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Editor’s note: James Buckhouse is architecture accomplice at Sequoia. 



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James Buckhouse: We accomplice from abstraction to IPO and beyond, but it’s partnering at the abstraction date that we adulation the best — that moment aback annihilation is possible. And it’s happened throughout Sequoia’s history. YouTube incubated in our office. Dropbox was an unreleased demo. Stripe didn’t accept a distinct band of code. Apple was aloof two bodies called Steve. And so our admired abode to be is in the ancient moments.

We’re not actuality tonight to allotment with you acquaint of our abundant acumen on how aggregation architecture affliction to go. We’re actuality tonight to say that we accept how adamantine it is. And the three ally that you’ve got actuality to allocution with tonight — Roelof Botha, Jess Lee and Mike Vernal — are bodies who accept absolutely been in the trenches architecture companies themselves.



James Buckhouse: Abundant companies like Apple, Amazon and Zoom all accept this one affair in common: chump obsession. That’s an accessible affair to anticipate about aback you already accept a billion customers, and you already accept a agglomeration of money. But what do you do aback you’re at the pre-seed date and you appetite to be customer-obsessed but you don’t alike accept a artefact yet, let abandoned any customers? How do you alike begin?



Jess Lee: I anticipate at the absolute ancient of stages, all that absolutely affairs is artefact bazaar fit. A accepted aberration we see is that a architect is alone bedeviled with the product, and again goes on to think, “I accept my product. Let me go acquisition a bazaar that works for this,” aback it should absolutely be the added way around. You should attending at the bazaar first, and again get to apperceive the barter in that bazaar by accomplishing chump research.

There’s a abundant book by Erika Hall breadth she discusses how to ask the appropriate questions to barter in adjustment to absolutely accept their affliction points, their motivations and their needs. That’s a authentication of some of the best companies that we’ve seen, alike at the ancient stages. They absorb a lot of time talking to barter and compassionate what they want. Article we at Sequoia like to acclaim aback we assignment with berry and pre-seed-stage companies is to absolutely booty the time to address bottomward a set of chump personas. Who are your prototypal or your archetypes of altered types of customers? In the absolute aboriginal days, you adeptness think, “I apperceive the customer. I can bethink this. I don’t charge to address it down.” But as anon as you add one new aggregation member, who maybe isn’t as accustomed with your customer, a lot of things get absent in translation.

For my aggregation Polyvore, which was in the women’s appearance space, I had a lot of engineers on my aggregation who were men and didn’t accept women’s appearance absolute well. I would consistently exhausted my arch adjoin the bank apprehensive why a affection they advised didn’t absolutely accomplish sense, and it’s because we did the personas exercise a little bit too late. It fabricated me ambition we’d done it earlier. Already we had three absolute bright personas, I started to apprehension aggregate ran added smoothly. I found, whether it was the sales aggregation or the engineering team, bodies started to acutely acquaint the abstraction of what our chump absolutely wanted. Bodies fabricated bigger decisions at all levels. That’s why at Sequoia we consistently animate alike our earliest-stage companies to address their chump analysis bottomward immediately, way afore they anticipate they charge it.

James Buckhouse: How does an early-stage startup accomplish abiding that they’re on the appropriate clue and architecture the appropriate product?

Mike Vernal: The key affair to me is absolutely not actuality data-driven; it’s abundant added about actuality hypothesis-driven. The botheration is bodies anticipate about artefact as art. But I absolutely anticipate of artefact as actuality according genitalia art and science. And I anticipate the science allotment of it, which is absolutely important, abnormally at an aboriginal stage, is actuality bright about what your hypotheses are, what you anticipate is activity to work, why you anticipate it’s activity to assignment and absolutely array of pressure-testing that on a analytic level. And, if you are able to, absolutely pressure-testing it with absolute data.

One of Jess’s techniques, which I anticipate is great, is the angle of affected doors. If you appetite to apperceive whether something’s absolutely activity to hum in the market, whether bodies are activity to affliction about it, body a landing folio for it. Body a sign-up button for it. Run a agglomeration of ads for it. Analysis a agglomeration of altered business archetype and see if bodies absolutely appetite the product. I’ve apparent a agglomeration of companies use this to abundant effect.

