Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead—but aim to do something big.
— Attributed to Deng Xiaoping
Now that some companies have attained the relevance and complexities of megacities and nation-states, we’ve been asking ourselves what we can learn from nation builders about best practices for business builders. There are many types of nation builders. Some are warriors like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great. Some are peaceful revolutionaries like Gandhi Ji. Others are more technocratic like Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kuan Yew. Some nations, like the United States, are more explicitly the creations of many founders.
Tech company founders can be categorized similarly. And their corporate cultures—each on its own journey and at its own stage of transition—also span this spectrum. Our observation of them reveals various nuances around the following traits and patterns, which are common among durable business ecosystem founders and nation builders.
1. Becoming Problem Obsessed and Humble About the Solution
Social media’s history is not yet written, and its effects are not neutral. It is tied up in the richness and complexity of social life. As its builders, we must endeavor to understand its impact—all the good, and all the bad—and take up the daily work of bending it towards the positive, and towards the good. This is our greatest responsibility.”
— Chris Cox, chief product officer of Meta, from Roger Parloff, “Facebook’s Chris Cox Was More Than Just the World’s Most Powerful Chief Product Officer,” Yahoo Finance, April 25, 2019
Most of the other big tech companies are building technology for you to interact with. What I care about is building technology to help people interact with each other. . . . When I think about Meta’s contribution to this field, it’s not clear to me that any of the other companies that are focused on the metaverse or on VR/AR are going to prioritize putting these features in the hardware, because like everything, there are tradeoffs. It adds weight to the device. Maybe it adds thickness. You can totally see another company taking the approach of, ‘let’s just make the lightest and thinnest thing possible’. But I want us to design the most human thing possible that creates the richest sense of presence. Because so much of human emotion and expression comes from micro movements. If I move my eyebrow a millimeter you will notice and that means something. . . . You can look at how the human brain works, and how we express and read emotions, and you can just build a roadmap of that, of what are the most important things to try to unlock over a 5-to-10 year period and just try to make the experience more and more human and social.
— Mark Zuckerberg, founder-CEO of Meta, Lex Fridman podcast, February 26, 2022
It has always been true—and probably always will be true—that the core human problems most worth addressing are not easily solvable, and perhaps not even fully solvable at all (that’s why they’re still problems). Realizing this is a founder’s first humbling. It either turns them on or turns them off. Off because the core problem isn’t solvable and they’re not going to be able to solve it. On because accepting a core problem as one’s life’s work offers an endless challenge with limitless possibilities for adding value.Monday.com founder Roy Mann is an example of the latter. His obsession is solving the core problem of work, which is visible everywhere. No one enjoys work that feels like work and yet most of us do it all the time.
2. Matching Humility with Rigorous Discipline
I remember him saying over and over again: go in and check our competition. Check everyone who is our competition. And don’t look for the bad. Look for the good. If you get one good idea, that’s one more than you went into the store with, and we must try to incorporate it into our company.
— Charlie Cate, early Walmart manager, about Sam Walton, from Sam Walton: Made in America (1993)
When a founder commits to addressing a problem of limitless scope, it also becomes a forcing mechanism for self-discipline. Discipline may even be the other side of the coin of true ambition for addressing a core problem.
3. Seeing the Granular Manifestation
Tony Xu is one of the most detail-oriented and smartest people I’ve ever met. You can [ask], “Hey, what’s the unit economics of Culver City, California, right now?” And he’ll know. You could ask him the contribution margin of the April 2021 cohort of new customers to date, and he’ll know. He knows every detail about every business that is within his management. The man eats, sleeps, and breathes this company.
— Former manager, DoorDash, February 2022
[Tony Xu] wanted to be the FedEx of local, and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you just told me you were doing food delivery!’ So, the vision was always there, it was just fuzzy at first…. Tony’s observation was you’ve got to see things at 30,000 feet and you have to fight at the ground level. Very few leaders have ever thought of it that way. . . . . We often talk about founder–market fit as something that’s quite important in a founder, because they live the pain and live the problem, and they can envision the world differently and come up with a better solution. Tony just happened to have a very authentic story, and this was one of those situations where you just saw the person that he truly is.
