Don’t Choose What To Do, Choose What Not To Do.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

The number one thing that smart people do wrong is that they overvalue optionality. Contrary to popular belief, you should put yourself in a small box and limit your options so that you are clear and focused. 

Optionality usually leads to a worse outcome than focus.

Almost every smart person disagrees with me on this, but you should eliminate options. 

Most super-smart people are doing the opposite: they are continually growing their options. Business school teaches you to open up options. Businesses that value optionality will start a few different products with the hope that one of the businesses will take off, or they’ll make multiple bets valuing portfolio theory over focus.

Having multiple strategies often means that a company isn’t investing enough in the most promising path. The best businesses are clearly focused and say “no” to almost everything. They deliberately cut off options, and they publicly declare that they will not go into business lines in the future (even when businesses are adjacent to their core market).

Focus is the act of eliminating options. 

Eschew optionality and instead focus on the one thing you want to do really, really well. Create a strategy and execute on that strategy. Don’t A/B test. Instead, be deterministic about what path will work and follow that path. A CEO might be wrong about the path, or the business might not execute. But without a deterministic path, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to the focused entrepreneur.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”

– Warren Buffett
Continue reading

True Stories of Start-Up Secondary Transactions

There seems to be a lot of rumors, suggestions, and ideas floating around about secondaries but little hard data … so Tod Sacerdoti, Jeff Lu, and I decided to survey 100 founders (93 responded) of some of the largest tech companies about secondary transactions: and here are the answers.

Our hope from this survey was to help inform what the current best practices are.

On a personal note: I’ve never done a founder secondary transaction myself and likely never will (though one of cofounders at LiveRamp did a secondary). But if I did do a quality secondary transaction at LiveRamp, we likely would have never sold the company and instead took it to IPO (and thus have had a significantly higher return for our shareholders). So secondaries could add a lot of value – especially for founders without a significant previous exit.

As an investor, I have been an investor in many start-ups that have done secondaries. Meaning some of the old shareholders sold some or all of their stock. I have also participated in buying secondary shares of companies on many occasions.


In the first question, we got some requests for a sixth option for “early employees.” We didn’t want to change the survey in the middle to skew results, but we did want to flag that as some feedback. For the most part, it seems like everyone is open to secondary for a broad swath of stakeholders.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

The next 2 questions go together. A little over half of the respondents have someone on their cap table who they regret having. Interestingly, in those cases, over 50%+ would prefer a new investor or operator/friend to buy the troublesome investors out vs. their existing investors. 

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated
A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated
Continue reading

Judgment is the x-factor.

group of people huddling

SafeGraph has six core Values and one (“Judgment is the x-factor”) of them was basically lifted almost verbatim from the LiveRamp Values because it is the most important value to me:

Judgment is the x-factor. It is essential that every team member at SafeGraph makes key decisions autonomously, so that we move fast and limit bureaucracy. But as Voltaire (sometimes attributed to Spider-Man’s Uncle) said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” To make great and effective decisions at all levels of the company, we need to (1) clearly communicate the company’s strategy to all team members; (2) hire super smart teammates that work hard; (3) only hire people who have demonstrated sound judgment and are deserving of our trust.

It is really powerful to work at a company that exclusively employs people with good judgment.  It allows you to move faster. It builds trust amongst coworkers. It eliminates bureaucracy.

To do that one has to actively discriminate against people with bad judgment: which means you need to make this one of the core criteria during interviews (and through observations once someone starts).

The main reason that you want everyone in the company to have good judgment is so you can have fewer “rules” which allows you to move faster.  Much faster.  The more rules, the slower you will move.  The more you trust employees to make decisions, the more decisions will get made.  

I wrote in “Pace, Tempo, Speed, and OODA loops“:

“At SafeGraph, I try to deliberately make as few decisions as possible.  I deem it a failure if I need to make a decision … because that means we are moving slower in that area.  That does not mean I don’t make any decisions — I do.  But those are failures I hope to improve upon in the future.  Additionally, you don’t want the management team making decisions.”

Of course, when you trust others to make decisions, it means they won’t always be made exactly the way you want them to be made.  You need to be ok with that.  That is a by-product of decentralized decision-making. 

