EP5: Sam Corcos on lessons from early startups, why he took a year off before Levels ($12m seed) and how he spent his time, and why he’s building a radically open company/culture
In this episode of Paradigm Shift, Levels CEO and co-founder Sam Corcos chats with hosts Ashish Kundra and Zane Salim. Paradigm Shift is all about people building the future and pivotal moments in their journey. Sam shares how he decides what project to focus on, why he prioritizes building relationships, and the transparent culture they are busy building at Levels.
Focus on projects that inspire you
Sam believes life is too short to spend on work that you are not passionate and excited about.
I have a general policy in life of not doing things that I don’t want to do. I’ll do things in the short-term, for a couple of weeks to just get something over the finish line. But I can’t imagine myself hating going to work every day that just would not work for me. And that’s the state for a lot of people. So I guess I’ve had the luxury. One of the nice things about being a programmer is that it’s a very in-demand set of skills. So you have a lot of flexibility on how you spend your time.
The perks of nomadic work
For a period of four years, Sam was traveling constantly. By staying with friends and in affordable areas, he was able to avoid costs like rent almost entirely.
The nice thing about being nomadic was that my burn was really low. You can solve for these things with both numerator and denominator. And if you just keep your denominator to like $500 a month, you’d be surprised how much flexibility that gives you in your life. Sometimes I was staying with friends, so I didn’t pay rent. I’ve only paid rent I think a couple of times in my life, staying with friends a lot of the time, sometimes going to countries that were really inexpensive, Berlin is surprisingly cheap and it was a really fun time. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, experienced a lot of things that most people don’t get to experience in their ’20s.
Give employees autonomy
Level values cutting-edge thinkers are risk takers. To that end, they hire people who think like entrepreneurs and give them free rein within their vertical.
We hire a lot of entrepreneurs. I think that it’s a mental state, a lot of the companies like the Google’s of the world, they don’t encourage risk-taking and the type of behavior that entrepreneurs engage in. So I think it’s possible. It’s really a question of company culture. We give people tremendous autonomy. We’ll bring somebody in and they’ll own an entire vertical, all of the discretion to try it and they’ll be able to get their own resources. They’re basically an entrepreneur within the company building out a good chunk of the organization. Other companies, they index much more heavily on people who can follow the rules and who don’t step out of line.
Provide time for deep work
At Levels, meetings are kept to a minimum to allow employees time to be truly productive.
We really try to make sure that people have as much deep work, focused time as possible. There were very few meetings. I think our engineers average, I think two meetings per week. So it’s very, very minimal meeting culture. And even people who are in roles that traditionally have a lot of meetings like Graydon, who is in customer success. He only has an hour and a half of meetings per week. And I think that’s a big part of it is if you bring on the best people and you trust them, then giving them autonomy and showing them what the objectives are like, hypothetically, if you’re building something in social and you say, “Our goal is to build something in social that increases engagement, and we want to ship within two months.” You figure it out. And if you have the right people, they can figure it out.
Be upfront about your company culture
There’s no point in attracting top talent if you are not honest with them about how your company operates.
If you understand what your culture is, just be upfront about it. If, for example, we’ve been fully remote since day one, we were remote pre-COVID and back then it was a pretty controversial decision. It’s much less so now, so being honest with people about what the trade-offs are for remote teams, if you’re not used to it, it can feel pretty isolating. And there were some companies examples are like I know Airbnb has a very social culture and there’s not like a right or wrong answer to this. It’s just a path that they’ve chosen. It probably leads to more social coherence of the team, a much more resilient team when things get tough. But if you’re fully remote, it’s probably not going to happen. You’re probably not going to have the same sort of social relationships with the people that you work with. And we had a really great candidate recently drop out of the process because when she was looking at our culture, it’s like, “you know what? I’m at the point in my life where I want to be personal friends with everyone I work with, and remote is probably not going to be able to do that successfully.” It’s like, that’s okay.
Raise funds while you have cash
One lesson Sam learned at an early startup was that when you choose to raise cash should have nothing to do with how much cash you currently have in the bank.
I would say another lesson that we learned the hard way at Sightline Maps was around fundraising. We bootstrapped it for the first two years, and then we started a fundraising process and we planned our fundraising around when we would run out of money. That seems reasonable. It’s like, well, we’ll start the process when we have about three months of money left and then we’ll get the process done in a couple months and then we’ll have plenty of money. The reality is that cash is an asset, which is something that we learned the hard way, the less cash you have, the less people want to invest in you. And what you should do is you should raise money when you have momentum, your cash position should not be even a consideration in fundraising.
Take time to reflect on what matters
Sam works constantly, but realized that barely any of that work took the form of big-picture thinking about what truly matters to him.
I work pathologically, like an 80 hour week is a pretty light week for me. So I’m working all the time. And I noticed that I had spent tens of thousands of hours working and coding and probably single digit, maybe, maybe tens of hours actually thinking about what I want to do with my time. And there was this bizarre, orders of magnitude difference in terms of how I was spending my time and thinking about what really mattered. So I spent a lot of time writing, and did a lot of reflecting. I wrote probably by at least 100 pages of just reflecting on what are the problems that I care about.
Use structure to stay productive
Sam knows that he could easily sleep in if his calendar is empty. To hit the ground running each day, he schedules a morning meeting, even if it’s a social meeting.
For me, if I don’t have a call in the morning, I’m just going to not wake up. I can’t motivate myself to do anything. So it try to use things like guilt to force myself to wake up in the morning. If I have a breakfast morning at 8:00 AM, I’m going to wake up a 7:30. If I have early calls, I’m going to wake up. I’m not going to bail. I’m going to wake up. I had to create this external structure to make sure that I stay productive. So I tried to have a breakfast meeting every day. Just other people who are interesting in whatever field, another tactical piece is I kept in my back pocket a notepad and I just had a list of asks things that I needed help with.
