Amy Sun joined Sequoia as a partner in 2018 after working as a product manager for Facebook and Uber. A lifelong painter, she says her creative process has a lot in common with company-building: she starts with an idea, then explores new directions as she goes, seeing where the process takes her.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
You can have results or excuses, but not both. When something doesn’t go right, it’s human nature to try to rationalize. But I try to always take ownership over what went wrong. Uber was a very results-oriented environment. I was on the Growth team, and every week, trips, riders and drivers either grew or didn’t. When they didn’t, it was tempting to blame the weather, seasonality or a bug. But I learned to own my outcomes—even when there were factors that seemed out of my control. Instead of blaming the weather, we planned for it. Instead of blaming bugs, we built better testing systems.
Now at Sequoia, the results I’m focused on are great outcomes for our companies and our limited partners. Most of our LPs are nonprofits and university endowments, including my alma mater. I was fortunate to benefit from financial aid in college, and it’s important to me to do the best possible job of supporting the next generation. Day-to-day, that means when we tell a founder, “We’re going to help you,” we deliver on that promise. With hiring, for example, investors can make a lot of intros, but ultimately all that matters is whether amazing people land at your company. So we don’t walk away after an introduction is made. We do whatever it takes, from cold emailing potential candidates ourselves to flying across the country to help close key hires in person.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
There’s a quote I love by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” When you’re starting a company and you believe in your vision, you have to keep going even though a lot of very smart, reasonable people are telling you to stop. You can’t allow the opinions of others to dictate the direction of your company—only you can do that. Your customers are your guiding light; not the media, “thought leaders” or even investors. As long as you’re solving a real problem for real people, you’ve got to learn to push past the noise.
With DoorDash, for example, many people said there was no money in food delivery because the margins were too low. With Zoom, people said enterprise communications were crowded and a startup would never be able to compete with the likes of Microsoft and Cisco. If either of those teams cared too much about what other people thought, they could’ve been dissuaded from realizing their visions. But they chose to stay focused on their customers.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
I solicit feedback as if I were still a product manager. Most PMs won’t be successful if they sit in isolation trying to dream up the next hit product. They have to constantly collect product feedback and make changes in real time to address the concerns of their customers.
I try to do this in my daily life by seizing every opportunity I can to ask for feedback—in my work and elsewhere—so that I can improve in real time. It’s been extremely helpful for me as I learn and grow in a new role in a new industry. It’s also made negative feedback feel much more like a gift than like criticism. It's so much better to have people tell you where you can improve than for you to struggle to understand on your own.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I were better at building physical things; I can barely assemble Ikea furniture. I have so much respect for people who can dream up a structure and create it using blocks of wood and buzz saws. I’d love to have the hard skills and physics and engineering knowledge to build something like a treehouse where people can hang out.
On a more serious note, I wish I knew how to solve big problems like climate change. The scale of that problem is so large, and aligning global incentives is so challenging, that it seems like we’re not getting anywhere—yet the situation is more urgent than ever. I don’t know the answers, but I do think it’s our responsibility to try.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I just finished Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove, which Drew Houston highly recommended at Sequoia’s annual Base Camp event for founders. The way Intel navigated strategic inflection points and competition is legendary and more relevant than ever.
I also love the book Psychology of Intelligent Analysis by Richards Heuer. It has a lot of useful frameworks for working with imperfect information, which is something we all have to do. When Sequoia is making an investment decision, for example, we often have to act very quickly and with very limited information. It’s critical to understand which one or two key things really matter.
I just preordered Dark Age by Pierce Brown. I love fantasy and sci-fi because it gets me thinking about where technological progress will take us and how it can impact our societies. So that will be making its way to the top of my nightstand pile soon!
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
I’m wrong all the time. At Uber, I focused too intensely on the metrics of the business and not enough on the human experience of being a driver. I’m sure I’ve been wrong about many things at Sequoia, too. I actually keep a log of every investment decision I make, so that in the future I can see where I was right or wrong and why. Maybe I focused too much on second-order issues or I was too excited about the science and didn’t pay enough attention to the business. You don’t want to dwell on your mistakes, but I do think it’s important to embrace them and to learn from them quickly. We do a similar exercise as a team—we have a slide with the mistakes Sequoia has made over the decades. When you see it in aggregate, it’s much easier to spot trends.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
For me, it’s not about the length of time. It’s about the intensity—how much you have at stake or how much you’re challenged or the uniqueness of the experience. Last weekend, for example, I just ran errands and worked and time flew by. I hardly remember what I did. But the weekend before that, I traveled, met new people and went on adventures—and it feels very long in my memory even though it was the same number of hours, because I vividly remember all the details.
I love moments of intensity at work, as well. I remember everything about the day we gave our term sheet to Noom, down to what I was wearing. We’d been in a long day of meetings and the room was littered with paper coffee cups. But when the founders came in to present, they were so full of energy that they woke us all up! Then they left for the airport and we had to make a decision pretty much on the spot. I remember quickly hashing out the details of the term sheet, finding some Sequoia swag to give the founders, and calling to ask them to drive back to Palo Alto for dinner. And I remember feeling so grateful that they trusted us through that process at the beginning of our partnership. I want as many of those memorable moments in my life as I can get.
- Appraise your mistakes
- Believe in your vision
- Focus on results, not excuses
— Amy Sun, Partner, Sequoia