A screenwriter’s job is to capture the human condition and the fantasies and torment of the human mind. That’s why there are so many time travel movies: humans are constantly thinking “what if” and “if only.” Back to the Future is all about what would have been different if something small had changed in the past. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is about exploring what the world was like in different times. Terminator is about killing someone from the past so that a savior child is not born.
These movies are all artistic interpretations of thoughts we have all the time. For example:
What if things had gone differently?
What if I had done this, instead of that?
If only I could go back and fix this one thing…
What if I could erase all the horrible mistakes?
What if I could go back and do all the things I thought I’d do, said I’d do, and wanted to do, and therefore become the imaginary person I thought I would one day be?
In reality you cannot. You can only focus on where you are and what you can do going forward. You’re never too old, too young, too anything.
In a way, these are all comfortable excuses for not being who we want to be, living the life we want to have. Anyone reading this post has some level of agency. Believe in your agency. Instead of regret, imagine what you can do today to make your future self proud.
2020 was a really hard year. When I look at it in a certain light, it’s easy to beat myself up over a “lost” year. But, the achievement, in a year like this, is getting through it the best you can. We still have 16 days left of this year; let’s focus on getting out safely and with our sanity intact. There’s hope, thanks to hardworking scientists.
The best thing we can do is look forward, towards a better world where we are more aware, less naïve, yet more hopeful about the amazing things human beings can create. The amazing things you will create.
A role, or seat, in an organization is filled by someone. But that person doesn’t own the seat. The seat is the seat: it’s a conceptual role that exists to make the organization succeed.
When a person who is in the seat excels, adds value, and grows with the organization, they get to keep that seat. They may be offered a different seat, with more responsibility where they can continue to thrive and grow.
But there are times when that does not happen—where the needs of the seat are bigger than what that person can fill.
Every successful company reaches this point. Usually, it’s when the organization is growing so fast that the people can’t keep up and scale their skills with that growth. This is an opportunity, both for the company and for the employee. The CEO/leadership team has to look at that the seat and the person, and ask themselves “is this the best person I can have in this seat?” If the answer is no, there is room to bring on an experienced person to fill the role—someone who can have a dramatic positive impact on the role and the organization.
For the person being replaced, this is hard. But even for him, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If he’s intrinsically talented, he can look up to his new manager and learn from her. It’s all about the mindset and the framing. In a fast-growing company, new opportunities will keep coming up and people who show they are open to learning and growing will be given new, different, and often more responsibility.
On some occasions, it may be time to part ways, and that’s okay too. Organizations work best when people are well suited to their roles. And people work best when they’re positioned to apply their unique skills to the fullest, and thrive.
I encourage CEOs and leadership teams to revisit “seating arrangements” once a year, often combined with an annual review process. When you do this, you should put the organizational needs first. Not only is it your fiduciary duty, it’s also the best way to build the company. People will perform better when they know there’s a yearly appraisal, and the best employees should relish the opportunity to get thoughtful input on their areas of growth. Making these decisions is part of the CEO’s job. When the right people are in the right seats, the organization can sing.
The board can play a role by helping the CEO see their own development areas (often done using annual reviews for the CEO). When the CEO ends up modeling behavior of learning and being open about development areas, it can set the organization up with a culture of lifelong learning.
Early on, when Tesla was still Tesla Motors and hardly anyone had heard of it, co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard were approached repeatedly by large companies that wanted to throw significant money at them, so they could work on solving their problems. Marc and Martin always said no.
They turned down those offers because they were both clearly aligned around the mission of the company, the product they were building, and their personal goals and ambitions.
They also knew each other really well. Not only had they already co-founded an e-reader company together, but even before that, they’d been meeting for coffee every Wednesday (and to this day, they still do that). They had a mutual understanding that extended beyond the practical aspects of working together; they had shared values and a shared mission.
Not everyone has the opportunity to meet a co-founder serendipitously—but no matter how you meet, you have to establish that same chemistry that existed between Marc and Martin. You need to be united around your beliefs, values, and mission. You’ll have lots of decisions to make, and you’ll change your mind many times along the way. But there are some things that you need to get right from the start—specifically, what the point is of doing all this, and what will make it worthwhile.
Earlier this year, when I was looking for a new partner, I used Jordan Cooper’s 33 Questions to really determine who I was, what I wanted, how I wanted to build our venture firm, and what I was looking for in a partner. It’s a great list of questions and helps people get to the heart of the things that matter.
I realized that a similar list for co-founders could be useful. I started with Jordan’s list, organized it a bit differently, and then added in questions that are more relevant to co-founders of a startup, rather than a venture firm:
Absolutes: 1. What will you never do and never tolerate from anyone on your team 2. What will you always do and demand from everyone on your team?
The idea and the mission: 3. Describe what the mission is, to you. 4. What’s at the core of this company? 5. In the ideal world, describe what this company looks like in 5 years, 7 years. 6. How much does the mission behind this idea matter to you? 7. Pivoting: — a. If we don’t get traction and have to pivot, would you be okay with that? — b. How far of a pivot are you willing to make? — c. Are you willing to wait and come back to the core idea once the pivot is successful? 8. What is the timeframe within which you want to see the mission come to life? 9. What if it takes longer than we think? What options will you consider? [Note: Sometimes you pick your co-founder before you decide on an idea. In that situation, this whole conversation about the idea could be had more generally, instead of about the specific company you decide to start]
Understanding each other: 10. What is your life’s mission? 11. What is a life well-lived? 12. How do you define success? How do you define failure? 13. Have you failed before? — a. How did you feel about the experience? — b. How did you react to the experience? — c. What did you learn from the experience? 14. What stresses you out? How should I help you handle stress? 15. Who are your closest thought-partners and collaborators and why? 16. Who doesn’t like you and why? Who would you consider adversaries? 17. Who are your mentors? 18. Who are CEOs you look up to and why? 19. What major life events do you envision over the next 10 years? 20. How do you imagine your frame of mind evolving over the next 10 years? 21. What are the life events that have shaped you that I need to know about? 22. How do you learn?