Devote time to new ideas
To ensure that every new idea he works on gets a shot at success, Sam tracks the time and budget of different projects.
There was a point when I was working on 16 different projects concurrently. And I actually, I had budgeted my time. I downloaded an app Harvest, which is something that I’d actually used in the past when I was a software developer and a contractor to just help you keep track of time. And I put an hourly rate and I budgeted something like $10,000-25,000 per project on. I will commit $25,000 of my time to feeling out this concept. And it was actually a super helpful feedback loop, because I would sometimes start on something I would lose interest. And then I would look at how much time I spent on it. It’s like I only spent $1,000 on this and I committed to $10,000. So it’s actually too early to give up on this idea.
The magic effects of networking
Levels co-founder Josh Clemente had been in Sam’s network for ages. It wasn’t until a problem brought them together that Sam got drawn into the Level’s universe.
I caught up with Josh who’s now Level’s co-founder. And he was mentioning a project that he was working on that was related to glucose monitoring and how he didn’t know how to deal with the prescription situation. And a lot of things fell in place of like, “Oh, what you need is a physician network.” And somehow I know about that now, and I know exactly who to talk to, to get all this information. And it was just knowledge accumulation from all of these people who are smarter than me on these topics. And then at a certain point, I started putting a little bit of time into Levels. I think at one point it was like number five out of 16. And then it made its way up to number three out of 16. And then at a certain point it just became obvious that like, okay, this is the one that’s aligned with my mission of what I want to be spending my time on.
Ashish Kundra: So hello there, you’re listening to Paradigm Shift, a podcast about people building the future and pivotal moments in their journey. I’m Ashish and I’m joined by my co-host Zane, and we’re super excited to speak with Sam Corcos, who is the CEO and co-founder of Levels Health. For those not familiar with the company, Levels helps people quantify the effect, their diet is having on their health and lifestyle by measuring biomarkers. I’ve used the product and confirm it’s super eye-opening and interesting. Levels has raised over $12 million from investors like a16z, to Costello and many others. Thanks Sam, for being here.
Sam Corcos: Good to be here.
Ashish Kundra: So, Sam, I want to start with your startup journey. Based on my research, it looks like you are one of the few people not working on a social networking startup in 2013, how’d you get started in startups in software?
Sam Corcos: I’ve been in startups pretty much the whole time. My whole career has been jumping from startup to startup. I got into the software development is really what got me into it. And I really enjoyed the deep focused work and the slow state that you get. I also enjoyed the freedom that it gave me. I traveled a lot. There’s like a four year stretch for the longest I was in one place was a month. All over the U.S., Central and South America, Western Europe. And it’s the joys of being remote. The startups that I got involved with early happened spontaneously. They were just companies that I started with friends of mine. Being open to new opportunities and I was with each of them for about two years before realizing that they weren’t going to hit escape velocity. And then tried another thing sort of the nature of startups is sometimes you got to know when to end it early instead of just continuing to go down a path that isn’t going to go anywhere.
Ashish Kundra: That’s great. And then what kept you going? What was your motivation and what kept you trying again and again?
Sam Corcos: I’m sure a big part of it was a general problem with authority and inability to convince myself that working at a larger company and not doing things that I was particularly interested in was going to be something that kept me satisfied. I have a general policy in life of not doing things that I don’t want to do. I’ll do things in the short-term, for a couple of weeks to just get something over the finish line. But I can’t imagine myself hating going to work every day that just would not work for me. And that’s the state for a lot of people. So I guess I’ve had the luxury. One of the nice things about being a programmer is that it’s a very in demand set of skills. So you have a lot of flexibility on how you spend your time.
Sam Corcos: So I just kind of go from project to project. I did a lot of software consulting as well. There wasn’t an easy way to get cash in the door. The nice thing about being nomadic was that my burn was really low. You can solve for these things with both numerator and denominator. And if you just keep your denominator to like $500 a month, you’d be surprised how much flexibility that gives you in your life.
Ashish Kundra: $500 a month, where were you living? Not San Francisco, right?
Sam Corcos: No. Well, sometimes I was staying with friends, so I didn’t pay rent. I’ve only paid rent I think a couple of times in my life, staying with friends a lot of the time, sometimes going to countries that were really inexpensive, Berlin is surprisingly cheap and it was a really fun time. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, experienced a lot of things that most people don’t get to experience in their ’20s.
Ashish Kundra: I know at some point you started CarDash and I want to hear that story, but before we get there, since we’re on this nomadic thing, what was your most memorable place where you lived?
Sam Corcos: There were a lot. They’re memorable for different reasons. I really enjoyed Buenos Aires in Argentina. That was more of the, I enjoyed it for we’ll call it vacation purposes. I ended up staying on a polo farm for a little while outside of Argentina, tried to learn how to play polo. I’ve never written a course before. So it turns out was quite hard. It was a really fun trip. I also really liked Talon Estonia, which is kind of unexpectedly wonderful place. I also really liked Tel Aviv, which is a really vibrant city, but at the end of the day, New York is just the best city anywhere. So a lot of places that I really enjoyed.
Ashish Kundra: That must’ve tickled various parts of your brain. I’ve done this for about two years. And these experiences in places are so different. I can imagine being open to various experiences would lead to so many different types of learnings that’s really cool.
Sam Corcos: Yeah.
