Swimming upstream

Episode introduction

Episode Transcript

Sam Corcos: I did some exercises doing things like going to Union Square in New York and just lying down on the ground in public and just feeling what that feels like.

Ben Grynol: I think you told me that the first time we talked.

Sam Corcos: Yeah. Yeah, and it was really a weird experience because every fiber of my being was saying, “Get off the ground. You should not be here.”

Ben Grynol: I’m Ben Grynol, Part of the Early Startup Team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is A Whole New Level. So this week I had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Corcos, CEO and one of the co-founders of Levels. And the first time that Sam and I connected was, actually my first touch 0.2 levels. It was a conversation that we had. And we got on the phone and it was really interesting because although it was a very thorough conversation, which was very enjoyable, we also ended up talking about things like South Park. We talked about a lot of different books that we had read. We’ve laughed a lot. And it was just a very interesting conversation.

Ben Grynol: And I remember getting into bed later that night and my wife Pam asked, she was like, “Hey, how did it go?” And I’m like, “That guy is, without a doubt, one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever spoken with.” I’m like, “I tried to keep up with them.” But it was odd because the more that I got to know Sam, the more that I realized like he’s got this incredible amount of empathy for people. He’s not only an incredible executer, but he’s an incredible human being.

Ben Grynol: And so in this episode, we ended up talking about all the different ways that Sam has led his life. Everything from living out of a backpack, traveling the world, being minimalist in his footprint, in his approach. And a lot of these thought processes, they tie into his vision for Levels, which he thought could be done to execute, not just as a great company, but as one that was remote first. And part of being remote first is that, we have the ability and the opportunity for some of us to travel the world, to be where we want when we want and to get the work done. And Sam, it’s not surprising. That’s the approach that he’s taken. Your travel schedule is ongoing. One of the things we get to talk about.

Sam Corcos: It’s a lot less crazy than it used to be. Let me tell you.

Ben Grynol: Why was this so crazy before versus… Like throw COVID out the window. Why was this so crazy before versus now?

Sam Corcos: Well, COVID is the reason why it’s not crazy anymore. In fact, I think I spent three months in Sacramento, which is probably the longest I’d spent in one place in 10 years, maybe eight years.

Ben Grynol: So when did this nomadic minimalist lifestyle begin?

Sam Corcos: I think the time when I really, I had been doing it previously, but the time I really kicked it off was in 2013. I went on a… I was doing some programming stuff and I joined a group called Hacker Paradise and we did a, it was a one month trip to Estonia. And I met a lot of very interesting people. It was a really cool trip. The minimalism largely came out of necessity. I was doing so much travel. I had the goal of saying yes to a lot more things and just going where the wind would take me just as a practice of being comfortable with ambiguity and discomfort. So I forgot which country… I think I was maybe in Estonia.

Sam Corcos: And I made some friends who were from Belgrade, Serbia, and they mentioned that they were going to go to Liberland. It’s a country that a somewhat quirky politician from the Czech Republic scoured the globe for areas of land in the world that are just unclaimed by a nation state. And he found this, I think it’s like a seven-square kilometer patch of land between Serbia and Croatia that during some border conflict they had, they couldn’t agree who owned it. So neither of them claimed it. And so he just showed up one day and put a flag down and said, “New country, Liberland.”

Ben Grynol: So this is actually a country in the world right now?

Sam Corcos: Oh yeah, it’s a place that you can go. And so I had some friends that wanted to go, sorry, I had just made some new friends and they said they were going to go to Liberland. And I just joined them because why not? I spent the better part of probably four years in all over the US Central and South America and Western Europe. I think the longest I stayed in one place during that time was maybe a month. And so the minimalism became a necessity. It’s hard to lug a bunch of stuff around. And one of the practicalities of doing so much travel is, you start to go through your stuff and you just realize how much of it you don’t use.

Sam Corcos: So you have a big checked bag and you’ve been traveling for three months and you’re starting to look through it and you realize you have all of these things that are for contingencies. Like, well, what happens if I have this pair of pants? What if I need a pair of shorts? What if I need cargo pants? What if I need something? What if I spill on this pair of pants? I need a backup to every pair of pants and you end up with this proliferation of stuff. And at a certain point, you just realized that you didn’t use any of it. And also by the way, if you need laundry detergent, they have laundry detergent in Mexico. You can just get it there.

