MEET Tracy

Tracy Young is co-founder and CEO of PlanGrid, one of the construction industry’s most-used technology platforms with more than 100 million documents stored for 1 million projects worldwide. A first-generation American whose parents were Vietnam War refugees, Tracy began her career as a construction engineer—before frustration with the limits of paper blueprints led her to launch PlanGrid.

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

I try to listen more and talk less. In the early days of the company, it felt like I was constantly talking—selling people on our mission, selling customers on our product. As I met people who were incredible listeners, I noticed how much they were able to take away from a conversation, and I really admired that. Eventually I learned to do it myself. As a founder and CEO, my instinct is often to fire off a bunch of questions to my team. But it’s the team that’s in the weeds every day, and their questions are just as important. So listening is critical.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

Silicon Valley seems glamorous when you see the movies about startups or read the TechCrunch articles. What you don’t hear is how hard it will be. You do your best to strategize and execute, but there are market dynamics and so many other factors outside of your control. You’re under constant pressure to grow. And it’s also hard in that life doesn’t stop when you start a company. When we lost one of our co-founders to cancer, we had to decide, “Are we still going to do this?” You’re mourning, but you still have a big release to get out. So you lean on the love and compassion of your family and colleagues, and you keep going. That’s not unique to PlanGrid. It’s life.

So my advice is to find a problem worthy of your time. That’s the only way this works—if it’s a problem you care about so deeply, you’re willing to spend decades of your life solving it. When you’re trudging through mud, that mission will be your guiding light.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

I used to be so bad about eating. I’d skip breakfast and lunch, and after work I’d go get a big burrito. The excuse was, “I’m too busy to eat,” and I know a lot of founders who are the same way.

A couple of years ago we started catering lunch in the office, and suddenly I didn’t have an excuse anymore. All I had to do was grab the food. As I ate better, I realized I had much more energy. That led me to make a few other changes, like taking vitamins and paying more attention to my routines. Now I feel great, I rarely get headaches, and I can stay focused even if it’s 7 p.m. I’ve just been a much more effective leader since I started taking better care of myself.

What don't you know that you wish you knew?

I’d love to play piano like Duke Ellington. I love jazz, and I’ve always admired musicians. My husband got me a keyboard for our anniversary a while ago, and I’ve been slowly teaching myself to play. I don’t have time for actual lessons, so I watch YouTube videos of people playing and mimic that. I’ve learned two of Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes” so far, and I’m halfway through the third. It’s hard—it takes me a couple of months to learn one piece—but it works. And I like the challenge.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

There’s a whole stack. Many of them are still unread, but there are two I’ve kept there for years and keep going back to—Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Yumi Sakugawa’s Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with The Universe. When my brain can’t process more new information and I need to put down whatever I’m reading on my Kindle, I’ll pick one of those up. I flip through, see what speaks to me, and read a couple of pages before I fall asleep. It might be a section on relationships, or an emotion that I’m dealing with, or a simple reminder to breathe. Books give me perspective. They remind me both that I’m part of this universe, and also that I’m just a speck in it.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

I think it’s easy to realize when you’re wrong about something. The hard part is admitting it. I’ve been wrong about people I hired, for example. Usually I could tell when I hired them that they weren’t a perfect fit, but their résumé looked great and I was drowning and needed something off my plate. Every single time I’ve gone against my gut, it hasn’t worked.

Mistakes like that are painful, but that’s how meaningful growth happens. My failures have taught me much more than my successes. I’ve learned it’s better to suffer through a long search and find the right person, and I’ve also learned a lot about what to do when you end up with someone who isn’t a good fit. I used to just cut them loose, but I’ve realized it’s my job as a leader to give them a clearly defined opportunity to improve. I’ve seen people turn it around.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

This moment. As founders, we spend so much time on the past and future—reviewing our mistakes and planning ahead. It’s really easy to look up one day and say, “Where did the past eight months go?” I think it’s important to strike a balance between strategizing for the next quarter and being in the moment.

To do that, I try to meditate regularly, just to free myself from my own mind for a few minutes. I also play in a bridge tournament every Thursday evening when I’m in town. I’m competing with these 90-year-olds who will completely kick my ass if I let my mind wander for a second. So I have to be very present, and it’s a nice break for the other parts of my brain.

Hard-won advice