MEET Keller

Keller Rinaudo is the founder and CEO of Zipline, which uses autonomous drones to deliver life-saving medical supplies to tens of millions of people. He started Zipline after traveling the world as a professional rock climber and seeing the healthcare challenges that billions of people face globally—because, he says, “once you’ve seen the problems, you can’t help but want to solve them.”

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

It’s important to choose a mission that’s worth the day-to-day pain required to build a successful company. I think the reason a lot of startups fail isn’t truly running out of money or lack of product-market fit. It’s that the founder gives up. They’re no longer willing to tolerate the pain. Zipline has been through some really tough times where the company almost died. We were able to pull through those situations because we basically refused to stop working.

The bigger the mission, the higher the pain tolerance—and they both grow with the company. By the end of next year, two hundred million people will be relying on Zipline with their lives, and we have to be there for them. We can’t afford to fail now. The reality is, the only reason we didn’t give up is that we’re doing something the world needs badly.

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

Don’t just solve your own problems. That’s something you hear a lot in Silicon Valley—that you should focus first on problems you’ve experienced yourself. But those aren’t the only ways entrepreneurship and technology can change the world. That approach can create an insular and self-centered world. Don’t ignore the big, global problems billions of people are facing. Mission and impact go a long way in terms of growing a team, because the best people want to work on something inspiring. And beyond business reasons, it’s about the kind of life you want to live. If we want to provide for every human on the planet, not just those born with certain advantages, we have to think bigger.

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

I run two operating systems in my head that are completely at odds with each other, and I believe in them both. When you’re working on an important, difficult project, you have to believe 100 percent that it’s going to work. You need absolute commitment and conviction. That’s operating system 1.

But the reality is, you’re going to fail almost every time, at least at first. And the moment that happens, you have to let go of your emotional investment and shift to operating system 2, where you get Zen and figure out how you can put the failure to use.

For me, that can be a challenging shift. I run on operating system 1 by nature, and so do most of the people we hire. But that mindset makes every mistake devastating, and I realized that if we kept reacting that way, the company was not going to succeed. Now when something doesn’t work or I make a mistake, I consciously switch to operating system 2 and try to understand what went wrong so we can use that information to our advantage.

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

On the professional side, I wish I knew more about how to maintain Zipline’s culture as we grow. No job is beneath any of us—that’s one of the things that makes us special. I wish I knew the best way to continue demonstrating that belief, not just saying it, at scale as we add people to the team. I still spend a lot of my time in the trenches, and I want to make sure each and every person who works here knows I am excited and passionate about what they’re doing.

On the personal side, by far the thing I most want to know is whether humanity is alone in the universe. I grew up reading science fiction, and it seems to me that whatever the answer to that question is, it will fundamentally change the way we treat one another. The whole setup of Star Trek is that humanity was at war with itself until first contact made us see the bigger picture. On the other hand, if we discover that somehow we actually are alone, surviving and populating other planets becomes that much more important. Either way, the answer changes everything.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I have a big stack: I try to read a book every two weeks. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene is next on my list, and I’m excited to read it.

In the past year or so, The Beginning of Infinity and The Fabric of Reality have stuck with me. They’re both by David Deutsch, who pioneered quantum computing. He makes a brilliant argument that there are multiple universes, using the simplest experiments in quantum physics. The Sovereign Individual, by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, is also amazing. It predicted the last 20 years with incredible accuracy, there’s a startup idea on every page, and it forces you to evaluate your own thinking. It’s written by two very conservative authors who present these ideas that I assumed were wrong—but are compelling, and possibly right.

I also love biographies, because they let you live so many lives. I just read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and it was fantastic. The things he accomplished are unbelievable. I embarrass myself at parties now because I can’t shut up about him.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

One of the biggest mistakes I made in the early days of Zipline was constantly putting pressure on myself to work longer hours than anyone else on the team. Servant leadership is key to our culture, but it’s obviously counterproductive to work until you’re so tired that you’re making bad decisions. Plus, I was setting the wrong example for the team. Our patients depend on Zipline with their lives, so it’s already a very high pressure environment, and we hire team members who are ambitious and will do whatever it takes to help us succeed. The most important impact I can have is to help them stay calm and play the long game.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I’d probably say 100 years, because it exceeds the average human lifetime. It’s just enough to take yourself out of the equation. If you’re doing something that will last 100 years or more, you are necessarily working on something bigger than yourself. If everyone thought in those terms, we’d solve a lot more of the world’s problems.

Hard-won advice