John Kim of SendBird

Founder Coffee episode 019

John S. Kim of SendBird

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this nineteenth episode, I talked to John Kim of SendBird, the user-to-user messaging backend that powers the chat of websites and apps like Reddit.

Based on the belief that starting a company was the only way he could do what he loved, John started one of Korea’s first startups, raised money in an environment that had never heard about it, and then was one of the first to sell his startup to a company outside Korea.

After this, John started a community for moms, raised money for it, pivoted (before that was even a word) to a messaging backend company, and got accepted to Y Combinator. He’s now leading one of the hottest messaging companies around.

We talk about his extremely rational way of making decisions, the Korean ecosystem and work ethic, the Intrinsic Motivation Framework, and yet again, the Regret Minimization Framework.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.


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Jeroen: Hi, John. It’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

John: Hey, man. How’s it going?

Jeroen: Things are going well, thank you.

Jeroen: You’re the founder of SendBird. For those who don’t know yet what does SendBird do?

John: SendBird is a chat API. We basically power user-to-user messaging within mobile applications and websites. You can think of it as a use case in market places where a lot of sellers talk to buyers. Or consumer products like online communities like Reddit, or gaming, or dating, as well as some live video streaming, where you chat with other audiences as well.

Jeroen: So, companies like Reddit are using your software basically to build a chat so they don’t have to do it themselves. Right?

John: Exactly. So, Reddit has to be one of our most fantastic customers. Obviously they’re one of the third largest websites in the US, and they’ve been using us for their user-to-user direct messaging as well as Subreddit chat.

Jeroen: Cool. How did you get the idea to start a chat backend company? How does that actually happen? Was it like, “A chat backend company, that would be a nice company to build.”

John: Yeah. Well, nothing comes that easy. So, when we first started out our journey in 2013, we started out as a B2C company trying to build a community for moms, where you can find other moms in your area with similar age kids. Basically to plan play dates, buy and sell used baby products, and whatnot.

When we were trying to create this community for moms and that’s exactly the year when, you know, Mary Meeker came out with a report, “Hey, like messaging is overtaking the world.”

: I think it was around 2014 – 2015 when like WhatsApp, Telegram, these kinds of apps became the most used apps in the world. So, everyone in the industry was trying to see what kind of chat experience they can also put into their own application.

We also wanted to add a chat, and we looked around, tried a couple of different open source solutions, they didn’t really work out the way we wanted, so we also built on top of things like Firebase. That too didn’t quite have the flexibility and feature set that we wanted. So we ended up scratching all that and building everything from the ground up ourselves.

Well the truth is, we were running out of money. We had a couple hundred thousand users, but it wasn’t the next Facebook. So, it was sort of hard to see ourselves getting into a proper series A, with that amount of traction.

While, on the sideline, we had a lot of friends in the industry who were trying to build a chat themselves. We were one of the first ones who build a chat among all our friend groups. You know, a group of entrepreneurs. So they started asking questions like, “Can we use your technology?” We were like, “Of course not. It’s our stuff.” And they’re like, “We’ll pay you.”

And because we had zero revenue and were running out of money, we thought that was a pretty good idea. Very tempting. So we did a hackathon over a couple days, pulled it out to NCK, started selling on the sideline. We started out with a terrible pricing, we just asked, “Hey, how much can you pay me, like 50 bucks?”, and they’re like, “Sure.”

So our first customer was like $49 or $50 a month customer. The next customer we had to go and say, “150 bucks?”, and they were like, “Sure.” So we get had about two dozen customers within a couple of months in the early private testing. And then we applied to YC with that idea at the end of 2015.

To think about it, it’s like first two and a half years we were struggling with this B2C application, and then this small weekend hackathon thing became the core idea of our company. So we completely pivoted in December 2016. At the beginning of 2016 when we launched in YC, and then from there on we’ve grown pretty nicely.

Jeroen: How do I have to imagine the company at the point that you decided to pivot from the community for moms to the messaging company basically? How big were you, did you have seed funding?

John: Yeah, we had some small seed funding. We had four co-founders, and about 10-11 people at large. I said it like overnight, but it was actually a course of 6 months of careful transition because obviously, investors invested in that mom’s community app.