Ben Grynol: Wait, what?

Sam Corcos: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: No idea.

Sam Corcos: That’s right.

Ben Grynol: Hold on. We’ve got to jump into one thing. You said if you need shorts, if you need a shirt, whatever it was. And then you said if you need cargo pants. The only thing that I need to clarify is, does anybody ever need cargo pants?

Sam Corcos: If you’re doing a really long backpacking hike through somewhere that does not have a lot of stops like if you’re backpacking in the Backwoods of Norway, or you just need more places to put stuff, then yeah, I would say there are definitely use cases for it if you do a lot of backpacking.

Ben Grynol: From a function standpoint. I agree. I agree. Okay. So you’re going around, like you’re traveling around to all these countries. Let’s back it up even further though because there’s this interesting point where 10-ish years ago you decided, Hey, I’m done with the news. I’m not consuming the news. There are all these micro events in your life if you want to call it that or micro microcosms that ended up leading to what it seems like is this different version of Sam?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I read a book that really opened my eyes to the problems in the news industry specifically, but really about information systems broadly. It was Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying. And the subtitle is Confessions of a Media Manipulator. And he wrote the book actually as a confession as somebody who has manipulated the media, spread fake information, basically coining the term “fake news” before that was something that anybody talked about, using it for commercial ends. He was the Head of Growth at American Apparel and a bunch of other people and organizations that you would have heard of. And he did it through manipulation. And this was his book ringing alarm saying, “I’ve been doing this. I’m really sorry. This is a huge problem. We need to pay attention to this before it becomes a huge issue.” And he wrote that book in 2011 just before today’s situation that we have.

Ben Grynol: It’s like a Gladwell book, it ends with ambiguity. It’s like, here’s one side to the argument and here’s the other side of the argument. You make up your own decision about what the outcome is and you’re like, “Thanks. Thank you.”

Sam Corcos: Yeah, and so I started to… I gave myself a challenge, which was, I had the goal of, I was also pretty addicted to social media, which I did not recognize at the time. I installed an app. I think I had read Tim Ferriss’ book 4-Hour Workweek and he talks a lot about time management in that book. And just being more intentional and mindful of how you use your time. And so installed an app called RescueTime, which he may specifically recommend in the book or maybe I found it elsewhere, but I started tracking how I was spending my time. And when I got my first weekly report back, I had convinced myself that I was spending maybe 20 minutes a day on social media, but I was spending hours a day on Facebook.

Sam Corcos: And when I got that report back, it was just staring me in the face. And I started to realize that I had these ticks where I would open up Chrome and I would do command tf return and I would open up Facebook and just compulsively. Every time I would walk between meetings or just going to get a cup of tea, I would open up Facebook on my phone and start scrolling. And I didn’t realize the cumulative effect of how much time I was spending on it, but also how negatively it affected me. I think in general, we don’t recognize the effect that information has on our physical wellbeing. So I gave myself the challenge of, I would not do any news or social media for one month, and I would try reading books instead. And just a one-to-one time trade-off. And I managed to read eight books that month, which has more books than I had read probably in the previous five years.

Sam Corcos: And the thing that was most interesting was just how I physically felt different. I felt less tense in my neck. I felt happier in life. And I also didn’t really miss anything, which was surprising. I miss a lot of ephemeral information that really does not matter. And I captured a lot of new information in the form of books, which was actually quite useful and interesting. It’s information that somebody spent years of their life synthesizing into a form that you can read. And I ended up really getting a lot of value from that.

Sam Corcos: And just broadly speaking in terms of information systems, I’m not quite sure of the best way to articulate it, but I think in general, we recognize that information can have an effect. For example, we recognize patterns with our eyes and those patterns affect our physical body in some way. For example, your eyes recognize a pattern in the shape of a tiger that’s running at you and is going to kill you and eat you. Your body is going to go into fight or flight. You’re going to be terrified. We all probably would agree that being in a constant state of fear and anxiety about being killed and eaten by a tiger is probably bad for your long-term health. That is not a healthy kind of stress.

