Seven Questions with Matt Miller
Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.
Matt Miller joined Sequoia in 2012 after founding a company and working as an advisor to technology companies at Goldman Sachs. He dedicates weekdays to company building, and weekends to his wife and kids—cheering at their sporting events and taking his son to the airport to watch the planes take off and land.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
When I was a kid, my grandfather always told me, “The future you dream can be yours, if you have the will to make it so.” That really resonated with me, especially since he grew up in the great depression and started with nothing. He found a way to put himself through school and created great opportunities for his family. I’ve made a conscious effort to apply this concept to my life—if I want to do something, I don’t wait for it to be made possible. I just go do it.
One of the best parts of being at Sequoia is that we partner with founders who think the same way. They are amazing entrepreneurs who believe they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. And then we get to help them push past any mental boundaries they do have. If they’re worried a candidate isn’t attainable, we can say, “Well, let’s make it happen anyway.” If they’re facing an internal change that feels impossible to navigate, we can help them think through ways to make it work. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs out there.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Plan to achieve the highest level of success. Founders so often make early decisions based on their current reality, without taking a step back and thinking about the larger vision they could ultimately achieve. Instead, you should imagine what your company will look like if you are as successful as possible and then ask yourself, “Is this the road that will get us there?”
It’s a good check on those decisions that may be difficult to reverse later—anything from the co-founders you choose to how long to retain key leaders to how much equity investors and early hires get. When you plan for the highest level of success, you’re much better prepared to make it happen.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
The biggest difference was when my wife and I had kids. That’s not a small change, but it did have an outsized impact. There is nothing in my life that brings me greater joy than building and strengthening my relationship with my kids. Their optimism and excitement for the simplest things is heartening and grounding. They inspire me to do everything I can to leave the world better than I found it for their benefit.
Having children has also helped me develop more patience and compassion. It reminds me that everyone is someone’s child. I think differently about each person I interact with because I see them through the eyes of my relationship with my kids.
What don’t you know that you wish you knew?
I don’t spend much time thinking about this, because when I need to know something, I just try to go learn it. I’ve always loved technology, but there were no courses on it at my school when I was growing up. So I begged my dad to enroll me in the local community college and started taking night classes in programming when I was 12. Then when I was at Goldman, I used to stay up from midnight until 4 a.m. studying SaaS and cloud computing, because I believed they were the future of software. And a couple of years ago, at Sequoia, I noticed a trend toward specialization and did a deep dive into microservices, which was a big driver behind our conviction to invest in Confluent.
My partner Doug Leone often says that “we live in a world of accelerating change.” We all must invest constantly to learn new fields and redevelop ourselves to have impact.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I don’t keep books on my nightstand because they would just collect dust—I’m one of those people who’s out the minute my head hits the pillow. But the book I’m reading at the moment is Trillion Dollar Coach, by Alan Eagle, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. It’s about Bill Campbell, who was an early leader at Apple and has coached some of the most successful executives at the biggest tech companies in the world, including Google.
There are lots of good takeaways in the book, but the big one for me is the importance of mentorship itself. I’ve had mentors at every stage of my life, and the best leaders I’ve worked with have, too. It’s not necessarily that a mentor is telling you things you couldn’t have figured out on your own. It’s that they can see things from a different elevation. They have the gift of perspective. I don’t have a professional coach, but I do have a few people who I trust, and I go to them regularly just to tell them what’s going on in my life. I always get lots of super interesting feedback and new ways to think about the things I’m facing. I think everyone could benefit from a mentor.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
When I was about halfway through college, I left to start a company. It didn’t work out and I ended up going back to school, but that experience taught me a valuable lesson about Type 1 and Type 2 decisions. Jeff Bezos often refers to this concept. Type 1 decisions are difficult if not impossible to reverse, and Type 2 decisions are easy to reverse.
When I started my company I wanted to move quickly, so I opted to hire many of my closest friends to be my employees rather than slowing down to really evaluate who would be best for those roles. I was wrong. As we scaled, I realized they were not the right people, and I had to fire them. It did permanent damage to some of our relationships. These were Type 1 decisions and they ultimately impacted how this business opportunity worked out. Now, I’m very careful about Type 1 decisions in my work and personal life.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
I’ve been trying this year to protect as much of every Tuesday as I can—my goal is about six hours. In this business there is always something to respond to, but I find it helpful to carve out time to be more proactive. I use that time lots of different ways. I think about what’s going on with the companies I work with, and how I can help—if one of them needs help recruiting for a key role, for example, I can work on building that pipeline. Or I carve out time to invest in my domain knowledge, so my mind is more prepared as I’m exploring companies. I want to bring some insight to the table when I walk into a meeting with a new founder, rather than hearing about their space for the first time as it’s being pitched. The overall goal is just to think creatively about what’s exciting to me—and about what I can be doing, proactively, to move the needle both for the companies I work with and those where I’m exploring a new partnership.