I anticipate that in accepted the mistakes bodies accomplish with artefact is, one, actuality too aesthetic and not accurate abundant about things. And again two, to Jess’s point, the best important affair afore you accept a artefact is award artefact bazaar fit. Usually, award artefact bazaar fit in a class is a action of two or three important things. Identifying those important things and testing them to get accuracy about that first, again designing the abounding product, is way bigger than aloof starting with a masterpiece, and again boring painting over and over the masterpiece until you get to article that is great.

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James Buckhouse: For action companies, Roelof, can you allocution a little bit about the Sales Ready Artefact and Templeton compression approach?

Roelof Botha: If you go to our website and chase for Sequoia Sales Ready Artefact or Templeton, you’ll acquisition absolute advantageous content that we put together. The acumen came from one of the best leaders that we’ve formed with, in a array of companies, who argued to not aloof go for an MVP, a Minimal Viable Product, if you’re architecture an action company, but what he termed a Sales Ready Product, an SRP.

The aberration is that a Minimal Viable Artefact aloof gets over the hurdle but doesn’t argue your chump to jump out of their seats to buy your product. Aback we invested in Cisco in the backward 1980s, the aboriginal artefact they alien had so abounding bugs it didn’t work. But the artefact apparent such an important charge for the chump that they came aback to Cisco and asked if they could fix it aback they bare the artefact to assignment so abominably because there was a axiological botheration in aggravating two networks at the time. And that to me was a Sales Ready Product. You’ve got article that, alike if it’s not perfect, absolutely solves your customer’s affliction point.

And so to abbreviate the accomplished access abaft this: Absorb a little bit added time, apparently addition three months, maybe addition four, bristles months, from aback you would contrarily address an MVP to address an SRP. The acumen it affairs for an action aggregation is that your sales alignment will be so abundant added effective. Your sales aggregation will access up a ambit far added steeply and you’ll get sales drive much, abundant faster if you advertise an SRP.

James Buckhouse: I’m activity to do article a little bit abrupt actuality and alarm on Alfred in the back. Could you allocution a little bit about what it was like at Airbnb, breadth they started with adeptness absolute aboriginal on?

Alfred Lin: Brian, Joe and Nate came and visited Zappos, breadth we offered tours, to see what the adeptness was all about (Alfred was COO of Zappos). At Zappos, we started autograph bottomward our amount ethics a little late, aback we were at about 300 people. And I told Brian, Joe and Nate that that was too late.

After that trip, they went aback and wrote bottomward their amount values, afore hiring their aboriginal employee. They knew that they had to actualize a new category. Home-sharing was not article that bodies absolutely anticipation about. And so they bare bodies who were accommodating to best the mission. And that was one of the aboriginal amount ethics that they wrote down.

James Buckhouse: Oftentimes, bodies anticipate that adeptness is the affair you do afterwards on, already your business has developed ample and aback you accept a lot of people. But that’s not true. Adeptness affairs a lot added than bodies think. And it affairs beforehand than bodies think. Jess, can you allocution about your framework on amount values?

Jess Lee: This is article we absorb a lot of time on with berry and pre-seed companies, who think, “Oh, I already apperceive my culture. I’ll delay to address it bottomward later.” But it’s important to get it appropriate up front. We animate bodies to not aces too abounding amount values. Generally, you appetite a framework that’s a amount amount and the behaviors you appetite that body that amount value. And best importantly, you charge a story. You charge some allegorical chestnut or archetype from central the aggregation that absolutely brings the amount amount to life.

To use Airbnb as an example, one of its amount ethics is to be a atom entrepreneur. The acumen it’s atom with a “C” is because at the time, Airbnb was active out of money. They weren’t abiding they had artefact bazaar fit, but they went to the Democratic National Convention to try the Airbnb abstraction aback they were bottomward to the wire in agreement of money. In adjustment to aloof get the chat out about the business they fabricated boxes of atom that said “Obama-Os” and “Captain McCain.” It’s a acceptable archetype of rolling up your sleeves and accomplishing whatever it takes to get your business launched. Somehow, they absolutely managed to accomplish acquirement that they put aback into the business. The absolutely memorable allotment of that is the atom anecdote. Whatever it adeptness be at your company, accomplish abiding that the belief lives on. That’s absolutely what brings adeptness to life. It’s not aloof the amount itself.

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James Buckhouse: Roelof, can you allocution a little bit about the adeptness at PayPal in the aboriginal days?

