People often ask “Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in the Sift Science journey?” I’m documenting my answers in case it can help others.
For the Business: Appreciate Sales and Marketing
In the early years of Sift, I didn’t fully appreciate a frequent and active customer feedback loop. Engineers like myself often mistakenly assume that great products sell themselves. I’ve learned that this is just not true. History is full of examples where the best product didn’t win, e.g. VHS vs. Betamax. A great product can be the spearhead of your innovation and competitive advantage, but it is only necessary, not sufficient, for winning. Go-to-market strategy and execution must elevate and scale your story and reach.
Sales and marketing are on the front lines talking to customers; understanding their needs, how they think and talk about the problem you’re solving, and what message resonates. The Y Combinator mantra is “make something people want” — the right base investment in sales and marketing will accelerate your understanding of what people actually want and get you to product-market fit sooner. At Sift, our first of five company values is “Start with the Customer” — it reminds us that we have no business if we become irrelevant to our customers.
For the Team: Hire People with Experience
Sift Science used to be oriented toward a younger talent pool. At one point, every employee was under 35. Humans naturally gravitate toward others like ourselves. I started the company at 25, and that bias played out. But that’s been changing. We recently hired Russ Fujioka as our President and COO, and his 30+ years of business-scaling experience is helping us see around more corners.
Over the past few years we’ve been more conscious of our bias, hiring people with more experience to build a more well-rounded company. It’s a win-win to marry seasoned experience with youthful energy and passion. This isn’t to say that senior people aren’t passionate, or junior employees aren’t knowledgeable. But no one is everything nor perfect. We should accept and appreciate that we each bring unique strengths and weaknesses that can complement each other, such that 1+1 = 3.
For Myself: Look Inward
The Greek philosopher Epictetus says “We suffer not because of what happens to us, but because of our judgment of those events.” Building Sift Science has been an incredible experience, but it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In retrospect, I wish I had invested more time earlier in developing my self-awareness. What makes me tick? Why I would be relaxed and productive in certain situations, but stressed and frustrated in others?
As a CEO, you model the way that the rest of your team behaves. You must adapt to different situations and different working styles. Self-awareness is the first and most important step to changing your behavior. I started working with an executive coach in 2013; it was eye-opening to take a hard look at myself (through peer feedback and self-reflection) and dig at my subconscious. For example, I learned that I often use humor to deflate tension even when it’s inappropriate or unnecessary. So, now when I sense tension, I try to catch myself before cracking a joke and ask if it’s constructive. I’m not changing who I am — I’m just more choiceful of when and where specific dimensions of myself show up. Looking within has helped me be more mindful and intentional of what I say and do, with the understanding that increased consciousness is a lifelong, neverending journey.