Interview with Tony Xu
Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder at DoorDash
Hi Tony, for the audience who may not be familiar with you, tell us who you are!
I am the CEO and co-founder of DoorDash.
What is your day-to-day like as a CEO at DoorDash?
It changes day-to-day but I would say there are a few categories that I’m spending most of my time in.
The first category is the operating reviews, and it probably takes the largest portion of my days. It’s about reviewing and tracking the health of our major audiences (consumers, merchants, and dashers) on the top 5–6 priorities of the company.
The second is spending time with customers, which is usually done in two forms: one is spending time in merchant calls. My calls with merchants range from larger national merchants all the way down to mom-and-pop businesses. In fact, I was just on the phone today with one of the original mom-and-pop merchants I signed up 6–7 years ago! The other form of connecting with customers is actually doing customer support for 15–30 minutes daily. I get dozens of emails per day from all sides of the audience and support some select cases myself.
The third would be in recruiting. I believe that recruiting is one of the most leveraged uses of any manager’s time. I recruit for all roles across the company, not necessarily limited to the roles on my direct team.
The fourth is in talent development through 1:1s with not only my directs but also many others on various levels. I like to give them a sense of what’s going on in the company, what can we be doing better, as well as anything that might be top of mind for them that I can help clarify.
And then, of course, there’s time spent with external teams occasionally, such as investors, the Board, and the press.
How are you engaged in the product development process these days?
Until Nov 2017 when Rajat, our Head of Product, joined us, I used to lead product hands-on, involved in every product review, every design review, and some technical architecture discussions.
Today, it’s a little bit different, and my job has evolved. I still attend major product reviews, but my focus is more on asking questions about the teams’ choices and whether they map to the strategic context of the company over the next 2–3 years. I also still read and respond to each one of our product review/update emails. Hope I’m adding more value than I subtract most of the time!
I’m always amazed by how attentive you are in responses to every product review. How do you find the time to do it despite your busy days?
Haha, I have an advantage of a 3.5-year head start (having run product during DoorDash’s early years), which gave me a lot of historical context and processing time in advance. Frankly, some of the bad decisions were created by me in those early years. And it’s been amazing to see the team driving the evolution of those ideas over the years.
Having seen many successes and failures of different products, what do you care most about when building a product?
First, it’s important to deeply think about the actual problem you’re solving, before getting into features and wireframes. You need to understand the customers’ mental model and their natural behavior. You’d know that you’ve created the best products when the product feels invisible because it removes the friction so seamlessly.
In marketplace businesses like ours, it’s also critical to think about the interplaying effects. Every single decision on one audience impacts other audiences and that becomes increasingly important as the marketplace grows larger. I’m always thinking about how to increase the healthiness of the liquidity in the marketplace.
And the last part is how each product will scale in the long run. It’s impossible to ship a perfect product that solves all problems overnight. You need to make choices on sequencing, make tradeoffs, and plan for the long-term evolution of the different problems.
What were some recent products that you were proud of seeing shipped?
I’ll give one old and one recent example…
When DoorDash just got started in the summer of 2013, we made a decision to ship the driver app (AKA Dasher app) first before we shipped a consumer app. I know it sounds like a counter-intuitive decision as a consumer business.
Our consumer’s expectation was simple then: they get something delivered on time and as described. It wasn’t necessarily about how they can order something in the most efficient way or how nice photos of food should look. Since it’s impossible to solve all of the complex problems at once, we made a choice to prioritize making Dashers successful first. In order to do that, we had to take care of a lot of the basics of the complex logistics system. I’m glad we did, and it’s a decision that I still stand by today.
A recent product that I found really interesting was Convenience. We accelerated to launch our first non-restaurant category during the COVID pandemic given the high demand. Convenience includes pantry items and household goods, and we’re dealing with a significantly different inventory catalog. While restaurants carry 150 to maybe 200 items, an average supermarket sells tens of thousands of different items.