Sam Corcos: But I don’t think that as a society we’ve reconciled the fact that news and other types of information, the same types of patterns we just see them in the form of words, those patterns have the same physical effect on us. When we see things that scare us, we’re constantly triggering this fight or flight stress response. That’s really, I think at the source of a lot of the mental health problems we have societally, I would also say a lot of the general metabolic health problems that we have. When your mental health is not in a good state, it can affect a lot of other things that are downstream. So since I gave up news about eight years ago, I’ve been almost entirely new sober for eight years. I’ve managed to read two books a week since then. So about a hundred books a year for the last eight years. And I haven’t looked back. And I’ve given friends of mine the same challenge of trying to go cold Turkey on news for a month. And every single person that has done it has not looked back.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it’s interesting because I would have never guessed. This is the part that is so interesting is that we are all human at the foundation. We are human and we’re imperfect beings. So with that being the mental model for, hey, I can see how this happens, I would have never guessed that you had challenges managing social media or like digital information consumption based on the Sam Corcos I know today. Because to me, I’m like, “Sam is a human machine.” Like you are this machine that is dressed up like a human being, but I’m pretty sure your process for everything it’s so focused. I think that’s the word for it. It’s very focused. It’s very calculated. And there’s a lot of intent behind what you do.

Ben Grynol: So to me, the idea of doom scrolling doesn’t seem like something that fits with your outlook. And I think maybe it’s just because the evolution of who you are today versus who you were back then. But did you always have this insatiable, like yearning for knowledge? Is that where when you decided to dig into books, you’re like, “Hey, this is a nice outlet.” Or was it one of those things? Because you said, “Yeah, I didn’t really read that many books prior to just consuming books.” Where did that come from?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I would not say that I’ve always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge per se because just based on empirical behavior, I only started reading books fairly recently. I’ve read a lot of books since then. I would say that I’ve always been very competitive and I always like a good challenge. I like playing board games and I especially like playing board games against people who are better than me at board games because I can learn things from them and I like the challenge. I think some people just really like to win and that’s not something that I relate to. I would say that I’m much more… I don’t like to be wrong.

Sam Corcos: So I will often fact-check myself during the course of a conversation. And the constantly seeking to challenge and to grow, I guess I would describe it as more of a constant curiosity and search for growth more than learning specifically only because I mentally associate learning with reading and other types of more intellectual pursuits. That’s been something for the last five years that’s been a big part of my life, but it definitely was not the case when I was younger.

Sam Corcos: I played a lot of sports. I did football, rugby and track in college. I did basketball, baseball, wrestling, you name the sport, I did it when I was younger. So I think the intellectual wisdom started coming from reading books and recognizing, I think that what is it that Dunning-Kruger effect. Once you bought them out and you realize how little you actually know, you can become a lot more interested in what everybody else knows.

Ben Grynol: Every day?

Sam Corcos: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: Every day. That’s sort of the thing, right? When you’re around really smart people, this is maybe it’s self-serving to think this way, but I’m just like, “I know literally nothing.” Like you think this way because all you want to do is absorb knowledge from people who have a different lens on the world and perspective than you do. And you’re like, “I want to know. I want to learn. This is stuff that I’m not familiar with.” And so maybe it is part of that growth. Like you’re always trying to get better for yourself. That’s the way I feel like I’m never… I’m the only person I compete with is myself in the weirdest way. I don’t care. I have to stop using the word I don’t care because I care immensely, but when I say, I don’t care, I’m not concerned about trying to beat somebody else from a competition standpoint unless you’re in a competition.

Ben Grynol: Sometimes there’s like a winner take all. Like a game, there is a winner take all and sure you want to win. But when you’re in the game of life, to me, I only want to beat myself every day. I just want to be better than I was the day before in whatever respect that is. And that’s why it’s an evolution. So it’s like that competitive nature for me personally is what makes me go, “Hey, I want to read more books. I see Sam reads a lot of books. He is inspiring me to read more books.” Hey, Sam’s doing a ton of pushups in the month of January. I want to see-

Sam Corcos: That’s was not fun.

Ben Grynol: No, it didn’t look like fun. And to highlight what it was, you as like a digression, you were in a pushup competition with who was it? Austin Allred? Geoffrey Woo?

Sam Corcos: Mateo.

Ben Grynol: Mateo.

Sam Corcos: Mateo.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, so Eight Sleep, Mateo. H.V.M.N, Jeff Woo. And then Austen Allred from Lambda School. You had a pushup competition to see if you could get to 500 a day, which sounds achievable. Back to Dunning-Kruger effect like, “Oh yeah, I could do 500 a day.” That’s what people think. And then you go to do it and everyone’s like, “Holy shit, this is hard.”

