Levels CEO Sam Corcos fits many descriptions: successful entrepreneur, CGM enthusiast, minimalist. One thing he isn’t? A snake-oil salesman. Under Sam’s direction, Levels provides impactful glucose monitoring data – driven by continuous clinical research. As Level’s popularity grows, Sam hopes more users will benefit from connecting what they eat with how they feel. In this episode of The Takeoff, Sam and Lukas chat about Sam’s background and the Levels mission. Topics include how to find your client’s problems, clicking with the right investor, and the advice Sam would give to his college self.
1:45 – Key lessons from the job
Sam’s role at Sightline Maps taught him how to factor sales cycles and fundraise by momentum – not cash.
***“*When you’re selling to large institutions, getting large payments once every couple of years as opposed to small payments from customers on a consistent basis really does change the way that you have to run your business, which I didn’t have any experience with. And it was a really good learning experience. The other is we raised money. That was the first company that I’d done that actually raised capital from a venture. And we timed our fundraising around when we would run out of money as opposed to when we had momentum. We ended up having a lot of issues on the funding side, because it turns out cash is a real asset. When you’re fundraising, if you don’t need money, more people want to give it to you.”
2:30 – Diving into your sales channels
If you don’t know how you’re selling, you won’t know which levers to pull when growth slows down.
“I think the biggest lessons from CarDash was that it’s really important to understand your sales channels.That was one of the biggest lessons. We saw a lot of organic traction early on, and then at a certain point, traction just kind of slowed down and we didn’t know why. But at the same time, we also didn’t know why we had traction to begin with. It was frustrating when you don’t know what levers to pull. Because you don’t know what levers there are to begin with.”
4:34 – Sharpen your writing chops
Even tech gurus need a dash of Hemingway skills to communicate, coordinate, and grow their business.
“One of the hardest things in being in a startup is getting your ideas from your head into something that you can communicate to other people. And it sounds like it should be intuitive and easy, and it’s really not. The source of most friction at companies that I’ve worked at is inability to say, ‘I have this idea for what this product should look like’ and then taking it from there. I think he also suggested a drafting course from like architecture class. How do you get ideas from your head onto paper and communicate that to other people?”
9:22 – The risk of metabolic dysfunction
Glucose stability impacts energy levels, mental clarity, and may link to long-term health issues.
“For a health seeking person, glucose levels matter. First and foremost, because it affects the way that you feel when you have hypo or hyperglycemia spikes and crashes. If you have a hypoglycemic crash, they’re going to feel pretty weird. Like if you’ve ever eaten a big thing of fast food and then two hours later you had to take a nap. That’s oftentimes a hypoglycemic crash. That’s your body telling you, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It also affects mental clarity and affects those sorts of things. On the health side, glycaemic variability and all these problems, they cause other underlying metabolic conditions like insulin resistance, which leads to things like weight gain. Long-term poor diet leads to diabetes, and can lead to other metabolic conditions like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.”
13:05 – Glucose levels meets mental health
Many Levels users are finding that glucose stability and mood stability go hand-in-hand.
“One of the things our customers tell us is how surprised they are that their mood is so tightly connected with how stable their glucose numbers are. So they have a flat glucose line, it means you’re eating things that are not causing these big fluctuations. And they found that their mood is much more stable and they’re happier during that time. Whereas when they have these spikes and crashes, they feel hungry, they feel tired, they feel their mood changes quite a lot. We wrote a blog post on anxiety and depression as it relates to diet. And that’s a pretty well understood thing, that diet is a major contributing factor to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.”
14:34 – Choosing the right investors
Filter potential investors to find a partner that fits with your brand goals.
“Partner dynamics are the most important thing. There are pluses and minuses to each firm, but the thing that really matters is that the partner that you’re working with is somebody that you really connect with. And in our case, we have both Jeff Jordan and VJ at Andreessen. And Jeff has been really helpful for us. Actually, he made several connections even before they were investors, just because he liked what we were doing. His daughter is a diabetic. His wife is really involved in the diabetes nonprofit world. He’s personally really, really interested in the space. So it was an obvious fit just from a partner perspective.”