Ethics and Behavior: 23. Have you ever had any issues in the realm of sexual harassment, inappropriate work behavior, legal issues, or has anyone ever challenged or questioned your integrity in a way that might come into focus in the future? 24. What, if any, policies or infrastructure would you want to create to ensure a healthy and ethical work environment?
Values: 25. What are the values that you want to define your company? 26. What will the company and its people stand for and live by? 27. Are there clients or industries you’re morally opposed to entering or serving?
Motivations: 28. What role does money play in your ambitions? 29. Why are you doing this, versus working for a different company? 30. What gets you out of bed each morning? 31. Is winning important to you? 32. How do you measure the impact of your work? 33. Whose opinions of you matter and why?
Compensation: 34. What kind of salary will make you happy and comfortable? 35. What’s your threshold for an exit? Would you be open to being acquired? If yes, how much would you need to personally make in order to accept the offer? 36. How do you think about equity between co-founders? Should we always have equal equity?
Investors: 37. What kind of investors do you want to raise $ from? (values, brands) 38. Who do you already have good relationships with? Who are aspirational? 39. What is the ideal relationship between us and our investors? 40. Is how much money we raise a badge of success?
Roles/how we work with each other: 41. Who is the CEO? It’s got to be one of us. 42. What are the kinds of decisions we need to agree on, and which decisions can the CEO make without consultation? 43. How will we stay connected? What processes should we put in place to be in sync as we move fast? (15 minute phone call/zoom at the end of each day?)
How the team will operate: 44. What are your superpowers, and what do you perceive as mine? How can we accentuate and build around them? 45. What are our strengths as a team? 46. Which responsibilities do you want, and what do you actively not want to own? 47. What are our operating agreements? What standards do we commit to, how will we resolve conflicts? 48. How do you want to build the company, geographically? Where should the office be, or will the company be remote? 49. If it is remote, how will we build culture? 50. What is the culture we want for our company? 51. Where do you think you are weak, where do you think I am weak, and where do you think we are weak as a team? How can we buffer these weaknesses?
Concerns / worries: 52. What do you think is going to be hard, both initially and down the line 53. Based on time together so far, does anything worry you?
First 365 days: 54. What are the most important things for us to accomplish? 55. If we do x, y, and z, what will a great first year in business look like?
This is a long list, but working with a co-founder is a big decision. This process only works if each person is herself. It’s like making unique jigsaw pieces fit together. Pretending to be a differently shaped piece won’t help anyone.
These are the things you need to get right from the beginning, if you’re going to start a successful mission-driven company. This process will take time and it won’t be easy, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.
Almost every company has a mission statement, but not every company has a mission. For a startup, a mission is a perspective on how the world will look when they succeed. For example, Michael Karnjanaprakorn’s mission with Skillshare was to make lifelong learning and upskilling accessible to anyone—giving people the agency to craft a career that inspires them.
The idea germinated when Michael saw this problem up close: he had graduated from UVA, but he really wanted to continue to pursue new interests. He didn’t see a place where he could stretch, grow and practice lifelong learning in a deep way.
Michael was sure a solution was already out there. When it wasn’t, he realized that if he had this problem, surely others did, too. It was time for a solution—not just for him, but for everyone. That led to his founding of Skillshare.
Sarah McDevitt founded Core after suffering a debilitating panic attack. Over the next few months, she tried many things, and the only thing that worked was meditation. But none of the options in the market made it easy. With something that requires such a regular routine, the phone apps just weren’t cutting it. As a D-1 basketball player, she always loved coaching teens and so she decided that she would build a meditation product that the most difficult customers—teenage boys and girls—could use easily and effectively. This ended up becoming Core.
David Lu arrived at Berkeley for his undergrad and was astounded that every day, he could look up and see a clear blue sky. When he was growing up in Shanghai, this was rarely the case. As he continued his undergrad, he met fellow students, some from other parts of the world, who were also surprised at how the Bay Area seemed to have such great air (back then) compared to other places.
They realized that the first step in fixing a problem is to know there is a problem. They decided to build the most accurate sensor that could measure air quality. As they installed sensors, they learned that when traffic increased, the air quality got worse. David wanted to empower people around the world with data about their neighborhood, companies about the air their employees were breathing, and cities with information on how they could keep their citizens safe. From this, Clarity was born.
For all these entrepreneurs, a mission was born of a problem they had some connection with and cared deeply about—one they wanted to solve for themselves and also for others. Not every story is just like these, of course. But if you’re wondering where missions come from, look around you.
In 2009, my writing professor, Ira Sachs, suggested we all read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit as part of our class. His reasoning was that the purpose of writing class is to eventually create something. And the sooner we realized that was our focus, the better. Ira used the class as a forcing function to make a short film, Last Address, which screened at Sundance and Berlin.
I chanced upon the book recently and it made me go into the rabbit hole on Twyla. What an amazing and talented person. This video interview of her captures her essence, which is all about carpe diem, or “shut up and do what you love.”
She’s still creating at a world-class level.
So should we all. So, let’s do it.
I’m proposing that to end this year with panache, we read The Creative Habit, talk about it, and form our own creative habits.