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    #113 Sarah Tavel: The Value of Intellectual Rigor

    The pandemic has accelerated remote work adoption, leading to increased productivity with tools like Slack and Zoom. However, finding a balance between remote work and in-person interactions is crucial for the future of work.

    enJune 15, 2021

    About this Episode

    Sarah Tavel has spent the past four years as a general partner at venture capital firm Benchmark, after previously serving in the same role with Greylock Partners and as the first-ever product manager at Pinterest. In this episode Shane and Sarah how studying philosophy helped in her career as a venture capitalist, the value of intellectual rigor, her concept of the net-present value of pain, why every strength has a corresponding weakness, where executive boards go wrong, assessing the performance of a CEO, lessons of rapidly scaling at Pinterest, and so much more.

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    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Studying philosophy cultivates analytical thinking, intellectual rigor, and skills necessary for making sound decisions and constructing convincing arguments, while also emphasizing the importance of injecting founder DNA into companies for growth and innovation.
    • Choosing the right metrics, establishing a proper organizational chart, and integrating dedicated and passionate founders are crucial for optimizing product success and driving company growth.
    • To build a successful company, it is crucial to have individuals who align with the company's mission, make upfront investments for long-term profitability, and focus on growing the business while delivering great customer experiences.
    • Founders should not procrastinate on difficult decisions, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their organizational structure, and hire employees with a growth mindset.
    • Founders and leaders should prioritize personal growth by seeking out mentors, coaches, and CEOs, embracing vulnerability, and making tough decisions when it comes to team members and board members.
    • Surrounding oneself with aligned individuals, nurturing trust with the board, and implementing structured decision-making processes are essential for avoiding wasted time, overcoming hurdles, and evaluating investments effectively.
    • By focusing on authentic milestones, intellectual rigor, and aligning strategies to create maximum value, founders and board members can increase their chances of dominating their markets and achieving asymmetrical outcomes.
    • Identifying and dominating a smaller market can lead to significant success, while attempting to tackle big problems without a focused starting point can be detrimental. Analyze the market, find areas of contrast, and strategically position yourself for success.
    • The key to DoorDash's success was their focus on underserved suburban markets, allowing them to become the top choice for restaurants and prepare for expansion into more favorable city markets.
    • Startups have the ability to disrupt big platforms by addressing specific vulnerabilities, showcasing the concept of creative destruction and the potential for permanent changes in the business landscape.
    • The pandemic has accelerated remote work adoption, leading to increased productivity with tools like Slack and Zoom. However, finding a balance between remote work and in-person interactions is crucial for the future of work.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    Philosophy's Value in Various Fields and Founder DNA in Companies

    Studying philosophy can provide a unique perspective and valuable skills that can be applied to various fields, including venture capital and technology. Philosophy teaches analytical thinking and intellectual rigor, which are crucial in making sound decisions and building convincing arguments. This level of rigor is similar to constructing a philosophy proof, where premises are underpinned by logic and objections are preempted. In product development and investment decisions, the same principles apply - hypotheses are formed, underwritten by research and data analysis, and conclusions are drawn. Additionally, the conversation highlights the importance of injecting founder DNA into a company to drive growth and innovation. Acquisitions can be an effective way to bring the unique qualities and skills of founders into an organization, especially when it is challenging to recruit them directly. These lessons can be applicable beyond the context of Pinterest, providing insights into scaling and success in other fields as well.

    The Importance of Metrics, Org Chart, and Founder Integration in Company Success

    What you measure matters. Choosing the right metrics is crucial for optimizing the product and making it successful. Vanity metrics should be avoided as they provide an inaccurate representation of progress. Additionally, the conversation highlights the importance of the organizational chart in a growing company. Changes in the org chart are not necessarily negative but rather a sign of growth and adaptation. Setting the organization in the right way allows for better alignment with strategy and smoother execution. Integration of founders into an existing culture can be beneficial if they align with the company's values and are dedicated to its success. Ultimately, having a team of founders who are all-in and passionate about the company can greatly contribute to its growth and success.

    Importance of Alignment, Investment, and Growth in Building a Successful Company.

