MEET Bryan

After a great run at Google, Bryan Schreier joined Sequoia in 2008 to help build companies including Dropbox and Qualtrics from their early days. He’s played in bands since his childhood, and music continues to be the epicenter of his social and family life. Rumor has it he also backs up Drew Houston at the Sequoia Base Camp sing along each year.

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

Early in my career, I started to put everything I need to get done on checklists. I have a few of them in my “to-do” app. One lists the most important things I want to get done today, and another lists people I need to call. I set up my phone and browser tabs so I see the checklists before emails or texts.

I’ve also learned to listen. One quote you’ll hear around Sequoia is “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” It’s one of Don Valentine’s favorites, and I try to practice it every day. If you’re in a meeting with me, you might notice I don’t talk very much, but it’s because I’m trying to empathize with you. Especially during a pitch. I’m lucky enough to hear founders’ stories almost every day, and there have been times when I went in assuming their business was about one thing, only to realize there’s a lot more below the surface. When I met with Zūm at the seed stage, for example, I went in to the meeting assuming it was Uber for kids. But what they’re really doing is reinventing child transportation and care in a way that saves schools a ton of money and students and families a ton of time, which enriches lives. If I hadn’t listened carefully in my first few meetings with them, I’d have missed the point.

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

Founders often ask me how to design their next round—who should they let invest, and how much? These days, every venture capitalist calls themself a company-builder, so it really comes down to two things: how much impact the investor and their platform can make, and how important your company will be to them. You need to make sure you’ll be at the top of their list, especially if they make a high volume of investments or have other responsibilities and funds.

Imagine you have two offers for $100,000, both from good people. One writes ten $500,000 checks for new partnerships every year, and the other writes two $50,000 checks. If you take the first offer, you’ll probably be a lower priority on that person’s list. You just handed over your shares, and good luck getting the time and help you need from them. You should take the second one, because that’s the person who will be focused on making you successful. Sequoia only makes a handful of new investments each year for that reason—why invest the money if we’re not going to help the company succeed?

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

I’ve made it my default assumption that people can be trusted to do the right thing. That’s how I operated at Google, because we all took the “Don’t be evil” motto seriously. But when I left, I didn’t assume that would be true elsewhere, and I think I defaulted to waiting for people to earn my trust. But after a few years at Sequoia, I realized most of Silicon Valley does want to do the right thing. They collaborate. They share their ideas and talk about what’s working and isn’t working, even with their competitors.

It takes a ton of extra time and energy to work productively with people you don’t trust. I realized I was wasting almost all of that effort. 95 percent of the time, I could have trusted the person all along. So I switched my default assumption to trust, and now instead of having to change my position 95 percent of the time, I only have to change it 5 percent of the time.

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

I have a tough time answering that question because there’s so much I don’t know. It’s frustrating to even think about trying to prioritize it all. I wish I knew more about physics; I wish I knew how to make nonprofits like our charitable LPs, which we call our Great Causes, even more successful; I wish I knew how to do more with my hands. I guess my answer is, I wish I knew where to start!

What books are on your nightstand right now?

Too many to name. There’s a huge, overflowing pile of books and magazines on top of my nightstand, and the drawers are so full they won’t open. I always have a backlog of The Economist issues floating around, and most of the books are on parenting and climate change. On the parenting front, I want to make sure I’m serving my daughters well and striking the right balance. They need my affection and support, but they also need me to have high standards and hold them accountable. Because when you love your kids and your instinct is to just cuddle them, the discipline part is tough. But I think it’s important.

On climate change, I’m looking for a way to unstick ourselves. It’s one of the last externalities we haven’t captured by economics, and I think that’s why we’re in such a crisis. I wish it weren’t the case, but governments aren’t fixing it because politics get in the way, so an economic solution is our best chance. The industrial revolution and technology revolution were both driven by capitalism. We need to find a way to connect the climate threat to a business opportunity. I would love to invest in that!

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

Yesterday I took a debate with my partners too far, and I apologized. Today I pushed too hard with someone I’d hired to build something, and we both missed our expectations. I’m wrong every single day. But I think those moments of being wrong can be the greatest gifts. Imagine how much faster you’d grow and how much happier you’d be if you got constructive corrections every time you made a mistake.

I try to seek out those corrections by being open to feedback. I’ve learned to ask for it, consistently, especially with someone I don’t know well—because for most people, giving feedback is like entering someone’s home. They might be happy to do it, but only if they’re invited. Whether we like it or not, there’s some kind of power dynamic in every conversation, and I always try to give that power to the other person. It tends to be good for them, but I benefit, too, because it’s an opportunity for me to learn.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

I’ll say the time between alarms. I set an alarm to get up in the morning, like most people, but I also set two at night, for when I want to stop working and when I want to go to bed. I might only have 15 or 30 minutes in between them, but that’s enough to get away from the computer and my phone and do something else—hang out with my wife, pet my dog, read or play music. It helps me unplug, and over the course of a year, that little bit of creative time can add up to more than a hundred hours I never would have had otherwise.

Hard-won advice