Wed · Jun 15

Relentless Work Ethic Can Outpace Experience

Tony Xu, DoorDash CEO, sat down with us before speaking at YC's weekly dinner.

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Tony Xu

What do you believe that few people agree with you on?

You can make the economics of on-demand delivery work.

What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Be the best version of yourself.

In a society and industry that sometimes overly glamorizes founders and people who work in technology, there’s a temptation to want to become like certain individuals or certain companies. While it’s a great thing to learn from other organizations, it’s most important to have your own point of view and I think that starts with yourself. Whether your goal it is to make it in technology as a career or to make it as a founder, you have to bet on yourself. You have to have a point of view about what is most special about you and whether or not that matches the problem space of the startup that you’re building. If it does, I think you have a great fit with what you’re doing. If it doesn’t, I wonder whether or not it’s the best use of your time.

You should look at what you’re doing in your free time. If you’re doing things for free or voluntarily without any pressure or incentive, I think that’s a very good tell for what you gravitate toward. I think that’s true topically and functionally. If you find yourself wanting to code or talk to customers or build a financial model, then that’s what you should do. I don’t think you should try to be like someone else, I think you should be the best version of you.

What’s one skill or expertise you’d like to acquire?

One skill that I’m working on now is how to manage executives. I define an executive as anyone who has more experience than I do in a particular area. It doesn’t have to be someone with twenty years of experience. It’s just someone that has more experience than I do.

It’s tough because as a founder or an early member of an organization you always have this belief to do it yourself and offer a point of view very quickly. Yet, when a startup starts becoming a company, the best way to maximize output is not to do it all yourself, not to offer all the first opinions, but to get the most out of the organization.

If you weren’t working on DoorDash what would you be working on?

I’d be working on a large problem and trying to dig very deeply into it. My background is in math applied toward cancer research, which has nothing to do with delivery. I was interested in it because I thought it was a very large and important problem. I saw I had the opportunity to do good for a large set of people and that it was very complicated. It was not something I was going to figure out in three months or even a year. I worked on a very narrow field of cancer research for three years. I published one paper. So, I’d be going deep in one area but I don’t know exactly what it’d be.

What book has influenced you most?

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

One of the things I’ve come to learn about a company like DoorDash is that while it’s fundamentally a technology company, one of its differentiating elements is that it has to have operational excellence. In Silicon Valley it’s hard to learn from other companies because historically many Silicon Valley companies have not had to focus on this one skill. There’s enough gross margin in a lot of the consumer businesses such that if mistakes were to occur no serious damage would result. If mistakes were to occur at DoorDash, DoorDash would be dead.

In his book Bill Walsh talks about everything from how to run a perfect seven yard post pattern to how to answer the phone properly at the front desk. Every detail was mapped out and that’s something I’m trying to learn.

What’s something you’d tell your younger self?

Independent thinking combined with a relentless work ethic can outpace experience. I think sometimes, especially in the school system here in the U.S., that’s not what you’re taught. You’re taught to follow rules. You’re taught what is valued is experience, whether it’s a field of study or a way to behave in a classroom. And while I think some of it’s useful for learning social norms, I don’t think it’s ultimately what’ll make you the best version of you.

I think what makes you the best version of you is having your own opinions about things–and they could be right or wrong–but it’s better to have a point of view than it is to blindly follow best practices. Best practices are usually a reflection of the present or past and what you want to do is figure out what the future looks like. So, if you are able to come up with your own thoughts–which is very hard in a noisy world–and you’re willing to work really hard at either proving or disproving them, that’s more valuable than experience.

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