Colleen Cutcliffe is co-founder and CEO of Whole Biome and has led teams in academia, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology for more than 15 years. Before earning her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, Colleen studied biochemistry in a liberal arts program at Wellesley College—which she credits with shaping her view of science as a tool for making a difference in the world.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
That I can’t do it all. I’m married with two kids; I have employees and board members; I have family and friends and dogs. When you accept that you’re never going to be your absolute best in everything at once, it creates a lot of freedom. Instead, I set priorities and stick to them. That makes all the daily decisions about how to spend my time much simpler.
My husband and girls come first. I grew up with very strong family ties—we were all home for dinner pretty much every night—and keeping that up as a parent came naturally. My husband does shift work as an ER physician, so our time together is limited, and it’s important to me to make it count. With the kids, it’s about anchoring the day. I can’t be there for everything, but I try to sit with them at breakfast and dinner and do the bedtime routine. My team knows that between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., they’re probably not going to hear from me unless something’s on fire.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
I’d give them the same advice my grandfather gave me when I asked him whether I should get married: “Before you do it, have both eyes open. After you do it, have one eye open.” Starting a company is inherently risky. It’s important to be honest with yourself about that up front—but once you decide to go for it, you need to ignore the risk to some degree and focus on the positive.
When my co-founders and I were deciding whether to launch Whole Biome, we did go in with both eyes open. We asked leaders in the field what they thought, and we set a time limit. I decided if we didn’t have money in the bank after six months, I’d go get another job. After we started, I remember walking into a team meeting with our first few hires and thinking, “Oh my gosh, these lunatics are on this ride with us, and we don’t even know what we’re doing!” It was one of the first times I had to practice closing one eye, turning off that visceral fear and telling myself, “No, this is going to be great.”
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
For a long time, I had a habit of mentally tallying the things I was doing but not getting credit for—and the things other people weren’t doing but were getting credit for. How much my colleagues and I contributed to team projects, how often my husband and I did the dishes. Even silly things like which line was moving faster than mine at the supermarket. That constant scorekeeping can be debilitating, and eventually I decided to stop. It sounds like such a small thing, but it honestly changed my life. I’m so much happier.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I knew how it was all going to turn out! Whether our company is going to succeed, whether my kids are going to be happy. I think it can be tough growing up in the Bay Area. There seems to be an expectation that if you’re not changing the world, there’s nothing special about you. But to me, happiness just means feeling good about yourself and how you’re spending your time. I try to teach my kids to make decisions based on their priorities, and it’s okay if their priorities aren’t the same as mine.
The other thing I focus on with them is self-empowerment, which I think is a key ingredient for being happy. I don’t like hearing self-victimizing statements and mindsets like, “That person prevented me from achieving what I wanted.” How we choose to react is entirely up to us and is incredibly self-empowering.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
The Bible is always there. I don’t actually read it, but it’s part of how I grew up. Neither of my parents is particularly religious, but I went to Episcopalian and Presbyterian school, so it’s always been part of my moral compass.
I’m reading two other books right now. One is The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. It’s about a guy from Yemen who started an import coffee business based in the Bay Area, and it’s also about the history of the coffee trade. Coffee as a beverage originated in Yemen, but for economic reasons the plant ended up being grown in a lot of different places, including Colombia.
The other book is Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber. This is actually my second time reading it. The first time was before I even had kids, when a manager gave it to me. He said, “This is the best management book you’ll ever read.” It covers a lot about conflict resolution—in the context of managing teams, it helped me realize that if you want people to grow, you have to empower them to not need you. Instead of letting them rely on you to make decisions, give them the tools to solve the problem themselves.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
One time was when I didn't trust my gut about standing up for a person I wanted to hire. I’d just started at a new company, and someone who had worked for me previously applied to join my team. I knew she was fantastic—hard worker, great hands in the lab, and super friendly and collaborative. But the roundtable discussion after her interview was unanimously against hiring her. People felt like she hadn’t researched the company enough and didn't seem to fully understand the work she would be doing. The decision was ultimately mine, and I didn’t want to rock the boat at my new job, so I didn’t hire her.
I ended up hiring and firing two other people before we found a good fit, and I know if I had just hired the person I knew could do the job in the first place, we would have been really happy with her. Interviews and roundtable discussions are important, but nothing beats having worked with someone—especially because technically brilliant people are often terrible interviewers. I learned that if I've worked with a candidate and know they would be an excellent team member, even if they don’t interview well, I need to stand my ground and push them through. And I tell my team to do the same. It may feel uncomfortable to put yourself on the line, but it’s the right thing to do, both for the candidate and for the company.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
I don’t know if it’s the one that matters most, but the one I most often think in is a week. At home, we have this nerdy Google spreadsheet for our family schedule. There are columns for each of us and each day of the week, with all of our commitments, and it gets printed out and put on the refrigerator every Sunday.
I tackle my work calendar on my commute. I take the train from Menlo Park, and at first I thought, “This is terrible. Why did I start a company in San Francisco?” But it turns out it’s pretty awesome to have an hour at the beginning and end of each day to just get shit done. On my ride home every Friday, I look ahead to the next week’s calendar and make sure everything’s lined up. Then I revisit it on the way to work every Monday and figure out if anything needs to change.
- Set priorities
- Empower problem-solving
- Don't keep score
— Colleen Cutcliffe, Co-Founder & CEO, Whole Biome