MEET Marco

Marco Zappacosta is co-founder and CEO of Thumbtack, a marketplace that connects millions of customers with hundreds of thousands of professionals each year in the $700B+ (and growing) local services market. In college, he initially planned to be a research scientist—but after a long summer of monotonous lab work, decided to launch Thumbtack instead.

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

Understand people for who they are, not who you are. When you interact with someone, you tend to apply your own filter. I think first-time founders in particular often default to being the kind of manager they would want to have. But every person is unique. They won’t all think and operate and feel just like you do. You have to dig deeper and find out what’s actually going on in their minds.

I didn’t really learn this until Thumbtack started to hire at scale, because that’s when you start seeing more diversity of thought and motivation. Adding those new points of view is so valuable, but it does mean you have to work harder to empathize with people and put yourself in their shoes.

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

Fall in love with the problem you’re solving, not the product you’re building. It’s fun and exciting to build something, but that’s a short-lived motivation. It won’t last the decade or more it takes to do something big.

Being driven by the impact you’re making can sustain you for the long-term. In my case, it pains me that in 2018 it’s still so difficult for people to hire professionals, and for professionals to earn a living based on their time and talent. Working to fix that problem is what sustains me. Thumbtack’s strategy and tactics have changed over time, and my role has evolved, but it continues to be fun and engaging because I’m still working on that end goal.

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

I turned off all push notifications on my phone, except for texts. There was just too much noise—I don’t need alerts from The New York Times or some random Twitter story. I wanted to minimize that cognitive load. It’s been a gradual process, and I do still get notifications on a couple of Slack threads. But I decided that beyond my wife, parents and friends, there’s not much that deserves to interrupt me.

I’m probably a bit slower to respond to email now, which I think is okay. I still check it more than I should! But turning off notifications has allowed me to be more proactive than reactive. It’s much easier to focus on what matters, instead of whatever’s at the top of my inbox.

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

I wish I knew more about brand-building. I grew up more on the technology side of things, and brand-building wasn’t something I was steeped in until recently. I think Silicon Valley actually under-appreciates the power of brands. It’s not seen as a necessary tool in your toolbox. But it should be! Brands, like technology, have inherent leverage and can create immense value.

Thankfully, we’ve hired great people who are helping me learn. I remember when we first interviewed Matteo, our creative director. His interview felt so different than a typical interview—and I realized it was because we’d spent the whole time talking about how Thumbtack makes people feel. Feelings are what people remember, not value propositions. That was an eye-opener.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I just finished with one last night called China’s Great Wall of Debt, by Dinny McMahon. The largest debt buildup in human history is happening right now, and all of the others have ended with major financial crises. I read about a third of it and felt like I got what I needed. I very rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover. There’s too much opportunity cost—every page you keep reading is a page you won’t have time to read in another book.

The next one up is In Search of Memory, by Eric Kandel. He won the Nobel Prize in medicine and basically discovered the biology of memory. The book is about his career and how he developed a theory of memory by mapping the neurons of sea slugs. After that I’m planning to read Energy, by Richard Rhodes. He’s written several books about nuclear weapons, one of which won a Pulitzer. This one is about the history of humankind’s relationship to energy, from burning wood to mining coal to petroleum and the nuclear age, and now into solar and wind.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

All the time. A fundamental one for Thumbtack was that for a long time, we thought quoting couldn’t be automated. But once we tested it, we realized we were wrong, and we were able to change the entire product experience to be better and faster for both sides.

In general, being wrong isn’t something I dwell on. I think a better framework is, “What’s the best or most-informed opinion based on the information you have?” In science, there’s no concept of right and wrong, just degrees of certainty. I think entrepreneurs should operate the same way, because entrepreneurship is more discovery than invention. You have a hypothesis, and then you explore and learn from there. You have to have strongly held beliefs that you’ve validated and think are important. But if you learn something new, whether that’s from talking to a customer or seeing new data, you should update your beliefs accordingly.

That’s why I don’t like the phrase data-driven, though, because it implies the data is telling you what to do, and that’s not how it should work. Ideas come from our gut and intuition. Data is just how we test them. Data doesn’t tell you where to go, just whether you got to where you wanted to.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I’m thinking in days right now, because my wife and I just had our first child. I might see my daughter in the morning before I go to work, or sometimes I’ll get the night shift and we’ll hang out then. I’m trying to be deliberate about when I’m home to get the most out of every day.

I also say days because of how quickly she’s changing, which really makes you think in terms of fine-grain units of time. She just started smiling—not passing gas smiles, but actual, “Oh, I missed you and now I’m seeing your face as I wake up” smiles—and it’s the best.

Hard-won advice