As a CEO, you can still reserve the most important one-way door decisions for you to make … that way if you completely screw up the company at least you can only blame yourself 🙂  In fact, that is one of the reasons I love being a CEO — I have only myself to blame.  For instance, you’ll likely be extremely involved in hiring people (even if you ultimately empower the hiring manager) because having people with good judgment that your team can trust to run with the ball is so important.

While most of SafeGraph’s values are aspirational (and we can fail at them), judgment is an absolute must.  If we hired someone without judgment, we would have to terminate them … as people with bad judgment are a real cancer on organizations.  Because people with bad judgment create rules.

When we sold LiveRamp to Acxiom in 2014, the first thing I did was read the Acxiom HR handbook.  There were lots and lots of rules.  One rule I found particularly interesting was “you cannot do cocaine on premises.”  After talking with the SVP of HR, I found that yes, there was a story of someone actually caught doing cocaine in the Acxiom bathroom. Rather than just immediately firing the offender, they also thought it was necessary to add a rule.  But you cannot enumerate all rules (there was no written rule against heroin or meth … there was no written rule stating people must wear clothes to work).  One must eventually rely on people for their judgment.

Good judgment is the answer to lots of rules.  And lots of rules make decisions take longer which means the company would inevitably move at a slower pace (see recent scribe on pace).  Judgment is fused with pace.  All things being equal, a company filled with people with good judgment can outrun a company that is not.

Of course, judgment does not mean you need to stop and contemplate all your moves.  It should be ingrained in what you do.  It does not mean you never make mistakes.  It does not mean you never have a bad day or act in a way you regret.  But it does mean you don’t need a seminar to know that harassing someone is a bad thing. It means you don’t need a training to know you don’t discriminate on race.  Good judgment knows that one must act in the best long-term interest of the company.  

  clearly communicate the company’s strategy to all team members

It is really hard to act in the best long-term interest of the company if everyone is not in sync about the company’s long-term interests.  That is why it is really important to clearly and frequently discuss the company’s strategy.  The more you are all in sync about where the company is going in the long-term, the more you can rely on judgment of your fellow teammates to get you there.  Planning becomes less important with judgment because everyone knows where the company is headed.

One of the primary missions of the CEO is to help everyone in the organization understand the long-term strategy.  It is actually really hard to do that and I have frequently failed at it at SafeGraph, LiveRamp, and other organizations I have been a part of. 

What Should Be Your Major in College?

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

Most people don’t choose the right major in college. 

This isn’t because it’s hard to do (it’s not). It’s because they don’t have any kind of decision-making framework to follow.

Your college major should be:

  1. Something that you are passionate about (and hopefully good at). 
  2. Something under-indexed in your preferred industries. 
  3. Something unpopular at your institution. 

Some of these may seem counterintuitive, but there are good reasons to find a major that incorporates all three. 

Before we get into the framework, here are 4 things you should NOT do when choosing a major:

  1. Choose based entirely on emotion.
  2. Have your parents decide for you.
  3. Choose the popular majors in your university.
  4. Choose the major you think your preferred employer is looking for. 

And here’s what you SHOULD do when choosing your college major:

1. Finding something you are passionate about. 

Think of what you might want to do after college. You don’t need to pick what you want to do exactly, but it is helpful to narrow down to a group of things you might want to do.  

These should be industries for which you have an affinity. Ones that you enjoy learning about in your free time. 

If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, look at what you’re good at. We often get excited about the things we are good at and are good at the stuff we get excited about (because we spend a lot of time doing them and thinking about them).  

Take a look at your hobbies and the things you would do for free. Those will point you in the right direction.

Continue reading

A Recession Is a Perfect Time To Kill Off Parts of Your Company That No Longer Work

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

One of the hardest things to do at a company is to kill off the parts that aren’t working. A company is all about building things, not destroying them. So it’s unnatural to go about tearing it apart. 

But every so often, it’s necessary. To keep the business healthy, you have to take a hard look at operations and get rid of areas that are no longer important or contributing to growth.