Zane Salim: We definitely want to talk a little bit about your early startups and some of the lessons. But before we jump into that, I want to for a minute, go back to something you said about how, the reason you did startups, just because you have a problem with authority and you don’t want to work on things, you’re not going to be excited about, that’s a funny notion because I think a lot of entrepreneurs have just personally self-confessed that they don’t think they’d make good employees. So how do you think about that? Do you think entrepreneurs can make good employees? Because there are companies that hire a bunch of entrepreneurs and get a ton of great work out of them and have been very successful with that. But also at the same time, I think it’s difficult to do so now that you’re running this startup and then building a team and growing, what is your thoughts on that?
Sam Corcos: Yeah. I mean, we hire a lot of entrepreneurs. I think that it’s a mental state, a lot of the companies like the Google’s of the world, they don’t encourage risk-taking and the type of behavior that entrepreneurs engage in. So I think it’s possible. It’s really a question of company culture. We give people tremendous autonomy. We’ll bring somebody in and they’ll own an entire vertical, all of the discretion to try it and they’ll be able to get their own resources. They’re basically an entrepreneur within the company building out a good chunk of the organization. Other companies, they index much more heavily on people who can follow the rules and who don’t step out of line. And so I think it’s more of a culture of the company itself.
Zane Salim: I know you’re very focused on culture at Levels. Let’s spend maybe like five or 10 minutes on this. So how big is Levels today? How many employees do you guys have? I know you’ve grown very fast over the last year.
Sam Corcos: Yeah. It’s hard to keep track. I think we’re about 35 would be my guess something around there, 30 to 35.
Zane Salim: Got it. And what’s an example of this notion where you’ve fostered risk-taking in the organization? And how do you make that part of your culture?
Sam Corcos: A big part of it is ownership. So giving people the ability to write their own specs, giving loosely defined concepts and trusting that the people you’ve brought on can solve these problems. There were fewer steps in the way we trust people. We trust that they will get their stuff done. We really try to make sure that people have as much deep work, focused time as possible. There were very few meetings. I think our engineers average, I think two meetings per week. So it’s very, very minimal meeting culture. And even people who are in roles that traditionally have a lot of meetings like Graydon, who is in customer success. He only has an hour and a half of meetings per week. And I think that’s a big part of it is if you bring on the best people and you trust them, then giving them autonomy and showing them what the objectives are like, hypothetically, if you’re building something in social and you say, “Our goal is to build something in social that increases engagement, and we want to ship within two months.” You figure it out.
Sam Corcos: And if you have the right people, they can figure it out. It doesn’t require a micromanagement. My philosophy on this is that if you can’t trust that your people are doing good work, then your problems are upstream. You have to figure out hiring and you have to figure out culture. This is especially true in programming. I’ve been in circumstances where mostly this is the case with non-technical leadership, where they insist on things like metrics around productivity of individual engineers. And then they compare them to each other. And they’ll say like, “Well, John only shipped 600 lines of code. And Bob shipped 900 lines of code. Bob must be 50% better than John.” That’s just not how it works. Okay, well then we need to do story points. And this doesn’t help anybody.
Zane Salim: Yeah, totally. One thing I’ve noticed about Levels is you’re very mission focused company, right?
Sam Corcos: Yeah.
Zane Salim: I think you’ve got this very strong vision. And I think mission around helping people take control and ownership of their metabolic health and how there’s just so many bad things happening there with people’s diets being so heavy on sugar and carbs. And so I think part of what you have going for you is you’re able to attract people that are super aligned with the mission. Because that’s such a big part of how you operate. And I think the other part of it I’ve noticed is actually having really rigorous hiring because if you hire a right then everything else is sort of like skiing downhill. So how do you do that? How do you ensure you’ve got like the right rigor on hiring?
Sam Corcos: I think one of the biggest things is you have to commit a lot of time to it, a lot more than people expect. I published something recently in First Round Review on how I manage my time. And one of the most interesting learnings from that is I feel like I spend a lot of time on recruiting and we have really great people. And when I actually did the analysis of how much of my time I spent on recruiting, it was something like 2% of my actual time. And if you were to ask me, I would’ve said it was 10 times that much and think it’s because I really don’t like it. It’s the process of reaching out to people, getting rejected all the time. It’s why a lot of people hate doing sales. The other thing to keep in mind is that hiring it’s not a sales problem. It’s really a matching problem.
Sam Corcos: So one of the ways that we’re, this also comes back to the original question around culture is that if you understand what your culture is, just be upfront about it. If, for example, we’ve been fully remote since day one, we were remote pre-COVID and back then it was a pretty controversial decision. It’s much less so now, so being honest with people about what the trade-offs are for remote teams, if you’re not used to it, it can feel pretty isolating. And there were some companies examples are like I know Airbnb has a very social culture and there’s not like a right or wrong answer to this. It’s just a path that they’ve chosen. It probably leads to more social coherence of the team, a much more resilient team when things get tough. But if you’re fully remote, it’s probably not going to happen.
Sam Corcos: You’re probably not going to have the same sort of social relationships with the people that you work with. And we had a really great candidate recently drop out of the process because when she was looking at our culture, it’s like, “you know what? I’m at the point in my life where I want to be personal friends with everyone I work with, and remote is probably not going to be able to do that successfully.” It’s like, that’s okay. Right? This is a matching problem. So it’s really just, who are you talking to and what are their goals and how does that align with how you want to build your company. So we have a few things like that, where we have some quirks in the way that we operate, at the end of the day if you bring somebody on and they’re a bad culture fit and you have to fire them, it’s not good for them. And it’s not good for you.
