I Cofounded a Company and Led It to an IPO and a $2.5 Billion Acquisition. Here Are 5 Things I’d Do Differently
If you are a CEO or founder, or thinking of becoming one, don’t ignore these lessons as you build your company.
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Now three years into trying to reverse type 2 diabetes at Virta Health, I often reflect on what I learned during the Trulia years and how to repeat what worked and eliminate what didn't. If you're a founder or CEO, or thinking about becoming one, hopefully you'll find these lessons useful in your journey, too.
1. Define a clear and meaningful purpose before you start your company.
I still don't remember exactly what Trulia stood for when we started it, or precisely why we started it in the first place. Creating a consumer-driven marketplace for real estate may have been a fun problem to solve, but it is clear now that for me, a deeper purpose was missing.
Starting a company takes so much energy and conviction that not having a clearly defined and meaningful mission can impede your success. This is why at Virta our mission was defined early--reverse type 2 diabetes in 100M people by 2025.
This north star has proved time and time again to be a unifying and motivating force, from investors to customers to employees.
2. Celebrate the journey and little milestones even more.
Pretend that you are presented with the option of fast forwarding 10 years in your life and being guaranteed success and all of the money (or whatever it is you value) that goes along with it. Would you take it?
I hope the answer is no, because as I learned, the journey of company building is everything. Between the fleeting moments of "success" (a customer gained, a milestone reached, an IPO), there are infinite moments that shape our experience, help establish lifelong friendships, and make us human. It is borderline cliche to say to savor these, but as I am a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser, never have I valued the journey more than now.
3. Sweat the big stuff. And ONLY the big stuff.
As a CEO stressing about a never-ending to-do list or trying to work more hours to "feel productive" is a waste of time. My ability to make us succeed comes down to a few key things: people (hiring and developing the right people and building a strong culture), defining the right strategy, making sure we don't run out of cash, and helping deliver an awesome product.
The same focus applies to every role. Working on the essentials is key, otherwise you'll feel constantly behind and stressed for no real reason. Identify the things that matter, and do only those things.
4. Mostly make hard decisions and make them ALONE.
Only hard decisions create a lot of value and the easier ones should be made by someone else on your team. At Trulia, we had "two at the top" (two founders--a CEO & COO/President), which meant that when there wasn't unanimous agreement on big decisions, they were occasionally delayed or ignored.
To build a category defining company, tough decisions and sometimes risky (but calculated) bets are required really break through. These cannot be made by consensus.
At Virta, we've made big decisions that weren't obvious at the time--starting a complex clinical trial with just a little seed funding, and becoming a full-stack company and fully-licensed provider with a protocol that isn't standard of care to name a few. I'm confident that without these, we wouldn't have achieved the early success we've seen thus far. And I know that there are many more non-obvious decisions that lie ahead.
5. Actively manage people and talent.
If you wanted to really simplify the key to success, you could just point to people. I was proud of the culture we established at Trulia, but there were a few cases where someone left and it was quietly celebrated. That is just crazy. Rare is it that an individual is the issue for poor performance--it usually comes down to fit.
When this happens it's the job of the manager to make things work through active coaching and mentoring, or compassionately help that person find a better situation elsewhere. Leaders should encourage honesty and create a space where it's ok to speak up if someone feels that they are the wrong fit. Then, put people in fulfilling roles that challenge them. You and your team will be rewarded.
I am three years into Virta with many more to go before we achieve our mission, but I'm not looking ahead. Everyday is teaching me something new, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Nor should you.