And timing is critical for this. Killing off parts of your company is hard enough, but doing so early is truly difficult. That’s why one of the best times to take a hard look at what parts of the company you need to get rid of is during a recession. 

If you have a big enough company, you could even designate someone as CKO — a Chief Killing Officer. That person’s entire job would be to look at everything the company does and try to kill it.

Here are some areas you should look at closely during a downturn to see what you can destroy:

1. Take a look at your products.

In a downturn, a company should focus on what it does really well and let go of what it doesn’t. That’s why it’s essential to take a hard look at your products to see what you can kill.

For example, Uber has a lot of initiatives involving trucking and self-driving cars.  Those might be really good investments or they might be distractions to their core businesses.  This is a good time to really dive into them.  

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Imagine where your company would be if it outsourced everything it wasn’t good at and focused only on what it was good at. A recession is a great time to ask this question and see what you can lose. 

Continue reading

Searching for Heroes

All my life I’ve been searching for heroes.  Heroes are hard to find.  

You find someone, look up to them, and then discover they are flawed.  They are more than human.  It is heartbreaking.

When I was in junior high school, my heroes were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  I imagine I was like a lot of other 13-year-olds — lots of people revere these two incredible people.  I started obsessing about both Gandhi and MLK Jr. and read a lot about them … going to the library (yes, this was pre-Internet) and reading more and more books and articles about them.

Over time I learned a great deal about my heroes.  But I also learned they were extremely flawed men.  Gandhi has been credibly accused of racism and misogyny … and then there is the fact that he had young girls sleep next to him while he was naked. MLK Jr. did many horrible things to women.   After I found these things out I was really troubled and eventually decided that they no longer could be my heroes because they were flawed.

But the more I read other biographies, the more I realized that everyone is flawed. 

No one is good all the time. 

Every person has a bit of bad in them.  Everyone makes very big mistakes.  In fact, the more good you do, the bigger mistakes you will make.  

Who are your heroes? Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, JRR Tolkien, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, James Madison, Warren Buffett, Alexander Hamilton, Milton Friedman, Jane Austen? All of these people were incredibly flawed too.

As you go through history, you see more flawed people.  The Old Testament is full of flawed people.  Moses was flawed.  All the Greek Gods were incredibly flawed (even Zeus) — many were even more petty than the average human.  Even the G-d in the Old Testament is flawed, frequently acting in a vindictive and non-compassionate way … certainly not in a way one would expect a divine and all-powerful being to act.

The only two non-flawed people I could find were Jesus and his mother, Mary.  But it is not fair to compare yourself to divine beings … we can learn from them but us mortals can never become them.

Many fictional characters are too simplistic.  Luke, Leia, and Yoda were all truly good and never had any evil or bad in them.  But they were so one-dimensional.  It is little wonder that Han Solo turns out to be the most enduring character from the original Star Wars Trilogy — he was a con artist, thief, liar, and philanderer who movie-goers fell in love with anyway. 

A Hero Portfolio

Putting all one’s eggs in one hero can lead to real disappointment.  If you have one idol, they can easily fall off their pedestal.  Having a portfolio of heroes allows one to pick and choose the good qualities from all while acknowledging but hopefully not following their flaws. 

Since then, I have found that I can have many heroes (including MLK Jr and Gandhi) — acknowledging their strengths and their flaws.  

Having a hero portfolio also allows one to have people you know as heroes.  My wife and brother are two of my heroes.  Many of my best friends are my heroes.  I can even be my own hero on the days when I live up to my ideal.  Yes, we are all flawed (even in very serious ways) … but we can choose to admire someone for their strengths. 

Pace, Tempo, Speed, and OODA loops

“Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.” – Jeff Bezos 

Last year I read a biography of former Air Force Colonel John Boyd.  Boyd was one of the most decorated fighter pilots of all time (he flew in the Korean War).  But he was most known for changing the way people thought about warfare — he pioneered the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) — which is essentially about how to move quickly.

He realized that even underpowered planes could beat much better equipped flying machines if they got to take more actions.  Maneuverability beat velocity.  But the deciding factor was the number of actions a pilot could take in a minute. The F16 was built as an intentionally underpowered plane (it is one of the slowest fighter planes) — but it is super easy to move, has great visibility for the pilot (just one pilot unlike the very bulky F14 that was in the Top Gun movie), and is very small.