    When it comes to finding impactful individuals for your company, their alignment with the company's mission is crucial. It's important to have individuals who see their identity as part of the company and are willing to go all-in. On the topic of generating cash for shareholders, Sarah explains that upfront investment may be necessary to secure profitable long-term customers. Having a machine that can generate profit with a positive return on investment warrants aggressive spending. Sarah also emphasizes the importance of companies being able to escape competition to become profitable and create great customer experiences. However, determining whether a company is using money to grow or is simply acquiring customers without a viable product requires looking for early evidence of contribution margins expanding over time and the founder's understanding of their business.

    Addressing pain, making prompt decisions, and building a well-rounded team are crucial for founders in running a company.

    In running a company, founders need to address pain and make decisions promptly. Procrastinating on difficult decisions or delaying necessary actions only compounds the problems and makes them more challenging to rectify later on. Founders should recognize that pain postponed today will be harder to deal with tomorrow. Additionally, every strength in a company has a corresponding weakness. For example, a decentralized organizational structure allows for quick autonomous decision-making, but it may lead to redundancy and lack of coordination. On the other hand, a centralized structure may prevent such issues but could slow down the decision-making process. It is crucial for founders to surround themselves with individuals who complement their strengths and weaknesses, creating a well-rounded team. Lastly, identifying early warning signs of employees who can't scale in their roles requires observing if they demonstrate a growth mindset and continuously seek ways to learn and improve.

    Continuous Learning, Accountability, and Surrounding Oneself with the Right Support System

    Founders and leaders need to constantly push themselves to learn and grow in order to scale their companies successfully. Surrounding themselves with CEOs and mentors who can challenge and hold them accountable, or finding coaches to support them, can be effective ways to achieve this. It is important for leaders to be vulnerable and acknowledge their own areas of weakness, rather than holding themselves back. When it comes to team members who may not fit their roles, it is generally best to let them go rather than transferring them internally, as this can avoid non-confrontational weaknesses and the risk of bringing down the entire team's execution. The role of boards in startups and companies should involve individuals who are aligned with the company's future and can contribute to strategic conversations, as their input can significantly impact the direction of the company.

    The Importance of Alignment, Trust, and Structured Decision Making in Business Success

    It is crucial to surround oneself with individuals who not only support and challenge, but also share the same vision and mission of the company. Having people who are aligned and capable of pushing the CEO in the right direction is essential to avoid wasting time and effort on convincing those who are not onboard. Additionally, micromanagement and interference from individuals who do not fully understand the company's goals or culture can hinder progress and become a burden for the CEO. Trust breakdown between the board and founder can also be detrimental to the company's success, as important conversations and constructive criticism may be avoided. It is important to nurture a trustworthy relationship where the board acts in the best interest of the company and focuses on its success rather than personal gain. Finally, having a structured decision-making process and mental frameworks in place can help in evaluating investments and strategies effectively.

    Building Enduring Value and Making the Right Decisions: Insights from Sarah Tavely

    In order to build enduring value and make the right decisions, founders and board members must focus on authentic milestones and intellectual rigor rather than vanity metrics. Sarah Tavely emphasizes the importance of orienting companies towards creating maximum value and aligning strategies to achieve this. As a board member, she highlights the commitment and level of service that she provides to ensure the success of the companies she works with. Opportunity cost is a significant factor in making investment decisions, considering not just financial returns but also the allocation of time and resources. Sarah also discusses the idea of escaping competition by seeking network effects or targeting underestimated spaces that do not invite strong competition. By understanding these principles and employing relevant mental models and frameworks, founders and board members can increase their chances of achieving asymmetrical outcomes and dominating their respective markets.

    Finding success through niche markets and strategic positioning

    Identifying and dominating a smaller market or niche can lead to significant success. The conversation highlights how companies like Chain Analysis and Benchling were able to excel by recognizing opportunities in seemingly insignificant markets. These companies were able to leverage their first-mover advantage, build a strong product-market fit, and expand their presence as the market grew. In contrast, the conversation also emphasizes the mistake CEOs often make by being blinded by their ambition to tackle big problems without focusing on a small starting place. By attempting to be everything for everyone, they risk diluting their product and failing to achieve strong market positioning. Therefore, the key is to carefully analyze the market, identify areas of contrast, and strategically position oneself as the leading player in a less competitive market.