Sam Corcos: Nobody wins in this situation. It reminds me, actually, I had a friend who works in growth, a CEO sold him really, really hard on the company, the culture, how great everything was, he shows up and everything was completely different than he was sold. And I remember talking to him on the phone afterwards and he was like, “Yeah, he told me it was a rocket ship. He neglected to mention which direction the rocket ship was going.” And all of these different assets, everything was on fire. It was super high stress. Everyone was super anxious and that he ended up leaving and the company lost alums and morale, because everyone else saw that he left, they also lost out a month. So that hiring process and my friend also lost a lot of his own life going through this process and took a lot of risks, probably said no to a lot of other things that would have been would have been on the option.
Sam Corcos: So just making sure people understand what it is they’re getting themselves into. That’s why we do so much in content. We publish publicly our monthly investor updates and our weekly team all hands, they’re on our website, down at the bottom. If you go to inside the company, I don’t think we’ve publicly announced that yet, but it’s all there. You can see our very first investor update. You can see all of our weekly team, all hands. Yeah. You can see our weekly team all hands from back when we were seven people and a big part of that is just so people can see how we operate. And we share a lot of our documentation. We did a cultural project recently with a YouTube content creator. That was super interesting. And so nobody, when they joined Levels, nobody is surprised by what they find. And I think that’s a big part of it.
Zane Salim: That’s amazing. I think this radical openness is so powerful and I’ve seen some of your all hand videos on YouTube and it’s fantastic. It’s really so powerful, so love but you guys are doing. There’s three moments in your journey that I thought we could focus on in the time we have, first is your early startups. You had a couple of quick ones. And so we’d love to hear lessons. The second is, I know you took a year off before Levels and a lot of founders, I think struggled with taking time off. Because that can be so difficult and disorienting. So I want to hear about that a little bit. And then lastly, about sort of like what you’re excited about and looking forward, Levels is doing a lot of great work and there’s a lot of interesting things happening in the health space.
Zane Salim: And just in tech, generally, so would love to hear about forward looking. What are some things you don’t excited about? So let’s start at the top. So you had a bunch of startups back to back. In fact, I think we did YC together, winter 17, we were in the same batch. And so tell us a little bit about that. What were some of the key lessons, if you were talking to a younger entrepreneur, what are some things you would share?
Sam Corcos: It’s a good question because each one of them came with a lot of different lessons. There’s a great quote. I think it’s a quote by Bismarck says that, “Fools learn from experience. Wisdom is learning from others’ experience.” And a lot of these things I wish that I had read them in a book or really understood them. One of the biggest things we learned going through Sightline Maps, which was a company I did with a college friend that was a topographical mapping company, worked with the U.S. Military. And one of the big lessons we learned is how brutal sales cycles can be to operating a business. And I’ve heard the term sales cycles. People have told me about what that means, but it wasn’t until you experienced. And there’s a million dollar pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Sam Corcos: And the rainbow is always like two weeks away for three years. And it’s very hard to plan things when revenue comes in these random intervals and you have no way of projecting anything out. So that was a hard lesson to learn. I would say another lesson that we learned the hard way at Sightline Maps was around fundraising. We bootstrapped it for the first two years, and then we started a fundraising process and we planned our fundraising around when we would run out of money. That seems reasonable. It’s like, well, we’ll start the process when we have about three months of money left and then we’ll get the process done in a couple months and then we’ll have plenty of money. The reality is that cash is an asset, which is something that we learned the hard way, the less cash you have, the less people want to invest in you.
Sam Corcos: And what you should do is you should raise money when you have momentum, your cash position should not be even a consideration in fundraising. The worst thing that can happen, and this actually did happen to us. We have a term sheet, everything was fine. The lead investor had some change in management and they pulled the plug. His term sheets are not binding. A lot of people don’t know that. Term sheet’s just like a promise. And we said no to everyone else. And this fund had a change of heart and pull the plug on it. Then all of our follow on capital got scared. They’re like they must know something we don’t know. They all pulled out. We ended up taking terms that were like 25% of the valuation that we were expecting. It was definitely a painful lesson to learn that you need to make sure you always have leverage in these things and you should raise money.
Sam Corcos: If you have 40 months of runway, everyone wants to give you more money because they know you’re not going to die as soon as they give you money. So just keeping that in mind was a really tough lesson to learn. The lessons around CarDash, a big one was around managing people like drivers in particular, I’ve managed software developers before, but managing different types of people like operational things is very hard. And the number of, I honestly don’t know how Uber even operates, the number of edge cases that just proliferate on all of the ways things can go wrong when you have people moving things around and you give people discretion. It was like every day there was a fire that had to be put out and it sucked up a lot of energy.
Sam Corcos: of this is actually solved by better tooling. So one of the lessons that we learned was, we ended up spending way too much of our resources in terms of engineering time on internal tools. And there are a lot of great tools now, like Retool that didn’t exist back then, where you can build a lot of these things internally using just operational time. You don’t need engineers to build dashboards anymore. That would have saved us like 90% of our engineering resources.
Zane Salim: Retool was in our batch, by the way.
Sam Corcos: Those types of things really help. It’s funny how, when you look back on a lot of these things where some of the biggest challenges that you faced are now just SaaS products. It’s like trying to do payments before Stripe. It was like a good chunk of every company’s engineering time. And now it’s trivial. And so many of these similar things like we’re working with TruePill now for doing pharmacy fulfillment. Five years ago, that would have been an entire entity within your company and millions and millions of dollars sunk into this in a way that’s totally pointless. Like AWS is not a classic example.
Zane Salim: Yeah. So much leverage, TruePill is amazing. Do you guys use them for the doctor of consults too to get a device?
Sam Corcos: Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).
Zane Salim: Okay. Speaking of CarDash, where are the contractors employees or I guess or the operations people in the mechanics, were they employees of CarDash or were they contractors?