Moving fast and the ability to react and keep moving and changing is what wins wars.  The Israelis embodied Boyd’s lessons in the Six Day War.  Tempo wins.

This idea of OODA loops and Actions Per Minute will be very familiar to video game fans (where pace intensely matters). 

The OODA loop is even more important in start-ups.  Being slow WILL kill you.  Pace is very important.  Again, tempo wins.

“Good things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” – Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, or John Snow (no one actually knows who originated this quote)

This is not to underestimate thinking strategically and planning.  The bigger the organization, the more important planning is.  Big companies can only do a very small number of things … so it is really important to pick the things that they do.  

Small companies’ only advantage is that they can move fast.  So they should never give up that advantage by over-planning.  Small companies ideally should know what their true north is (5 year goal) and have very fluid quarterly plans.  Hard plans beyond a quarter are almost certainly going to be wrong.

That does not mean that planning is useless for start-ups.  It isn’t.  And as start-ups get bigger, they need to plan more.  Overplanning is bad.  So is underplanning.  But if you have smart employees that are empowered and know the true north of the organization, underplanning is much preferred to overplanning.  

The only way you can be successful while underplanning is if your employees are empowered.  What happens in some start-ups is that they both underplan and the CEO insists s/he needs to review everything.  That is the worst of all worlds because the CEO becomes the gate to getting anything done because one person can only do so much.  If the CEO needs to make all big decisions, then you need to make fewer decisions (this is where planning is so important).

At SafeGraph, I try to deliberately make as few decisions as possible.  I deem it a failure if I need to make a decision … because that means we are moving slower in that area.  That does not mean I don’t make any decisions — I do.  But those are failures I hope to improve upon in the future.  

Additionally, you don’t want the management team making all the decisions.  For instance, your VP Engineering should not be making most of the engineering decisions.  The vast majority of engineering decisions should be made by the engineers (working with product and the other internal colleagues).  Same thing with every department in the company.  And again, that does not mean that the VP Engineering makes no decisions … but ideally she is only making decisions that only she can make.  

Pace, pace, pace.

Increasing tempo is hard because it means sometimes you have to trade-off doing things right for doing things fast.  It also means you need to trade-off features on things you don’t think are as important — and it is hard to make those trade-offs while moving lightning fast.

“I feel the need for speed” – Maverick

Four Character Traits That Will Matter Far Less In a Post-COVID World

Life coach Tony Robbins is tall, good-looking, and has a deep voice — these traits will matter less in a post-COVID world

Historically, a tall, good-looking extrovert has had a better chance of success in their career than a short, stocky introvert. But post Covid-19, that’s all going to change. 

In a world where more interactions are via video, rather than in-person, past successful character traits will be less impactful. The paradigm will shift. Your internet connection speed and camera quality will matter more than your physical attributes.

Here are some historical success-contributing traits that won’t matter nearly as much post-COVID as they did before:  

1. Height won’t matter so much.

In today’s world, being tall is a competitive advantage. It’s well-known that tall people make more money than their shorter counterparts. An additional inch of height is worth about $1,000 annually. Many studies have shown that tall people have an advantage in the dating world, too, and U.S. Presidents tend to be much taller than average

Take Tony Robbins, for example. He is 6′ 7″. There’s no question that his tall stature has contributed to his mega-success as a motivational speaker and life coach. He towers over his guests at his conferences, and his deep, booming voice commands respect and admiration. 

But in a world dominated by video calls and digital conferences, your height will matter much less than it has in the past. No one can tell how tall you are on a video call. Everyone is sitting down and generally at the eye-level of their computer’s camera. Height will no longer translate.

This change matters, especially when it comes to job interviews. Your average company’s interview process is not perfect—height and physicality matter in an in-person interview just as much a candidate’s experience and qualifications. But height won’t translate as well during a video call. The competitive advantage of being tall will disappear. 

Imagine seeing Tony Robbins for the first time via video. His physical stature would not be nearly as impressive as it is in person. 

