Skip to main content

Seven Questions with Alfred Lin

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

As COO/CFO of Zappos, Alfred Lin grew the company from $300m to $1.6b in gross sales before joining Sequoia as a partner. He once briefly considered attending business school, but instead took Michael Moritz’s advice: “You’ll learn more in three months at a startup.” Alfred has been working with startups ever since. When he’s not helping companies, he’s on a quest to run a marathon in every state—with 32 races in 22 states to date.

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

Jeff Bezos has a framework that I use frequently, where he separates decisions into Type 1 and Type 2. With Type 2 decisions, you want to move fast because you can adjust and course-correct along the way. With Type 1 decisions, once you pick a door and go through it, you can’t come back. You still want to go fast with a Type 1 decision, but you need to be deliberate about your choice as well.

Partnering with a company is a Type 1 decision—if things go well, it’s a 10-year journey or longer. And even if things don’t go well, it’s still a few years at the very least. I try to be not only fast, but deliberate about Type 1 decisions.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

You need to have both fire and ice. An individual person might have one or the other, but as a company and a team, you need to have both. You want to have a burning personal desire to fix an important problem the rest of the world has gotten wrong, and you also want to be calm, cool and collected to execute well. If your company is always fired up about the next new thing but can never take anything to completion, your team has fire, but no ice.

In order to develop your competitive advantage, execute and win, you have to be clear minded about your realities, focused on the few things that matter most and take a disciplined approach. That’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. Both love the sport, but an amateur will get fired up about the specific unlikely plays that make the difference between a win and a loss. A professional learns from those unlikely plays, and also focuses on core skills and how they will consistently execute over the rest of their career.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

At Zappos, we preached the power of improving one percent every day. More precisely, the power of compounding small daily improvements. It is daunting to make major changes, but everyone can make small changes. Those small changes, if they’re allowed to compound, can make a big difference over time. It’s just math. If you start off with $1 at the beginning of the year, and you can compound it one percent daily, you will have more than $37 at the end of the year. The same principle applies to other kinds of small changes, from how we improved our distribution center processes at Zappos to how you improve a business, how you manage your health or even how you learn.

You can see the power of compounding in how quickly children learn and how they are able to build on those learnings. I became fascinated with that process after our son was born. He makes all sorts of random connections. Recently, I told him, “practice makes perfect,” and he countered with, “no one is perfect, so it should be ‘practice makes progress.’” You could tweak that further to “deliberate practice makes progress.”

What don’t you know that you wish you knew?

The world is full of interesting things I wish I knew more about. I was always curious about math and science, but I don’t have a strong background in some of the specific areas we’re investing in today, such as AI and deep learning. I wish I knew more about exciting developments in biology and gene editing, or about how quantum computers work. I also wish I knew more about semiconductors; chips power AI and the cloud. I wish I knew more about climate… I could go on and on.

Then there is a whole other category of things on the artistic and creative side that I’d like to learn. My wife, Rebecca, is a physicist by training, and she is also an animator. She was a storyboarder with Disney TV. I’ve always envied that she uses both sides of her brain—I mostly use one. Still, there is no shortage of things to learn, so I try to learn something new every day.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I don’t have books on my nightstand anymore—just my Kindle. I am currently reading Ben Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson. I’m also reading Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio. I just finished Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz, and Wild Ride, by Adam Lashinsky. There’s a lot to learn about cryptocurrencies, so I’m reading The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford. I want to understand how much of what we see today is true innovation and how cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies need to evolve to gain acceptance. For entertainment, I am flipping through Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou. I also plan on reading The Age of Edison, by Ernest Freeberg, and Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

At Sequoia, we make all sorts of mistakes. Sometimes we invest and the company doesn’t make it, but that’s not as painful as passing on a great company. We should have invested earlier in Square, Front and DoorDash, among others. We got it right with seed investments in Airbnb and Dropbox. The cost of missing a spectacular opportunity is far greater than the cost of losing money on an opportunity that didn’t work out. You want to be in a position to take many calculated swings. A swing and a miss is not a failure so long as you’ve learned from it.

When we realize we’ve made a mistake, we try to correct it as soon as possible. I experienced that firsthand before I even joined Sequoia; the partnership passed on Zappos twice before investing.

The business world is humbling, and there are few hard and fast rules. You can be right and lose money, or be wrong and make money. Being wrong is a daily occurence. If you are not willing to admit that you’re wrong and correct your mistakes, you won’t get very far. Making mistakes isn’t the sin. The sin is not being willing to admit and correct those mistakes.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I would answer that in three ways: the moment, the chapter and the book. When we had our son, a friend shared the old adage, “the days are long, but the years are short.” In one sense, every second counts because you’re never getting that moment back. Don’t let time pass you by.

After that, what matters is a bit more nebulous: it could be a year or even a decade. Any period of time that feels like a finished chapter—something you can look back on as a major milestone. Hopefully, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment about that milestone, or at least feel that you can apply what you’ve learned to future chapters.

Then, at the end of your life, will your book tell the story of someone who fought hard on a worthwhile journey? Was your life a purpose-filled and meaningful story that you are proud to share?