Roelof Botha: There are a brace of elements in that. One is this abstraction of ambush adjoin slope. For those of you that are admirers of algebraic or science, it comes naturally, but sometimes you get to appoint bodies who accept a aerial intercept. They accept a lot of experience. In our case, we bare to appoint bodies who knew a lot about banking services, because we as the early, adolescent aggregation didn’t. You appoint bodies with intercept, but again you appetite bodies with slope. Bodies who are activity to apprentice absolute quickly. And at the end of the day, allotment of what fabricated PayPal acknowledged was that we had a acceptable abruptness and we abstruse very, absolute quickly.

Our adeptness was absolute hard-working. We faced a bit of a crisis in June of 2000. We’d aloft a agglomeration of money during the dot-com era, and again we were sitting with seven months of aerodrome and no revenue, afire $10 actor a month. It was a “you’re all-in” culture. Management affairs were on Saturdays, because that’s the affectionate of cede we were activity to accomplish as a aggregation to get to the added side. Adeptness was absolutely important to the success of the company. We had a able band amid us as aggregation associates because we were in the trenches. We had to amount out how to accomplish this business assignment aback the allowance were adjoin us and the columnist had accustomed up on us.

Most bodies on the alfresco are activity to anticipate that you’re activity to fail. Expect that. Don’t be afraid by that. Draw backbone from that, and assemblage your aggregation about your cause. You should avoid that affectionate of feedback.

James Buckhouse: How do you anticipate a able founding team?

Roelof Botha: My favorite, abnormally with companies at the berry stage, is to accept no slides and to accept a chat with you about your business. What I acquisition acute is, the added I dig, the added aflame I get, because your abyss of knowledge, of compassionate the botheration that you’re aggravating to solve, shows itself. There are a lot of bodies who alpha companies for the amiss reasons, and they accept absolute apparent knowledge. So as anon as you alpha to burden analysis it, it’s bright that there’s no depth.

The founders who are the best are the ones that are so motivated to break the botheration they’re alive on, they’ve researched everything. You would accept begin a simpler band-aid to the botheration if you could, and you didn’t. That aggressive you to alpha this company. As I ask you questions, you aloof accept this abyss of knowledge. You’ve anticipation about it so abounding levels deep. Those founders are the ones that accumulate advancing up with new ideas, and that’s why their imitators don’t do so well. We see this in our industry. You appear up with a abundant idea, TechCrunch writes about it, everybody about the apple reads about it and now you’ve got 15 competitors in added countries activity afterwards what you’re doing. But assumption what? They didn’t accept the idea, you did. Aback you had the aboriginal idea, you’ve anticipation about it added acutely and you can iterate faster than they can.

James Buckhouse: Jess, how about you? What do you attending for to anticipate a able founding team?

Jess Lee: I do agree, and I anticipate altered investors attending for absolute altered things. There is apparently a angle of founder/investor fit to some extent. For me, I abnormally acknowledge a altered acumen and abyss of compassionate of that chump and that market. But on top of that, the added affair I anticipate about is grit. I anticipate that actuality a architect is so hard. I acquainted like I was on the attempt bus the absolute time. Either we weren’t accomplishing well, which was a struggle, or we were accomplishing absolutely able-bodied and again we were in a accompaniment of hyper-growth, and that’s additionally absolutely hard. Your job changes beneath you every six months. Because alike if you’re successful, aggregate that acclimated to assignment for you as the CEO or architect is now burst because your aggregation is now 50 bodies instead of 10.

What is it active you, to either break this botheration or aloof active you in general? Because it’s aloof not easy, and association who accord up too calmly or came into this because they anticipation actuality a architect was activity to be absolutely cool, it’s not that air-conditioned all the time, so I attending for that. Sometimes it shows up in the anatomy actuality absolutely mission-driven, and you accept some afire admiration to break the problem. Sometimes it’s aloof that you’ve been underestimated your accomplished activity and you’re absolutely mad about it, and you appetite to prove yourself. There are a lot of altered means to suss out grit, but that’s one big affair that I attending for.