Sam Corcos: They were contractors.
Zane Salim: Got it. So that’s even harder. So how did you guys solve that? How did you drive a certain level of quality? I know you mentioned it’s hard, but did you guys figure out some solutions?
Sam Corcos: Yeah, not especially, I guess brute-force sort of the answer. We have a lot of operations people trying to manage all of this and there were so many points at which the process could break that it that ended up just being too complex. We ended up killing that whole the side of the business, just because it was too logistically complicated to do it effectively. I think another one was more of like a personal learning. I actually touched on this somewhat recently. I did a podcast with my current co-founder at Levels, Josh on founder dynamics on A Whole New Level. One of the big learnings that I had at CarDash was how this was only something that I learned in a year off that I took doing a lot of reflecting, which is I did not have the grammar to be able to effectively communicate how I was feeling.
Sam Corcos: And it almost sounds like a trivial thing. Like everyone should be able to do this, but I had been so focused on coding and trying to be like a hyper rational person that these bubbling resentments were things that I was feeling, but I didn’t have the capacity to surface those really enough now with my co-founder and it eventually created a lot of tension and ultimately ended with me leaving. And so that was something that I thought a lot about during my year off, I spent a lot of time reflecting on things. I’ve been much more intentional about surfacing interpersonal conflict very early on. So like with Josh, there were a few moments that were really tense. And I remember specifically we had a one-on-one that was an hour and I felt this tension in the conversation. And in a past life, in my previous companies, I would have just ignored it and went back to work.
Sam Corcos: And in this case, I called him back immediately and said, “Hey, I don’t really know what’s going on.” But that conversation felt really tense. “I think we need to talk about this.” And we ended up spending the next six hours on a Zoom call talking about it and surfaced a lot of things that were on both of our minds. And that whole week was really uncomfortable. And then at the end of it, we both saw eye-to-eye and it’s been a really positive relationship since that. So it’s really just being able to surface these things interpersonally, before they become catastrophic problems was a really big learning.
Zane Salim: That’s not spoken about, but it’s honestly like co-founder issues like the number one killer of startups and it’s so difficult. So thanks for sharing that. I think that’s really valuable insight and thread to share it on the pod. So you left CarDash and you took a year off. So tell us about that? That must’ve been such an interesting time for you and clearly you were reflecting and trying to figure it out what’s next. And that sounds like that was a key moment in your journey. So walk us through that.
Sam Corcos: Yeah. It was probably the most important year of my life. Just spending a lot of time reflecting on what it is that I actually want. It’s one of these weird things where, when I looked back on my time allocation, the amount of time that I had spent working, I work pathologically, like an 80 hour week is a pretty light week for me. So I’m working all the time. And I noticed that I had spent tens of thousands of hours working and coding and probably single digit, maybe, maybe tens of hours actually thinking about what I want to do with my time. And there was this bizarre, orders of magnitude difference in terms of how I was spending my time and thinking about what really mattered.
Sam Corcos: So I spent a lot of time writing, and did a lot of reflecting. I wrote probably by at least 100 pages of just reflecting on what are the problems that I care about. When I looked back at all the other companies, it’s like Sightline Maps started accidentally worked on a project with my brother to 3D prints, a mountain range nearby because we thought it would be fun. And then two weeks later by complete coincidence, Ben who’s my friend from college emails me and says, “Hey Sam, do you know anyone who knows anything about 3D printing, topographical maps?” And it’s like, “Yeah, I already did this.”
Sam Corcos: And that just became a company. And similarly with CarDash, I had left Sightline Maps, I was doing consulting and I met Yunan in the hallway of a conference. I had known him before, but we were catching up. He mentioned he just loves his company. He has this idea for a new project. He’s looking for a technical co-founder I was like, “Well, I’m a technical co-founder, let’s talk about this.” And I hadn’t really given enough thought to what are the types of problems that I actually want to solve. The framework that I ended up settling on was if I put five years into this and it failed, would I look back on it and think it was a waste of time or not? Healthcare was one of them, education was another one that I really care a lot about. And when I look at those issues, if I put five years into trying to improve health care and it didn’t work, I would say, “You know what? I’m glad I tried.” If I put five years into a, an ad tech startup or a social media startup, I probably wouldn’t feel that way.
Sam Corcos: So that was a big part of it. Tactically, I told myself that at a minimum, I would not accept any offers. I would not start anything for at least six months. So say no to everything for six months. And that was really hard. There were so many things that in conversations felt like they were the right answer. And I was like, “Oh man, it’s such a cool project to FinTech thing, if you totally do this.” But in three months I still have three more months in my six month hiatus. Let’s talk to them. And then of course the next over the next three or four days, it’s like, you know what? It’s actually not that interesting. I’m glad I didn’t say yes to that.
Zane Salim: I think as entrepreneurs is a natural tendency to be an optimist and get excited about things. And there’s also so difficult to be in this state of not doing anything that it’s sort of this like fragile, vulnerable state that you’re twice as susceptible to just jump onto something. So I think this idea of forcing yourself not to do something for awhile is very uncomfortable, but so important. So now we’ll click on that. So you did a lot of writing, you wrote hundreds of pages. How did you structure that? How did you approach this process of writing and reflecting?
Sam Corcos: Yeah, honestly, a lot of it was reformed and it was just always writing something and sometimes a lot of them are rambling. I don’t know what to write about. And I’m just writing those words out. It’s like always typing. It’s getting thoughts onto paper. And eventually things are morphed into different ideas and pathways of thinking. A lot of it was reflecting on past relationships and thinking about big industries and societal problems and books that I had read. I think tactically, one of the things that I did that was most helpful was I had a breakfast meeting every morning at 8:00 AM and I don’t have a lot of grapes. I guess internal structure is maybe the right word. I don’t have the discipline to wake up. My co-founder at CarDash Todd, he was in special forces and he wakes up at 4:00 AM every day. Does a work out, has his routine, nothing will deter him from his routine. And he’s super disciplined for me.
