Seven Questions with Sumaiya Balbale
Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.
Sumaiya Balbale is the COO & Operating Partner at Sequoia. Previously, she was VP of E-Commerce, Mobile and Digital Marketing at Walmart US and Chief Marketing Officer at Jet.com. When working remotely, she uses Slack to mimic both the real-time information sharing and the daily banter of an office environment.
What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?
I think the only constant in a startup is uncertainty. You’re building a new product and service, creating a new brand and figuring out how to go to market. To respond and adapt to the signals you get from customers, investors and the market, you have to be flexible. It’s exciting—but also really hard. Over the years, I’ve learned to create space for the anxiety and discomfort that comes with uncertainty. Acknowledging these feelings allows people to realize that they’re not alone in feeling them. Turning them into a shared experience actually helps teams come together and establish more agile ways of working. People are then able to focus on what’s possible rather than what might go wrong.
At Jet.com, we acquired almost 5 million new customers in our first year. That pace of growth required constant evolution. By recognizing the rate of change, and then framing it as the positive momentum it was, the team was able to lean into the uncertainties that come with growth instead of being overwhelmed by them.
What resource do you find yourself coming back to?
Google Search. I like to be prepared, and I value the power of upfront research. I find it particularly valuable to understand differing viewpoints or approaches to the same question or challenge. It helps me identify where the common ground is and where things diverge. I then use that to form my own perspective or identify areas I need to spend time learning more.
There are also several advisers I find myself coming back to on a regular basis to sharpen or pressure test my thinking. When someone knows you well, they can help you see something from a different angle and point out the mental traps you tend to fall into. Sometimes they just have the answer because they’ve done it before, which means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I love it when that happens.
What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?
A clear vision, mission and set of values are all important to nail early. Products pivot. Go-to-market strategies change. People come and go. But the purpose and shared values that drive people are what allow you to endure.
Vision and mission statements can be vague and perfunctory if you let them be. Don’t just write down a sentence that sounds good. Wrestle with it; play around with each word; make sure they all work together; and make sure the words authentically work for you. The statement should reflect both the ambition and filter for how you’ll build your business. What does it mean you’ll do—and not do—even when times are tough? The same is true of values; rather than a manufactured list of traits, they should ring true to who you are, who your team is, who you hire, and who you celebrate and reward.
Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?
Hiring the right team—especially when you’re still unproven. Convincing someone who’s highly talented to join you requires not just selling what you’re trying to do, but understanding where the other person is coming from. It’s that second part that often gets overlooked. You’re passionate about your idea, and it’s natural to focus the conversation there. It’s easy to forget to step outside of yourself and learn what’s driving the person you want to recruit. When you instead orient yourself around their motivations—the impact they want to have, the growth experiences they’re looking for—you can connect the dots between your ambition and what they want to accomplish. Making the time to surface these things, often over multiple conversations, helps build rapport and trust. And while time-consuming at the outset, I’ve found the effort generally yields far better outcomes.
What do you do differently than most?
I’m very protective of my personal time, especially time with my family. I don’t want my son to think he has to compete with a screen for my attention. I definitely wasn’t always this way. But I’ve come to realize that while some things truly require immediate attention, a lot of things do not.
I often remind my team to act with urgency but not with their hair on fire. Sometimes people confuse the two. Knowing when not to react can be as powerful as knowing when to. Being productive doesn’t simply mean crossing things off a to-do list; it also requires the ability to pause and reflect. To do that, you have to create boundaries around your time that may feel unnatural at first—but they pay huge dividends.
How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?
There rarely is a right answer. All you can do is collect the perspectives, make as informed a choice as possible and then lean into it with conviction. Of course, there are some decisions I spend more time grappling with—like those around people, because the implications tend to be heavy. In both recruiting and team building, I think it’s critical to make sure everyone knows what they’re signing up for; if it’s an unpredictable environment, for example, you’ll need people who are comfortable with ambiguity. It’s also important to acknowledge that as organizations evolve, people come and go. The “right answer” to a hiring or promotion question today might not still be right two years from now—and that’s okay.
Most decisions, though, aren’t that complex, and it’s best to pick a direction and go. You may still have to adjust down the line. But doing that still feels infinitely better, and leads to better outcomes, than sitting in indecision for a long period of time.
What future opportunities will be born from recent events?
I’m a firm believer in the power of self-reflection to spark change—in fact, self-awareness has always been a critical hiring filter for me, because it correlates to a growth mindset and growth potential. The past year has been a period of self-reflection for so many people, both in terms of what motivates us as individuals and in terms of how we can make a better world. That type of reflection has brought us into a significant creative period. People are imagining what’s possible, and then they’re acting on that. At Sequoia, I get to see the tremendous innovations this moment has already inspired.