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Seven Questions with Sanchali Pal

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Sanchali Pal is the founder and CEO of Commons (fka Joro), a platform for collective climate action. Her favorite practices for remote work include regular lunches where team members ask and answer a new question each week—like “What was the scariest moment in your life?” or “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

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

I draw a lot of confidence and resolve from staying focused on the problem I’m trying to solve and why it matters. When I first started Commons, I thought I needed external validation—that unless someone smarter or more experienced than me told me I had a good chance of finding a solution, I shouldn’t keep going. I almost stopped at one point, in fact, because a lot of people told me it would never work. But eventually, I realized that didn’t matter: there were many people just like me, who were deeply concerned about the climate crisis and wanted a way to take action, and I believed I could help. That made external validation irrelevant.

To manage uncertainty as a founder, I make sure I have as much certainty as possible in the other parts of my life. I don’t know that I could have started a company a few years ago, for example, when I was in the process of moving to Ethiopia. My family and my partner are incredibly important to me—and to Commons, as well.

What resource do you find yourself coming back to?

Other founders. There’s so much joy and acceptance in those relationships, and a space for questions I can’t ask elsewhere. In the early days, I met every week with a friend who was also starting her company, to talk about what we were going through. I have several Whatsapp groups, email groups, and one-on-one founder relationships that I draw on for ideas, advice and strength. Sometimes, I connect with new founders at events or through friends. But so far, the best path to those connections has been through our investor partners, many of whom are founders themselves. Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, for example, Sequoia set up several small groups of founders from different sectors and stages. We were supposed to meet for the first month or so, but my group has kept up regular check-ins. When I encounter new, difficult situations, the group has been an incredible resource—because they’ve been through, or are going through, a lot of the same things as I am.

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

I think being an open, grounded and vulnerable team is incredibly important. You have to find people you’re willing to be honest with, and who will do the same with you. The magic really happens when you make reflection and vulnerability a regular part of your work.

Building culture takes a lot of effort early on. When you’re remote, it’s especially challenging to cultivate safety and counteract your natural tendencies to avoid difficult topics. You have to be intentional about it. Something that’s worked well for us is prioritizing retrospectives and finding a great facilitator for those discussions—our head of Engineering leads them, and he’s very objective about gathering and sharing the feedback so we can continuously improve. I’ve also found that one-on-ones are more productive when we frame them in terms of how everyone can improve, rather than simply one-way feedback.

And every couple of weeks we do virtual mindfulness sessions, book club discussions or read an article as a team and reflect on it, and these often lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations we might not feel comfortable having during a retro or a standup.

I try to set a good example as a founder, too. If I’m having a tough week, I’m honest about it, and I hope that helps create space for other people to do the same.

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

There are so many! One I’ve been thinking about lately is how to balance being a product manager and a founder—and how to make sure the team knows which hat I’m wearing at any given time. As a founder, sometimes I need to make a decision or paint a clear path forward. But other times—especially on the product side—I don’t have all the answers, and we’re learning and testing together. I’m finding a balance between communicating a strong vision and being open to experimentation.

Another one is that the job of a founder changes every three to six months. As soon as I figure out how to be decent at one thing, it’s time to learn how to do something else. Transforming yourself that quickly is difficult, and the inflection points can be tough to recognize. When the first member of our Engineering team joined, that was an easy transition for me, because I wasn’t able to do the technical work in the first place. But then there are things you actually really like—I love writing and working on copy, for example—that you have to stop doing, too. That’s where our culture of openness has saved me a bit. The people around me will tell me when I’m getting too into the details.

What do you do differently than most?

I’m not afraid to hear perspectives that directly contradict mine. Growing up, every family dinner included healthy portions of argument and debate. So from a young age, I was comfortable questioning my own assumptions. Now, in the context of being a founder, I think it allows me to treat others’ ideas with the same diligence and energy as I treat my own.

Of course, it takes practice to really listen to different perspectives: I’m still working on it. When someone says something I don’t immediately agree with, I remind myself to ask a question and engage with the idea before I react. I try to play my own devil’s advocate, too, to help anyone who might disagree with me feel more comfortable speaking up.

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

I start by trying to figure out which parts of the decision are truly ambiguous. It may be that most of the answer is relatively clear, and there’s just one aspect that requires deeper analysis. Once I’ve narrowed in on the hairiest part of a problem, I try to gather as much information as I can and look for patterns that will help me further separate fact from judgment. I love getting up to speed on a topic quickly. It’s fun to learn something new. I’ll set a time limit—maybe a few hours, or a couple days—and treat myself to a crash course—read journal articles, listen to podcasts, talk to people who are experts. I’ve found the fastest way to make a hard choice is to talk to or listen to people who have already thought deeply about the topic. Ultimately, I’ll make a gut decision, but that’s much easier once I really understand the trade-offs.

What future opportunities will be born from recent events?

I think the pandemic has taught us we can change more quickly than we thought, and we’re less beholden to rules and norms than we thought. That opens up a lot of creative potential. From a climate perspective, we’re reimaging when and why we travel. We’ve also realized that—as much as I like seeing people in person—a shared workspace isn’t essential on a daily basis. That discovery allows us to be more flexible, and maybe to bring more green space to our cities as we rethink how we use office buildings and malls. Even conference sponsorships can change; remote events are cheaper, which means we can elevate new voices.

I think we’re realizing that if something doesn’t work well for you, maybe you don’t have to do it. And especially for a company like us that’s trying to help people imagine lifestyle changes, that realization is really exciting.