Sarah Tavel: The Value of Intellectual Rigor [The Knowledge Project Ep. #113]

Sarah Tavel has spent the past four years as a general partner at venture capital firm Benchmark, after previously serving in the same role with Greylock Partners and as the first-ever product manager at Pinterest. In this episode Shane and Sarah how studying philosophy helped in her career as a venture capitalist, the value of intellectual rigor, her concept of the net-present value of pain, why every strength has a corresponding weakness, where executive boards go wrong, assessing the performance of a CEO, lessons of rapidly scaling at Pinterest, and so much more.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

If you choose the wrong metric, you end up optimizing for the wrong thing. You end up deciding on different features you’re going to build that optimize for something that’s top of the funnel base as an example here. All startups are incredibly resource-constrained. Even despite that there is so much capital of chasing startups, at the end of the day, you’re still a capital constraint environment whereas as a founder you have to make sure that you’re allocating your dollars in the way that will generate the most equity value for the company long term, and you just waste a lot of effort.

When you find those people who are super impactful on the founder side of the spectrum, what is important is they want their identity to be the company. You have to make sure that they’re aligned with the mission of what you’re doing. Because then they’re going to go all in on it. But if it’s just grafting someone on because they want a soft landing for their company, but they don’t care about what your company is doing, then that feels like it’s not a path for success.

There’s a very big difference between a founder who waves a little bit that this is the way it’s going to be, and then actually seeing the reality of the numbers and they’re not being a great connection between what the founder understands of their business and the facts—the brutal facts on the ground.

When you’re running a company, there are so many decisions all the time that you need to be making and so many optimizations. A lot of times, there are some decisions that you want to procrastinate on. It may be a decision to cut a product that you had loved and you don’t pursue. More often than not, it’s people things, someone who’s not scaling in the role and has to be leveled or let go. What I always remind founders is that pain today postponed until tomorrow is going to be harder. It’s like taking a loan out on the pain.

Someone who has a seat at the table is participating in whatever strategic conversation you’re having which can change the direction of a company. You want to make sure that the judgment of the people that you bring around the table is super high and that they’re going to push you in the ways that you need to be pushed and want to be pushed, and that they’re aligned on the vision and mission of the company. Otherwise, it just creates another tax on your execution, where you end up having to spend time convincing someone who maybe was never on board with the direction of the company that you’re going in.

This idea of escaping competition is something fundamental to all the companies that I invest in. Is this a company that is always going to be fighting tooth and nail with another collective of companies for an incremental point of market share? Or is this a company that can dominate a market, become just so much better than any substitute that they become the defacto standard in the space?

And so much more. It’s time to listen and learn.


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