16:12 – Take risks as early as you can
Don’t be afraid of failure when you’re young – your worst-case scenario is better than you think.
“The cost of making poor decisions is a lot less than you think it is when you’re younger and that it’s worth taking big swipes…I would say that the biggest one is to be willing to take those risks. Really think through worst case scenarios, which often turn out to not be as bad as you think they are. And I think a lot of people are probably experiencing this during quarantine, but like the worst case scenario is your company fails and you have to go live at your parent’s house. It’s not the end of the world.”
19:47 – Leveraging the right connections
The best resource? Other people – from educational books to college friends that expand your network.
“It’s a Bismarck quote: ‘Any fool can learn from experience. Wisdom comes from learning from others’ experience.’ Books are a great way of learning from other people’s experience and their mistakes. Books are a really great resource for this stuff. I would say probably the bigger resource is other people. If I could go back into my college years, I would have made an effort to have breakfast or lunch with every person in my class. And just get to know who the other people are in your universe. Bringing it back to my friend, Andrew Jordan from Twilio that I mentioned, almost every job that he has had since college was through a connection from somebody that he knew from college.”
25:06 – De-stress like a pro
Despite his CEO role, Sam avoids stress with time management, delegation, and a news blackout.
“I found that if you hire the right people, and you control your time and your calendar, the stress levels go down quite a lot. Another thing probably – there are a handful of pivot points in my life. And one of the best things that I decided to do, I think this is in 2013, I decided to cut off the news entirely. So I haven’t consumed any news in almost seven or eight years now, whether written, spoken, television – no form of news whatsoever. I found that almost within about a month, I physically felt different. My stress levels, my mental health just dramatically improved.”
Lukas Steinbock: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. Today, I’m here with Sam, Co-founder and CEO of Levels, which recently raised a seed round from Andreessen Horowitz and is currently helping thousands of people stay healthy by tracking their glucose levels. Sam is also the founder of three previous companies, including CarDash, which went through Y Combinator in 2017 and has plenty of wisdom to share with us. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Hello everyone. Today I am with Sam Corcos, Co-founder and CEO of Levels, also serial entrepreneur. Sam, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Sam Corcos: [00:00:44] Good to be here.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:00:46] So first, I just wanted to hear a little bit about your background. As a serial entrepreneur, you’ve founded four companies, CarDash, one of them, went through YC or Y Combinator and was acquired by RepairSmith. Can you tell me a little bit about your key takeaways and learnings from these previous companies?
Sam Corcos: [00:01:05] Yeah. At each company, you learn something new and develop a lot of scar tissue. So Sightline Maps was the company before CarDash and Sightline was a topographical mapping company for primarily the US military and special operations. There were several big learnings from it. One is that sales cycles are very real, that when you’re selling to large institutions, getting large payments once every couple of years, as opposed to small payments from customers on a consistent basis really does change the way that you have to run your business, which I didn’t have any experience with. It was a really good learning experience.
The other is, we raised money – That was the first company that I’d done that actually raised capital from a venture and we timed our fundraising around when we would run out of money as opposed to when we had momentum or something else. So we ended up having a lot of issues on the funding side just because we – It turns out cash is a real asset when you’re fundraising. If you don’t need money, more people want to give it to you. One of those lessons you learn the hard way.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:02:11] It seems like that lesson helped you a lot at Levels with your most recent fundraising?
Sam Corcos: [00:02:19] Yeah. Definitely. We also took that lesson into CarDash. We raised, I think, six or seven million total at CarDash. At Levels we just recently closed a $12 million seed round led by Andreessen and similarly we really didn’t need the capital but there’s a lot that we can do with it and we have a lot of momentum right now.
I think the biggest lesson from CarDash was that it’s really important to understand your sales channels. That was one of the biggest lessons. We saw a lot of organic traction early on, and then at a certain point, traction just slowed down and we didn’t know why. But at the same time, we also didn’t know why we had traction to begin with. So it was frustrating when you don’t know what levers to pull because you don’t know what levers there are to begin with. So that’s another lesson learned that we’ve taken into Levels.
