Every growing startup is surrounded by fires — whether issues of product, market, competition, or operational scalability. Smart entrepreneurs don’t try to fight every fire. Instead, they figure out which fires they can let burn — so they can focus on the ones they absolutely have to fight. It’s a delicate balance, because if you let fires go on too long, you’ll get burned.
In this week’s season finale of Masters of Scale, we learn how to think about letting fires burn from serial entrepreneur Selina Tobaccowala, the co-founder of Evite, former President of SurveyMonkey, and founder of the new fitness startup Gixo. Selina has experienced the pain and strain of blitzscaling multiple times, including discovering, right after she joined, that SurveyMonkey didn’t have any backups of its customer data. Yet that’s precisely the kind of deliberate neglect that may be necessary for a startup to make the most of its opportunity. (LinkedIn didn’t have a failover database for its first six years, for example.)
While these kinds of stories seldom make it into a Fortune profile or Harvard Business Review article, you’d be surprised how many “overnight successes” flirt with disaster the very next morning. When you’re moving this quickly, you don’t have time to study the issues for six months to get them right; that would just mean you’re six months behind. And while we should certainly celebrate the “touchdown passes” involved in growing a business, we should also celebrate the brilliant punts that bought those businesses time to succeed.
We’ll hear from Selina on her techniques for intelligent firefighting, including how she hires people who can see fires before she does, and how she keeps communications from breaking down during a crisis. You’ll also hear tips from other entrepreneurs, like how Airbnb’s Brian Chesky manages his to-do list, how Jerry Chen, former VMware and current Greylock partner, used customer complaints as a positive success metric, and how Cheryl Kellond of Apostrophe, a mobile health clinic, dealt with an actual fire!
As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts and reactions to this conversation. What are some of key fires you let burn that helped you succeed? How do you keep your team focused when the flames are licking at the door?
Please write a short post on your LinkedIn newsfeed to share your answers with the wider community. Tag your post #mastersofscale so I can find it. And if you’d like, Tweet it at me (@ReidHoffman) and @MastersOfScale.