Seven Questions with Carl Eschenbach
Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.
Published February 6, 2019
Carl Eschenbach joined Sequoia in 2016 after 14 years at VMWare, where he grew the company from 200 people to 20,000 as president and COO. In college, he started out studying business at a four-year private school before leaving to pursue an education in tech at DeVry University—a move he calls “one of the hardest, luckiest decisions I ever made.”
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
That life is not a dress rehearsal. When you wake up and look in the mirror in the morning, you should ask yourself what you’re going to do that day to make yourself better—and by extension, the people around you.
Like a lot of the lessons that have stuck with me, that belief comes from my relationship with my father and seeing how hard he worked. When I was a kid, I applied it to sports. I’d get done with practice, go home for dinner, and then put my gear back on and run another four miles. Now, I apply it to work and my own family. It might be as simple as looking at my calendar and asking myself if I’m focusing on things that are really going to help the partnership, but I check in with myself every day. I believe complacency kills companies, and it can make you fall behind as a person, as well. You have to keep pushing yourself.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
“Be contagious.” Companies have a tendency to run at the pace of their leaders. If you don’t bring passion, enthusiasm and energy to the table as a founder, you’re already behind—because why would anyone else want to join you? But if you’re driven and responsive and you work hard, that energy will be contagious.
Diane Greene is that kind of leader. In my early days at VMWare, when we were moving the data center from the physical world to the virtual world, we sometimes questioned whether we could pull it off. But she had so much passion and commitment, we all believed it, too. Doug Leone is the same way. You can feel it—people have a little bounce in their step when he’s in the office.
Being a leader is like having a megaphone to your mouth at all times. Your team is hanging on every word you say. So you’d better make sure you’re saying it with passion, enthusiasm and energy.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
There are a couple things I think about that might seem small, but they do make a difference. One of them is, “it’s all about heart,” which is something my father used to say to me—and I’ve said it to my son, too, every night for 15 years. It’s partly about hard work, but it’s also about the fact that your mind is a very complex organism, and it can confuse the hell out of you. When you’re trying to make a tough decision, you’ll think one thing today and another tomorrow. You can’t ignore your mind entirely. You still want to leverage your intellect and the data you gather. But ultimately, I think it comes down to what your heart tells you. When I’m struggling with something, I’ll sleep on it. If my heart says one thing before I go to bed, and I wake up in the morning feeling the same way, I know it’s probably the right decision. I lean on my heart more than anything else, and it rarely steers me wrong.
If I could give a second piece of advice, I’d say, “Your attitude in life determines your altitude in life.” I’ve often said I’d rather hire someone with a great attitude and a B skill set than someone with a bad attitude and an A+ skill set. As long as you have a good attitude, you can grow. Will beats skill any day.
What don’t you know that you wish you knew?
I’ve gotten better at this since I joined Sequoia, but I’m still learning to think very long-term. Running a big company like VMWare involved a lot of strategy as well, but I always felt like I was under a time crunch, and had to be tactical and focused on execution. I can remember saying things like, “If we don’t build this feature, we’re gonna lose this deal.” But what if that’s the only customer who needs it? What’s the impact on the other tens of thousands of deals you’re going to do? I’ve also learned over the years to hire people the company can grow into, not people who can grow into the company. If I’d thought longer-term, I would have done that more.
I made a complete career change relatively late in my life, and it’s forced me to slow down. As partners, we’re in this for the long haul, and sometimes that means making decisions that aren’t tactically ideal because they fit our longer-term strategic objectives. We’re often thinking about ideas that aren’t even possible today, but might come to fruition years from now.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
One is Abound, by my sister Jessie Seneca. She has her own ministry that takes her all over the country, and this is her sixth book. It’s about servant leadership. I contributed a couple of chapters on the impact those principles have had on me in a corporate environment.
The other book on my nightstand has been there for more than a decade, and I think I’ve shared it with at least 50 people. It’s called Halftime, by Bob Buford, and it’s kind of a sports analogy for how to move from success to significance—to stop thinking in terms of professional achievement and start focusing on the impact you want to have. Someone gave it to me years ago, when I was killing myself flying around the world, trying to build VMWare. So many of us have worked tirelessly to get a certain title or a certain level of success or wealth, but what matters is what you give to others—as a spouse, parent, brother or sister, or friend. That mindset really helped me make the shift from an operating role, where I was always in the public eye, to being at Sequoia, where our founders are out in front. Now, not only am I behind the scenes and perfectly cool with that, but I also get to spend more time at home, being present with my kids.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
I feel like I’m wrong every day, and that’s okay. It happens on a regular basis at Sequoia, because I have the good fortune to work with so many smart people, and I stay open to learning from others. If I have strong conviction and I know something is true, then I will stick to it. But I have no problem stating my opinion, listening to everyone else and saying, “Wow, that’s a really good point. I’m going to change my point of view.”
What unit of time matters the most and why?
Today. I think you should live every day to the fullest, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I really believe the old saying that any day above ground is a great day. I’ve realized the only person that creates stress in your life is you—when you get stuck in traffic, you can sit there getting all fired up or you can say, “Why stress? There’s nothing I can do.” You’ll never get that time back, so you might as well spend it being relaxed and happy. Money and financial security can buy a lot of things, but they will never buy you time.