Sam Corcos: It certainly was.

Ben Grynol: But you did it. You did it. You were competitive with yourself and you pushed everybody else in a very jovial way to keep up with it.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it was a fun experiment. I wasn’t able to do it every day. My target was actually 100 and then people kept one-upping each other.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it was absurd. So we got to dig back into this digital nomad life that you’ve been living because the journey seems that you went down this path of yearning for new information and disposing of what was deemed ineffective or we’ll just call it a spade a spade like garbage information that was not doing anything beneficial for your mindset, for your mental health, for your learning. You went down that path. And then when was the point that you’re like, hey, I’m going to literally travel the world and experience all of these new places and still manage to work and be productive and just live life in that way,” because I think there’s a lot of tie-ins to what we’re doing today?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I think the answer is that I had this recognition that as a effectively, mostly a freelance software developers where most of my revenue came from, I didn’t need to be anywhere in particular. So I could just choose to be wherever I want it to be. And I just went for it and I really enjoyed it. And I don’t remember, there’s one of these books that I picked up where they talk about ways to overcome fear. And one is to think through the worst case scenario and work backwards from there.

Sam Corcos: And oftentimes when you think through, all right, I’m really afraid to make this decision. If I make this decision, what is the worst thing that can happen? And when you spell out the worst case scenario, oftentimes it’s actually not as bad as you think it is. It’s the ambiguity around what could happen that is actually causing the anxiety. And so that really helped just get over the emotional hurdle.

Sam Corcos: I think also I did some exercises just, again, in some of these other books. One in particular was around recognizing feelings, which sounds pretty elementary. And you think that even children should be able to do this, but I was surprised at how useful and productive it was. Doing things like going to Union Square in New York and just lying down on the ground in public and just feeling what that feels like.

Ben Grynol: I think you told me that the first time we talked.

Sam Corcos: Yeah. Yeah, it was really a weird experience because every fiber of my being was saying, “Get off the ground. You should not be here.” But I could lie down right now in my house and not feel weird. So why is it that in this moment, I feel such incredible discomfort? And putting yourself in those positions and starting to recognize, this has happened many times since then when I’m at a decision moment and I’m starting to notice what I’m feeling, and it’s the same thing, it’s this arbitrary discomfort and fear of something. It’s like, “Oh, okay, this is not real. This is just in my head. I need to think logically about this and I should be able to push past this.” So that was something that I only started to become capable of much later in life than I think is probably healthy. But just being able to recognize how you feel and when, I think is a really important skill.

Ben Grynol: But let’s debate one thing for a sec. So a couple of things are, the reason you would feel off or odd about lying down in Times Square is because the social norm of doing it is not necessarily acceptable by society. I think our mental model of, hey, a person is lying down on the ground in the middle of this place where you typically don’t lie down on the ground, or our mental model is, “Oh, that person must be hurt.” Whereas if you are in your house and there are no eyeballs on you, even if somebody came in, came into the house, it’s unlikely that they would be like, “Are you okay?” Because they’d be like, “Sam is lying on the carpet. Probably stretching.” So I understand the thought process behind it, but I think the challenge is, yeah, it should feel odd because you are breaching the social contract between you and a stranger of what is generally thought of as being acceptable in that environment.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely the case and recognizing it as a social construct is really helpful. A lot of the… I think you can only really be a good entrepreneur if you’re willing to violate social constructs. Almost everything you do is outside of what is normal. So you have to recognize when you’re artificially holding yourself back.

Sam Corcos: One of my favorite books on this is Andrew Yang’s book Smart People Should Build Things. And I really liked in the book when he talks about his own struggle to justify to his peers that he’s going to go into startups and leave a prestigious job in finance or consulting or law or whatever the case may be, the easy low-risk, no social stigma, everyone pats you on the back path. I remember that pressure acutely when I was late in college, seeking to get a job in finance. That’s what all the cool kids were doing. So that’s what I should do. That’s the high status thing. Being able to recognize that for what it is, I think is a really important skill and having the self-confidence to go a different path and not to be as concerned about the social norms around these things.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it’s hard swimming upstream. Swimming upstream can be not going into consulting or iBanking when everybody else is in your social circle. Swimming upstream can be walking into a business meeting with purple hair. There are all of these things where it doesn’t fit to your point, the social construct of what is generally thought of as being the norm in that environment. And you’re right that when you’re an entrepreneur, what it is, is doing something that people generally don’t think as possible. And that’s a hard. You have to convince yourself that, well, there are a couple sides to startups. One, when you do anything, you co-found anything, I always say you have to be smart enough to pull the wool over your eyes and convince yourself that you can actually make it given the statistics of what it takes to succeed-