Our team made sure to get the quality of storage and delivery operations successful before getting all of the consumer-interfaces right. This is another good example of designing a product for a scalable system, with a mission to deliver the convenience goods in a matter of minutes, not hours or days.
What are the challenging problems that you’re excited to solve at DoorDash?
I’ve always been so excited about digitizing what’s happening in the physical world. For example, how long it takes to make something inside of the restaurant, whether the item is available on the shelf, etc. We’ve been working on it for years already, and it remains a perennial problem to solve.
Solving this problem truly will serve our mission of empowering local economies, and enabling merchants to participate in the convenience economy. No one has really done that successfully and that’s why the goods inside of the city can’t easily transport electronically today. Pioneering to build this piping is really exciting.
Where do you think the DoorDash product will be in 5 years?
We have two products that will continue to grow both in terms of directions and magnitude.
One is a marketplace where we sit in between consumers and merchants. This is the service we’re most well known in the industry today. The merchants could be a restaurant, a convenience store, a grocery store, a retail store, etc.
The other product is a platform where we provide tools we’ve built for ourselves to our merchants. For example, DoorDash Drive is our “logistics as a service” platform product that fulfills the delivery of the goods at merchants like Walmart.com, 1–800-flowers, or Little Caesars Pizza.
Recently we also announced DoorDash Storefront, which is another platform that provides merchants e-commerce capability, especially for the 40% of businesses that aren’t online today.
Five years from now, while each of these two products grows bigger, they need to be built on the same set of protocols and reinforce one another.
What do you think the design’s role is in DoorDash? And where do you think the team is at now?
Good designers are great problem solvers, who start with a very deep understanding of the problem and customers’ needs before jumping into pixel execution. Their process often includes collecting anecdotes from customers and laying out systemic questions as to what is required to address the customers’ pain points. So I believe the role of design is articulating all of those challenges and asking the right questions. In the end, in collaboration with the product, engineering, and business counterparts, we — as designers — must deliver the simplest solution for the customer while understanding and hiding all of the complexity.
I know you have a strong philosophy in hiring and you always provide great feedback on design candidates. What are the things you typically look for, when you approve the offers?
What I’ve learned is that regardless of discipline–whether it’s design or engineering, or business functions–the best people share very similar attributes. These are the attributes of excellence that have made people successful at DoorDash.
The first I’d say is having a very strong bias for action. This is difficult because it requires the willingness to be wrong when they act quickly. They’re probably going to make more mistakes than they necessarily want to. But this is truly how to create the future when they take risks and put their reputation at stake.
The second is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, especially in the world of product and design. People often love holding strong points of view which I think is really important, but the best people also look for discomforting evidence to argue against themselves. That way, they can involve more people into the problem and get to a better outcome.
The third, best people are trying to get 1% better every day. And they put effort to learn things quickly–whether it’s a professional or a personal goal–and every effort adds up quickly.
The fourth is the ability to operate at the lowest level of detail. Particularly in Design function, while the output looks simple, typically the inputs to get to the output can be very complicated. It’s not the customer’s job to decode a messy menu or order functionality. It’s the designers and the researchers to do heavy-lifting of distilling the most simple solution for the customers.
The final one is that they have strong followership. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily run big teams but they’re the individual whom everyone else is drawn to. This ability requires a lot of emotional maturities. They usually have the ability to recruit other great people too.
Great. Thanks so much for your time Tony!
Please learn more about other leaders at DoorDash:
Christopher Payne — Chief Operating Officer
Rajat Shroff — VP of Product
Helena Seo — Head of Design
Erin Strange — Head of New Verticals Design
Blake Engel — Head of Logistics Platform Design
Cameron Wu — Head of Merchant Platform Design
Andrew Hahn — Head of Operations & Support Platform Design
Kathryn Gonzalez — Head of Design Infrastructure
Tae Kim — Head of Content Strategy
Zach Schendel — Head of User Experience Research