People who joined the company were obviously still designing and building products for this mom community app, and when you think about it, people who are passionate about B2C are not always passionate about B2B. So we had to figure out how do we align ourselves, how do we manage the expectations, what is a timeline, how do you validate that this can actually fly?

So internally we had some assumptions, “Hey if we get X dollars of revenue or X number of customers, we might have something that works.” So we had this roughly set internal goals, and we started asking people around. We were running two businesses in parallel, under the same entity.

We had moms, and we were continuing to roll out features, but a little bit more slowly because now we were pouring only a few resources into this. But also starting to warm-up our investors during this period. We had some sort of informal board meeting, where we were talking to our investors quarterly, or bi-monthly I think.

And then we were telling them, “Hey, well here’s a side product we’re thinking about, it’s nothing serious yet, but if we think it has potential, we’ll let you know,” and we would keep updating them with our progress.

Then once we hit certain milestones and traction, we actually told them, “You know what? This might be something real, and we are going to start charging and once we have enough customers, then we’ll let you know.”

So we kept warming them up over the course of six months. And ultimately getting to YC with that idea, with tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, was a pretty good signal for us. It was a course of six stark wrong ones.

Jeroen: Yeah I can imagine, you’re stuck between two very different businesses. Did anyone from the team leave because of your pivots? Did all the founders stay?

John: Yeah, all the co-founders are still with the company. Thankfully they’ve been very flexible in adapting in that manner. A couple of the employees were very specific to B2C applications around graphs and resources and things like that. They ended up finding other job opportunities.

We were very careful in communicating that because ultimately we know and they also accept that they won’t be happy at a B2B company. From an APIs versus community for moms, there’s going to be an amount of pretty graph face, and emojis. So we made that transition. I think one or two people left early on in the company, and maybe one or two later on. After that, the co-founding and the early engineers stayed with the company.

Jeroen: That’s super interesting. Is that your first thought of the mom community?

John: No, so this is my second start-up. I founded my first company, a social gaming company, back in late 2007; if you think about it 2008. It was a pretty interesting period, with the subprime mortgage and whatnot, so the entire market crashed. There was no funding.

Anyway, so we again had a dark tunnel of no funding, just trying to barely stay alive. But we ran the company for four and a half years, grew to about 30 people and we got acquired by Gree, they’re a public company in Japan.

So it was an interesting thing where if you just don’t give up, good things happen. So we were one of those guys standing on Facebook, along with Zynga and whatnot.

Jeroen: And where was this company started out of, the social gaming company?

John: Yeah, it was a social gaming company, we ran out of South Korea. We ran for four and a half years and then sold it. Three of the four co-founders have been working with me from my previous start-up, so we’ve been working together for, I don’t know, the ninth year now. It’s been pretty long.

Jeroen: So you started off in South Korea? But now you’re based in San Francisco, right?

John: Yeah, a little bit South of San Francisco, in a place called San Mateo. The weather is slightly nicer. So yeah, it actually works. Works for us!

Jeroen: The temperature is a bit lower than in South Korea?

John: Actually South Korea is pretty chilly, during this time.

Jeroen: During the winter?

John: Yeah, during winter it’s very chilly. Then in summer, it’s very hot and humid, so the volatility is quite high. California is always sunny. California kind of thing.

Jeroen: Is the full founding team then also Korean or no? And are they in San Francisco, or in Seoul?

John: Because we first started out in Korea, our co-founding team were all Korean. But now, two of us are here and two of us are back in Korea. So we have a good balance of culture, and people who understand the history and the backstory of the company, and are evenly spread out across the region.

And then we ended up building out a more senior management team over the course of our company. So we have a CFO, and we have a head of sales, who joined our company almost two quarters now, and they are here. So we’ve been trying to add diversity.

It’s weird because we started out in Korea, we are now adding American people into a part of our management team to add diversity. But yeah, that’s how our team has been evolving.

Jeroen: When you started off with your first start-up in Korea, was that a normal thing to do? Because currently the Korean government is putting a lot of money into start-ups if I’m not mistaken, and they have this big award thing going on and a big fund etc.

But in 2008, was it like that?

John: That’s very insightful that you are on top of what is happening in Korea!

