Max Rhodes is co-founder and CEO of Faire, a company that’s changing how retailers shop for their stores, and which first partnered with Sequoia at the seed stage in 2017. Max claims soccer helped him land every job he’s had: at Bain and Company, he says he was hired both as an analyst and to play in the Bain World Cup, and he met his first contact at Square, as well as one of his co-founders at Faire, while playing on rec teams.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
For most founders, myself included, I think it’s easy to be a little impatient. You want to get things done. But I’ve learned to take the long view and focus on what Michael Moritz calls “constant application of force.” Each little iteration moves the business forward, and you have to balance running as fast as you can toward your goal without getting sidetracked or taking shortcuts.
At the same time, you can’t keep applying force if you don’t take the occasional break, because no one can run at 100 miles per hour forever. When we started Faire, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Then it was 12 hours a day, six days a week. We also had employees, investors and customers all relying on us, and it was a level of stress I had never experienced before. By the end of the first year, I was not in a great place. Then my wife and I took a few days off over the holidays and went to New Orleans, and it was a wake-up call. I came back feeling so much better. Whether it’s eating well and exercising and getting enough sleep, or putting in the extra effort to go on a hike or take a trip instead of watching Netflix all weekend, I realized you have to invest in yourself as well as the business.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Find people you enjoy working with. They have to be capable, of course, but there are so many capable people in the Valley. You also need to ask yourself, “Would I be excited to work with this person for the next 10 years?”
When we talk about culture fit, I think we’re really talking about shared values. We don’t need to have the same perspective on every issue. I love it when someone is willing to debate or disagree with me, and it’s actually something I look for in candidates. But we do need to be aligned on what matters most to us. At Faire, for example, we put a high value on intellectual honesty and rigor, so if you’re not a curious person who loves digging into things, you might not be a good fit. You also need to be kind, which is just a nicer way of saying “no assholes.” And the most important thing for us is the mission. There’s almost a one-to-one correlation between how excited someone is about what Faire is trying to do and how successful they are in the company.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Until recently, I’d never been a morning person. In college, I slept until noon. But right before starting Faire, my co-founders and I all happened to take two-week vacations in Europe, and when we got back, we were waking up at 6 a.m. Since we were all up, we decided we might as well get started, and it just stuck. I’m still up by 7 a.m. during the week, and on the weekends, I’m usually up before 8 a.m. Starting early gives me momentum, but I think there’s also something to be said for just waking up around the same time each day. Once I built that habit, I felt so much better. I have more energy, more clarity of thinking. I think it’s made me a more effective leader, and I’m much happier overall.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
This isn’t knowledge so much as a skill, but I wish I were a designer. I have so much admiration for people who can imagine something beautiful and then make it happen. It feels like magic. I can describe an idea or product or feature to our founding designer, and she can build this amazing experience and create a feeling of warmth or crispness or sophistication. It blows my mind.
As much as I value great design, I have no ability to do it myself. I actually tried once, with Faire’s first website. Usually, the best way for me to build a new skill is when I need it to reach a goal; I will learn ferociously in order to accomplish what I want. I was so motivated to build that website—and it was still hideous. I realized I’d be much better off finding someone great and letting them do the work. And honestly, it’s for the best. If I had any design talent, I think I’d be in Sketch or Figma all the time. I’d be tinkering with things on the weekends, changing fonts and icons and driving our design team insane in the process.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I tend to read six or seven books at once and bounce back and forth based on my mood, and they tend to be books about how to do my job. That’s something I love about being a founder—the job forces you to learn all the time. I didn’t get an MBA, but I’m trying to make up for it with reading.
Right now I have Scaling Up, by Verne Harnish; Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout; and Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. Radical Candor has been especially helpful for me, because I come from a product background where you have to get things done through influence, rather than by being in charge, and I didn’t know how to translate that as a CEO at first. The basic thesis of the book is that you can organize leadership styles into four quadrants based on two factors—how direct you are and how strong your relationship is—and radical candor is when you’re direct in a strong relationship. You’re telling someone how things really are, and because they know you care about them, the feedback is much more effective. It helped me realize I absolutely can and should build friendships with the people who work for me.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
When we started Faire, my pitch to retailers was that we could make them smarter buyers by using machine learning algorithms to predict what would sell. And they absolutely hated it. They were viscerally offended by the idea that some computer could shop for their store better than they could. We realized you don’t start a small retail store to make as much money as possible; you do it because you love it. They had great taste and loved trying new products. So we completely reframed our value proposition to focus on giving buyers a fun shopping experience and letting them try as many things as they want.
I’m a huge admirer of Steve Jobs, but I think a lot of people learn the wrong thing from him, which is that founders can create great products from the ether, without ever talking to customers. That might have been true for him and a few other people, but not me. I think the only way to know what your customers want is to be curious about them and ask good, thoughtful questions. I now gently encourage our product managers to get “talk to customers” tattooed on their forearms. It’s easy to make that the last thing on your to-do list, but I think it’s like sleep or exercise. The results may not be direct or immediate, but if you don’t do it, your product will die.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
10 years. Every day matters, but you have to think long-term to build something truly meaningful. That was true for me personally—I considered starting a company right after I left Bain, but I would have failed, because I didn’t know anything yet. Instead, I spent five years at Square learning how to build a product and a startup. It’s true for Faire, as well. We have a one-year plan, but it’s a step in the 10-year plan. Eventually, we want to fix every aspect of wholesale, from supply chain and inventory management to pricing and advertising. We want to turn the whole model on its head. But first, we need to start by building a marketplace that helps buyers make better decisions. Then we can build everything else on top of that.
- Apply constant force
- Build friendships at work
- Talk to customers
— Max Rhodes, Co-Founder & CEO, Faire