I think another is documentation and how important that is. My team is probably sick of me saying this sort of stuff, but I put a lot of emphasis on team scalability. So maybe one full day per week of your job is to make sure that other people can do your job as well. So documentation and team scalability is extremely important. Internal communications within the team is something that is generally under invested in, and is critically important.
I was talking with a friend of mine from college, Andrew Jordan, who was early at Twilio and I asked him what courses – If you were to design an entrepreneurship course for college, we both went to Claremont, what would be the core curriculum? And the first thing that he said was creative writing. At first I thought that’s a weird thing as your number one important thing. And when he was explaining why, he was saying that one of the hardest things in being in startup is getting your ideas from your head into something that you can communicate to other people and it sounds like it’s, it sounds like it should be intuitive and easy and it’s really not. And the source of most friction at companies that I’ve worked at is inability to say, I have this idea for what this product should look like and then taking it from there. I think he also suggested a drafting course from – I think they do it in like architecture class of how do you get ideas from your head onto paper and communicate that to other people. It’s a really important skill.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:04:56] That’s fascinating and I’d love to hear a little bit about how that related to the origin of Levels, how did Levels come to be in the early days? And how did you get those ideas from your brain onto paper?
Sam Corcos: [00:05:09] Yeah. I took a year off after CarDash and by taking a year off, I mean, I was just working on things that were not generating revenue, so I wasn’t, I didn’t stop focusing on things. I think at one point I was working on 16 different projects actively, just like dabbling in different things to try to explore what I wanted to do with my time. I’m sure a lot of people in college can relate to, “What do I want to do?” Sort of an open question. I was dabbling in a lot of different industries, a lot of different ideas, working with a lot of different people. One that I was working on was in the soft skills training for corporate teams like learning interpersonal skills, working on that with my friend, Brian Tobel. That was one of the side projects to just see, “Is there a market here?”
One of the things that I would say is generally – This is one of the things that you learn a lot more as you get deeper into startups is – There’s that old saying, I think it’s real estate or restaurants, “if you build it, they will come”. In the technology world it’s the opposite of that. It’s “if they come, you will build it”. If you have customers saying, I want to pay you money to do this thing. You’ll probably figure out a way to make it work.
So market discovery turns out to be a lot harder than actually building product. It’s also just emotionally harder because building product is really fun and getting rejected constantly is not fun. So you tend to avoid the thing that’s hard because it’s not fun. But it’s actually the thing that gets you over the finish line.
Levels was one of a handful of projects that I was working on at the time and I started working on it with Josh, my now co-founder and at a certain point doing a lot of testing and hustling my friends to try to sell them the product and see if they would buy it and seeing a lot of real traction early on and willingness to pay. People were actually putting down money to pay for this, even when it was pre-product, just selling them on the vision they’d give me $400. It made me realize that maybe there’s real potential here. This could be something that becomes a much larger company.
The turning point moment for me was when I started digging into the scope of the problem of metabolic dysfunction on healthcare. I wrote something about this in our secret master plan, which you can find in our blog, the fact that more than one in 10 people in the US is diabetic and it’s increasing at an increasing rate. The cost of the healthcare system, the number of conditions that are related to metabolic dysfunction is pretty shocking. When I realized that this is not only something that has real market opportunity, but it’s also incredibly important societaly, that was what convinced me that I really needed to jump into it.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:08:07] Yeah. So on that point, I’d love to hear more about the research backed efficacy of Levels and as a newbie to this space, why glucose levels are so important to measure?
Sam Corcos: [00:08:17] Yeah. It’s technology that’s been available for diabetics for quite a while. It matters a lot to diabetics because if your numbers go too high or too low, you could die because your pancreas doesn’t respond accordingly.
For a health seeking person, glucose levels matter first and foremost, because it affects the way that you feel when you have hypo or hyperglycemic spikes and crashes. If you have a hypoglycemic crash, you’re going to feel pretty weird. If you’ve ever eaten, I don’t know, a big thing of fast food and then two hours later, you had to take a nap. That’s oftentimes a hypoglycemic crash. That’s your body telling you, what the hell are you doing? It also affects mental clarity. It affects those sorts of things.