If you look up Korean media back in 2007-8 maybe even around 2009, no major media ever used the word called startup. That was how raw it was. It was called venture companies back then. There was not a lot of resources, not a lot of people to ask. Of course, there were companies who started out way back in, whether it be dot.com or before, but a lot of them were manufacturing companies with hardware. Because manufacturing is one of the largest industries in Korea.

So there weren’t a lot of startups, to be honest, and when you have those kinds of meet-ups where successful folks show up, you meet about 20-30 companies. And if you go to the next meet-up, those same companies show up. So if you go through about three iterations, you literally know everyone in the industries. That’s how small the community was. Whereas if you’re a little venture funding, you might be able to raise a million dollars as Series A, and that would take three to six months, and not a lot of angel investment for sure unless you actually knew people who were somewhat rich.

There weren’t a lot of resources, but it got way better over 2009-10 and by 2011. You could see the word coming out and you could start to see angel investors grouping up. Then around the time when we exited, I think the environment had turned quite a bit.

We were one of the very first ones to get acquired by a Japanese software company in Korea. And before that, there was I think one other company that was acquired by a foreign software company, it was an acquisition done by Google. Even the M&A / acquisition, there was no one to ask.

What’s going to happen, how to prepare, how to negotiate? All those things, resources were pretty hard to come by.

Jeroen: So how did you get into this? How did you think, “Nobody’s doing this here in Korea, but I’m going to start a company and it’s going to end up well”?

John: That’d be a great definition of a crazy person. So I actually approached it from more of a some might call it a ‘first principle basis’. But, I try to look at what I want to do with my life. I’d been thinking about that question for three years before graduating from university.

I worked at a company called NCSoft. I was very fortunate to have such a wonderful experience there because I was part of a business team. But before that, I was a software engineer. So I knew how to make stuff and things like that.

While I was working on the business side, I saw so many things that were very inefficient. People were copying/pasting stuff into Word documents and then re-copying/pasting it into Excel spreadsheets. Somebody had to learn by macros to run stats and to collaborate on a single data set, someone had to volunteer and download every single Excel spreadsheet they had created over a 30 day period, across a hundred people and then open every single one of them, copy/pasting and things like that.

So, it was very inefficient. But if you have at least a minimal engineering background you can immediately build an online forum, or an online software tool that you can have people just punch-in the numbers and the stats will always be running in real time, right? It’s not rocket science!

While I was working on the business side, I saw the inefficiencies there, so I built an internal tool almost like a side project within the company. That actually became the official tool of the company. Which was a really intersecting experience to see how a small technology can create so much leverage for everyday folks.

So, that got me pretty inspired, and I thought like, “Wow! I want to do this for the rest of my life.” Just to be able to acknowledge what sort of makes people’s lives easier, and get feedback on it, because the feedback I think is the most important part – when people say, “John, this is great,” or “this is so easy to use, can you fix this?”, or “can we add this to that?”

And just that process alone was so rewarding. So I’m like “I just want to do this for the rest of my life.” So I went back to school, finished my studies and then as soon as I graduated I kept thinking about how do I do this forever?

Tried to reverse engineer it and then there were multiple routes, right? You can start right now, which was the last option or you could go to a consulting company. Back then I thought it was the rational thing to do, but now thinking about it, it probably might not be the best path. Going through consulting and then do an MBA, then start a company, or work in another tech company and then go study in the US, and do things like that.

So I drew out a decision tree, ordered a type of path, waited and what I found to be interesting was, I also put in burn-rate and the risk of losing whatever I had, as an important input. If you do a simple maths, the lowest risk of running a tech company is when you start right away. When you’re not married, you don’t have kids, you have a very low burn. You can just go by with soya mince and raw mince.

Sort of like, starting right now is the lowest risk thing I can do, because if I go through all the consulting and MBA and things like that, I’d be married, have two kids, this is how my burn-rate would go up, there’s a social reputation now I’ve to keep up with, my parents would be disappointed. There are so many things that I had to think about, whereas if I start right now, I lose almost nothing – maybe a couple of years. But if something works, then you know. You learn how to ride a bike, sort of.

Long story short, I think it’s the lowest risk thing that I could do at the moment.

