC, May 16, 2023.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Recently, Moskowitz’s worlds collided.
OpenAI has risen from a niche startup to the hottest thing in tech since the launch of ChatGPT in November. Before that, Moskowitz had been playing with the company’s DALL-E technology for converting text to images. He said OpenAI CEO Sam Altman set him up with a “lab account” in April last year.
After launching ChatGPT, Moskowitz they had fun asking the chatbot to come up with goals to help address California’s housing crisis.
Meanwhile, Asana has joined the parade of companies announcing enhancements to their products with generative AI features that can take human input and present text, images or audio in response. Earlier this month, Asana said it had given some customers access to several generative AI features powered by OpenAI models.
“Chat is just one paradigm of how you use these technologies,” Moskowitz told CNBC. “When you integrate them into workflows like job management, do things like optimize workflows for automation, or help with decision making — you can literally ask the system questions and it will give you a summary and a recommendation.”
Moskowitz said the more complex tasks, such as adding structure to projects, are where “there’s really some potential.” Rather than simply asking for specific answers, he said the power is in the technology to take “a bunch of information and kind of a vague goal” and then “give you something roughly in the right direction.”
Asana could spend $5 million or more on OpenAI technology next year, Moskowitz said, adding that he was “very impressed with GPT-3,” the company’s previous major language model, “and even more impressed with GPT-4 “, which was announced in March.
Moskowitz took six minutes out of Asana’s 51-minute earnings call in early June to tout the company’s approach to AI. He used the acronym 41 times, compared to 32 references to AI Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during his company’s April earnings call. Microsoft is OpenAI’s lead investor.
Asana is “just personally deeply connected to the AI labs that are leading the way,” Moskowitz said.
The connections are actually quite deep. Altman invested in Asana in 2016. During Asana’s earnings call, Moskowitz reminded analysts that his company and OpenAI “share a board member in Adam D’Angelo,” a former Facebook technology chief who later launched online question-and-answer startup Quora.
One of OpenAI’s first board members was Holden Karnofsky, co-CEO of Open Philanthropy. Kanofsky later co-founded AI startup Anthropic with his wife, Daniela Amodei. Moskowitz invested in Anthropic in 2021, the same year he co-invested with Altman in the fusion startup Helion.
Like Altman, Moskowitz is highly optimistic about AI and worries about the damage it can cause.
Moskowitz was one of many entrepreneurs who signed a statement in May that said “reducing the risk of extinction from AI must be a global priority alongside other societal risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” The letter came from the nonprofit Center for AI Safety.
But Moskowitz was not among the signatories of the nonprofit Future of Life Institute’s open letter in March, which called on AI labs to pause training the most complex AI models for six months or more. Near the top of that list of signees was Tesla CEO Elon Musk, an early supporter of OpenAI, has warned that we should be very concerned about advanced AI, calling it “a greater risk to society than cars, airplanes or medicine.”
Moskowitz said Musk’s fears are not entirely exaggerated and that they both want to “get this technology out into the world in a safe way.”
“Elon is looking at it from different angles,” he said. “I think we kind of share a view on the potential issues of existential risk, and maybe we don’t share a view so much on AI censorship and wokism and things like that.”
In December, Musk tweeted that “the danger of training an AI to be awakened – in other words, a lie – is deadly”.
Moskowitz helped draft a 12-point list of possible policy changes for US lawmakers to consider.
“The thing I’m most interested in is making sure that the state-of-the-art later generations, like GPT-5, GPT-6, go through safety evaluations before they go out into the world,” he said. “I think it will require regulation to coordinate all the players.”
He even coined a word in a tweet last month to express his complex views.
“Excito-nervous about AI!” he wrote.
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