Sam Corcos: But you’re not favorable.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, but you have to be stupid enough to convince yourself that you can do it given the chances of success. So it’s like equal parts smart, equal parts stupid. But and I’m being quite colloquial about it. But yeah, you’re really you are swimming upstream. You are going against the grain to do something that’s big and difficult. And the harder the problem space, the bigger the problem space, the more, in our case, the more regulation and barriers to entry, the harder it is. And that’s where like the fun comes in is that it is a challenge, but it’s also something that’s really meaningful.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I think it’s a constant source of frustration for my friends and former partners, that I will often be told that certain things that I’m doing are not normal. And that is one of the least convincing ways to get me to change what I’m doing. Normal is not what I’m shooting for. So saying that what I’m doing is not normal is not going to get me to change what I’m doing. Yeah.

Ben Grynol: Every time I hear that, I’m like, “I’m on the right path.”

Sam Corcos: Yeah, right.

Ben Grynol: The second that something is normal or average, I’m like, “Oh, where did I go wrong? What got screwed up?”

Sam Corcos: Right. Exactly.

Ben Grynol: So with all this thought on being nomadic, being minimalists, where did it tie in to saying, hey, we’re going to be a remote company when you and Josh and the team started thinking about putting together a bigger team when Levels actually became something?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it was pretty clear to me that I wanted Levels to be a remote-first team from the beginning. Josh was on the fence because he had never worked in a remote environment before, but I’d been doing it for so long that I felt like I had a pretty good sense of how to do it effectively. It just seemed to me that there were so… Everything comes with trade-offs. There were so many advantages to being remote that the cost benefit just seemed really obvious if you build the company intentionally being remote from the ground up. One of the challenges that companies run into is they start out as a co-located team and then they allow remote, and then you end up with this second class citizen type of employee, and your processes don’t really support remote and everything starts falling through the cracks.

Sam Corcos: One of the most obvious things that being remote allows is, you have access to the most talented people in the world. You’re not geographically isolated to one geography. You have access to two or three orders of magnitude more people. The other is that if you… Different types of companies are probably better or worse suited for remote. I’m a programmer by background and one of the things that I really, really appreciate about remote work is that it gives you a lot of control over your calendar, and it gives you a lot of deep focus time.

Sam Corcos: And as a programmer, all you want in life is to not have meetings and to just be able to think deeply and solve hard problems, and to ship a lot of code. And if you’re a remote software team, you can totally make that happen. You have a lot of control. You’re not forced to be in the same region as everybody else to come to the office to deal with multi hour commutes. You don’t have to worry about somebody coming over and tapping you on the shoulder and pulling you into something. You can just focus on what it is you need to do. So I think for software teams in particular, remote is a really, really effective way of allowing developers to be incredibly productive, especially if you structure it that way. And the other nice thing about it is that it enforces good habits.

Sam Corcos: So to do remote effectively requires a culture of documentation. It requires a culture of transparency and trust. It’s one of the biggest things. If you’re in a company that micromanages you. I’ve been told that there are consulting firms where they put sensors on your chair to check how many hours you spend at your desk in the office, which I think is incredibly toxic because it really just demonstrates that you don’t trust the people that you work with, which is really a whole different set of problems that you should probably address as a company. If you trust the people that you work with and you start with the assumption that you’ve hired great people who want to do great work, enabling them to do so is really your top objective. And being in a remote team, allowing people to figure out and to work with them on how they can be most productive, I think it’s really the future of building software companies. There are so many advantages both from the company side and the personnel side that it’s an obvious path forward.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, the whole bum in the chair principle is, in my whole life has been one of the most infuriating things. If I was ranking like top three things that I find infuriating, one is grades in school like, “Hey, take a multiple choice tests.” And this means you’re like smart or not. I think that’s absurd. But the bum and chair principle of like while you were in these four walls for this period of time, that means you work hard is so ridiculous because you’re not measuring results and output. You’re measuring time on task, which actually could mean somebody is very inefficient if they take years to do something that should take hours.

