10 things I learned at Camp Sequoia

The power of compounding; focus as a weapon of the underdog; make many mistakes once, but no mistake twice. Abheek Anand distils 10 key takeaways from Camp Sequoia, our annual tech CEO conference.

Abheek Anand

Published October 18, 2018

Camp Sequoia, our annual tech founder event, brings together portfolio founders and Sequoia team members from India and SE Asia together for a day to learn from, and be inspired by, each other. This year’s theme was “Performance”, and speakers from the worlds of sports, technology, music and business brought this alive with a series of personal stories about what it means to live a life with purpose and authenticity – and to continually strive to raise the bar. As we wrapped up the conference, I felt an electric sense of energy in the room that spilled into conversations in the corridor and beyond.

Here are the top 10 things I learned from Camp Sequoia 2018.

1. The power of consistency: Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, shared some simple yet profound anecdotes on what it takes to perform at the top of your game for 20+ years. My favourite part – training 7 days a week (without one day off, for 5+ years) meant that he practiced one day more per week than his competitors, who typically took Sunday off. In a sport where many races are won by inches, the compounding effect of being better prepared made all the difference.

2. The founder’s dilemma: Stripe had just announced a large fundraise a few days before our conference, and Patrick Collison, the co-founder and CEO, was on stage talking about his company’s journey in his usual charming, self-effacing way. In response to an audience question from Siu Rui of Carousell, he remarked about how hard it can be for a founder to continually project an aura of confidence and invincibility, all while knowing about all the many things that are going wrong at any given moment. Balancing a combination of being an inveterate optimist and a paranoid pessimist can be exhausting, but surrounding ourselves with supportive, upbeat people, both in our jobs and our families, is an effective survival hack. One of our goals from Camp Sequoia has always been to foster a sense of community, and this was a terrific example of founders being honest, empathetic, and supportive.

3. Make many mistakes once, but no mistake twice: The session I was most excited about was a talk by Jason Mallinson, one of the cave divers who helped lead the rescue of the young Thai football team trapped in a flooded cave earlier this year. Jason described the journey of an international team that came together to pull off a flawless rescue in rapidly deteriorating conditions. I was struck in particular by how he talked about being willing to make mistakes once, but rapidly learning from them to make sure they don’t make them twice. This is true of all high performing teams we see – an ability to make decisions and course correct immediately if things don’t go as planned. Sometimes the only way on, is through.

4. Focus as a weapon of the underdog: Iceland, a nation of just over 300k people, qualified earlier this year for the FIFA football World Cup. Heimir Halgrimmson, the coach of Iceland’s national football team, shared this improbable underdog journey with a captivated audience. One of his key strategies was to identify the team’s strengths and weaknesses, and rather than fixing the weaknesses, to work on amplifying the strengths. A team of underdogs may not be perfect, but by changing the rules of the game, by being honest about their weaknesses, and focusing on their strengths, they can take on giants.

5. Localize your frontlines: OYO Rooms has gotten off to a torrid start in China, and founder Ritesh Agarwal was on stage sharing the story of how he built a high performance organization in one of the most competitive markets in the world. One thing he called out stayed with me: only a handful of team members in Oyo China speak English. High performance teams cannot be centrally managed, and over the years I have always been impressed by how Ritesh has used distributed leadership to build an extremely effective organization at OYO Rooms. The Oyo China expansion is a terrific example of how hiring local leaders and empowering them to make decisions can result in exceptional growth.

6. Are you done with yourself? Nadiem Makarim, the CEO of Go-Jek, effectively runs a “super app” company, which brings massive challenges. In the 3.5 years since Sequoia India invested in Go-Jek, he’s built a platform company that has taken market leadership in many of the largest categories in Indonesia – and he’s done so by building a terrific team around himself. His secret? “Hiring people who were done with themselves” and were ready to put the team first. We joke often that Go-Jek has built an ecosystem of founders within one company, an organisational task as challenging as it has been rewarding for the company’s success.

7. Resume traits vs eulogy traits: Doug Leone, Sequoia’s Global Managing Partner, shared stories from founders like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs to highlight what performance means to us at Sequoia. Doug has a perspective on balancing our focus on “resume traits” – what skills we need to do our daily jobs, alongside “eulogy traits” – what we will be remembered for. This intrinsic motivation to focus on character and who we are, can help with the difficult decisions one often faces as a leader. Finding such a balance is often the difference between leaders who run “good companies” vs “enduring companies”.

8. The power of compounding: Our very own Shailendra Singh took the audience through a ‘crystal ball’ thought exercise to make a point about enduring companies in a technology-first world. What if we were to believe that the successful technology companies of today could continue to compound at the rates they are now for the next decade. Amazon and Apple both wowed the world when they touched the $1T market cap mark this year. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that many more companies could hit that over the next decade —if they focus on longevity and maintain even a reasonable amount of momentum. We often talk about how company building is a marathon and not a sprint. Shailendra’s talk really drove home the power of compounding over the long term for me.

9. It’s OK to not be OK: It was heart-warming to watch the founders in our community open up to each other during Camp Sequoia to share both their learnings and their challenges. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey, and my partner Mohit brought this up in a particularly impactful way in his fireside chat with Michael Phelps. Michael talked openly about his struggle with depression, and how he leaned on his family and coach to get through a personally difficult phase; one of the big takeaways from this session is that sometimes, it’s OK to not be OK. Performing at the highest levels over the course of several years means traversing many ups and downs; it’s important that founders have the right support structure in their personal and professional lives to navigate this sometimes rocky road.

10. Thinking global from Day One: Cindy, the CEO of VIPKid, was on stage sharing her journey, and it struck me how she had started a company in China that was international from the start, and in a short span has grown to be one of the largest education tech companies in the world. It’s tempting for us to start businesses in our backyard, in the markets that we know best. However, companies like VIPKid, Freshworks, One Championship and Zilingo, all of whom were on stage during Camp Sequoia, are examples of companies that went after global markets on day one. We are constantly humbled by the ambitions of our founders, and Camp Sequoia was a reminder to all of us how the rules of the past do not necessarily apply to the founders of the future.