13 All-Star Founders Share the Single Best Piece of Advice They Ever Received
These founders have soaked up wisdom that has catapulted them to where they are today.
Daniel Lubetzky CREDIT: Jeff Brown
Some founders learn on the fly. Others study at business school. Then there are those who receive a piece of advice at some point in their career that ultimately shapes everything they do. These entrepreneurs share the best wisdom passed along to them.
Founder and CEO of Kind
Our longtime president and chief operating officer, John Leahy, joined the company in 2010, when we were selling nine nut bars, employed 30 team members, and generated roughly $20 million in revenue. To put that in context, today Kind offers more than 70 snacks and employs more than 700 full- and part-time team members. John repeatedly told me, "We can't do everything. Let's prioritize and do a few things really well, rather than a ton of things less well." Like most entrepreneurs, I am constantly generating new ideas, so this was challenging for me to hear. Over the years, I have brought many "crazy" propositions to the table. John didn't dismiss anything outright. He just helped filter the creativity and ensure discipline so that we could identify one "wild" pursuit at a time. Big ideas are what can transform a venture--indeed, they are what can transform our world. But if you are pursuing too many of them, you decrease the chances that any of them will actually pan out. --As told to Bill Saporito
Founder and chairman of ClassPass
My dad told me that you have to always stay adaptable. At the time, the value of the advice didn't fully sink in. Here's what I realized in reflecting back: We can build a skill, and it can become obsolete. We can build an incredible product, and someone can copy it. We can do everything seemingly right, and the market can change on a whim. We can, however, develop the muscles--in the form of sustainable behaviors--that enable us to quickly recognize and adapt to change. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
Co-founder and CEO of Perch and former CEO of Yodle
In 2000, when I was a newly minted general manager of a new business at DoubleClick, Kevin O'Connor, the CEO, asked me to come and present my top five priorities to him. We wrote them on the whiteboard. Before the meeting even started, he crossed the bottom three initiatives off and said, "First, get the top two done, and then we can talk about the others." Over time, I have refined his advice: Focus on just one thing per quarter. This does not mean that you get only one thing done per quarter, but instead that you always get the most important thing done every quarter. --As told to C.L.C.
Founder of Carol's Daughter
Years ago, a peer said to me that at the end of the day, who I am and what I represent are like the roots of the tree. If the roots of the tree are not healthy, then the tree bears no fruit, the tree doesn't grow. He said that I was the foundation of my company. At the moment, I couldn't fully appreciate and understand what it was he was saying to me. As the years progressed, I got down to like level 27 of what he was saying and it resonated over and over again.
--As told to C.L.C.
Founder of Behance, chief product officer and executive vice president of Creative Cloud for Adobe, and author of The Messy Middle
Almost a decade ago, I was leaving my very first board meeting for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, a century-old iconic institution I had always admired. "What a waste of time," I thought. We had discussed upcoming exhibits and early plans for a major renovation that was years away, and pontificated on whether to explore new uses for social media. In the startup world, such meetings are not only a waste of valuable time but can be demoralizing for a group of hyper-ambitious and impatient overachievers. You're not going to change the world by spending three hours sharing ideas and hearing yourselves speak.
On my way to catch a cab, I spotted my fellow board member John Maeda, once head of MIT's famed Media Lab, now president of Rhode Island School of Design and a mentor of sorts. "John, what a waste," I said. "You must sit through so many long, actionless meetings like this as president of a university. How do you do it?" John looked at me and shook his head back and forth in a Yoda-like way. "Scott," he said as he pulled me aside, "all of those fun and exciting startups and projects you focus on every day, they won't be around in a hundred years. But every now and then in life, you have the opportunity to add a brick to something that will last forever. You are here to add a brick."
Over the years since, the profoundness of John's advice has impacted what I choose to do and how I work. I appreciate modern work mantras like "work with a bias toward action" and "move fast and break things." But preserving and enriching something that lasts forever may, over the arc of time, serve humanity more than any disruptive flash in the pan. --As told to Danielle Sacks
Founder and CEO of Imgur
The best business advice I received is simple: Take inventory of your energy. As your company grows, you naturally take on more and more responsibilities that may be very different from one another, and different from what originally made you fall in love with your company. The things you used to love doing, such as taking care of your customers or building the product, may have been replaced by whatever seemingly urgent thing is going on at that time--discussing PR strategies, putting together financial projections for the board, or handling employee relation issues. It's very easy to get burnt out in an environment like that, and burnout leads to giving up. For two weeks, take note of the things that energize you and the things that drain you. Don't just remember them; actually write them down somewhere. Perhaps shipping a bug fix gave energy that morning, but then maybe a meeting right after that took energy away. At the end of this time, study your data, and you'll find that certain types of activities, or even certain people, are bringing you up or draining you. Then, take control of your schedule. I believe injecting your company with energy every single day is a core responsibility of all founders. If we're not excited about what we're doing, then no one else will be either.
