60 Company Builders Share Their Advice for Startup Founders

Sequoia
Sequoia
Aug 21 · 7 min read

Each week in our Seven Questions newsletter, a member of the Sequoia community shares hard-won advice for founders — from the lessons they lean on daily to moments they realized they were wrong (and how they got back on track). Read on for the answers to a question on every entrepreneur’s mind: “What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?” and sign up here to get Seven Questions delivered to your inbox.

Getting Started

Alex Rodrigues, Embark: “A heck of a lot of people will think it won’t work. But if you can picture yourself walking through each step, there’s a good chance you know what you’re doing. Just because something’s never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe: “Fundraising is like dating; you don’t want to be begging people to like you. Find a real partner who genuinely believes in what you’re doing.”

Colleen Cutcliffe, Whole Biome: “It’s important to be honest with yourself about the risk — but once you decide to go for it, you need to turn off that visceral fear and focus on the positive.”

Marco Zappacosta, Thumbtack: “Fall in love with the problem you’re solving, not the product you’re building. Impact is what will sustain you for the decade or more it takes to do something big.”

Mathilde Collin, Front: “Stay focused. Especially when a company is new, you should generally concentrate on moving a single metric. It’s easy to make excuses or shift your focus to another area, but you have to resist that urge.”

Sonya Huang, Sequoia: “Keep your pitch simple. The most compelling founders can clearly explain why their company exists in the first few minutes of a meeting.”

General Stanley McChrystal, McChrystal Group: “Pressure-test your concept early on. Imagine the most difficult situation possible and ask, ‘Will this still work?’”

Tony Xu, DoorDash: “Start small. Write down specific problems you need to overcome and don’t worry about anything else. Especially in the beginning, starting a company should feel like a project, not a grand vision.”

For more on the early days: Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot, Paul Fletcher-Hill of Veil, and Amy Sun, Bill Coughran and Bryan Schreier of Sequoia.

Choosing Your Path

AmirAli Talasaz, Guardant Health: “Pursue a passion — but think carefully about which passion you choose. If you focus on an unsolved problem at the global level, you can have a much larger impact.”

David Vélez, Nubank: “Choose something people think is hard. Otherwise, there will be five companies doing the same thing two months later. When you tell someone what you’re starting, their reaction should be, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?”

Doug Leone, Sequoia: “Don’t do it to stroke your ego. Do it because you see an opening and you just can’t fall asleep at night until you go after it.”

Julia Hartz, Eventbrite: “Starting a company isn’t easy — you need an insane amount of conviction. You don’t have to be sure the product will work, but you do need to believe fully in the mission.”

Roelof Botha, Sequoia: “Address a personal problem. When you understand what you’re solving on that visceral level, you’re much better prepared to address the specific challenges of building your company.”

Stephanie Zhan, Sequoia: “Ask yourself, ‘Why now?’ Many of today’s tech giants took advantage of a technology advancement or a shift in consumer behavior. What has changed in the market or ecosystem to uniquely enable your opportunity today?”

Vivek Garipalli, Clover Health: “The only way I know to start a business is to hurry up and start a business. You can do endless financial modeling, or you can quit your job and just go.”

For more on deciding what to pursue: Ari Mir of Clutter, Dan Burton of Health Catalyst, Frederic Kerrest of Okta, Helmy Eltoukhy of Guardant Health, Keller Rinaudo of Zipline, Tracy Young of PlanGrid, and Blair Shane and Mike Vernal of Sequoia.

Scaling and Hiring

Arash Ferdowsi, Dropbox: “Find brilliant people who truly know their craft — then give them space to lead. If you micromanage and don’t trust them to make the right decisions, they won’t want to work for you for long.”

Belinda Johnson, Airbnb: “Always hire for what you want the company to look like three years from now. Things evolve quickly, and you can out-scale yourself before you know it.”

Jess Lee, Sequoia: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable. When the company is growing so fast that it’s changing underneath you, you have to learn your job over and over again.”

Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, Drawbridge: “The leadership roles outside your area of expertise aren’t easy to hire for, but that makes them all the more important. Accept that you might make mistakes when you’re evaluating talent in those areas, and be willing to ask for help.”

Matt Miller, Sequoia: “Especially with decisions that are difficult to reverse, plan to achieve the highest level of success. Imagine what the company will look like if it’s as successful as possible and then ask yourself, ‘Is this the road that will get us there?’”

Pat Grady, Sequoia: “Founders are besieged with advice, and most either take all of it or none of it. In my experience, the ones who scale the best are somewhere in the middle: They listen to everything, but then figure out for themselves which advice to follow.”

For more on navigating growth: David Cancel of Drift and David Steckel of Setter.

Facing Challenges

Jaime Bott, Sequoia: “If something bugs me multiple days in a row, that’s a pretty good clue that I need to go into problem-solving mode. In any given area of my life, I don’t put up with less than an 8 out of 10 for long.”

Jay Kreps, Confluent: “You have to adjust to making decisions with uncertainty and not worrying about the things you can’t control. Don’t focus on whether you’ll win the hand, but on whether you played it well.”

Mohit Lad, ThousandEyes: “You will surprise yourself with how quickly you learn. When everything is new and intimidating, you might hire lot of advisors you don’t really need a month later. We almost always underestimate what we can figure out on our own.”

Tanay Tandon, Athelas: “Shorten your iteration cycles as much as you can. The goal is to test each independent assumption as efficiently as possible.”

Todd McKinnon, Okta: “It’s okay to not have everything figured out. Keep going anyway.”

Yong Kim, Wonolo: “When you’re facing a difficult situation, embrace it. Just keep plowing through. If you can treat challenges as learning opportunities, you’ll come out of them much stronger.”

Culture and Values

Carl Eschenbach, Sequoia: “Be contagious. Being a leader is like having a megaphone to your mouth at all times — your team is hanging on every word you say. So you’d better make sure you’re saying it with passion, enthusiasm and energy.”

Eric Yuan, Zoom: “The product, business model and investors can all be made better over time. But if culture isn’t established from day one, any progress you make will eventually fall apart.”

John Donovan, AT&T Communications: “Entrepreneurs often overlook culture problems early on. They see them as growing pains. But if your teams are fighting amongst themselves, they’re more likely to grow into that behavior than to grow out of it.”

Lynn Jurich, Sunrun: “Continue to investigate and grow your value system. Starting a company is so emotional and intense, and you can lose sight of who you want to be. Your values are what will get you through it.”

Mark McLaughlin, Palo Alto Networks: “The leaders of the company will set the tone for your entire culture. Competency matters a great deal, but a person who isn’t aligned with your values is more likely to hurt your organization than help it no matter how skilled they are.”

Max Rhodes, Faire: “‘Culture fit is really about shared values. We don’t need to have the same perspective on every issue, but we do need to be aligned on what matters most to us.”

For more on managing culture: Dev Ittycheria of MongoDB and Alfred Lin and Andrew Reed of Sequoia.

The Long Haul

Hovhannes Avoyan, PicsArt: “Strive for work-life synergy, not work-life balance. I don’t feel a need to create a wall between work and the rest of my life. What’s important is that I’m thoughtful about how it all coexists.”

Jason Boehmig, Ironclad: “The biggest advantages come from genuinely caring and being curious about your space.”

Nadia Boujarwah, Dia&Co: “The pace of entrepreneurship is fast — often very fast — but you’re still running a marathon. It takes a long time to do extraordinary things.”

Ryan Smith, Qualtrics: “Starting a company in the enterprise space is a 10-year play no matter what, and that timeline should affect every decision you make.”

Selene Cruz, Re:store: “The trick for me is to be grateful. I am living my dream — these are problems I wanted to have for so long! When you’re happy in the moment, that’s contagious.”

*****

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