MEET David

After a decade building and renovating homes as a general contractor, David Steckel co-founded the personal home management startup Setter in 2016 and partnered with Sequoia in the company’s seed round a year later. A self-proclaimed “huge geek” who loves sci fi and fantasy, he is also a *Lord of the Rings* trivia champion—twice over.

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

To maximize my productivity, I need an early win every day. It can be as simple as going to the gym or even making my bed, but I have to complete one thing from start to finish. I picked up this habit by accident around the time we started Setter. I’d always worked out in the evening, but I kept skipping it because I was so busy. Then I switched to mornings and immediately felt better and had more energy, because the rest of my day was colored by that little win.

For me, meetings don’t do the trick—I don’t get that same feeling of accomplishment when I start my day that way. A lot of Setter’s team works on Eastern time and since I’m in San Francisco, I’ve started blocking off early mornings on my calendar and using that time to move the needle for myself, even if it’s only one degree. That also saves me from getting calendar invites for 5am!

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

Once you decide to commit to your idea, give it 100 percent. I tried to start Setter as an offshoot of my general contracting business at first, and that was a mistake. It took more than a year longer than it should have to get going. Eventually, I realized this idea was everything I’d ever wanted to do, and I had to give it my all or I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

I had to learn to let go of my old business—to say no. That’s something I’m still trying to learn. When you start a new business, you wear all the hats, but as you scale, you should choose two or three areas where you’re a subject matter expert and leave the rest to the smart people around you. I once wrote down all 10 or 20 things I could possibly be involved with at Setter and rated myself on each of them. At building a quote for a large project, for example, I’m a 9. I could be close to a 10 with just a 10 percent improvement. But for something like financial modeling, I might be a 2, and even a 200 percent improvement will only get me to a 4. That exercise was incredibly helpful in figuring out what I should even consider saying yes to.

And even when it’s something I’m good at, it’s often better to say no. Jess Lee taught us to think in terms of Type 1 and Type 2 decisions—Type 1 decisions are the big, non-reversible ones. There aren’t many of them, but they’re by far the most important. As a founder, that’s where I should spend most of my time.

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

Embracing conflict and having a process to resolve it. General contracting was much more structured than life at a startup; we had blueprints that told us exactly where and how to build. So when I started out in tech, I had to transition from an exact science to building something completely new, where there was no single right answer. At first, I didn’t know how to create buy-in. I’d say “we need this solution” rather than bringing the problem to the team and finding the solution together. Eventually, I realized there’s no point in having these awesome people around me if I don’t listen to their opinions. My co-founder, Guillaume, has a very different skill set from mine, and with that disparate yet complementary approach we can attack a problem from all sides. Our executive team is full of brilliant people with a variety of backgrounds. We won’t always see things the same way, and that’s a good thing. When everyone has the company’s best interests in mind, even a heated debate can be productive.

But to truly harness the power of debate, you need to have a decision-making process in place. Everyone’s voice should be heard, and you should be thinking about what value your feedback can offer, how firmly you believe something and whose vote should count most. Often it’s the subject matter expert’s. Sometimes it’s a “founder leap,” where Guillaume’s or my view takes priority, but I think those situations should be rare. Another thing he and I do is make sure we respect each other’s leaps even when the two of us aren’t aligned. We can agree to disagree, go forward and revisit in a few months. Our processes help us move far more quickly.

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

I desperately wish I was fluent in another language. That would change how I think about the world around me, and I’m determined to learn at some point. I studied Italian in school, but I think the next step is being immersed in the culture. One of the coolest things about Setter is that everyone lives in a home and could use our service, so once we’re ready I hope I’ll be leading our European expansion and living in a villa in Montalcino! I’ve visited Italy several times and love it—the wine, the architecture. I also like that work doesn’t seem to define people there the way it does for us here. You get asked about vacation plans and hobbies, not what you do for a living.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

I usually have two, one for work and one just for me. Right now, I’m reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, which was recommended by a coach Guillaume and I are seeing. It’s really helpful at our stage, because it breaks down how to keep everyone focused on the same goals. I think the key there is trust, and I give Guillaume a lot of credit for promoting that and for building our company culture in general. One of the values we talk about is kaizen, which is Japanese for “continuous improvement.” We acknowledge that mistakes will happen and have candid conversations about how to fix them next time, which makes it feel safe to be wrong.

I’m also reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, which is brilliantly written and such a trip. I was really interested in how he discusses humanity’s ability to imagine and commit to something that isn’t concrete, like territory borders or government. Another part that stuck with me is that humans got to this point through cooperation. That’s how we managed to defeat the bigger animals. Cooperation is literally how we found ourselves at the top of the food chain—and that’s a great business lesson.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

When I first tried to build Setter, I spent a bunch of money to create an app despite knowing nothing about app development. I got exactly what I’d asked for, to the letter, but it wasn’t even close to what I needed. The app was web-based, which made it essentially unusable in the field—I didn’t realize that wasn’t going to work in, say, a basement in Toronto where I couldn’t get an internet connection.

In hindsight, I had been a hypocrite. Before Setter, as a general contractor, my sales pitch to clients was that they should pay me in part because I had expertise they didn’t. And now I’d done exactly what I’d always warned them against—I hadn’t hired an expert who could understand both the technical side and what I needed to do. To have my first app fail was devastating, and for a while, I gave up on the project. But I did learn from the experience and eventually decided to try again. I wrote down everything I’d done wrong the first time and then looked for someone who had the expertise I didn’t. That’s how I found Guillaume.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

Instead of minutes or days, I tend to think more in schedules and project management and Gantt charts. To me, what matters most is the shortest, most frictionless path to solve a problem. How can we give our vendors more jobs in their eight-hour days or get our customers from quote to fulfillment as quickly as possible? We also think in terms of not just time, but timing—for example, many of our customers are parents, so we know not to bother them between 6 and 8 p.m. Options like instant quotes can get them what they need right away, even if they don’t start texting us until the kids are in bed. It all comes down to understanding their journey and removing any barriers we can in order to give the best possible experience.

Hard-won advice