Sam Corcos: For me, if I don’t have a call in the morning, I’m just going to not wake up. I can’t motivate myself to do anything. So it try to use things like guilt to force myself to wake up in the morning. If I have a breakfast morning at 8:00 AM, I’m going to wake up a 7:30. If I have early calls, I’m going to wake up. I’m not going to bail. I’m going to wake up. I had to create this external structure to make sure that I stay productive. So I tried to have a breakfast meeting every day. Just other people who are interesting in whatever field, another tactical piece is I kept in my back pocket a notepad and I just had a list of asks things that I needed help with.
Sam Corcos: And they’re usually pretty trivial things like I’m looking to meet people who are interested in synthetic biology, because I just want to know more about it. I want to meet people who are deeply Christian, because I’m looking to learn more about theology. I’m looking to meet a pastor if you know one. And I just have a list of types of people that I was interested in meeting because almost everybody, when they find out that you’re taking time off looking for what to do almost, everyone’s going to say, “How can I help?” And the usual answer people give is, “I don’t know, I’ll think of something.” But if you’re ready and you have the list, I was really surprised at how often these conversations would convert into like, each conversation would lead to three more conversations, which would lead to three more conversations each.
Sam Corcos: And I ended up with more interesting people to talk to than I have time to meet with them. And when I think about the trajectory that ultimately led to the starting of Levels, was Josh is somebody that I’ve been keeping up with for a long time. I try to keep tabs on my personal network. I have a quarterly goal of staying in touch with 1,000 people. So I spend a lot of my time really staying in touch with people.
Zane Salim: That’s insane by the way, 1,000 people is not… How do?
Ashish Kundra: That’s amazing.
Sam Corcos: It’s a lot of effort? That’s kind of the lazy answer, but I usually exceed 500. I rarely get to 1,000, but that’s my target. I think a big part of it is to not overthink it. I just have a list, start with just a list of people that you want to stay in touch with. And every once in a while, just look through the list and see if you’ve talked to them in awhile and you can be like, “Oh, I haven’t talked to Andy in a long time. I should reach out to him.” And that’s pretty much the whole process. The closest thing, Peter Boyce has an article about this, where he talks about his process using Airtable. It’s like 90% the same as the way that I do it. It’s interesting how there’s this convergence path towards network management and just trying to stay in touch with people making an effort.
Sam Corcos: So many people say that they want to, and then this is one of the classic things for entrepreneurs that I talk to. It’s like, “Oh, I have this great idea for this product. That’s going to do X, Y, and Z.” In fact, a very recent one that this happened, this happened within the last couple of weeks. Somebody said, “Yeah, we need to start a company. And what it’s going to do is going to be like unbiased news.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I haven’t heard this one before. Tell me more.” Like, “Yeah, it’s going to show information from this side and that side,” and it’s okay, “Do you feel this is a problem?” “Oh yeah. Huge problem. I deal with this all the time.” “If this is such a problem for you, have you even bothered Googling this?”
Sam Corcos: There’s a company called Offside sponsored by Bill Gates that’s got a lot of funding that does exactly what you’re describing. If this is not a big enough problem for you that you haven’t even Googled this once ever, it’s probably not a real problem. It’s similar with network management and maintenance, it’s not something you can do on autopilot. If you’re willing to commit 20 to 30 hours a week to doing it, then great. And this is where I think a lot of the misalignment comes from. I think that personal CRMs as an industry that will never take off because there’s this misalignment. People assume that having a personal CRM will automate all of your relationships. That’s the expectation is like, “Oh, it’s going to reduce the amount of time that I have to spend talking to people.” The reality is it obliges you to spend 10 times more of your effort on managing these relationships. And so there’s this never-ending mismatch of how people spend their time. And I don’t imagine we’re going to see anything in the near future that’s going to solve that problem.
Zane Salim: Yeah, definitely a problem. But the solutions are hard and the business models are hard. So want to hear a little bit about how you converge to Levels, talk a little bit about your outlook on the future. So you’re doing a bunch of writing. You’re meeting a lot of interesting people. I think you’ve figured out at this point that healthcare and education are industries you care about and you won’t regret spending time on them. So how does that lead to Levels? So walk us through that, how you converged on Levels. And I know it took a while to hone in on it. I remember talking to you back in a couple of times, so walk us through that part of the journey.
Sam Corcos: Yeah. There was a point when I was working on 16 different projects concurrently. And I actually, I had budgeted my time. I downloaded an app Harvest, which is something that I’d actually used in the past when I was a software developer and a contractor to just help you keep track of time. And I put an hourly rate and I budgeted something like $10,000-25,000 per project on. I will commit $25,000 of my time to feeling out this concept. And it was actually a super helpful feedback loop, because I would sometimes start on something I would lose interest. And then I would look at how much time I spent on it. It’s like I only spent $1,000 on this and I committed to $10,000. So it’s actually too early to give up on this idea.
Sam Corcos: And other times I would feel like, yeah, this has a lot of potential, but it’s still a long way to go. And I get to the $25,000 mark and I’m like, “Okay, this is decision time.” I thought I would be a lot further along at this point on this project. And then it would kill it.
Zane Salim: What are you doing? I know you measure your time pretty obsessively. So how were you spending your time? Were you doing customer calls? Were you putting up? I know you’re talking to experts and you’d be like making landing pages. This whole different approaches.
