As one of Sequoia's early-stage partners, Stephanie Zhan focuses on all things consumer and emerging technology including machine intelligence, transportation, social media and entertainment, gaming, direct to consumer brands, commerce, and more. Having grown up across Hong Kong/Beijing and studied Computer Science at Stanford, she has always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and culture.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
Be a dreamer. I always go into a meeting with a positive outlook on what the company could become. What type of future is this team creating? What type of future do I want to live in? What type of future do I want Sequoia to help create? There are many reasons a company can fail, so it is easy to become jaded or pessimistic. But the most important thing is to stay open-minded to change, and to acknowledge risks while still dreaming about a company’s full potential.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Ask yourself: “Why now?” What has changed in the market or ecosystem to uniquely enable this opportunity today? Why couldn't it have been created 3 years earlier, or 3 years later? If you trace the success of many of the biggest technology giants today, they always took advantage of a key enabler: a technology advancement, a social or cultural shift in consumer behavior, oftentimes both. Uber utilized mobile and GPS as an enabler. Instagram leveraged smartphone cameras and increased bandwidth, and lowered the barrier to sharing just as consumers wanted to share more of themselves and their lives.
Fast forward to today, and there are many interesting “why now”s enabling new opportunities: advancements in computer vision, NLP, and robotics; the need for more specialized AI hardware; the rise of social influencers; AR, VR, and mobile video as new platforms; cryptocurrency; the increasing popularity of e-sports and gaming; and cord cutting meets increased time spent on social video platforms.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Taking full control over my time and realizing it’s my most precious resource. I used to say yes to everything. I tried to do everything and be everywhere. But recently, I’ve learned to identify the right things to spend time on, whether it’s people I want to see or new areas I want to learn about.
It’s the opposite of FOMO—fear of missing out. It’s more like JOMO—joy of missing out. I finally understand what that means. I’m creating more space in my life and taking a step back to reflect and be more thoughtful and intentional. “Embrace the JOMO!” That should be my new slogan.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I could have lived through the early days of the internet and the dot-com boom. It's one thing to read the history, but to actually experience the ups and downs is completely different. The flip side, of course, is that this enables me to more freely, fearlessly, and creatively dream about the future.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I just finished a book called Hitmakers: The science of popularity in an age of distraction. It was a fascinating exploration of two key questions: “What is the secret to making products that people like?” and “Why do some products fail while similar ideas become massive hits?” It's a must-read for anyone interested in creating big cultural hits.
One insight is that most consumers are simultaneously neophilic—curious to discover new things—and deeply neophobic—afraid of anything that is too new. The best hit-makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. In essence, they are architects of familiar surprises.
Another gem is that, for many cultural achievements, the art itself is not the only thing worth consuming: being able to talk about the art you have seen or heard is its own reward. These consumers are not just buying a product. What they are really buying is entry into a popular conversation. Popularity is the product.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
I used to love planning every little bit of my life. I loved knowing what the next 5 or 20 years might look like. But while I was growing up in Hong Kong and Beijing, attending Stanford, or working at Google Maps and Nest, I never would have thought I would be at Sequoia today. I’ve now learned that the best things in life are often unexpected. That’s why it’s important to stay open minded to new people and opportunities. You never know what the future holds for you.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
A single day. Every day is a new opportunity to invest our time in something, whether that’s learning about something new, building and creating meaning, or making and strengthening relationships. We all have our good days and bad days. Luckily, each day is a fresh start. It’s our job to make the most of every day we have!
- Embrace the unexpected
- Spend time thoughtfully
- Ask, "Why now?"
— Stephanie Zhan, Partner, Sequoia