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Seven Questions with Bill Coughran

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Prior to joining Sequoia as a partner in 2011, Bill Coughran helped build Google’s engineering organization from a couple hundred to over 10,000 people. Known around the office as “Coach Bill,” he says he’s most comfortable in a supporting, behind-the-scenes role, and he considers watching founders achieve their full potential the best part of his job.

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

Listen before you talk. Early on in my career, I was thoroughly sure of myself and my opinions. But I’ve learned that even though you see similar patterns over and over again, every company is different. So before I try to appear wise, I need to get the specifics. When I’m working with one of our portfolio companies to improve their organizational structure, for example, I need to understand the constraints—like which people can’t be moved and which roles have been easier to hire for.

I look for that same ability to listen in others, too. I do a fair amount of interviewing candidates for leadership positions at the companies we work with, and I always worry when someone jumps right to the playbook they used in their last job and wants to tell you how to solve all your problems. When you start by asking questions and listening, that’s a much better sign.

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

Don’t neglect the importance, and difficulty, of getting a product to market. A founding team from a technical background often focuses too much on the technology—they understand they need something that makes the product special, but they forget that even a differentiated product won’t sell itself. You need to think about the market ecosystem, too, and about how it’s going to evolve.

In part, that means getting the right people around you. Exactly who you need will depend on the type of product; it might be someone with a sales background, or a product manager. You may want to add them early, as part of the founding team, but they will remain important as you grow. You’re building a business, not a cult of personality, and while having a founder lead the company is incredibly important, founders who insist on dictatorial control over the decision-making will choke the organization. You need to leave room for strong leaders who can operate without you, most of the time.

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

Learning to stay calm under pressure. I dealt with a number of crises at Google, operational and otherwise, and it’s instinctive to react emotionally in those situations. You just have to acknowledge that you’re trying to make a rational decision based on limited information, and keep reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can. I don’t always keep my cool—my wife jokes with me that I get emotionally upset about every five years, though I think it’s more often than that—but I do try not to overreact, and to stay focused on what’s really important.

I’ve helped a few of our portfolio companies handle similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale. If they have an outage or a security problem, I’ll get a call, and sometimes, they’re panicked. It’s natural. But I try to help them stay calm and think through it methodically. You figure out what you already know, what you could learn and when, the worst-case scenario and the implications for the brand and, most importantly, the end user. Once you’ve worked through all the different trade-offs, you just make the best decision you can.

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

Bioscience is one area where I have a big knowledge gap. I was exposed to some biology and organic chemistry long ago, but my understanding of modern bioscience is limited. I’m trying to change that—I’ve talked to a couple of experts, and mostly, I read a lot of books and papers. I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and while you can debate the value of the degree itself, it was certainly good training for researching and learning something new.

With bioscience, the challenge is it’s such a broad field. It’s difficult to get enough grounding to be useful, and given my age, I’m unlikely to become a biologist or geneticist. Instead, I try to concentrate on the areas that intersect with the things I do know. There are many interesting intersections between biology and computer science.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I just started a book by one of my former colleagues at Google, Karen Wickre, called Taking the Work Out of Networking. It’s a networking book for introverts, and I’m actually incredibly introverted. I’ve given talks in front of thousands of people, but going to parties and introducing myself to people—that’s a challenge. It’s valuable, though, to have people you can go to with questions or just bounce ideas off of, so we introverts have to force ourselves out of our comfort zones. I’m looking forward to getting some ideas that will make that easier.

I’m usually reading something technical, as well—right now it’s a textbook on deep learning—and I just finished Tim Wu’s book, The Curse of Bigness, which is about the implications of corporate concentration in tech. Current U.S. antitrust law is focused on whether there’s consumer harm, and until recently, there hasn’t been much argument that companies like Facebook and Google cause that harm. But Wu argues that the scale of big companies can suppress innovation. With GDPR and similar regulations, for example, it might be difficult for a startup to comply, while for Facebook, it’s just another cost of business. We can debate whether those kinds of self-reinforcing businesses are good or bad, but it’s an interesting social question in any case.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

I’ve made my share of bad hiring decisions, where someone I thought would work in a given situation ends up being unable to handle the role effectively. That’s something every company struggles with, especially early on, because you’re hiring for roles outside your area of expertise. It’s difficult for a technical founder to find the right sales leader, for example, because the founder isn’t a salesperson by nature, except when fundraising. But that’s one of the things we do well at Sequoia. Each of us has different specialties—I can help our portfolio companies with staffing and technical approaches in areas like engineering. Carl Eschenbach has deep expertise in enterprise sales; Jess Lee is strong in consumer product management; Alfred Lin and Roelof Botha know finance and product. There’s always someone from the team who can help shore up our founders.

When a hiring mistake does happen, I’ve learned to be more open to correcting it quickly. When you’re wrong about someone, it can be hard to admit it. You want to make it work, and you can be too patient. I made that mistake for many years, and I see founders make it, too. But a weak player will bring the whole team down. You’re almost always better off letting them go and dealing with the vacancy versus letting it drag on.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

For me, it’s a big block of uninterrupted time—an hour or more. No phone calls, no emails or texts, no people showing up. I use that time to read, but also to think deeply. For most of the companies I’m involved with, the execution part is often straightforward. I can quickly get a sense of the size of team they’ll need, how long it will take, how difficult it will be. But how the market’s evolving, what it’s going to want in two years when the product is ready—those things are tougher. There’s less data; it’s more of a judgment call. It helps to immerse myself and take some time to think it through.

I didn’t start out as a morning person, but I’ve become one over the years because it’s a good time to get those big blocks. I think I’ve gotten better in general at not getting distracted or letting the urgent displace the important, but I find the earliest part of the day is the easiest to protect.