Six Lessons from Six Successful CEOs

You can always learn a lot if a successful CEO opens up to you, and what you can learn from six successful CEOs is literally worth millions of bucks.

How did the conversation start? Well, I organized a panel discussion during our fund’s annual meeting with six very exciting portfolio company CEOs, and instead of asking them about technological innovations or industry trends, I wanted the panelists to share their lessons on their growth as a CEO, which is often the limiting factor of the growth of a company.

(Left to right: Vahid Saadat, John Thomas, Benjamin Waters, Fred Parietti, Derek Greenfield, Ilya Rosenberg)

Before I share with you the six pieces of wisdom from them, let’s take a look at who they are:

Vahid Saadat, CEO of Arrinex (acquired by Stryker), M.S. in Biomedical Engineering

John Thomas, CEO of Priv8pay, Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

Benjamin Waters, CEO of Wibotic, Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

Fred Parietti, CEO of Multiply Labs, Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering

Derek Greenfield, CEO of Industrial Microbes, Ph.D. in Biophysics

Ilya Roserberg, CEO of Sensel, Ph.D. in Computer Science

Apparently there is not only a lot of experience, but also a lot of brainpower here. I’ll just use their first names when sharing what they said. Now let’s cut to the chase:

Lesson #1: Be ready to endure pain and loneliness

Despite a successful acquisition by Fortune 500 company Stryker in 2019, Vahid’s medical device startup Arrinex was almost on the brink of deathin 2015. Back then they had raised and burned about $1M investment from family and friends, and were having a hard time getting further interest from investors. The company had embarked on a brave new world idea of a one-time nasal allergy treatment and that made it appear riskier for the investors. Vahid and his co-founder and spouse, Mojgan, were seriously thinking about shutting down the company. Luckily they didn’t, and eventually some investors joined in, and the rest was history.

It’s common to face near-death situations in startups. And here is Vahid’s approach to handling it: “You need to be able to withstand pain and just keep going and have faith that it’s going to all work out at the end. For every problem you’ll eventually be able to find a solution. When the problem first comes up it can be extremely discouraging. You feel as if you wouldn’t be able to get through it. However, if you sleep on it and focus on trying to find a solution, you’ll find that it is not so bad. You will inevitably find a solution.”

On top of the daily challenges you have to be ready to deal with, there is also the loneliness. “(As a CEO) you are alone in the intersection of those two triangles (board of directors and employees), and you don’t have someone to either celebrate or commiserate. And you can’t let your folks see that you sweat when you sweat because then you’re going to lose their confidence. And so it’s a lonely place and requires a lot of resilience, a lot of forethought.”

His solution?

“…it would be great to have a few advisors who have been through it and board members who you can actually trust and talk to openly.”

Lesson #2: Put people in positions that they can empower themselves

Ben, the CEO of wireless charging company Wibotic, honed his leadership skills when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington in Seattle. As the first student of the group, he was in charge of building up the lab systems and recruiting other students. Instead of telling other students the needs of his lab, he’d first ask what the students wanted to do, and find a way to help them achieve.

He is taking that approach to Wibotic: “Leadership is to facilitate the output of others,” said Ben, “Every engineer wants to work on something cool, they want to work on something that they feel has a big impact. Give people that opportunity and responsibility to really do it.”

Lesson #3: Bring positive attitude and energy to the team, and lead with tough-mind

Fred, whose startup Multiply Labs is using robotics to manufacture customized medicine that can have multiple drugs in one capsule, shared that “people also catch immediately your state of mind, both emotional and physical,” and “it’s almost an instinctive reaction. In a group, people feed off the energy they see from the leader,” so as a CEO he felt “a big responsibility, need to always bring that kind of positive attitude and energy”.

Ilya, the CEO of force-touch sensor company Sensel, highlighted that “if you think of the definition of the word leadership, it’s just being kind of in the front, it’s leading,” so he found the best way to lead is “just to kind of set an example for what you want the people in your organization to do.”

In terms of self-motivation, Ilya found it helpful in “believing in your team and believing in yourself, believing in people around you,” and that will help “get through whatever challenges that come up”.

Lesson #4: Derive actionable items from fear, so you can do things outside of your comfort zone

Derek, whose company Industrial Microbes achieved its feat in bioengineering microbes to convert methane to high-value materials, had this to say about things outside of comfort zone and the fear associated with it: “when you talk about something outside of your comfort zone, the emotion associated with that is fear,” and “there is intelligence behind the fear. And the intelligence is that there is some information that you don’t have, there is something you don’t know.” So he suggested finding out actionable items, such as to find out whom you need to talk to, or what information needs to be gathered, from the intelligence that fear brought us.

Lesson #5: Inspire employees, and take them to customer interactions

It’s the nature of startups to do things that nobody has done before, however it’s also the nature of human beings to avoid doing things outside of their comfort zones. As the leader of a startup, a CEO needs to find all kinds of ways to inspire the team to do the hard things.

John, whose company Priv8pay is developing a new approach for clients to handle corporate credit cards and expense reports, shared a practice he uses: to “take people out to customer interactions”, and “it (customer feedback) motivates somebody to get something done that they might think, wow, this is too difficult.”

Lesson #6: Develop an effective decision-making process

There are a lot ofdecisions to be made daily in a startup, some of them could mean life or death. How do you make the right decisions efficiently? Let’s see some of the tips offered by the CEOs:

Derek of Industrial Microbes suggested to first categorize different types of decisions based on whether it’s time-sensitive or reversible. If it’s time-sensitive and reversible, then just make a decision immediately. For other scenarios we need to evaluate how much effort is it worth collecting more information on, and make decisions accordingly.

Ben of Wibotic thought it’s helpful to have an order of importance as framework: “…our process is quite simple…it’s customer is greater than team and team is greater than self.”

Fred of Multiply Labs prefers to share as much as possible with the team about the values and other elements that drive a decision: “Transparency is a very good “trick”, obviously it doesn’t scale to large organizations, but in small startups it works very well.”

Vahid of Arrinex quoted Colin Powell to state the importance of making decisions based on limited information, which is a norm of startup life: “a political leader in the field has to be able to make decisions on 60% of the data, and the consequences could be great. But nevertheless, you have to make those decisions, and yourself and the rest of the team be willing to live with the consequences and make another decision that might mitigate any risks that may have been caused by the first one.”

Conclusion

To build a successful organization is hard, and there are so many things that could go wrong. At the same time, valuable lessons can be learned, so that we can continuously improve the chance of success. The advice the CEOs gave needs to be practiced. Reading alone isn’t enough. Luckily there are plenty of opportunities to practice all of these in one’s career, even before being a CEO.

What’s your approach to the topics discussed by these six CEOs? I’d like to hear from you.

2019.6.8

Palo Alto

About Pingrong “PR” Yu:

Based in the Silicon Valley, PR is an active venture capitalist, in a wide range of sectors including medical, IT, materials, hardware etc. Many of his portfolio companies have gone public or been acquired. As founder of 4 successful companies, he is intimately familiar with the life of an entrepreneur. In his early career as a researcher, he has published more than 30 peer-reviewed papers and patents. He has also organized teams from 13 countries to design and build 100% energy-independent buildings. PR has obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his B.S. from Peking University.

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Pingrong “PR” Yu

Based in the Silicon Valley, PR is an active venture capitalist investing in a wide range of sectors, with many exciting exits.