Ben Taft is co-founder and CEO of Mira, a seed-stage mobile AR hardware and software company working to make AR more scalable and accessible than ever. He’s a trained classical pianist—thanks to his mom, who started teaching him when he was four—and credits Mira’s founding story to Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s School for Innovation.

What have you leaned on to navigate 2020?

For me, this year has enabled an extreme level of introspection and focus. I’ve been really fortunate—I’m in good health, and Mira has remained relatively unscathed, which is not something I take for granted. But I do think it’s important to look for the opportunity in any challenge, and 2020 is no exception.

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, I accepted that the only thing any of us could expect for certain was an immense amount of change. So I asked myself, “Where is the best place I can be to welcome that?” I believe reconnecting with your past can give you more clarity about your future, so I decided to spend an indefinite period of time at a small cottage in Monterey that my family has owned for years. I’ve spent quarantine living alone here, focused on self-growth, spirituality and leading our business through a transformative era. I hope I’ll come out the other side of this stronger than before—and I hope the same will be true for Mira and our customers.

What advice should first-time founders heed?

Don’t be afraid to really lean on your partners and advisors. You need coaches and mentors. When Mira shifted our market focus, there was a period of time where I shied away from engaging with my partners, because I felt like I didn’t have much good news to tell them. Because of that, I missed out on the chance to get good advice at the moment I needed it most.

But now I understand that my partners made a long-term bet—they know there are going to be ups and downs, and they’re there to help. We lean on our board and the team at Sequoia so much to help us pattern-match and focus on the biggest risks that might prevent us from getting where we want to go, and they’re always ready to dive in on something that isn’t going well. Talking to people who have been there is the best way to learn—and to compensate for your own knowledge gaps in the meantime.

What question are you asked more than any other?

Within Mira, it’s often “What should we do?” People come to me to make decisions. And sometimes, that’s completely fine. But people also tend to think the founder or CEO knows everything—and that definitely is not the case. I don’t know most things! That’s why it’s my job to find the best people and then trust them. When people come to you for advice, sometimes the best thing you can do is just ask honest, open questions; listen to their answers; and give them space to solve the problem on their own. Just flipping the conversation helps them feel more empowered to make decisions for their area of the business, which is ultimately what they’re there to do.

What early experience shaped who you are?

I think the ones that shaped me most were actually my parents’ experiences. They both fled the Soviet Union as refugees. My mom left everything behind and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with $17 and a suitcase of clothes. She didn’t know how to speak English, but she figured things out and eventually ended up in Los Angeles, which is where she met my dad. He was living there with a host family.

My parents never did much for themselves. Most of their time and energy went toward giving my sister and me the best possible chance to succeed. I’m indebted to them for that, and I feel like I have a responsibility to pay it forward and create opportunities for other people. That’s one of the things I like about building a company. We get to help other people grow and learn, which is the most fulfilling part of the job.

What’s the best interview question in your toolbox?

I say, “Tell me your story,” and I love to see what people say. When you bring someone into a company, there’s so much more to it than where they’ve worked and the skills they have. I want to get to know who they truly are. So if they start reciting their resume, I’ll try to dig deeper. I’ll ask, “Where are you from? Who are your parents? What do you love? How did you get here?” Everyone has a story, and when we understand each other on that level, we’re in a much better position to help each other do work that we love.

I also think storytelling is an important part of any startup job, because stories are much easier to remember than facts or statistics. One of our favorite stories at Mira is about building our first headset prototype. We wanted custom lenses but they were incredibly expensive to manufacture. So we scoured the internet and found these plastic fish bowls with the exact curvature we needed for $10 each on Amazon. When customers or investors hear that, they understand instantly who we are as a company, and it’s a story they want to be part of.

What’s a lesson you learned the hard way?

The importance of feedback—and how to create a culture where it’s both given and accepted. A couple of instances at Mira taught me that lesson. In one case, people were starting to burn out, but we weren’t giving them an avenue or channel to vocalize how they were feeling.

The lesson in that case was twofold. I think first-time founders in particular have to be careful not to create the expectation that everyone needs to be working all the time. But the larger lesson was that as leaders, we needed to do a better job of soliciting feedback. We’re looking at using a formal platform for that, but it can also be as simple as taking each employee out for coffee from time to time to see how they’re doing. Asking for feedback not only helps head off potential problems, it gives you much more clarity on what people are interested in and how they want to grow.

What book should every company-builder read?

It’s hard to choose. One of the more tactical books I like is Play Bigger, because it really helps you think in terms of category creation. But if you want to be a successful leader, I think it’s just as important to evolve as a human, and on that front, I like Peace is Every Step, by the Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. It’s a very practical guide to staying present in your day-to-day life. If your phone rings, for example, your instinct is to grab it. But Nhất Hạnh tells you “observe three rings” and then pick up on the fourth, so you’re forced to slow down and remember where you are before you talk to whoever is calling. Or if you’re at a red light, you’re probably only thinking about the moment it turns green. But instead, you can use that time as an opportunity to stop, breathe and pay attention to your emotions.

That ability to be present is so important when you’re building a company. If it’s 10am and you’re worried about what’s happening at 2pm, you’re missing the chance to focus on whatever you’re doing in that moment. Being present helps reduce stress, but it also produces better results.

Hard-won advice