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Seven Questions with Sonya Huang

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Sonya Huang joined Sequoia in 2018, after working in private equity at TPG and investment banking at Goldman Sachs. She started playing golf when she was in eighth grade—after her father read about the number of women’s golf scholarships that go unclaimed—and still loves hitting balls at the range a couple times a week.

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

I remind myself every day to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—to fight as hard as I can to maintain a youthful spirit. Look at the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on YouTube. It’s a crew of Venezuelan students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly appreciate being on stage. They pour their hearts into music-making and the result is this raw, wild energy that’s so infectious. The world’s greatest professional orchestras are much more refined, but when you’ve performed the same concerto a few hundred times, it can feel like “been there, done that.” In my opinion, the pros pale in comparison to these kids.

One of my favorite things about Sequoia is that even the most tenured members of the team share that same kind of beginner’s mindset. Nobody here falls into the trap of thinking they know it all just because they’ve seen the movie before. Just because something hasn’t worked before doesn’t mean it won’t this time around. And the same is true when we miss an opportunity. If we get a second chance, we’ve got to be humble and approach it with a fresh and optimistic set of eyes.

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

Keep it simple. We have the privilege of meeting extraordinarily smart people every day, but smart people tend to over-complicate things! The most compelling founders can explain why their company exists in the first few minutes of a meeting. I’m happy to listen more, too. But if you can clearly articulate what you’re doing and why it matters, that’s special, because it’s something most people struggle with. Of course, it’s also something we can help with. Some of my colleagues at Sequoia are very good at helping founders find the best way to tell their stories.

The same principle of simplicity applies to product, too. It’s tempting to keep adding more, but it’s always a shame when a good product succumbs to feature bloat.

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

I embraced the power nap! I recently starting taking a 30-minute nap every day after work, and it’s made me so much happier and more productive. I’m intense at work, but my spirit animal is probably the sloth—in fact, my nickname at Goldman was “Slothya.”

And I may be rationalizing, but I do some of my best thinking during my naps. I wake up, and something I’ve been struggling with suddenly makes more sense. History is littered with examples of people having those lightbulb moments in their sleep—Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata came to him in a dream. So maybe everybody should nap more often!

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

I wish I understood macroeconomics. I don’t think anyone really does. In microeconomics, everything is mathematically derived. You can trace it all back to first principles that make sense. In macroeconomics, fundamental assumptions are pulled out of thin air, and there are serious consequences. Real people get hurt because we don’t really understand how the puzzle pieces of the economy fit together. I worked at the White House in the aftermath of the financial crisis and saw how the recession impacted unemployment, job loss, savings and student debt. But even though financial institutions made that crisis balloon, most macroeconomic models don’t even include a banking sector—although there are economists doing interesting work in that area now. It’s difficult—there are a lot of problems in macroeconomics that seem intractable—but people are getting there. I just wish it could happen faster.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I’m more of a visual thinker than a bookworm, so my favorites are the coffee-table type. I obsessively collect books on all my favorite artists and designers, from Salvador Dalí to Alexander McQueen. Vogue is also awesome; it’s such a delight for the eyes. I go through every issue.

When it comes to regular books, I don’t read much on business and leadership. It’s not really my thing. I think fiction is more vibrant. I love Haruki Murakami and am usually reading something by him—right now it’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My favorite of his is 1Q84. I also like Joan Didion and Junot Diaz. My favorite book is kind of obscure; it’s a novella I read in college called Flatland about lines and shapes that live in two dimensions and then discover a third. It’s kind of math and geometry meet satire and history. I love it.

And I always have the latest copy of Econometrica around, which is the holy grail of economics in academia.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

There are a lot of very smart people at Sequoia who all think incredibly differently—our Monday meetings are full-contact—and when I first joined, I used to debate every little thing vigorously. I was trying to win every argument and getting nowhere. So I decided to finally read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which my fiancé had given me a few years earlier as kind of a tongue-in-cheek gift. And it was really powerful. It helped me understand why I was losing people in conversations, and I realized I don’t have to be right all the time or even most of the time. Now I try to focus on what really matters and have gotten more comfortable agreeing to disagree on the second-order issues.

It’s improved my home life, as well. My fiancé wins more arguments now, so I think he finally got what he wanted!

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I push myself to think incredibly long-term. It might seem counterintuitive in a high-performance culture, where the natural tendency is to go 100 miles per hour—but I try to be patient with myself. I don’t have the gravitas or charm of some of my partners. I’m working on it, but some things just take time.

I always try to zoom out. In photography, everyone tells you to start with a 35- or 50-millimeter lens, but I shoot with a wide 21-mm lens so I can see the bigger picture. The same goes for time—whenever I feel myself getting too high or too low, I try to take the long-term view. When I’m feeling great, I remind myself that it’s just one meeting and that building a company will take 10 years of hard work. And when I’m low, I remember that the next great company could be right around the corner.