Sam Corcos: All of that.
Zane Salim: Yeah.
Sam Corcos: There were a couple of interesting projects where I created a lot of MVPs is really what it comes down to. A lot of MVPs, running some ads, doing some smoke tests, a lot of conceptual work. The thing that really provided the most value was talking to smart people, almost all of these were things that had an implicit co-founder like my friend, Brian Topol, and I were working on a project in the… We call it the adult education space and it’s sort of taking the concept of the Phoenix Project or five dysfunctions of a team to sort of narrative parables around soft skills that are often not taught and turning those into a podcast form. Something that makes it much more easy to ingest and understand the types of skills, but it was the type of project that I was interested in doing if it didn’t require a lot of my time, it wasn’t like the top five list of problems that I really cared about.
Sam Corcos: And so the thing that ultimately ended up leading to Levels was this interesting stars aligning kind of moment where I remember I was connecting with my friend, John, just catching up with him. I mentioned that I host these weekly salon dinners with 8-10 founder friends on a bunch of just esoteric topics. And he mentioned that his friend, Kyle hosts very similar dinners. And so he connected me with Kyle and then I went to one of Kyle’s dinner and one of his dinners. And I sat next to a guy Anson on one side and Eddie on the other side Anson is a health tech founder. Eddie was early at Oscar Health and we just talked for three or four hours about all the new and interesting things going on in healthcare.
Sam Corcos: And Anson was telling me about new regulations that had changed around telemedicine. There were all these new ideas that I hadn’t heard of before. Eddie also had a lot of really interesting ideas. And then a couple months later, I caught up with Josh who’s now Level’s co-founder. And he was mentioning a project that he was working on that was related to glucose monitoring and how he didn’t know how to deal with the prescription situation. And a lot of things fell in place of like, “Oh, what you need is a physician network.” And somehow I know about that now, and I know exactly who to talk to, to get all this information.
Sam Corcos: And it was just knowledge accumulation from all of these people who are smarter than me on these topics. And then at a certain point, I started putting a little bit of time into Levels. I think at one point it was like number five out of 16. And then it made its way up to number three out of 16. And then at a certain point it just became obvious that like, okay, this is the one that’s aligned with my mission of what I want to be spending my time on. And it also has a lot of potential. So I ended up just spending a lot more time on it.
Ashish Kundra: First of all that’s really interesting. One reaction, one question. Reaction is this kind of goes back to the personal CRM where I think another problem with that is most people don’t see the value in it. They just don’t think it’s worth it. They’re like you are, I’m sure many others earlier on career, I can write code or I can go get coffee with someone. I’m going to write the code. Obviously it’s higher leverage. In reality, there are a lot of activities, a high leverage and connecting with people, building a network, getting exposed to the ideas that you can’t predict is super valuable. The question I had is you’re evaluating these ideas. You’re clearly a very methodical person. Did you have a rubric or framework to determine which ones you would pursue? Were you evaluating them on certain criteria or was it just, “This fits my personal mission. This is authentic to me. And it wasn’t a big market I cared about.” And that was enough.
Sam Corcos: Yeah.I didn’t have a specific rubric, but there were definitely some factors that went into it. It had to be approaching a problem that I cared about. It had to be tackling a large enough market. In many ways you can use market size and potential company value as a proxy for impact. It’s not always the case. It’s a loose proxy, but Stripe is a good example where pretty much all of Stripe’s revenue is directly proportional to engineering lives saved doing these tedious, repetitive tasks, same with AWS. It’s like you’re saving human time, doing all of these things. So in healthcare, there are a lot of places where the incentives are directly misaligned, but if you can create a positively aligned incentive and you can tackle a much, a very, very large industry, you can use that really as a proxy for positive impact.
Sam Corcos: So that was a big part, was I’m involved with a number of nonprofits. I’m not super convinced that nonprofits are the thing that moves the needle in most societal situations, they just don’t have the same sustainability. They end up turning into fundraising machines. I had a friend who’s on the board of a fairly large nonprofit. They do almost $100 million in revenue a year. And their CEO gave the board presentation and they had three goals for the year and it was raise more money, raise more money from these different people, and raise more small dollar donations. And it was like, what does our nonprofit do again? Do we exist just to raise money? How did we lose sight of the entire point of this organization that if the only objectives are fundraising, we’ve clearly missed something here.
Sam Corcos: You have fewer of those misalignment issues and the private sector, because if your profit motive is aligned in a positive way, you can get the best people. You can continue to have to thrive into the build positive outcomes.
Ashish Kundra: Yeah. That makes sense. You’ve covered the Levels’ story on several podcasts. And so for listeners who want to learn more about that highly recommend, check that out. We can provide links in the show notes, love to talk about though, about the future and the things that you’re most excited about. You have a diverse set of interests and I’d love to hear what excites you and what you’re following these.
Sam Corcos: I’m excited to see. There’s a lot of interesting infrastructure being built in health tech right now, TruePill as a company we brought up before is a really interesting example where they’re building a lot of the infrastructure that makes it fairly easy to start a health tech company or as in the past. So like the TruePill physician network is one that we plugged into recently. We actually were, we helped them work through the process of thinking through that because we actually had to build our own initially. And it’s really expensive now it’s like plug and play. And so all of these things that used to be a half a million dollars in legal fees followed by all this logistical complexity, you have to have a whole team internally manage all of this is now just like it’s just an API and it reduces complexity.
Sam Corcos: So you can focus on the things that you’re best at. It’s really just about focusing on one’s core competency. I’m really interested in a lot of the advances in synthetic biology. I think we’re going to see the next 10 years, some very, very interesting things in that space, really across the board, the rate of innovation in biological sciences has really changed fairly recently.