Jeroen: And you calculated all that through the decision tree and an Excel sheet etc., right?

John: Yeah, it was actually a pretty long thought process. I came back to school, I finished my studies over the course of two and half years, graduated. So while over the course of two and a half years, I wrote a lot of notes so that I didn’t regret my decisions, and part of that process was that decision tree. So I think over the course of a year I was thinking about what to do with my life, and yeah, that was sort of was the result.

Jeroen: Is there anyone that specifically inspired you in this process?

John: A few, obviously the founder of the company that I worked for briefly. But also there’s a pretty well known intriguing billionaire, a gaming mogul named Jay. And then Masayoshi San of SoftBank. I don’t think he was statically famous, but I read a biography of him and that really was inspiring. Richard Branson was also pretty cool. But I guess Masayoshi Son was a little bit more of a lion. Sort of like a figure I really found to be very inspiring, but now he’s at a much larger scale now. So I’m like, “Oh, how will I ever catch up with that guy.”

Jeroen: What is it that you like most about growing a startup? You mentioned a few things like building software, solving people’s problems, getting their feedback and improving it.

John: I guess a couple of things. One is, the opportunity to grow as a person is just so rewarding. You get to meet so many incredible people, be able to work with them, learn from them directly. So I guess just being able to connect with a lot of very, very smart people really quickly, has been a very rewarding thing. Sometimes, helping them join our company, that was so much fun. And very rewarding. I’m very grateful for that.

But I guess, when you think about, Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation framework, there are three things: purpose, autonomy and mastery. Literally founding and running a start-up has the highest alignment in all of those three factors. Like purpose, of course, you’re starting this because you are passionate about it, you have a meaning for it. Of course, you don’t want to start a company because you read something cool about those industry and tech giants. Those companies tend to fail miserably, not always, but mostly. So finding a purpose, your inner calling, is very rewarding.

Then two is the mastery piece, where literally you’ve just started a company, you have to learn so many things and you have to be somewhat good at it, that itself opens up a great chance of mastering the last piece: autonomy.

Again, we are running a small company. You don’t have to deal with a lot of processes, learning about the systems of the company, and whatever that thing is. You have a lot of autonomy, especially in the beginning stage when you can literally steer the ship, too quickly sometimes. So you get all of these three dimensions fully checked, and then there you have it: you have this intrinsic motivation.

Jeroen: And how does being a startup founder, how has it changed for you from the beginning of December to now?

John: Wow. I learned so much, I think I’m constantly changing. I have to change, so much. But I guess one way to phrase it, our CFO said a term like, “Live the dream,” and I do feel like I am living the dream. Of course, I’m not saying that every day is an easy-peasy kind of walk in the park, but back in 2007 in May, I was in Korea, out of this small studio with a friend and just pushing out code, and we were always searching articles from Silicon Valley. You think of like a Y Combinator and I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s so cool! One day I really want to be there,” but then it was like, Y Combinator was this star that was far, far away, raising money from Silicon Valley so-called Sand Hill Road investors. Even meeting them was a dream for me, building a tech company that had global users with great logos, whether it be Reddit or just really big companies with a lot of users.

Those are all very dreamy kind of things that we thought about, back in Korea when we had like no money. So now I think about it, I am actually part of that process now. The journey. I am here, working with fabulous people, literally talking to Silicon Valley ambassadors every single day. Not every single day, but maybe once a week. And talking to all these amazing customers, and tens of millions of users on a monthly basis.

It is a slog. There are so many problems to solve but, if you take a 10,000 feet view, a bird’s eye view, it’s like, “Wow! I am sort of living that dream.” It is not as glamorous as I thought, but I don’t care about glamour, so it’s okay.

So it’s been fun. A lot of that has inspired me and changed me in hopefully good ways, I guess.

Jeroen: What is it that you do personally now? How does your day kind of look like, or what are the things that keep you busy?

John: Oh wow! So I look at business in four different dimensions. I call it the 2 PM framework: people, product, market and money. As a CEO you are constantly juggling these four things. Market/customers where you try to sell, but also talk to customers, understand the market, find a vision and find the problems to solve. And then you sort of crystallize it into your product, which is a solution to that problem, or to that vision. To do that you got to hire the right people, and to hire those people you got to have the right business model or have a fundraiser, things like that.