On the health side, glycemic variability and all these problems, they cause other underlying metabolic conditions like insulin resistance, which leads to things like weight gain. Long-term poor diet leads to diabetes, can lead to other metabolic conditions like, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. So there are a lot of, both the acute of how you feel throughout the day, but also the long-term effect can affect your long-term health in a way that’s very negative.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:09:29] Yeah. And I’m sure you’re learning more about these health effects through your medical advisory board. How have they helped you research these outcomes a little bit more and what benefits have you seen from that?
Sam Corcos: [00:09:42] Yeah. Our medical advisory report currently consists mostly of researchers. Ben Bikman, Dom D’Agostino are full-time academic researchers themselves. They’ve been super, super helpful in learning about what is possible in starting these clinical trials. We’ll be doing a lot more clinical research over the next probably year or two. A lot of it’s really just been done by my co-founder, Dr. Casey Means. She’s our Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer. She’s a doctor from Stanford.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:10:13] Yeah. And what sort of benefits do you see from this research in the long run? Do you think it’s more consumer facing and that like, “Hey! Look, our product works!” Is it for yourselves in the long run where to move your product in different directions? Is this a little bit of both?
Sam Corcos: [00:10:32] Yeah. It’s all of the above. Some of it’s also going to depend a lot on what the clinical outcomes actually show.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:10:38] Yeah.
Sam Corcos: [00:10:38] One of the things that I filtered for in the investors that we talked to is – I was pretty explicit that if we run these clinical trials and it turns out the product doesn’t work, I’m going to shut down the company. I’m not interested in selling snake oil. Some people don’t like hearing that, other people really do like hearing that. That was one of the big filters that we had. It’s like, I’m here to solve this problem. I’m not here, I’m not particularly financially motivated. Everything I own is in a carry-on bag upstairs. I’m pretty aggressive in terms of minimalism and staying focused on what matters.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:11:15] Yeah. That’s awesome. And then moving a little bit more towards the mental health aspect of glucose and Levels. Could you tell me a little bit about the relationship there between physical and mental health?
Sam Corcos: [00:11:26] Yeah. Yeah. So one of the biggest, one of the most common things that we hear from our customers is that glycemic variability, again, the spikes and crashes caused by high sugar diets mostly, one of the things our customers tell us is how surprised they are that their mood is so tightly connected with how stable their glucose numbers are. So if they have a flat glucose line, it means that you’re eating things that are not causing these big fluctuations and they found that their mood is much more stable and they’re happier during that time. Whereas when they have these spikes and crashes, they feel hungry, they feel tired, they feel their mood changes quite a lot.
There’s also – We wrote a blog post on anxiety and depression as it relates to diet and it’s a pretty well understood thing that diet is a major contributing factor to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The specific clinical outcomes will be something that we have to show in our clinical research, but there’s a lot of research that already indicates that diet is a huge component to that.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:12:30] Yeah. I’m definitely looking forward to hear more of that research.
Now, moving on to your fundraising, which we touched on a bit earlier. Congratulations on raising your seed round of $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz and others. You mentioned you looked to raise early in the summer. What qualities were you looking for in an investor and how did you come to choose Andreessen?
Sam Corcos: [00:12:52] Yeah. Yeah. We started the process basically in July and we put the stake in the ground in July that we were going to be raising in September. So we gave ourselves a lot of time to meet and talk to different investors. The biggest thing, and this is – a lot of it’s from personal experience, but also having spoken to a number of other entrepreneurial friends of mine who started companies and have gone down this path that the partner dynamics are the most important thing. The firm – There are pluses and minuses to each firm, but the thing that really matters is that the partner that you’re working with is somebody that you really connect with. And in our case, Jeff Jordan is somebody that – We have both Jeff Jordan and Vijay at Andreessen and Jeff had been really helpful for us, actually. He made several connections even before they were investors just because he liked what we were doing. His daughter is a diabetic. His wife is really involved in the diabetes non-profit world. He’s personally really, really interested in the space. It was an obvious fit just from a partner perspective.
So that was the thing that we really indexed on this, a really good relationship with a partner.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:14:04] Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Now, moving on to the advice related portion of the podcast. I know it’s a tough question, but if you could give one piece of advice to your college self, what would that be?
