Growth is about building systems to accelerate a company’s pace of learning. The founders I love to work with have an obsessive growth mindset. They experiment, learn, and iterate with increasing velocity.
Driven by curiosity
Learning velocity has been the north star for many of my decisions in life. I grew up a voraciously curious kid. I loved to take things apart and find interesting new ways to rebuild them – including my parents’ car, much to their chagrin! This curiosity led me to study engineering. In my view, most of the interesting, complex problems to solve are actually people problems – and this led me to shift into Industrial Engineering and study complex systems.
While I didn’t initially realize it, working on growth within startups was the perfect progression for me. When done well, growth is a systems engineering function. It uses rigorous cross-functional experimentation to set the learning drumbeat for a company. And this translates to personal life – a growth mindset means one’s objective is never reached. I am on my own journey to continually refine myself and master a craft, yet derive most of my joy from immersing with founders on their journeys and helping them realize the best versions of themselves.
The importance of focus
My two most formative startup chapters were essentially inverses on one key point: focus. In building Tilt, our failure to realize full potential was ultimately due to lack of focus. Growth was humming across multiple dimensions, and multiple customer segments. We were well-capitalized, high-energy, and high-ambition. Trying to pursue three business lines at once was ultimately our achilles heel. So when I joined Stitch Fix to build out the growth team, I was most attracted to a highly disciplined, constrained approach. There were many ways we could have expanded into market adjacencies early, but we didn’t – we built a solid foundation of highly retentive customers within one defined segment, and layered on growth from there.
When I meet with founders, especially those building marketplaces, I rarely pay attention to TAM. Instead, I look for a unique insight on a constrained market, with deep empathy for initial customers and a plan to build liquidity within. From there, expansion becomes much easier.
One quality that I seek out in founders is obsessiveness. For better and for worse, I’ve also grown up an obsessive person – from following my favorite band for ~100 shows to scouring forums to nail the perfect off-beaten-path backpacking trip. Many founders are so dedicated that they literally can’t sleep until they see a vision of the world come to reality. Like many qualities, obsessiveness can be taken too far and cause one to lose sight of the big picture or leave one (and one’s team) feeling depleted if a goal isn’t achieved. But when I encounter a founder who is clearly dedicated to her life’s work, this obsessiveness and relentlessness actually creates energy in a way that is highly contagious. It’s no surprise that obsessive founders attract obsessive teams. The best founders I work with are deeply curious & steeped in their market, yet maniacally driven to reinvent it.
Investing in B2B commerce, marketplaces, and vertical software gives me opportunities to spend time with many founders who have one foot stepped in industry and the other in technology. This is a unique balance to strike, but when it’s found, it can be magical.
One lens into obsession is what one spends free time on. Steve Sewell at Builder is a great example. He’s a developer building for developers, and spends his weekends tinkering on a new open-source framework or obsessively reading & replying to customer feedback. Front-end development is clearly his calling, and this shows in the product, in his content, and resulting community evangelism that has formed around Builder/Qwik.