Aaron King is the founder and CEO of Snapdocs, a platform that powers home ownership through digital loan closings. One of his favorite practices for managing remote teams is to create human connection via casual, small group, virtual lunches with people across the organization.
It’s okay to be uncertain—it’s not a founder’s job to be an oracle and have it all figured out from the start. Even the smartest people in the world are often dead wrong, as we saw last year with all of the predictions about where the economy and the stock market were going. And you see the same thing in hiring. People talk about how detrimental it is to hire the wrong person, but that’s not actually the problem. The problem is not course-correcting quickly enough once you realize you’ve hired the wrong person.
If you think making a decision—about hiring or anything else—is about accurately predicting what’s going to happen next, that can be paralyzing. You may end up not making a decision at all, and inaction is actually the worst choice—especially in a startup. At the executive level, decision making is largely about creating forward momentum. Most decisions aren’t as impactful as we think they are; it’s almost always better to just make an informed bet and use that to gather more information, so you can calibrate quickly towards the right path. The key is to keep learning.
I’m constantly plugged into my network. I didn’t finish high school or college, but growing up, I always had a thousand questions for the people I saw as role models about how they’d achieved their goals. I’m convinced I can learn more from intentional conversations with the right person than I would have in semesters of school or by reading every book on a topic. This is one reason Sequoia has been such a valuable partner to me—I have access to people like Andrew Reed, Carl Eschenbach, Doug Leone and Bogomil Balkansky. If I can keep digging in with someone like them until I have the understanding I need, that’s incredibly powerful.
In terms of choosing mentors, I look for a few things: clarity of thought; experience; and someone who will challenge me. I look for the same things in the people on my team, too—when I’m interviewing a candidate, I’ll sometimes say something intentionally vague to see if they push back and ask some clarifying questions. Maybe one in ten people do, but it’s one of the best indications that they’d be a good addition to the team.
Two things come to mind. The first is curiosity, which I see as a foundational trait. Snapdocs started largely because I wanted to learn Ruby on Rails; I didn’t initially have ambitions of turning it into a large company. But then I got interested in the rest of the relationships in the real estate ecosystem, and I realized what I was doing had much broader applications. I think a lot of the best companies start that way—you’re focused on one specific, acute problem or interest, you gather small insights and start to build, and that turns into something bigger.
The other is more of a principle. One of the most important things in my experience is to do what’s right and never use people as a means to an end. When I shut down the brick-and-mortar side of my first company, during the 2008 recession, my competitors were closing down, too, and most of them didn’t pay out their contracts. That wasn’t uncommon; the economy had gone to crap. But I committed to paying everyone—mostly small amounts, but to thousands of people, so it ended up being quite a bit of money. Then when I started Snapdocs in 2013 and people started asking questions on message boards, a lot of those contractors came out of the woodwork to vouch for me.
It seems obvious in hindsight, but the biggest challenge early on was trust. I knew I could count on myself to relentlessly pursue customers and to deeply understand the problems we were solving. But as we scaled, I had to put my trust in others, and I didn’t know how to hire for that. So I’d end up with someone who, for example, was very smart but just didn’t care about the same things I did.
These days, I start by thinking about the attributes that are most important for a role: Does the person need to be empathetic? Curious? Do they need to be an efficient problem solver? Understanding what qualities to look for has allowed me to hire and promote people I truly trust. Now I can turn my attention from building and selling the product, to building an amazing team to do those things—and that’s the best feeling in the world.
I’m obsessed with our actual results, rather than how to achieve them. In the product world, I often see people get so caught up with frameworks and methodologies and documentation that they lose sight of what they actually want to do.
I became results-oriented in part from being an entrepreneur, though I think it goes back even further. I’m constantly coaching my team to think more deeply about results, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful. Without that orientation, every problem you run into feels like a reason things won’t work. But when you’re laser-focused on the outcome, all of those problems are just hurdles to be cleared.
I try to avoid operating out of fear. People so often aren’t willing to take the risks required for the change they want, but the truth is humans can recover from almost anything. So if you think through a decision and the potential downsides are smaller than the upsides—or if you can minimize the downsides to make that the case—you should probably do it. I used that framework a lot when I took a sabbatical, after my first company. I spent three years traveling in about 70 countries, and for several months, I worked as a crew member on sailboats going from Panama to New Zealand, through all the South Pacific Islands. I’d never done anything like that before—I just signed up on a website—and I’d heard horror stories about joining the wrong boat. But I figured if things weren’t working out, I could just get off at the next stop. So I went for it, and the experience turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done.
There are immediate benefits to working remotely, like spending less time commuting and more time with our loved ones. But other benefits will be more long-term and evolutionary—for example, physical distance is pushing businesses to be more efficient. At Snapdocs, we’ve put in place a lot of communication practices that should have already been standard, but we’d been able to get by without them when we were always bumping into each other in the office. Change can be painful, but my philosophy is that over time, it’s almost always good.
- Learning beats predicting
- Hire for trust
- Obsess over results