Once you solve a certain problem, then the next problem comes in. It cuts costs and sort of like a circle of life where one problem comes right after, or sometimes in parallel with the first. So these days, I’ve been trying to focus more on obviously, the go-to-market side of things. Talking to bigger customers.

Hiring is one of the highest valued activity any leader can do, or any manager can do. So I do spend more time hiring, meeting customers, and just talking to our product/engineering executives team about what is sort of like a more start for our product, and what are some of the high-level product ideas and items that we want to put in the roadmap that’s maybe not in the immediate items that we’ll issue next week. Or something that we want to think through to 2019 and what are some of the items that we want to deliver by when to open new markets and position our company a little bit differently.

So it’s things like that.

Jeroen: You’re talking about ambitions now and future plans, where do you see SendBird is going in the long-term?

John: So we actually have a mission statement on our website that says, “We’re digitizing the human interactions for businesses,” because when we think about “chat” many people think about it as just a feature where you send a text on the screen.

But if you think back a few years and think about the first time when we had a dial-up modem, one of the first use cases was that people built online chat rooms. After that, it was like ICQ, IRC, every single type of advancing technology people asked for better communication tools, and technology. And I think chat is one of those things that exists because it is probably one of the most efficient ways to stay in touch and interact with people.

So that’s why we have a messaging app category. It is the most widely used app category in the world. So we think that a lot of human interactions being digitized will continue as long as our population grows and more and more people get the internet.

If you take a step further, when you want to chat with your significant other or someone you’re dating, or your family, sometimes you get into this argument, where you’re like, “Hold on, let’s jump on a call, or let’s meet up for a coffee,” and that gets the result. That means there’s still something that’s missing from that interaction. Whether it be emojis, or videos, or voice, there’s got to be another layer to augment some of the things that are I guess you could call them, “shortcomings” on chat.

So we’re thinking of different ways, how do we make this experience, even more, richer, so that one day we can fully say, “Oh, let’s just chat”, and then you can sort of have a real, genuine human-to-human interaction. And then after that will come a phase where things are only possible on digital media, whether sending a 3D photo that you can look around in AR or VR, or things like that. So how do we make this experience even better, so that we can actually help that digital interaction become the defacto standard of human communication?

That’s sort of our long-term thing. And to get there we have a lot of, part of the roadmap features, a lot of different things to learn from customers, and we just need a lot of people to build up this vision.

So yeah, that’s sort of our, I guess longer-term goal. But in terms of actual traction, we’ve been growing, like tripling every year for the past couple years or so. We’re trying to see how far into the future can we continue with this rate of growth, and that part is also pretty exciting. Because growth is not just dollar amounts, but how many people are chatting through our platform, how many messages are being sent through our platform. Things like that.

It’s exciting.

Jeroen: So you’re kind of seeing the impact of your platform?

John: Yeah. And especially when you meet customers in real life too. You’re so inspired it’s like, “Oh we thought you were just a million MAU, with ten million messages.” Now if you look at it, you’re like, “Oh you’re a real company, these are your vendors or customers or service providers” – things like that. You see them in action, and we are so inspired because you are actually making their lives easier.

Jeroen: And is everything chat-centric, to make chat better basically? Or do you also see SendBird going into other types of communication? Or will everything remain around chat, even if it’s a video call, it just comes from chat?

How does that work?

John: So right now we are doubling down on chat because we still see just a lot of untapped opportunities here, and a lot of customers who should be using us that are not using us. We really want to help them migrate over to our platform.

We think we have probably one or two good years of just fully focusing on that, but getting back to our mission, we think there are other ways to communicate in real time that can be a great augmenting factor to our chat experience. So we’re also doing some research on those areas, that could be voice, that could be video.

But right now, to your question, it’s mostly centred around chat.

Jeroen: A bit more about work-life stuff. How does your day look like? I imagine you work with Koreans, so how do you adapt your day in terms of hours?

