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Seven Questions with Bogomil Balkansky

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Bogomil Balkansky joined Sequoia as a partner in 2020 and was previously VP Cloud Recruiting Solutions at Google and a Senior VP at VMware. His favorite tool for connecting remotely is the old-fashioned phone call, especially when it’s a surprise.

What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?

Personally, I deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by iterating quickly—I’m not one to lock myself in the war room and try to come up with a grand plan or figure out an exhaustive framework. If you try to be too systematic, you risk wasting a lot of time. As a startup, you may not yet know who your ideal customer is, which marketing channels will work or whether the market will materialize, so the best thing to do is start iterating. As Mike Tyson famously put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

That’s why I prefer to rush in—to try a few different approaches and learn what works and what doesn’t. And often the path to ultimate success turns out to be quite circuitous. A good example is the early days of VMware, before I joined the team. The founders wanted to build a data center product, but they knew it would be very difficult to sell that as a small company. So they started with a desktop solution, then built the credibility and cash flow they needed to pursue the longer-term vision. While you are dreaming big it is really important to carefully sequence your execution in a series of small steps, and prove success along the way.

That incremental approach can be tough for entrepreneurs in particular; you have to resist the urge to bite off too much early on, but still dream big. I do think it’s important, though, to stay open-minded and see detours not as wastes of time but necessary to your journey. The path to success is rarely a straight line, and there’s no substitute for taking the first step.

What resource do you find yourself coming back to?

I draw a lot of strength and inspiration from my parents. They both had an incredible work ethic—and this was in communist Bulgaria, where there were no rewards for being a hard worker. It’s just how they were wired.

I think being what I call “healthily lazy” can be helpful, too. In fact, that’s a lot of what drives progress: We get sick and tired of doing something and figure out a better way. But whenever I find myself in a situation where I do need to just push through, I always think of my parents.

What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?

The values or principles are most important. Products change and evolve, markets move, people come and go. The companies that become institutions are typically the ones with very strong values. When I was in college I thought I was going to be an investment banker—even though I really had no idea what that meant; I think I just saw the movie Wall Street one too many times. I went to a bunch of information sessions put on by investment banks visiting campus, and there was Goldman Sachs that spent a lot of time talking about their 14 business principles. Back then, it seemed odd to me. But now I realize this is a company that’s managed to stay at the top of the industry for 150 years precisely because of those principles. And if you visit their website today, their principles are largely the same.

It’s become fashionable in tech to write down the company values at the moment of founding, and I think that’s great—as long as you actually live by them rather than just filing them away. Are you going back to your values when you’re making a major decision or the company is facing a crucible moment? Are your values informing the day-to-day interactions that make up the culture of the company? That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?

Turning the founders’ personal abilities into institutional capabilities. Founders have magic—they may be a brilliant technologist, a genius product designer, or an amazing marketer. But that magic has to transfer to the entire company if it’s going to endure.

In order to do that, it’s important to surround yourself with the right people, but that doesn’t mean finding a replica of yourself. You need a group, each of whom have an aspect of, and can amplify, what you bring. You also have to be purposeful about creating muscle memory within the company for things like how you interact with each other, how you make decisions—and most important, what you reward. The phrase “company culture” is often ill-defined; it’s not about free food or the trappings of the office. It’s the behaviors and qualities that allow someone to get ahead. If it’s politicking that gets you ahead, the culture will be about politics. If you reward a bias for action, that’s what the culture will be. So founders need to be very determined and thoughtful to ensure what gets people promoted aligns with the company’s values.

What do you do differently than most?

As much as I’m an instinctive decision-maker and like to act quickly, I do have an unusual level of patience when it comes to my hobbies, which are wildlife photography and food blogging. My love of wildlife started as a child; when I was 10, I was deeply convinced that I was going to be a park ranger in the Serengeti and fight poachers. Obviously I ended up with a different job, but there are still few things that give me more pleasure than observing animals in the wild.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten especially interested in ocean photography. Until my husband and I went to Bora Bora about a decade ago, I’d never seen the tropical ocean, and I fell in love—I’ve since become a scuba diver and a freediver. Then while I was on sabbatical a couple of years ago, a wonderful ocean photographer I follow on Instagram, Philip Hamilton, posted that he was planning a trip to Sri Lanka to swim with whales, and I signed up on the spot. I’ve done several trips now and am planning on more. I’m perfectly happy to spend eight hours cruising the ocean just to have one 20-second encounter with a whale.

Food is a long-standing interest, too. When I was very young, my maternal grandmother lived with us and did all the cooking—my mom didn’t know how to fry an egg. But then we got our own place, so Mom got a cookbook and started learning, and I was her little sous-chef. I got serious about it as an adult and started taking photos, planning to do a cookbook. But eventually, I realized it would be much easier to get all of those recipes out if I just started a food blog.

How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?

I follow my gut. I remember in my first job out of college, at McKinsey, someone conducting a Myers-Briggs assessment told me quite seriously that I must have been hired by mistake, because I’m a “feeler.” I do try to be data-driven, as well, but I think it’s important to develop an awareness of how you make good decisions, and I’ve realized that when I try too hard to rationalize something and write down all the pros and cons, that’s when I get into trouble. If I let my intuition lead, on the other hand, I’m happy with my decision more often than not.

The key for me, though, is not so much the decision itself, but committing to it once it’s made. You can’t know what would have happened if you’d taken the other path, and there’s nothing worse than second-guessing. It’s not healthy. For example, I interviewed with Google in 2001, when it was barely 100 people, and decided not to pursue it. Google became an amazing company, obviously, and I could have spent the last 20 years regretting that choice, but it was absolutely the right call at the time. And eventually, I ended up there anyway!

What future opportunities will be born from recent events?

Even though I’ve had it very easy in the grand scheme of things, not seeing people in person has honestly been devastating for me. Humans are social animals, and I think we’re all suffering from the lack of contact. Maybe this isolation will be the new normal even after COVID-19 is over, but I hope instead, the collective COVID trauma leads to a resurgence of togetherness. I know I’ll be making up for lost time with my friends and my parents, and I like to think we’ll all prioritize seeing the great people we have in our lives.