Seven Questions with Anne Wojcicki
Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.
Published December 12, 2018
Anne Wojcicki is co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company with more than 5 million customers around the world. Previously, she worked on Wall Street—an experience that she says “was like getting a Ph.D. in the health business” and helped inspire her to start 23andMe to make a difference in healthcare.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
I think the most important thing as a leader is to make very clear, concise decisions. People want that guidance on a daily basis. It may sound obvious, but it takes a lot of practice. The fear of making a bad decision can paralyze you. But there are really no bad decisions, as long as we learn from them.
Part of my job is to model that mentality for the people I hire, because I want them to make clear decisions, too. I always say I’m the least skilled person in the building, but I do know how to hire smart people and empower them to run their teams. Sheryl Sandberg once told me something that’s always stuck with me: “You can’t know everything going on in your company. If you try, you’ll fail.”
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Never grovel for fundraising. It’s like dating—you don’t want to be begging them to like you. You need to find someone who is a natural match and genuinely believes in what you’re doing, not someone who’s just thinking about the exit strategy. You need a real partner who will advise you and support you.
If you let yourself get excited about the money, you’re more likely to accept terms you don’t want. One of the things I’m proud of at 23andMe is that we have a very clean legal structure. We thought carefully about our values early on; we knew what was important to us and we made sure we’d be able to stick to that vision. Our partnerships work well because they aren’t balanced toward the VCs or toward the founders. They’re just fair.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Biking to work every day. It gives me 30 minutes in the morning to prepare for the day, and another 30 minutes in the evening as a sort of wash-out period before I get home. I usually end up doing a lot of voice-texting, walking through ideas and issues and figuring out what I want to focus on. I’ve outlined entire strategies on my bike.
Another change is how we’ve laid out 23andMe’s offices, which I think makes a big difference for the entire company. It’s great when people bump into each other on the stairs and start up a conversation, but when you have more square footage per floor, that allows for even more of those spontaneous, unstructured moments. So many interesting ideas come out of just socializing with each other. And I think it’s especially important to interact with other teams, because that diversity of ideas is what makes us better.
What don’t you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I knew how to code. I’ve been able to pick some things up over the years, but it’s a language, and I’m not conversant. I think if I had more of a foundation, I could better judge how complex something is and how long it’s going to take. And in the early days, there’s so much I could have done myself, rather than relying on someone else. I always tell kids they should learn to code. It’s an important literacy.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about how to maintain 23andMe’s culture as we grow. It’s a subjective question; I don’t think there’s one single right answer. Culture also changes over time. I see the company as a family, and building the culture is a lot like parenting—you’re always reassessing and reevaluating, dealing with a new set of unknowns every day. You should be constantly navigating toward what you want.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I just finished Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I think it did a great job of outlining some of the big issues we’re facing as a country—and not just the issues, but the emotion and psychology behind them. It gave me some perspective on an environment I’m not familiar with, living in the epicenter of Silicon Valley.
Now I’m reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, which is about a man on death row. I’m always drawn to history and real human stories. But I probably spend more time on newspapers, magazines and documentaries than I do on books. I read The New York Times cover-to-cover almost every day, and I think that paper is fascinating right now. Their Overlooked series of obituaries for forgotten women and minorities is so well-done. It’s phenomenal.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
All the time! I make mistakes every day. One obvious example that comes to mind is when we were planning to open a new lab in Salt Lake City. We had a lot of the pieces in place, but ultimately we realized that moving into next-generation DNA sequencing would not bring us growth, and growth was our priority. So we shut it down.
When you’ve invested that many resources in something, it’s easy to let inertia take over. You don’t want to make a change because you’ve put in so much work. But you can’t let that stop you from reevaluating—not so much that you drive your team nuts, but enough to be sure you’re making the right call.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
Every minute is valuable. Time well spent is cumulative. It’s a matter of how you use your time today, tomorrow, every day, and you never really know which minutes are going to matter most. I certainly don’t have a perfect record, but I do at least try to make them all count.
Tony Blair spoke recently at 23andMe, and he told us the first thing he does when he’s helping a developing country is look at the leaders’ calendars and see how they’re spending their time. I do calendar reviews myself, but I also think as a CEO, choosing the members of your support team—the people who are putting things on your calendar—is one of the most important decisions you’ll make.