John: I hope someone has a silver bullet for this because we have a situation in our time differences – between US and Korea. It’s good and bad. It’s good because you at least get a couple of hours to overlap, but bad because you don’t have the entire overlap if you do really want to collaborate with Korea more sensibly. You got to work double shifts, meaning, let’s say you come into the office around 9 or 10, work till whatever, 5 or 6, or even 7 and then you start getting these Slack and email notifications when you’re like 4 or 5 PM here. Then if you really want to chat or communicate with the Korean office a lot, then you’ve got to work until 10 PM or midnight, so it is a slog.

It’s worth it though because you are communicating more. But it’s not so worth it if you’re starting to hurt your relationship with people around you. So you’ve got to find the right balance, and the right cadence and things like that. So far, we haven’t found like a super silver bullet, so we’re just trying to work hard so that we can always be in sync.

Jeroen: Are your working days till 10 PM then?

John: I hope people won’t freak out, but on an average I go to sleep around 2 AM. This is a pretty long working hour situation for the past about 3 years. But these days I’ve been trying to cap myself to work only, or to go to sleep at least before midnight. It’s been hard. It’s not like they’re constantly pinging me late in the evening, they are also aware that the US has to sleep. But sometimes you see them chatting with Slack, or you’re seeing an email that comes in and you’re like, “Oh, I can help Bob with that,” or like, “Oh yes, I have some thoughts on that,” and you jump in, and you’re like, “Oh right, here we go again. My brain is fully awoken, so let’s jump on another call.”

So that’s how it works and I have been very blessed, that I don’t almost ever get stressed from work, I really enjoy it. So that part’s not really hard for me. You cannot expect everyone in the company to work that way, and that’s not how to run a company. So I’ve been trying to get people to have some more harmony to life.

Jeroen: Now that I think, isn’t there a culture clash right there? Because if I’m not mistaken, in Korea you work quite late, and you do long working hours. And then in the US, it’s a bit more moderate.

John: Wow. Okay. Again, you are on top of Korean culture. They’re not to the extreme – I don’t want to stereotype but when you read about these things online from Michael Morris or things like that, people say, “Hey China work 9-9-6.” Well Korea, we’re not like 9-9-6, we’re maybe closer to 9-8-5, or 9-9-5, sometimes 9-10-5. A little bit better.

But yes, that’s your point, we do in general work longer hours. But I think it is a different culture. Here it’s not necessarily when people go home they shut off and they don’t work. They have dinner with their family, and they log back in and they work if they need to. So I guess it’s more flexible and fluid, and the culture is different.

Also, Korea and Japan, maybe Germany, is very sensitive around time, even with team things – not necessarily meetings, say client meetings and stuff like that. Showing up to office exactly on time, for instance, is more cherished in those cultures. Whereas here in Silicon Valley, where there’s less focus on manufacturing or things like that, the strictness around time is a little bit different. Of course, with customer meetings, we all are very punctual.

So those things do create a discrepancy in culture, but ultimately I think I read somewhere, was what HSBC said, “World’s local bank, you have to think globally, but act locally.” We are also trying to adopt policies and systems that cater to local culture and evolve towards that direction. So we are working on those kinds of things.

That was a very long answer.

Jeroen: Is there anything you do next to working consistently?

John: A couple of things I guess. I like reading books, but I guess that’s almost a cliché. I do like cars quite a bit because I don’t think I’ve fully matured internally. I like cars and big noises and things like that. I do enjoy driving on the mountain roads, and things like that when I sort of feel like, “Oh, this is a lot of stress,” and I go on a quick ride to the mountains and then come back and I’m like, “Okay, this is great.” So I do that.

Jeroen: What kind of car do you drive to the mountains?

John: After selling my first company I went through a lot of different cars. Terrible ways to invest. Never buy a lot of highly depreciating assets – it’s not even assets, it’s just things. But yeah, I generally small cars that make noise.

It’s not good for the environment so I know I have to transition to the electrics soon. But I know it’s coming, sort of old school in that way.

Jeroen: What’s your favourite car right now?

John: Oh boy! There are a few. But I do like the overall German engineering. Kind of precision with perfection, and obsession over quality. So brands like, whether it be Mercedes, or Porsche is a brand I like. BMW’s M2 series are really nice too. Obviously being frugal, if you want to go up, Ferraris are obviously really nice. But if I had to pick my poison, Porsche would be favorite.