Sam Corcos: Right.

Ben Grynol: And the thing that I’ve been thinking about with remote work because I personally I just love it. I’ve been starting to think a little bit more about how we were very thorough in documentation. We’re very thorough in communication. I think that’s those are integral skill sets to be impactful in remote work. If you assume somebody can’t or doesn’t communicate well or assume somebody can’t write a memo or collaborate on a memo, I think that would be very hard for a person to be successful.

Ben Grynol: With that said, what got me thinking is, hey, what happens if somebody is dyslexic and they cannot read long memos, they cannot write long memos. It just hurts their brain, but they’re extremely smart people like Sir Richard Branson? How would work in a remote environment like Levels have to be adapted to make sure that that person could still be effective in their skillset while still maintaining some of the cultural norms that we have?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, I think the principle is asynchronicity. The documentation doesn’t necessarily have to be written. It tends to be written just because that’s an effective way of transmitting and searching for information. But we do a lot of videos as well. We record Looms to do unidirectional meetings. I think you have to start with the assumption that meetings are not just not work. Meetings are antiwork. If you’re spending time in a meeting, you are antiworking. And so I’ve certainly found this for myself that most of the meetings that I take could easily have just been done in an email or somebody will request something that requests a 30-minute or a one hour meeting. I will record myself on video just giving them my thoughts that I would have given in the meeting for two to five minutes. And then I send it to them. And then the meeting is entirely unnecessary. And I did it on my own schedule when it was convenient for me and they read it when it was convenient for them.

Sam Corcos: And so, I think that the principles are the same, which is, making sure that things are recorded and captured. This happened yesterday. I had some thoughts. Instead of calling for a meeting with Casey, I just recorded a five-minute video of me talking about the thoughts that I had. And somebody completely unrelatedly asked for some information on our thought process around this particular thing. And Casey just use the video that I sent her to explain it instead of her jumping on a 30-minute call to then explain the same thing that I was just explaining. It’s all about information scalability. So documentation doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form factor of a written memo. There are many ways that you can achieve the same goal.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, I love being asynchronous. I think it’s so effective because we set the expectation and the precedent that if you are at sampling on Slack or whatever channel it is over and over at “Sam, can I get your feedback on this?” You’re like, “Is the house on fire? What are you doing?” We’ve set this precedent that that is not the way to communicate by trying to break people’s workflow and attention for something unless the house is on fire.

Ben Grynol: Example is, yesterday I was on a call and somebody went to go look at the site and they’re like, “Hey, the site’s down.” So I add Andrew on Slack, alerted him in the engineering team. Those are times where it’s like, okay, probably acceptable, but in general being asynchronous, we get so much more done. And then to your point about having meetings, the meeting becomes this opportunity to transform information when appropriate, but also carve out time necessary to connect for five or 10 minutes, whatever it is in addition to actually going over the information.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, sometimes meetings are necessary when it’s clear that in the back and forth asynchronous format, there’s some miscommunication or people are talking past each other. This has definitely happened to me where I write something and then the person who I’m writing it to responds, but it feels like they’re answering a different question. And I somehow was not able to communicate effectively what I meant. And so sometimes these types of… Sometimes the meetings are useful for alignment on what is it that we actually mean? What are the words that we should be using? Because clearly the words that I proposed are different than the way that they were interpreted. So that’s another good use case for meetings. It’s just clarifying when things are confusing. But oftentimes it’s helpful to even record those and use those as an artifact for future people where when they want to see why we made a particular decision to be able to see the entire process can often really, really be helpful.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than trying to have asynchronous conversation through text when it ends up being such an inefficient use of time, somebody going back and forth and you’re just like, “Why are we doing this through texts?” Last week, I think it was last week, Josh had texted me on Friday shortly before forum and he was like, “Hey, when you’re talking about revenue,” it was something like that. “When you’re talking about revenue, do you want to chat more about XYZ?” And so then I texted him back and I’m like, “I need further clarification on like what this text means. Do you have a couple minutes to just chat on the phone about it?” Because it would have been so inefficient to be going back and forth.