Ashish Kundra: For someone not super experienced with synthetic bio. What are some types of things that you can give them?
Sam Corcos: The ability to manufacture complex molecules that have particular use cases? It’s an interesting thing I was having a conversation with, I hosted a dinner on the scientific replication crisis, which is an issue in biological sciences right now where a lot of public research is not something that can be replicated. And some of the people there were synthetic chemists. I really overestimated how many things we can manufacture synthetically. I asked her of all of the molecules that we’re aware of like small molecules, fairly simple molecules. How many of them, what percentage do you think we can manufacturer synthetically? And she said less than 1%, way less than 1%, which is surprising to me because I just assumed if he knew the sake of it, you could manufacture it. It turns out it’s very, very hard doing this type of manufacturing. She said it might even be way less than that.
Sam Corcos: It depends what scope you define because there are so many different molecules. Synthetic biology allows you to manufacture things that are even more complex, like proteins, things that are very, very complex. You can manufacture them. They’re much more expensive individually, but you can manufacture them and I was given the example of if you could equate it to software development, if you’re doing synthetic chemistry and you’re working with these raw elements of chemistry, you’re basically you’re writing zeros and ones in your computer you’re like base level. There’s no tooling. There’s no anything. When you’re able to loop into an existing system, like an Ecolab bacteria, you get access to mitochondria and rhizomes and DNA.
Sam Corcos: It’s like writing code with the S-Code. And you have a lot of tooling. You have continuous integration, you have Amazon web services, you have all of these extra tools that make it really, really easy with better layers of abstraction to make more complex molecules that would otherwise be if not impossible, borderline impossible to do so.
Zane Salim: This is almost like opening up the building blocks for things like impossible burgers and plant-based dairy replacements and MRN near Bassians. And so I think what you’re saying is you’re seeing and being in the space, you’re seeing a lot of these building blocks being available to people and it seems like it’s getting cheaper, faster, easier to experiment.
Sam Corcos: Yeah. And with most of these types of shifts, there’s an inflection point where things go from the size of a warehouse in $100 million to some inflection point where that’s at like $10,000 or $1,000, whatever the number is, there’s some inflection point where it just becomes accessible to everyone and companies can start building on top of it and finding those second order problems that we need to be solved. That is really where most of the value ends up being. It’s like a GPS is a good example where it’s useful to have your coordinates, but it’s actually much more useful to know how to get from my coordinates to these other coordinates, like Google Maps or to have a car pick me up from these coordinates and drive me somewhere else. Like Uber, the second order products end up being much more of the value than the underlying concept itself.
Ashish Kundra: Sam, everyone has something or set of things that they do that they’re eerily good at. It’s like play to them, work for others. And I’ve noticed people like yourself learn what their superpowers are and leverage them to be as effective as possible. So I’m curious to hear from you, what are some of the superpowers you’ve found about yourself and you lean on?
Sam Corcos: That’s a good question. One is definitely stamina, which is that I’ve just noticed for myself, I’m able to work longer hours than most people are. I’ve worked a lot of hours for a long time and I’ve never really even come close to burnout. Like 12 hour days are pretty normal seven days a week. I don’t really think about it. I would say some element of discipline, I guess, maybe introspection knowing what my own weaknesses are and then solving for them. They talk a lot about these things in the book, Atomic Habits, like fruiting [fluxion 00:41:27] for things that you don’t want to be doing. Like I have website blockers for a lot of websites that I know are distracting like Twitter. I batch my email processing time to certain hours. I use Mailman, MailmanHq as a website and they batch send you your emails so that you don’t even get emails more than like twice a day. So it doesn’t act like a slot machine anymore.
Sam Corcos: I don’t compulsively check email. So just knowing where all of the things are that pull my attention away. That’s probably one of them. And actually the example of scheduling a breakfast every day at 8:00 in the morning is an example of knowing my own limitation of not being sufficiently disciplined, to be able to do this intrinsically.
Sam Corcos: So creating external structures to force myself to do things that I know that I should be doing. I guess time management broadly is probably one. It’s being very intentional with how I spend my time and something related to that, that I’ve gotten a lot better at over time. A lot of what’s held me back in life, is this a people pleasing impulse where I would say yes to too many things. And I would often over-commit myself and I would get stretched in a lot of different directions without losing the forest for the trees is what would often happen, where I would start working on all of these different things that other people wanted me to do. And I would not spend enough of my time doing the things that were really important. So I’ve gotten a lot better at that over time. That was definitely not a superpower that I had three years ago.
Ashish Kundra: Fantastic superpowers. Thanks for sharing those. I’ve noticed that based on what you were speaking, when you mentioned the early morning breakfast and some other systems you set up that forcing functions are a big one for you. I personally have found them to be similarly helpful. My dad joke would be, “I don’t buy Oreos because that’s like any junk food that enters my home. I just have an hour. I had zero discipline.”
Sam Corcos: Me too. Related to the Oreos thing. I was saying to somebody and I got a birthday cake for them. And it’s a small group. So there was like three quarters of the cake remaining. And we woke up the next day and the birthday cake was gone and she said, “Where’d the birthday cake go? Did you eat the whole cake yesterday?” Maybe?
Ashish Kundra: That’s amazing. I love that. Were you using Levels at the time?
Sam Corcos: Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.
Ashish Kundra: Sam. You’ve been really generous with your time and this has been fantastic. One of the things I respect most about Levels is how you all work in the open and think in the open. And I think what you did here was along those lines. I personally learned a lot and I’m sure others will too. So thanks again for being here and we’ll have to have you back on some time.
Sam Corcos: Sure thing.