Sam Corcos: [00:14:17] No, it’s not a tough question. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I was actually, I was talking to a friend of mine recently about how looking back at the Venn diagram of overlap between my college self and my today self, they maybe touch at a tangent point. I was such a different person back then and one of the things – There’s a book that I read somewhere recently that I wish I had read when I was in college. It’s actually Andrew Yang’s book, “Smart People Should Build Things” and I found it so relatable. He talks a lot about the, and I went to Claremont where basically everybody goes into finance or consulting, and he talks about the social pressure of going into finance. And like everything in that book, I remember just thinking, I remember exactly having these conversations. I would say that the biggest one would be that the cost of making poor decisions is a lot less than you think it is when you’re younger and that it’s worth taking big swipes, for the most part. I very nearly went into investment banking. I was this close. I was doing the interviews and then I just decided against it. Mostly I was somewhat lucky in that I have a bunch of friends who were older than me and I talked to them about what’s it like going into investment banking and a lot of them had been through the 2008 financial crisis and after roughly 10 in a row said, “I hate my life. You shouldn’t do this.” That is a lot of signals. Maybe I shouldn’t do this.
And so, I would say that the biggest one is to be willing to take those risks, really think through worst case scenarios, which often turn out to not be as bad as you think they are. And I think a lot of people are probably experiencing this during quarantine, but like worst case scenario is your company fails and you have to go live at your parent’s house. It’s not the end of the world. That would be, that would definitely be one.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:16:26] So in making this switch from the social pressure of finance, what sort of resources did you look to? Was it more people? Was it books? Was it papers? What allowed you to learn more about entrepreneurship at that time? And was it directly entrepreneurship out of college or was it something else?
Sam Corcos: [00:16:46] Yeah. I would definitely say books are an important one. I probably read five books total from the time I was born until I graduated college. I was very much, “Just read the spark notes. Try to skip ahead.” And I’m pretty sure all of the five books I read were in the Lord of the Rings series. So I definitely was not a big reader. Now, I read about two books a week and I’ve been doing that for probably seven years. The value that you get from books. I think it’s a Bismarck quote that, “Any fool can learn from experience. Wisdom comes from learning from others’ experience.” And books are a great way of learning from other people’s experience and their mistakes. So books are a really great resource for this stuff.
I would say probably the bigger resource is other people. If I could go back into my college years, I would have made an effort to have breakfast or lunch with every person in my class and just get to know who the other people are in your universe. Bringing it back to my friend, Andrew Jordan, from Twilio that I mentioned, almost every job that he has had since college was through a connection from somebody that he knew from college. And so just building those friendships and just – It is often surprising to me how just having one of these ice breaker conversations, like a 15 minute lunch with somebody one time in college means that five years later, you can now approach them and ask them for something in the future, if you need to. You’d be surprised how important those relationships are.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:18:23] Yeah. That’s a great piece of advice. And you also mentioned projects later past college. How do you recommend going about figuring different things to work on? Like those projects that you were working on before Levels, were those all companies that you were working on or were some of them helping other people’s companies. How do you think about that management of time?
Sam Corcos: [00:18:45] Yeah. It was all of the above. Some were projects for other companies that needed something built. Some were my own ideas. They were all across the board.
The one, it might be worth looking into the way that Truepill was formed. Sid at Truepill, had a very methodical structure about building a company and if I remember correctly, he basically just found a pharmacist and just grilled him for months on, “What are all of your problems?” And just followed him around. It’s like this, “I know that the pharmacy industry is huge. I know there are all kinds of problems.” And he just followed this guy around trying to figure out where the gaps were. And at a certain point he had developed enough knowledge to understand, “Okay. These are the core problems with this industry and this is how I’ll solve them.” So market discovery is the thing to really focus on. It’s like, “What is a really large industry that people complain about all the time?” And then find somebody who understands those problems deeply and really understand who your customers are and go from there.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:19:46] Yeah. Really interesting. You mentioned a little bit about minimalism in terms of all you have is in a carry-on bag upstairs. I find that a little bit hard to believe, but tell me a little bit about that and how that has helped you. The philosophy behind that.