    DoorDash's Strategy: Targeting Suburban Markets for Success

    DoorDash's success can be attributed to their strategic decision to target the suburbs, where there was less competition and a higher potential for market tipping. By focusing on an underserved market and providing delivery services that weren't readily available, DoorDash was able to establish themselves as the primary option for restaurants in the suburbs. This allowed them to capture a significant portion of the market and create a strong value proposition for customers. The conversation also emphasizes the importance of building a business in challenging conditions, as mastering the complexities of the suburbs prepared DoorDash for expansion into more favorable city markets. Ultimately, the key to success is finding a market that is easy to win and maximizing the tipping point to drive organic growth.

    Vulnerabilities and Disruption: Unpacking the Challenges Faced by Horizontal Platforms

    Big horizontal platforms like Amazon and eBay, while they have the advantage of scale, also have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by new startups. One such vulnerability is complacency, but it seems that Amazon is not a complacent company. However, there have been examples of companies like eBay that have been disrupted by new startups. The challenge for horizontal platforms is that they need to try to be everything for everyone, resulting in a lowest common denominator product. Startups like Goat, a sneaker marketplace, have been able to disrupt eBay by identifying and addressing specific vulnerabilities, such as counterfeit products and lack of trust. This conversation highlights the concept of creative destruction, where startups can unbundle and leapfrog existing platforms. Overall, while horizontal platforms have incredible strength in scale, there is also a vulnerability in their model that may evolve over time. The conversation also discusses the transformative effects of shelter in place on businesses and the potential for permanent changes in the way we work.

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the future of work: Remote work technologies and the emergence of a new generation of companies.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote work technologies and transformed the way we work and collaborate. Remote work can now be more productive than traditional in-person work, thanks to tools like Slack and Zoom. This has led to the emergence of a new generation of companies that are native to remote or hybrid workspaces, which will likely transform the future of work. In addition, the pandemic has created a new gold rush in the consumer world, with offline activities being replaced by digital products and mobile apps. However, as we eventually return to in-person interactions, there will be a need to find a balance between the benefits of remote work and the importance of physical presence and human connection.

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    Watch the episode on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/theknowledgeproject/videos

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    Tom Gayner: Invest Like The Best

    Tom Gayner: Invest Like The Best

    Tom Gayner, CEO of Markel Group, reveals the lessons he’s learned from Charlie Munger and Berkshire Hathaway, how he invests, and the specific way he thinks about opportunity cost.

    Gayner shares the difference between good debt and bad debt, where he disagrees with Munger, and why he focuses on the basics.

    This intimate conversation offers a level of insight and honesty that Tom hasn’t offered anywhere else.

    Gayner is currently the CEO of Markel Group and the Director of The Coca‑Cola Company. He also serves as chairman of the Davis Series Mutual Funds board and on the boards of Graham Holdings and Markel.

    Listen and Learn.

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    Blake Eastman: Learn to Read Anyone

    Blake Eastman: Learn to Read Anyone
    Blake Eastman has dedicated his entire life to psychology and nonverbal behavior.
     
    In 2009 he founded The Nonverbal Group, a  behavioral research and education company in New York City which conducts large scale studies on human behavior and uses a wide range of technologies to systematically deconstruct and improve human communication.
     
    Eastman dives deep into a number of subjects revolving around how we communicate with one another, including the ability to read nonverbal cues, his thoughts on big talkers vs. silent types, how we can communicate with our partners without complaining, the value of watching ourselves communicate on video, understanding the power structures and social dynamics at work, and so much more.
     
    Eastman has also served as an adjunct psychology professor at the City University of New York for six years where he taught General Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Group Dynamics. He is also a former professional poker player and the founder of School of Cards, the first brick-and-mortar poker school in New York City.
     
    Listen and Learn

    --

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