Nick Elprin is co-founder and CEO of Domino Data Lab, an enterprise data science management platform used by 20% of the Fortune 100. He started using his digital SLR camera as his webcam, and sees a great opportunity to improve computer cameras for the remote work environment.
Things look bigger up close. That’s especially true for things that are stressful or anxiety-inducing, but it applies to the good stuff, too. I’m trying to be mindful about my initial reactions and reminding myself, and the team, that after a few days or weeks, whatever’s concerning us probably won’t be as bad—or as good—as we thought.
I’m also trying to remember that everyone has a different level of comfort with ambiguity. Like most founders, I tend to embrace it. But lots of folks really struggle with it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bringing people through a time like this requires care and conscientiousness, and I’m still learning. But I’ve found it helps to remind people that periods of ambiguity are natural, particularly in a startup. I’ll refer to previous situations we went through where we didn’t know what was next—not to invalidate anyone’s feelings about the current moment, but just to normalize it and help them imagine what it will be like to get through this. We’ve been uncomfortable before and we’ll be uncomfortable again, but we can also come out the other side of this stronger and better aligned.
I’ve been meditating for more than 10 years now. I was super fortunate—when I was at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio decided to cover half the cost of transcendental meditation training for every employee. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought if a smart, successful person I respected believed it was that important and valuable, I could at least give it a try. So I did, and I noticed a difference right away. I was thinking more clearly and feeling more calm and self-aware.
I’m not as disciplined as I should be, but when I get too caught up in the day-to-day and start making excuses for why I can’t fit meditation in, I’ll definitely start feeling more tired and stressed. That’s my cue that I need to make time and space to center myself—and I always think, “Why did I ever stop?” It’s just massively refreshing, and I feel much better equipped to deal with whatever challenges come my way.
It’s all about getting the people right. Everything that happens, every decision that gets made, has a person behind it—and your energy comes from the people you work with. That starts with co-founders, and the great thing about my co-founders at Domino is that we were already close. We’d worked together for a long time, we’d been roommates and friends. So I was confident that our values were deeply aligned, that no matter what happened, we’d be able to have completely honest, vulnerable conversations with each other.
Values that resonate are critical for the first hires, too. I’m a big believer in rigorous, structured assessments; it’s important to minimize instinct in hiring for so many reasons, including bias. But early on, when you’re finding folks who are going to wear so many hats and who you’re basically going to share your life with, I do think you have to find a way to have that rigor but still listen to your gut. A litmus test I use is whether talking with a person leaves me energized. If I walk out of the conversation feeling amped up and wake up the next day still thinking about it, that’s someone I want to work with.
One that I think we still haven’t mastered is building brand awareness. We’re an enterprise B2B company in the data science space. Our product is massively valuable for data science leaders and IT leaders who are scaling and supporting large data science organizations, but it’s hard to get the attention of technical executives, especially in a noisy space.
And though challenging to scale, something I think we’ve done well from the early days is create really substantive content. The key is, rather than just trying to build awareness or to market, focus on teaching people things that you have insight on and that you believe are important. If you come at it from that place of genuinely wanting to educate, the rest will follow.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both from the team and externally, from customers, investors and candidates, that I’m more intellectually honest than a lot of folks. That’s not always a good thing! It’s my natural tendency to be very transparent about the good and the bad, and I also lean toward understating. I’d much rather a customer be pleasantly surprised because I under-promised and over-delivered. But I’ve gotten more conscious and intentional over the years about the language I use. I’m still honest, of course, but I’m also a more effective communicator, whether it’s to customers, candidates or employees.
My first thought is that there will always be better and worse options. The better one could still suck and come with lots of painful consequences, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. It’s a logic puzzle: You start with the goal you’re optimizing for, and you try to weigh all the probabilities and uncertainties along with the pros and cons.
One framework that helps me is trying to figure out how reversible the decision is. If we’ll find out pretty quickly whether we’re right, and it will be easy to unwind if we’re not, moving forward is probably going to be better than delaying the decision. I also try to keep in mind that sometimes, not making a decision is an option—you might be able to find a way to get more information if you wait a couple of weeks. You don’t want to use that as a crutch, but it’s worth at least asking yourself, “Why do I have to decide now?”
Something I deeply appreciate about my co-founders is that they’ll push me to think harder and keep looking for a better answer. Are these really the only options? You may think you have two choices, but if neither of them is good enough, it’s worth trying to come up with another, more creative path.
One thing that’s been inspiring to watch at Domino is the way people are appreciating what we have, both as individuals and as a company. In the space of a few weeks, we went from being stressed about whether we’d win a deal or how we’d make an improvement to just being grateful that we have our health—and that we have a business that’s still doing well.
That awareness and perspective has prompted the team to really come together and support each other. We’ve changed some policies, but we’re also just seeing a lot more flexibility in little moments, like if someone can’t make a meeting or needs to step away for a moment. There’s more empathy for what everyone’s dealing with, and I think that’s really healthy and beautiful.
- Get the people right
- Question your “only” options
- Things look bigger up close