Ben Grynol: This is what I actually mean. And it was very beneficial to talk, nod our heads virtually and be like, “Yep, we both are on the same page about what the intent and the outcome will be.” And so it was just like, “Hey, that was a good solution because we were both in the conversation at the same time. We were both distracted at the same time.” Good use of time as opposed to like taking 15 minutes to figure out something that you can do in a couple.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, and fortunately, this is not a problem that I’ve had at Levels, but I have been in different companies and projects where I’ve had multi hour back and forth on Slack with my thumbs that could have easily been solved in a five-minute phone call because somebody writes something… That’s Slack often comes with this synchronous expectation. It is an asynchronous tool masquerading as a synchronous tool. The challenge is that instant messaging is not a good way of communicating with people because there’s so much fidelity lost in the written form, especially when you’re doing it in a short form that you almost immediately start to diverge in terms of understanding of what we’re even talking about. And then that causes further clarification. I text something with my thumbs to you on Slack. I now have to wait up to five minutes for you to respond because maybe you’re in the middle of something, but I don’t know when you’re going to respond. It’s a really, really terrible way of interacting.

Sam Corcos: And I’ve been in situations where I would ping the person on Slack and say, “Hey, can we do this on a call?” I said, “No, I can’t do a call now.” But they’re still pinging me on slack all the time. And it can be a very frustrating thing. And I think it’s especially frustrating for engineers because engineering is, you can only really do good engineering work when you’re in a flow state and having these constant distractions is incredibly harmful to engineering productivity. So a lot of the processes are built around my personal experience as an engineer.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, I would argue that it’s, I don’t think anyone can do good work. Nevermind, just engineering. I think any one who’s trying to do focused work like writing a memo, that takes focus. That is an initiative of turn off email, turn off texts, turn off Slack, dig in for 30 minutes of uninterrupted or X period of time of uninterrupted work and do great work, but is not going to be efficient to spend an hour doing that. And then some email or text pops up and you get into such a great flow state when you’re doing work like that. And you can’t be distracted.

Ben Grynol: Honestly, I think I would rather watch paint dry and I’m not even joking. I would rather watch paint dry against a wall than sit there watching the ellipsis at the bottom of Slack or text conversation where you’re like, “This is painful.” Unless it’s a quick back and forth that is two or three minutes of I’ll be there at this time. Work for you. Done. Boom. Easy.” That’s fine.

Ben Grynol: But not these, as you suggested these like three-hour distraction threads that pull you away from doing any meaningful work in a day and then back to the bum in the chair conversation, that’s what a lot of people are doing. They’re like, “Oh, I was at the office for 12 hours today.” And you’re like, “Yeah, you hadn’t nine hours of watching an ellipsis at the bottom of some platform. That’s all you did. You didn’t do real work.” Or you were in meetings. So you’re in these eight-person meetings with no agenda and everyone’s trying sound important and get their thoughts heard. And then people who actually have reasonable things to say or beneficial like value to add, don’t get heard because the airspace isn’t shared. And so you’re like, “It doesn’t sound very efficient to me.”

Sam Corcos: Yeah, definitely.

Ben Grynol: So the decision to go remote was prior to COVID. Right?

Sam Corcos: Yeah. Yeah, we started this company as remote.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, and so this is like December 19, January 20, around that time when things started ramping up further and further?

Sam Corcos: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: And there was this really interesting thing that happened where it was the world against Jason Fried Basecamp. It was the world against like, or we’ll say Zapier, will say-

Sam Corcos: GitLab.

Ben Grynol: yeah, GitLab. Everybody who has been remote only like only a remote company, not this hybrid model. And so everyone’s like, “That doesn’t work.” And it was this big social debate, especially in the tech and startup world. But then COVID comes along and everyone’s scrambling to figure it out. And I think Levels because of the position that we were in, we’re a new company, small team, the principles were being developed as far as, hey, here’s the process, here are the platforms we work on, I think that we got great tailwinds from building a remote culture over the course of this past year. How did that come into play? Because I know you and I’ve chatted very loosely about it before. How did that come into play when it came time to do the raise? And the raise is a whole different conversation we’ll have to cover one day.

