Joe Thomas is co-founder and CEO of Loom, a messaging platform that helps companies communicate via easy-to-record videos. His favorite tool for remote collaboration is, of course, Loom, which he finds especially useful for sharing information company-wide—in a way that’s fast and works across time zones, but still resonates with his team.

What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?

The whole journey of building a company is one big uncertain adventure! I think the first thing to do is find the right people to navigate with—whomever’s best suited to help see you through to less-choppy waters. A big part of a founder’s job is risk mitigation, and you need partners to help you identify what could knock you off course. Maybe it’s competition; maybe it’s your business model. For Loom, in the early days, it was proving that the market was ready for a new mode of communication.

Once you know your risks, you can rank them and divide them into things you can control and things you can’t, then start working your way through the list to reduce whatever risks you can. In our case, that meant doing thousands of surveys and interviews to show which features potential customers found valuable and what they’d be willing to pay.

The other thing that helps me during intense periods is trying to accelerate out of lows as quickly as possible. I’ve had a lot of practice with that during the COVID-19 outbreak; I don’t love working from home in the first place, and it’s been particularly easy to get burned out because our business has grown dramatically. But that makes it all the more important to set up good boundaries. I’m a better leader if I can step back, close the laptop and do the things that give me energy, like working out, meditation and cooking dinner with my wife.

What resource do you find yourself coming back to?

I take diligent notes, and I reference them regularly. In any one meeting, each person is going to have a unique perspective and way of synthesizing whatever information is being shared, and taking notes helps me grab and preserve the things that feel most relevant to me. Personally, I like using Notion, because it’s such a flexible medium—I can put ideas in whatever format is most meaningful. I have key quotes in there; structures and principles; values. It’s a lot of information, and honestly, I could get better at keeping it organized. But I do operate from it on a daily basis.

What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?

I believe that people should be above all else—then product, then profit. That includes your customers as well as your team; you have to pick the right people to serve. When my co-founders and I first started out, we spent a lot of time asking, “Who are we building this for?”

We knew we wanted to solve problems in the workplace. And because we’d seen how difficult it could be to build for SMBs, we knew we wanted to focus on larger organizations. But it was only by listening to potential customers that we were able to make Loom what it is today. Our first product was an expert network to help designers and product managers get usability feedback—and people told us they already had a lot of that expertise in-house. But they did really like the video features. So we built a Chrome extension to make recording easier, and the product evolved from there.

Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?

Staying focused on the problem you set out to solve. There are so many things to distract you—technical challenges, market headwinds, competition, hiring challenges. A big one we’ve been feeling is the feature requests you get as you grow. Our goal is to build video messaging for the entire workplace, not a specific space like Sales or Engineering. But what happens when a customer really wants a less-universal feature and they’re willing to pay for it?

That’s where a lot of companies fail—they don’t keep the long term in mind and start chasing dollars that aren’t aligned with their strategy and mission. Providing a best-in-class product is hard in any case, and much harder over the course of a decade because it takes so much discipline. But the companies I respect most have been able to clearly articulate a radically simple vision and then just keep executing better than anyone else.

What do you do differently than most?

I wish I had that level of insight into how other folks operate! One thing I do believe is that to lead a company, you have to see your job as serving others. Taking your ego out of it can be tricky, especially early on when so much of the company is wrapped in the founders. But that mindset doesn’t scale.

When I have an open spot on my calendar, I ask myself how I can use that time in service to our team. I also try to make sure they’re asking me for what they need, whether that’s specifically inviting connection during my weekly office hours or taking the opportunity to earn trust by responding quickly when someone has a request. You have to prioritize, of course. But I think it’s so important to keep communication channels open and operate as much as possible from a place of deep empathy and truly caring for people.

How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?

Assuming I’ve already gathered as much data as I can, I’ll generally fall back on two things: priorities and principles. In terms of priorities, I keep written lists of what’s most important for the week, quarter and year, and my co-founders and I spend an hour or two at the start of every week going over those lists and making sure we’re aligned.

In terms of principles, it’s about making sure my decisions are aligned with who I want to be. The best solutions often come from generosity and kindness, but you also have to be willing to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. When we started to build out the Sales team at Loom, for example, someone I have a personal relationship with really wanted to join—but they had experience in a much later-stage organization, and I knew bringing them in that early wouldn’t set them up for success. So we had a tough heart-to-heart and promised to keep revisiting the conversation. I’m hopeful that doing what I thought was right will allow us to eventually find an outcome that serves everyone.

What future opportunities will be born from recent events?

My hope is that we’re accelerating progress toward not just a distributed workforce, but a geographic distribution of opportunities that more closely match the distribution of talent. We’re being forced to rethink so much in this moment—not only as people move away from traditional opportunity hubs, but in terms of record-high levels of college deferrals, lower infrastructure costs, even excess corporate real estate—and I think we have a chance to bring several factors together. These are incredibly complex issues, and there’s no silver bullet. But if the trend lines continue in their current direction, I think a lot of communities could ultimately transform.

Hard-won advice