Sam Corcos: [00:20:03] Yeah. We could talk about this for three hours, but I think the biggest one is that freedom is – There’s both the numerator and the denominator when it comes to economic freedom. The numerator is the amount of money that you make and the denominator is the amount of money that you spend and if you spend a lot less, you’d be surprised at how much easier your life is and how many more choices you have. You could just choose not to work for a year and do whatever you want. You can choose to go live in Estonia, which is a place that I’ve been or Argentina. You can just go do that and nobody can tell you not to. People often refer to things like FU money and for some people that’s $10 million. Well, if you don’t spend very much money, it might be like $100,000. So if you keep things really low burn, it gives you tremendous flexibility in how you spend your time.
I don’t, I’ve never taken a job based on how much money it paid me. It’s not strictly true. I’ve taken, there have been some consulting projects where I really didn’t want to do it and so I said, “Fine. I’ll do it for – ” I would normally charge, I don’t know, $5,000 – And I said, “$50,000.” And they said, “Yes.” I was like, “All right.” I can spend two weeks for $50,000. I can justify that. But in general, anything that looks like long commitments, I – I’ve never felt that I needed to take a job for financial reasons. And that’s mostly just because I’ve been very particular about how I spend money and keeping my personal burn very low.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:21:40] Yeah. And I think for a lot of people, spending money equates to happiness in some way. And it’s great that you don’t have that sort of complex. But in a different way, how do you stay mentally fit? How do you find these outlets to have your own time and destress in the very stressful job that you have?
Sam Corcos: [00:22:00] That’s a good question. I don’t think my job is very stressful or at least it’s not for me. One of the biggest ways that I budget my time pretty aggressively. I have a really good team that does most of the work and I have a lot of control over my own calendar. I think a lot of people feel that if they’re not involved in something that it’s going to fail and that bad things will happen and I found that if you hire the right people and you control your time and your calendar that the stress levels go down quite a lot.
Another thing, probably there are a handful of pivot points in my life and one of the best things that I decided to do, I think this is in 2013, I decided to cut off the news entirely. So I haven’t consumed any news in almost seven or eight years now, whether written, spoken, television, no form of news whatsoever. And I found that almost within about a month, I physically felt different. My stress levels, my mental health just dramatically improved and I physically felt different from having abstained from news for that long.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:23:12] That’s really interesting. And then in terms of finding free time, like you said, you read two books a week, do you have control of your calendar? Do you leave time to think and read? Is reading your thinking time or do you have other ways to just sit down and think about the ideas, going back to putting what’s in your mind into an actual idea and onto paper?
Sam Corcos: [00:23:33] I do it a lot. So I block off all day, Tuesday and Thursday for no meetings. So Tuesdays and Thursdays are like deep work focused on. I also do a think week, once a quarter. So basically I go off grid with my brother, typically. Actually this next week is my think week for this quarter, which I’m excited about in Tahoe. And we block off the entire week. No meetings. No calls, just deep focused thought. So some of that’s like deep introspection on aspects of my personal life. Some of it’s deep introspection on something about company strategy, just detaching for some period of time to get perspective. I’ve just found is incredibly helpful.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:24:12] And then a little bit more of a fun question before we have to leave. I usually go with favorite TV show or favorite podcast, but I’m switching it up here. Do you have any favorite books that you’ve read recently to recommend to our listeners?
Sam Corcos: [00:24:29] Yeah. One of the books that I – I read it somewhat recently, I think it was a year ago, but it was really, really it was a positive effect was ” Non-violent Communication”, which is a, it’s a classic book on how to communicate effectively on the emotional spectrum, something that I’ve historically not been very good at. I think a better title might’ve been “Non-threatening Communication”. How do you communicate things in a way where people don’t immediately get defensive? And so you can have difficult conversations in a very productive and positive way. So I would definitely recommend it.
Lukas Steinbock: [00:25:08] Thank you so much, Sam, for coming on. I’ve learned a lot. I’m sure our listeners will too.
Sam Corcos: [00:25:26] Sure thing.