Sam Corcos: Sure. Yeah, it’s interesting because when we started the process for a fundraise pre-COVID, we had a number of funds explicitly pass on us because we were remote. They just said, “We like what you’re doing, but we just don’t think remote teams can be successful.” I remember during the height of COVID in April, we had our leadership check-in call and we realized that everyone we knew was scrambling to figure this stuff out, but we already had the processes in place. Everything was already well-documented.

Sam Corcos: I think our total productivity loss as a company from COVID was that David, our head of product had to take a half a day off work once to move some stuff, but that was pretty much it. So we came out of… A lot of investors came out of COVID in September when we had a better sense of what was happening, looking to invest in remote teams. And I think that we had shown that we can do it very effectively. So I think it ended up being a very positive thing. I think if COVID had not happened, it probably would still be an anchor that we’d have to overcome as a company. But I think it accelerated it quite a lot.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, because I remember you were saying that investors started looking for companies that were building as startups that were building entirely remote teams from day one.

Sam Corcos: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: That’s what happened in the fall. But there was this interesting thing that happened in the funding landscape from, so let’s say, I always say that the day the world ended was March 6th because that was the day that… The way that things worked was December, there were some alarm bells that people were ringing saying, “Hey, there’s this thing we should pay attention to.” And no one really did. January a little bit more. February is when the big conference circuit start. And so there was Facebook FAA, there was Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I think the Google I/O event, there was a bunch of them.

Ben Grynol: And within the course of between, we’ll say February 20th until March 6th, all of these events started getting canceled. And on March 6th, South by Southwest, one of the biggest draws in the world for these major events was canceled and there was a petition against it. And I think that’s when things really changed because that Monday, the following Monday, all companies, like all tech companies said, “Okay, we’re remote.” It just changed very, very quickly.

Ben Grynol: And so in the funding landscape, there were investors that were tweeting things. Sequoia put out a memo saying… There were like two major memos they’ve had. One was before the ’08 recession, ’08-’09 recession, somewhere around there. And then there was the memo about things are going to change in the funding landscape. And so investors got back on their heels for the right reasons and they said, “We’re going to hold off on allocating capital. We don’t know when… We might not be able to raise from our LPs for a long time.”

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it’s right.

Ben Grynol: And then April, May rolled around and people heard musings that like, “Well, I heard Harry head Stride.” Harry Stebbings’ at Stride. I heard he’s in on Hopin or like whoever. It doesn’t matter which investor. And so then everyone started saying like, “I think we can just like… The startups haven’t lost productivity. They’re not laying people off for the most part. I think we can keep allocating capital.” And over the summer, which is usually a dry period in fundraising ended up being this aggressive push where everyone’s going, “I’ve never seen this happen before.” And this carried on into the fall, which is when the raise happened for Levels, which was pretty significant.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it’s interesting because since we record all of our weekly team all hands, the Friday forums, I was looking back on some of the older forums from May and June, it wasn’t until June that investors even started returning my emails. So the landscape just completely went dark for several months, which is quite a concerning time. But then by the time September rolled around, I think everyone was back on the horse looking to allocate capital again.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, and to jump on that for a sec, statistically, the highest period of funding happens annually between that spring and start of summer period. So it’s that the, we’ll call it tail end of March, but April, May, June, that is statistically when the most funding is allocated to startups in the period of a year. And so for that not to happen was a really interesting thing when it comes to venture capital. Even people that were… No one was taking on debt either. Now I think people are like, “Yeah, I’ll do a debt raise. Why not?”

Sam Corcos: Right.

Ben Grynol: So when you went to go raise around in the fall, things started heating up because there was more traction and awareness for Levels. The approach the company was taking to being built was different than other startups. The space was very interesting and we’ll call it frontier tech. And the TAM, the total addressable market globally of this problem spaces. We have to use the word unknown because it’s very hard to be empirical about what the actual term of this is. Really, it is.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it’s tricky when you’re effectively creating a new market. It could be anywhere from zero to some very, very large number. You don’t really know. So yeah, it’s definitely, you have to make your bets when you’re starting a company on what are the things that you assume to be true that other people do not think is true? That is the nature of a startup because if everybody knew it, it would already exist. So our bet was there was a market for this. And so far, that seems to be a correct bet. But these things are all… I think of this as still very early stage. And we still have a long way to go before we solve the metabolic health crisis.

Ben Grynol: How many emails did I process in the time that I had texted you is the question. It’s like how many marbles are in the jar?

Sam Corcos: Email is really my core competency.