--As told to C.L.C.
Co-founder and chief concept officer of Sweetgreen
I met Walter [Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods] early on in my entrepreneurial journey. He told me: "Culture deserves to be on the balance sheet."
The importance of culture and the investment you put into it is central to our success as a business, especially as we've scaled. It's why we have programs such as the Family Fund, which provides emergency financial support in times of need caused by catastrophic events, like a natural disaster or a life-altering personal crisis. It's funded by our corporate employees for team members in our restaurants through voluntary paycheck deductions. It's shaped how we've made decisions about everything from hiring, compensation, technology, and communication to training. --As told to D.S.
Founder and CEO of Parachute
During our early days, Sam Teller, the managing director at Launchpad, told me investors were concerned that I didn't have the "fire in the belly" characteristic of successful founders. While I'm a laid-back individual by nature, I didn't want potential investors mistaking this as a lack of enthusiasm. So I shifted my pitch to show my hustle, drive, and unrelenting passion. This included small but important tweaks like sitting up straighter, looking into people's eyes longer. I knew I needed to bring the intensity I felt inside, out. --As told to C.L.C.
Founder and chairman of Fisher Investments
It was Thursday, July 16, 1998. My little $2 billion investment advisory firm was doing fine and had done some good things others in our realm hadn't. But we were tiny. I picked a journalist friend up at the San Francisco airport. He was going to visit with me but first he wanted to pay respects to my father, whom he interviewed in 1968 and had only seen once since. So I took him by, went about my business, and picked him up an hour later. Father was 91. While never much of a businessman, my father, Philip Fisher, had been a hugely influential investment thinker.
Driving back, the journalist kept muttering: "What was it he always says? He said it when we met in the '60s." I had no idea. Finally, he blurted, "What are you doing your competitors aren't doing yet?" I recalled my father saying it when I was younger. But I never paid enough attention to apply it to myself. It hit me like a ton of lead. It made all the difference. The emphasis is on "yet." Force them to follow.
Oh, and listen to your father more. I should have. --As told to B.S.
Co-founder and CEO of Flash Pack
My friend Lucy told me to focus on doing the three most important things per day. I call it the rule of three, and it is game changing. Cut out the background noise--social media, replying to emails--and instead always focus on building that big picture. It is also genius, because it recognizes that energy is a finite resource: You have to accept that you can't do everything. --As told to C.L.C.
Founder and CEO of Minted
Now that Minted is 10 years old, the advice I seek out has grown and evolved with the company. One of our investors, Henry Ellenbogen of T. Rowe Price, suggested that a small percentage of this team should be composed of executives learning about what it takes to scale a company for the first time. The remainder of the team should be made up of individuals who have experience contributing to management teams that have guided growth and scaling efforts of other companies, ideally beyond the point where Minted is now. Henry's advice acknowledged that a balance of veterans' and first-time perspectives was important, and it positioned our team to make the best decisions about the future.
--As told to C.L.C.
Co-founder and CEO of Giphy
"Don't work with friends" is the single piece of business advice I've received the most. Well, second to "make lots of money."
But where does that leave you? Working eight, 12, or 16 hours a day with people you mildly tolerate? Work-life balance is inherently impossible because all of it is in fact ... your life. Why spend the majority of it with "co-workers"? Co-workers aren't there for you when things are hard, when they're not going your way. You know who is? Your friends.
On the road trip of life, I'd rather be in a cramped car with my friends, my best friends, and maybe that random friend of friend with the good playlist and snacks. Definitely work with your friends if you get the chance. --As told to C.L.C.
Founder of HEX Performance
The best advice I've ever received came from my father who told me, "Lead--don't follow." This may be simple and obvious, but it still requires awareness, vulnerability, and empathy.
I received this advice as a college athlete. At that point in my life, I wasn't leading a company--I was the captain of a team that needed to step up our level of performance. As I moved on to professional sports and then entrepreneurship, I've found that there are so many correlations between becoming a successful athlete and a successful business leader. Like most life lessons that stick with you, the advice from my father made more and more sense over time. --As told to C.L.C.
From the March/April 2019 issue of Inc. Magazine