At age 31, Joe Lonsdale’s achievement is breath-taking. He was an early employee of PayPal, a co-founder of Palantir and Addepar, and is a partner in Formation 8 Venture Capital. Recently, he stopped by Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) to share his advice and startup experience with students and entrepreneurs. Despite his success, I found Joe a humble and charismatic guy. He took extra effort to answer and explain all questions asked by the enthusiastic crowd of local students, entrepreneurs, and investors. Though his expertise is Silicon Valley-centric (we cover Asia tech news), I found his advice on building a winning team very relevant to entrepreneurs in Asia:
Joe shared that, for startups to succeed, they need to have a team that loves and believes in what they are doing to the point of being obsessed. When Joe started up Palantir, he already had the vision that it would be a billion dollar company. He worked in state of obsession for the first few years.
It’s an obsession about the mission of the company. Employees believe something is wrong with the world if the company doesn’t exist. Employees would rather be employees at this company than founders at a different company because the mission is that important and interesting.
Joe shared that for a startup to succeed, the initial core team is crucial. At Palantir, he managed to put together a team of over twenty highly-driven and talented people who, like him, believe in Palantir’s mission and work to the point of obsession. This made scaling easy. Every one of the twenty core team members could lead a group of their own.
Forming the core team and retaining talent is a common problem for founders. Joe said that it was more difficult in Silicon Valley because every talented programmer wants to start his own company. So how did he assemble a team of that size? He shared that being overly optimistic helps. It convinces others to believe in his dream. With a great vision and strong belief, Joe persuaded the talents he wanted to stop whatever they are pursuing and join Palantir.
Optimism is believing in the best likely scenario. You can’t trick someone into working for you (or, more accurately, you probably can initially, but it’s not a sustainable long term strategy). Optimism isn’t about fooling anyone, it is about truly believing in a mission and sharing this passion with others. Apple changed the world by committing themselves to a singular, audacious vision and relentlessly pursuing it.
Culture in a startup
Joe also emphasised a strong culture in a startup is important. At Palantir, besides having a highly-driven work culture, a flat structure recognizes everyone’s talents and contributions. That breeds self-belief in employees. They will feel they are an integral part of the company.
The flat structure is about self-awareness; knowing capabilities of this in the company, regardless of title. If you’re the boss and you have a handful of subordinates, there are surprisingly few decisions to make, even if you’re smarter than them and you have the best insights. As for most problems, one of them will have a better vantage. Flat structure isn’t about high fan-out in the organization chart, it’s about recognizing talent and ability equally across all levels.
Palantir and Addepar hire the most talented people for every position […] Insisting on the best means you turn down candidates who probably can do the job, but aren’t talented enough to command profound respect from their peers.
From my short stint in Asia’s entrepreneurial scene, I find many entrepreneurs and startups in Asia are often in pursuit of quick profit, growth and exit, neglecting the importance of culture and retaining talent. Only with a strong team, culture and belief in what the company is truly about, one can then build a company that is truly scalable and that can last through the decades.
(Edited by Charlie Custer)
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