We recently had the pleasure of having Gagan Biyani come into Tradecraft and drop healthy, promptly delivered nuggets of startup wisdom. That’s a not-so-veiled reference to his work — he’s currently the CEO and co-founder of Sprig, a tasteful business that delivers delicious, healthy lunch or dinner within fifteen minutes (crazy!). Previously, he helped grow Lyft, and before that, he co-founded Udemy.
At Tradecraft, we asked Gagan to share some of his thoughts on startup life, in addition to any advice he had for us. The takeaways conveniently fit into two buckets.
On being an employee
Gagan talked a bit on what he learned as a founder, particularly at Udemy, about hiring and building a team. To him, EIQ (emotional IQ) was the main predictor of employee success. IQ and intellectual horsepower are table stakes; but at the end of the day, EIQ was the key differentiator between a good hire and a bad one. He also shared that early on his career, he didn’t appreciate EIQ himself, which played into him not screening as intensely for it.
But on to the meaty stuff: how do you demonstrate EIQ? Ultimately, it’s how people answer the “why” questions — these show motivation, and motivation reflects character. There were a couple answers in particular that stood out to him:
1. Not being motivated by money. Specifically in Silicon Valley now, enoughmoney is available. He found that many of the people who were financially motivated were not attractive hires.
2. Investing in oneself. In his experience, when picking a company, you are often trading money and certainty for true growth opportunities. Especially for a startup, Gagan wanted to hire stars that had a track record of chasing after riskier companies with more growth opportunities instead of the safe bets.
This second point in particular is worth delving more deeply into. Most (good) roles end up fitting one of two molds: high risk, high return (a high variance profile), or low risk, low return (a low variance profile). The former is manifested in the responsibilities in the spotlight — if you are good, it will be very clear, and you will have an outsized positive outcome, but if you are bad, it will still be very clear, and you will have an outsized negative outcome. The latter is exactly the opposite — a safe place where a success is not rewarded as greatly, but a failure is not punished as severely. In some ways, a great startup hire is defined by his or her risk profile — it’s important to show that you’ve taken a risk and succeeded.
As far as measuring a hire’s success, Gagan pointed to retention. You can ask: how many of my hires stayed here for a long time and contributed significantly to the success of my company?
On picking a startup of employ
As a founder, Gagan had a lot to say about how to find out if a startup is worth working for. His foundational thought: a startup has to have the possibility of a billion dollar outcome; otherwise, it’s just a small business. Every subsequent choice or question should be in light of that distinction.
The first thing to do when evaluating a startup is to evaluate the team, and specifically the founders. This exercise is very similar to how Gagan hires an employee: what motivates the founders? By his estimation, many founders are motivated by stuff Gagan doesn’t care about, money in particular. If a founder is motivated by money, he or she is more motivated for him or herself and/or for the short term. Instead you want founders who are motivated by legacy and who want to build something meaningful. These are the founders who will persevere and make decisions for the good of the company. These are probably the kind of founders you want to work for.
Screening founders for ego is also important, but not in the way you might think. A good founder is not devoid of ego. Instead, a good founder has enough of an ego to think that a crazy idea could be a success, but not so much to think every idea he or she has is the best one ever.
The second thing to do is to evaluate the ideas. By nature, startups are typically unproven on some level, whether the idea has yet to hit the market, or has not reached its full potential at scale. To best optimize for your success, then, you should do your due diligence on the company’s risks, starting with the riskiest assumption and working backwards from there. Here, the goal is to vet the company’s, and your, true chances for success.
At the end of the day, though…
You are really maximizing for your own success. Realistically, as an employee, working at a startup isn’t an astronomical economic boon (and sometimes, not even as a founder). Gagan’s advice to us as Tradecraft was to optimize for learning and to develop skills that allow us to contribute immediately and meaningfully. I’ve personally taken that to heart and have spent my time at Tradecraft developing meaningful skills to help grow a company, and I’m excited to find a company at which to apply these skills and build a story with.