— Alfred Lin, partner at Sequoia and board member at DoorDash, “Mastering the Last Mile,” Sequoia blog, December 7, 2021
Core problems are so vast that ambitious founders see and live them almost everywhere they go. For Tony Xu, the problem of local business is visible in everything the company does, including: its expanding selection of every fresh item that a customer may desire, its rigorous data collection of preparation method and time, its matching of the person best fit to deliver the item, and its continuously improving system that dynamically manages the endless task of optimizing across cost, selection, and quality for each consumer, merchant, and Dasher.
4. Staying in Touch with Reality
And quite frankly, going into the pandemic, we saw demand increase because of the constraints the pandemic put on corporations and the increased consumer activity. And then coming out of the pandemic, we are seeing actually a lot of constraints in the economy. And the only resource, as I said in my remarks, that can help drive productivity while keeping costs down is digital tech.
— Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, Q2’22 (Dec-end) earnings call
Once a core problem is seen granularly, it becomes easy to stay in touch with its evolving reality. One can see the problem flow across many observations and conversations. This enables a “re-founder” like Satya Nadella to see customers’ shifting priorities within the problem of productivity. The constant shifting of customer priorities also informs how flexibly Microsoft builds each component—and the ways in which they interconnect—to enable its deep infrastructure to respond with agility to these changing needs.
5. Harnessing Founder Energy via Autonomous Ownership
We believe in total ownership by people. Anyone in the company has total ownership of what they do. It’s not handed down from the top. And if you don’t understand it, you don’t do it. That’s crucial. What it means when you look at the implications of it is that each team we build here is autonomous. They can run and are not dependent on anyone else.
— Founder, software company, March 2022
Since there is no one answer to a core problem, various individuals and teams can address it from different angles. And since founder energy is far stronger than employee energy, founders learn to enable autonomy and ownership for internal and external constituents. Jeff Bezos’s API mandate in 2002 isn’t far from Gandhi Ji’s focus on rural self-sufficiency.
6. Becoming Partnership Obsessed
However, it is a measure of Gandhi’s greatness that he could charm even those who disagreed with him. The Nehrus, both Motilal and Jawaharlal, had many occasions to differ from him, but they stood by Gandhi, and were emotionally attached to him. Many British became Gandhi’s firm supporters or followers: Horace Alexander, C. F. Andrews, Verrier Elwin, Mirabehn, Edward Thompson, and others. Many foreigners became his admirers: Romain Rolland, Halide Edip, among others. He disapproved [of] the industrial civilization of the West, and wanted the British to leave India, but loved their people and valued their friendship.
— B. Surendra Rao, “Gandhi and Friends,” The Hindu, April 22, 2013, review of Mushirul Hasan, Faith and Freedom: Gandhi in History (2013)
Core problems are so vast that the committed founder becomes almost as partnership obsessed as problem obsessed. Partnership obsession manifests itself in many ways, including cultivating a service ethos, demonstrating appreciation for others’ creativity, systematically finding alignment with the most effective partners, and measuring your organization’s success in terms of how well it helps others achieve their own goals.
7. Deepening the Obsession
We have to be prepared for a lot of things that are coming. VR, AI, crypto are all coming and are bringing a lot of innovations. I find it super interesting to have to constantly adapt. . . . Software is really hard. We are still not at the point where our computer architecture works from the assumption that there are bad faith actors out there. This is changing slowly and technologies such as Rust are coming. But it remains difficult.
— Tobi Lutke, founder-CEO of Shopify, c’t live interview, October 11, 2021
Core problems often don’t get clearer or easier as one begins to address them. They only reveal deeper layers and broader manifestations. Hence, it is rare for a founder to fully appreciate the complexity of a core problem when they first set out to address them. Founders like Tobi Lutke, Pony Ma, Tony Xu, and Mark Zuckerberg realize each day the growing depth of the challenges they face. In various ways, a full appreciation of these challenges leads to the founder’s own evolution, and even self-disruption.
We are encouraged by these trends and believe that the world will be better off as businesses today focus as much on addressing the core problems of society as other social organizations have been in centuries past.