Rousseau Kazi is co-founder and CEO of Threads and was previously a leader on the Product Management team at Facebook. He credits his several years of high school ROTC with teaching him everything from public speaking to how to work with your friends.
Invest in your own confidence. Starting a company is hard and scary, so like a lot of advice for first-time founders, that’s easier said than done. But I think of confidence as something you build through experience; it’s not the same as cockiness. You have to earn it by working hard for something and convincing yourself it will work. Think about what makes you most insecure about your idea, then construct the harshest possible environment in which you could overcome that challenge. If you succeed, then you can be confident. And that confidence is a foundation that you can build everything else on top of. All the candidates you want to recruit and VCs you want to partner with will want to know that you actually believe the company is going to work.
A lot of founders ask me for help with storytelling, whether that’s framing their company’s narrative, or presenting and public speaking, or recruiting and closing good candidates. What I’ve realized is that all of those things revolve around just connecting with other humans—learning what they’re worried about and what they’re excited about. You have to understand your audience and what you want them to feel in order to create that energy toward your idea.
All good stories have a beginning, middle and end, so I do think in those terms when I’m giving a presentation. It makes it easier to bring people along with you. But it’s also a matter of being transparent—if someone paints a picture where everything’s perfect, you lose confidence in them, right? Part of sharing your story is being honest about the challenges you’ve encountered, how you plan to solve them and what you think the next set of obstacles will be.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to give a welcome prayer at our ROTC unit’s annual Military Ball. I grew up in a pretty conservative town and was one of very few Muslim kids in my entire school, let alone in ROTC, and I remember spending months trying to figure out what I should do. Give a reading from the Quran? Just cop out and read a Christian prayer? Ultimately, I decided to read an Islamic prayer in Arabic—and when I finished it, there was a standing ovation. It was so touching and emotional, and everything changed for me after that day. I was more outgoing, more ambitious, I did better work, all because I felt like I could be myself.
That’s now one of the driving philosophies at Threads—we believe the future of work is creating an environment where people can be themselves. Most decisions today happen in meetings, and meetings are optimized for certain groups. But what about the introverts or people in different time zones? When everyone, including those people, feels comfortable speaking up, they can help each other grow and innovate much faster.
I think the strongest predictor of whether someone will be a great leader isn’t intelligence or even work ethic. It’s the ability to introspect and then act on that introspection. That’s the one shared trait I saw in all the leaders I admired at Facebook—they can all tell you what they’re good at, and, more importantly, what they suck at.
But because candidates are always prepared to talk about their weaknesses, it can be tough to get someone to introspect in an interview. So I like to use a series of questions. First I’ll ask, “What’s the worst quality you think someone in this role could have?” Then: “Why? What are the negative impacts of that quality?” And then: “When’s the last time you exhibited that quality?” Hopefully they won’t say “never,” because we’ve all messed up. Ego and pride just get in the way of growing. Then after they’ve shared their experience, I’ll ask, “What have you put in place to avoid that happening again?” Taken together, I think the answers to those questions give you a good sense of not only someone’s ability to introspect, but how open they’ll be in hard conversations.
Books can be helpful, and there are plenty I could recommend—Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston; Impossible to Inevitable, by Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin; High Growth Handbook, by Elad Gil. But a lot of what I’ve learned about building a company has been experiential. Sometimes the best way to learn how to build something is just to try and build it. So when I think about books as a tool for company-building, I think more about their ability to inspire creativity. That’s not limited to reading—I might read a manga to refresh my brain, but something like therapy can serve the same purpose. Whatever you choose, the key is to do whatever makes you more the person you truly are. That’s one of the best things you can do both for yourself and for your company.
We tend to think about our strengths as the areas where we should double down. But it can be just as important to manage your superpowers, or else your greatest strength can turn into your greatest weakness. Getting people excited about something is a strength of mine—but early on, I didn’t know how to modulate it. I’d set a super aggressive goal that had maybe a 5% chance of success, and then sell it to everyone else like it was a 95% chance. They’d all work late and come in on weekends, and then we’d miss our goal, anyway. People got burned out. And they stopped trusting me, because what I was pushing for never happened.
Eventually, I realized that it’s much better to be honest about the reality of the situation rather than trying to spoon-feed people some best-case scenario. If something has a slim chance of success but it would be amazing if it happened, say that. And more importantly, talk about what’s really exciting: not the outcome, but the actual growth that will come out of the process, no matter what.
We have so much excess in Silicon Valley—we can push buttons to get cars, mattresses, drones, you name it. And yet in so many places in the world, people still aren’t getting three meals a day. It may sound cliché, but this is still the reality today. My parents immigrated here from Bangladesh, and ever since I was a kid, our family has donated to an orphanage in the village they’re from. I’ll never forget the year I realized that not only did the kids barely get two meals a day, they’d never in their lives had a piece of cake, or a soda, or candy—all those things we just took for granted. It’s hard to imagine how we can have so much and yet not have solved the fundamental problem of everyone having enough to eat.
And while that’s obviously an important problem to solve in and of itself, there’s so many other things that can change as a result. When you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, that’s where your focus is. If we solved hunger, it would enable so much human potential. Whatever technology we need to invent to get there, sign me up.
- Invest in confidence
- Understand your audience
- Manage your superpowers