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Aaref Hilaly
Aaref Hilaly

I moved to Silicon Valley after graduate school, with pretty much just two suitcases and the ambition to start a company.

The first lesson I learned is never to lose peripheral vision for unexpected opportunity. Nothing worked out as I planned.

I’m fascinated by the new apps, technologies and business models that are changing the way we live and work.

Both my companies were funded by Sequoia. Both acquired, great outcomes. Over 10 years, Sequoia helped me grow from being a terrified founder into a confident CEO. I joined Sequoia with the goal of helping other founders in the same way.

I’m originally from Pakistan and grew up in England. Neither of my parents went to college, and I was very lucky to get scholarships and grants to attend great schools. Being among such talented people was eye-opening, and it raised my own level of aspiration. It also convinced me not to follow a conventional path – I never shook the feeling of being an outsider.

Once, at CenterRun, we’d just missed our sales target by a mile. I had to break the news to my investors and probably lay off 25% of our staff. The first person I went to see was Mike Moritz.

Mike was silent for a moment, and then asked if I’d seen the movie Apocalypse Now. He explained the scene where Robert Duval takes his men surfing on the Nung River under napalm strikes and enemy fire. Mike said, “You need to go surfing. The company needs to see you surfing right now.” It took me a minute to understand the wisdom of what he was saying. My team needed to see that I still believed.

At Clearwell, we hit product-market fit, grew from almost zero to a $100m revenue run-rate in four years, became profitable — but the fear and paranoia never went away. It still felt like the company was balanced on a knife’s edge.

My team used to look forward to board meetings. Jim Goetz pushed our thinking. He looked at things in a different way and showed us that board meetings are for the company to learn, not for the founders to report. I try to do the same as a board member today.

We like to dream with the entrepreneur, to imagine the world as they see it, and then ask ourselves how we can help.

Tell a story. We only partner with about a dozen new companies each year and we’re drawn to those with a clear, compelling narrative.

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