In the future, tall people will have less of an advantage than they did in the past.  One of the big winners will be women (since women, on average, are shorter than men).  

Continue reading

Company Culture Is How You Are Different, Not How You Are The Same

“Culture” is what makes a company look strange to others from the outside. It’s a combination of all the quirks, traditions, and personalities that make it unique. Ultimately, culture is defined by how your company is different from all the others, not how it’s the same. 

A company’s culture should be like an Indian wedding.

If you’re American and have never experienced an Indian wedding, it will seem very strange at first. They are colorful, elaborate celebrations that can last multiple days. From choreographed dances during the Sangeet (the pre-wedding party) to the groom riding in on a horse, to the bride’s vibrant-colored Sari (there’s no white dress), they can feel otherworldly. 

The traditions are so specific at an Indian wedding that you find out quickly whether you like or dislike the cultural experience (I love it). This isn’t a comment on whether Indian weddings are better or worse than other kinds of weddings – they are just unabashedly different. 

Company cultures should be like Indian weddings. They need to have key elements that make them distinctly different from other companies. 

Continue reading

Here’s Why Economic Downturns Are Good For Innovators and Bad For Everyone Else

Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

All the way back in 2008, I wrote a piece about why economic downturns are good for innovators and bad for pretty much everyone else. 

As we face a recession in 2020 due to COVID-19, this is still true. The pressures of an economic slowdown actually benefit certain innovative companies that had trouble getting wide-spread adoption before the recession. 

Here’s an excerpt from my article from 2008, Recessions promote breakthrough innovations:

When the economy is booming, little pressure is put on expenses. Large organizations often penalized innovators…[and] companies are ok with spending more money on the same software, the same hardware, and the same advertising mix. 

But…economic downturns force companies to reevaluate how they spend money. Companies need to cut expenditures dramatically yet are expected to have the same level of service as when times were good. This forces firms to look for alternatives to what they are doing.

Revenue pressure forces large companies to get creative. And it’s those smaller companies that are already innovating or can pivot quickly that take advantage. This was true in the Great Recession of 2008 and will be true in the recession forming in 2020. The only difference is where the innovation is taking place. 

Continue reading

5 Ways To Actually Improve Your Life & Your Work During Quarantine

Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

There are a lot of articles out there about self-improvement during the quarantine. These can be a bit exhausting to read. You’re probably not focused on growth if you have kids at home and are just trying to manage your life and job under the new COVID-19 world order.

But, there’s still value in attempting to take up some positive habits during this bizarre time. Even if they are just in the back of your mind, they could impact your behavior. 

So, here are a few ideas if you are interested in personal and professional growth during the lockdown: 

1. Watch less news. 

TV news is worse for you than cigarettes. It is designed to get people riled up and elicit extreme emotions to keep you glued to the channel. It is not designed to help to deliver or inform the news. It is all noise and no signal. 

All daily news is bad.

The U.S. networks that deliver daily news are all bad. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, CNBC, ABC … and even things like the Daily Show … are terrible for you. Eliminate it all. These programs are designed to get you frustrated, angry, and emotional. Just like smartphones, they are created by brilliant people to keep you addicted to the network 24/7. 

If you watch 10 hours of TV news, you will learn almost nothing. It might mildly entertain you … but you can watch a great TV show (like Breaking Bad) for entertainment.

Continue reading

TV: The Honourable Woman — great show if you stuck at home

If you are looking for a great mini-series to watch and you love political thrillers (which is my personal favorite genre), go no further than The Honourable Woman.

“The Honourable Woman” (which is spelled “The Honorable Woman” in the U.S. release) is a BBC mini-series starring the amazing Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is incredible in the show). Gyllenhaal plays a member of the British House of Lords who also happens to be the daughter of a famous Israeli arms dealer.

Intrigue and incredible twists and turns accompany every episode. There is a deep plot about the Mi6, CIA, Mossad, Hamas, and more. And, of course, no one is what they seem and everyone has a deep back-story.

In the U.S., you can buy the show on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, etc.

Summation: highly recommend the “The Honourable Woman” — especially if you like political thrillers. Rating: 5/5