Jeroen: Which Porsche is that?

John: 911, GT3 or GTS. I drive a GTS, it’s a nice choice. But it doesn’t have a backseat, so it’s not really good for a family. Well one can argue, is GTS even remotely good for a family? But I do think GTS is a family car, so.

Jeroen: You also briefly mentioned you like to read books, what’s the latest good book you’ve read? And why did you choose to read it?

John: Oh wow, okay. Recently I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s latest book, I think it was ‘Brief Answers on Big Questions’ that has been pretty fun to read. Just getting a refresh on black holes, on the latest in the quantum mechanics, just frameworks around how to look at life, and things like that. That has been fruitful.

Also, I like Gil’s ‘High Growth Handbook’ that’s been pretty nice, I’m about halfway through it. I try to read through three books in parallel. Just to not to bore myself to death.

I just read a lot of science books, whether it be neuroscience, evolution, cognitive science, psychology, complexity science. Those things tend to interest me. Then behavioural economics. I just try to find patterns and rules in life that I can learn from, that I can apply to whether it be business or human relationship or things like that.

Jeroen: So really like the first principle thinking, finding it in books and applying it.

John: Yeah. This is interesting because I’d never really heard about the first principle thinking until recently. But I guess anything you get the urge, you sort of tend to do that because you don’t want to create code versus things that are overly complex, that solves the problem in a very efficient way. So you always have to make it into a simpler and more elegant form.

That sort of makes you think, I guess what they call the first principle thinking.

Jeroen: Is there anything you wish you should have known when you started out?

John: Oh boy! All the stuff that I know today.

Jeroen: Yeah, obviously.

John: Things like people management is something that you just have to learn. I mean some people are better with people and they’re so even when they are young. But I was a pretty antisocial kid, who only played a ton of games. I was a professional gamer in Korea when I was young. I was a very geeky guy. Not good with people at all. Just totally did not understand how people think, operated or got motivated. So I learned it the hard way over the course of the past decade, on how to work with people. That has been an interesting journey. So if I had known that earlier, it would have made everyone’s life easier.

And things like expectation management – how to communicate with not just the people who work with you, but your investors, your family members. Just how to set the right set of expectations, and how to provide the right set of feedbacks. Those have been things that I really just have to learn by just making a ton of mistakes.

So, I really wish I had known these things sooner. But other things are sorts of things you can learn on the way.

Jeroen: Last question. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

John: Best piece of advice. Oh wow! Okay. There are a couple of mantras that I sort of live by: there are no right or wrong decisions. You have to make your decisions right, of course based on the fact that you have to be moral and legally right, but from a business perspective, you want to make the decision with 30% amount of information, not when you are 70% information.

A quick decision is always better than a slow and right decision, so try to make up your mind faster. That’s been of great advice.

The other thing would be: this too shall pass. As I assess as a start-up founder, you go through this emotional roller-coaster. I had a severe one in my first company. And when you raise your first million dollars you’re like, “Yeah! I’m king of the world. I can go and conquer the world now!” And you just quickly realize a million dollars is money that you can probably spend really quickly, just by hiring a couple folks.

So this too shall pass, as in when you have great moments, make sure to plan for the future, don’t get overly excited. But also when there are really dark tunnels, when you go through dark tunnels you’re like, “Okay,” but as long as you get through. There’s almost always a way out. So just keep persevering, don’t give up.

Things like that, have been pretty good advice. But overall, the framework I use is something called “MicroMentor” which is, everyone around you has at least one superpower that you want to learn from. So just focus on that and don’t try to look at the entire person, because no one is perfect. But if you just look at that one single dimension of that person, that person has that superpower, and you constantly could try to create a collection of superpowers around you, to learn from. Literally, 30 people around you can be like 30 micro mentors.

In that sense, I’m then getting advice literally every single day.

Jeroen: That’s some great advice. Well, thank you again, John, for being on Founder Coffee.

John: Yeah, it has been fun. Thank you for the interesting questions.

Jeroen: Thank you.


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Jeroen Corthout

Co-Founder at Salesflare
I'm Co-Founder of Salesflare, the simply powerful CRM for small businesses. I love growth, automating sales, and building beautiful products.

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