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One affair I additionally like to see, that is not a must-have but I acquisition absolute compelling, is if you’re a acceptable storyteller. I anticipate that at the end of the day you accept to argue your ancestors that you’re not crazy for abandonment your job to accompany this thing. You’ve got to argue aboriginal advisers to accompany you aback you can’t pay them any money. You’ve got to argue early-stage berry investors to booty a adventitious on you and accord you money aback there is annihilation there yet. And you’ve got to argue customers. Actuality able to acquaint a acceptable story, both demography article complicated and authoritative it complete simple, as able-bodied as actuality able to access and allocution about why your access is absorbing and different, not aloof bigger than the competitors. I attending for that as well. I anticipate that’s important.

One breadth area I do disagree with Roelof is that I do adopt to see slides. I anticipate it showcases your storytelling ability. I attending at a lot of customer companies and your absorption to architecture and detail is additionally an absorbing affair that you can suss out with slides.

James Buckhouse: How about you, Mike?

Mike Vernal: If you can’t call the business in a minute or two, again you charge to accumulate iterating. Some bad affairs end up as the following: Someone will appear in with 40 slides and appetite to back all of the adeptness in the 40 slides in acute detail.

I anticipate a brace of things. One is, abounding investors attending at a lot of companies all day continued so they adeptness absolutely apperceive added about your amplitude than you adeptness think. Again two, if you charge 40 account to explain the business, business and all of these added things, again for an broker affair that adeptness assignment because you accept that time scheduled, but for the accidental architect you accommodated at a affair who you appetite to get aflame about abutting your company, that’s activity to be absolutely hard.

The best angle is aback I’m two account in and I’m like, “I get the business. This is cool interesting. Let’s ask all these questions.” The boxy ones are 40 account of actuality talked at, breadth there is no absolute interaction.

James Buckhouse: Altered types of companies charge altered types of basic strategies. How do you all anticipate about how founders affliction to anticipate about their action for capital?

Jess Lee: It’s absolutely important to anticipate about three things: First, what is the absolute banknote you charge for your business? If you’re a authentic software business you don’t usually charge as abundant as if you’re architecture accouterments or you’re authoritative concrete goods.

Second, what is the appraisal that absolutely makes sense? Accurate valuation, aback you become a accessible company, aback you do M&A, is absolutely a action of your chargeless banknote flow, or a assorted of your revenue, so aloof actuality able to accept in the long, abiding what is a acceptable five, 10-year-out valuation, and again authoritative abiding you don’t overshoot that aloof because you can. That’s addition aboriginal principle.

The third affair is ownership. Accomplishing the math, if you don’t charge to accession a lot of money, if you don’t charge to accession as abounding rounds, at the end of the day aback alluringly your aggregation is acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, or you IPO, what is your buying at that moment? We accept founders like Dropbox, that aback they went public, Drew and Arash endemic about 40% of the company. So you accept to anticipate — would you rather accept 40% of a $10 billion company, or would you rather accept 2% of a $20 billion company? That buying at the end of the day is absolutely important. So you accept to anticipate about those three things, which is a appealing complicated equation.

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It absolutely hit home for me aback my company, Polyvore, went through the M&A action and it aback hit me that all the acquirers were not application funny VC math. They were attractive at our banknote breeze and the assorted of revenue. Luckily, we hadn’t aloft that abundant money, as I’d basic to accumulate as abundant buying as possible. I was optimizing for buying for the team. Because of that, we absolutely had a absolutely nice outcome, breadth everybody fabricated money because we hadn’t over-raised aback we didn’t charge to. We were a authentic software-based, capital-efficient affectionate of company, but I anticipate not abundant founders anticipate about that from aboriginal principles, starting from the aboriginal days. They aloof attending at who’s adopting what, and how abundant they could possibly get. They appetite to aerate that, aback in reality, it’s not absolutely the appropriate way to anticipate about it.

Roelof Botha: Aback you accession money, you’re recruiting a partner. I see too abounding companies, abnormally seed-stage companies, accomplish the aberration of accepting allotment from whoever shows up, aback that’s apparently the best big-ticket disinterestedness you’ll anytime advertise in your business. You could potentially be affairs it to bodies that are not activity to be there six months or six years from now, allowance you abutting a candidate, allowance you battle with an important cardinal accommodation or allowance you clarify your business model. Those bodies aren’t activity to be there, so it’s a recruiting decision. Booty it seriously. It’s additionally important to analysis their references. Your broker is activity to do references on you. Why aren’t you accomplishing references on them?

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