Elad Gil on startup advice & his book, High Growth Handbook

About ten days ago I caught up with Elad Gil, a Silicon Valley veteran who has written a new book, High Growth Handbook. Even halfway through the book, and I can already tell this is a book that is a valuable asset for those who are running fast-growing companies. It is equally helpful for those of us who aspire to grow fast. Elad has written one of the best books for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Elad and I met a long time ago when he had started Mixer Labs, a company that was eventually acquired by Twitter. A former Googler, he was part of Twitter’s senior management for most of what can be described as Twitter’s awkward phase. The company went from 90 to over 1500 people, before he left to start Color Genomics, a Burlingame, Calif-based company focuses on computational genomics. Elad is a very well-known angel investor — his portfolio includes companies such as Airbnb, Stripe, and Coinbase.

The book in many ways is an extension of what started as a blog. When I asked Elad why he started to blog, as a startup adviser, Elad found that founders asked the same set of questions again and again. “If somebody pinged me asking about these things, I could just send them a link and then if they had more questions we could do the phone call,” said Elad. “It was an almost like efficiency in terms of communicating information.”

Whether it was early stage startups or fast-growing later stage companies, Elad found that there was a lot of the same challenges for companies and founders. “I was involved with scaling up and in parallel, a lot of the companies that I’d invested in, like Airbnb, Stripe and others had really started scaling,” Elad said over a cup of coffee. “I saw the same common things kept coming up.” Questions such as, “ ‘How do you hire executives?’ ‘What should your role as CEO evolve into?’ and ‘How do you buy companies for the first time?’”

“I just started writing content that was related more to late-stage companies and that effectively morphed into the book,” Elad said. Most of those blog posts have been complemented with interviews of people “who I thought were some of the smartest practitioners.” We ended up having a long, wide-ranging conversation — from artificial intelligence to investing to what makes a great founder.

For a while, I have observed that so-called thought leadership (self-marketing, really ) is infecting the startup ecosystem with misinformed and often inaccurate ideas. This has led to founders using them as preset templates in a startup playbook. There is a certain rigidity to that thought process, and in the end, counter to (my) tech life’s big lesson: no two startups are the same. When I posed this question to Elad, he laughed and said, “The only good generic startup advice is that there was no good generic startup advice,” said Elad. It is all about context — “the context of the people, the context of the market and context of the product,” he added.

“The problem is that there’s a lot of advice that is given by people who don’t quite know what they’re talking about, who haven’t lived through certain things,” Elad said. “And I feel like the average quality of advice has gone down over the last couple of years.” Blame it on the changing idea of media. It is easier to publish and get attention. It is easier to say things on Twitter and position yourself as an expert.

Gil believes that the investor community has changed — in the past if you were an angel investor, you had to go through an entire cycle of a startup before you have any money to invest. During that cycle, you learned a lot of things, and thus you had vital ‘lessons learned’ to share.

Not anymore – today you have angel investors or others who have not started anything or been through the grind giving advice. “Sometimes that advice is great, but sometimes it’s way out of the set of experiences or depth of that individual. And so I do think the average startup advice it’s actually gotten worse,” he said. “If people take it prescriptively, you see people making really bad mistakes.”

August 3, 2018, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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