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Seven Questions with David Vélez

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

David Vélez is the founder and CEO of Nubank, the leading digital finance company in Brazil, and a former Sequoia partner. He made his first investment at age 12—a cow bought with birthday money and savings from summer jobs, which eventually became six cows that he sold to attend Stanford.

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

I put time to think on my calendar every day. When your day is packed with nonstop appointments and meetings, it’s easy to be reactive instead of proactive. It’s like you’re held hostage by your own schedule. I used to get to the end of the day completely wiped out. I wasn’t spending enough time thinking about the next week, or month, or quarter.

Now I try to protect one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon where I turn off Slack, and I don’t check email. I might read, or write in a journal, or just go for a walk. It’s become one of the most important parts of my day. It’s when I’m most creative, and when I hit on ideas that can take the company in new directions. At the beginning of this year, for example, I was reading a lot about the financial services industry in China, and I decided to take several team members to go see it for ourselves. That trip ended up being transformational. Nubank now has a very different strategy, based in part on what we learned.

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

Do something that most people think is hard. When you tell someone what you’re starting, their reaction should be, “Are you sure you want to do that? That’s too hard.”

That’s exactly what people said when we started Nubank, and it turned out to be a good thing. If you try something easy, there will be five other companies doing the same thing two months later. But if you try something that’s difficult at first, everything gets much easier as soon as you make it through those initial challenges. Competition will be lower, because everyone else thought it was too hard. Recruiting good people will be easier, because good people like doing hard things. And when you have better people and less competition, raising capital gets easier, too.

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

Moving closer to work. I live in São Paulo, Brazil, and I used to spend an hour or more in traffic every day, just sitting in the car getting frustrated and anxious. It was a waste of my time.

Now my commute is a six-minute walk. I’ve recovered time I can spend with my family or on work, and it’s been great for my state of mind. I have a really good time just walking—sometimes I even wish it was a little longer.

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

I wish I knew more about Clojure, which is the programming language we use most at Nubank. If I did, I could better understand some of the more complex problems we’re trying to solve, and I think I could ask better questions when we’re setting priorities. I’d like to be able to communicate at that level with the technical side of our team, and I think they would appreciate it, too.

I took a couple of online courses and I did a little programming in Clojure a while back, but it wasn’t enough. I want to dive in again at some point.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

There are a ton. I keep a list of the things I want to read, and it keeps getting longer. Right now, I have Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio, a Walt Disney biography, Open by Andre Agassi, and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I’m a few pages into Antifragile. The core idea is that the opposite of fragile isn’t just unbreakable, it’s a state where stress or failure actually makes you stronger. There are a ton of examples of that in nature, and I like how it ties back to doing something hard. Our team is one where hearing “no” makes people want to push forward even more.

I also just finished Sapiens and Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens takes you through the evolution of humankind up to the present, and Homo Deus looks forward. There are so many interesting details—like the fact that for 10,000 years, humans did not sleep all night or stay awake all day. They slept for three hours, then they were up for three hours, on and off around the clock. It’s fascinating to think about the history of all those little things you take for granted.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

In the first few months of Nubank, I asked everybody to be here by 8:00 a.m. every day. I saw it as a test of people’s commitment, and I was pretty rigid about it.

But it was tough on the team. People have different schedules, and some of them were commuting more than two hours. One of my co-founders eventually came to me and encouraged me to rethink the policy. I realized I’d been hiring all these great people and then basically not trusting them from day one.

Even though I’d focused so much energy on punctuality, the moment we changed that policy, I really let it go. I think I’m pretty comfortable changing my mind. It’s important to have that flexibility, to feel free to rethink. It’s part of learning.

If you walk around Nubank today, you might see someone taking a nap, or watching a movie. We have metrics and processes to tell us whether someone is delivering, and that’s what we focus on, not some arbitrary schedule I came up with.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

For me, it’s a week. That’s how I tend to measure progress. It’s enough time to get something significant done. I keep a list of our key goals and the things that need to happen to get us there, and I go through it a couple of times every week. Every Friday when I go home, I know whether we moved the needle. Most of the time, we have, and I can’t wait to come back on Monday and see what we’re going to do next.