Seyi Fabode: how to build sustainable businesses and become LinkedIn Top Voice
In this episode, I interviewed Seyi Fabode, founder of Varuna Tech and former product and strategy leader at several tech companies. Seyi was recognized as LinkedIn Top Voice in Technology in 2016 and 2017. He is also an excellent writer and has had ~3 million views/shares/likes on his articles on IoT, AI, Power and technology strategy. I talked with him about several key elements that helped him build sustainable businesses. Seyi also shared his experience moving from Nigeria to the U.K. and then to the U.S., going to business school in Chicago, being an entrepreneur, and writing interesting articles.
3 Valuable Takeaways
- Be firm in your vision but flexible on how you get there: Never compromise your long-term vision for problems that arise in the short term. This is easy to say but hard to remember in difficult times. People tend to make decisions in the short term because the results are easier to achieve and more tangible. This reminds me of the marshmallow test performed at Stanford, which demonstrated that people that are able to delay gratification are the same people that will be more successful in life. During the test, researchers asked kids if they wanted one marshmallow now or two later. In follow-up studies, they found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes. It’s very important to have a vision but, at the same time, that vision should not turn into a fixed mindset. I listened to an interesting episode of Work Life podcast with Adam Grant where he interviewed several people that kept an open-minded approach in their pursuit of passions. They did not allow their passion, or what they thought their passion was, to take over. Instead, they kept searching for new interests until they’d discover their true passion . People change and their passions change as well, that’s why it’s important to keep learning, growing, and avoiding a fixed mindset.
- Have someone in your corner: It is important to have people in your life that can give you objective advice and that have your back. In Seyi’s case, it was his wife. She was able to give him sound advice which made him re-evaluate important decisions. I had a similar conversation in a previous interview with George Koutitas, where he talked about the importance of having a supportive group of family and friends to rely on for strength during difficult times. This is a universal topic that I believe, goes beyond entrepreneurship. As human beings, we are social animals and like Aristotle once said: “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” Since we are not gods (if you are I’d like to interview you 😊), we need social relationships that motivate us to become better individuals and achieve great results. The most successful people and entrepreneurs understand what their role in society and how they can make an impact. Having a strong network of people (or what some people call personal board of directors) you can rely on will help you make the right decisions in moments of doubt.
- Don’t take money from investors too soon: Once you take money from investors, the outcome is predefined. You are giving away freedom to fail and to change directions. In the first few years, you are still trying to figure out market-product-fit and having investors can lead to issues that will impact your performance in the long term. Recognize the inherent agreement you make when raising money. Many startups founders make the mistake of raising money too early on, instead it is better to focus on learning from customers and building a great company, than pitching to investors.
These were the 3 key ideas that stood out to me but there is plenty of more advice that Seyi shared with me. For instance, his dad advised the idea of “learning how people learn in a new place”. This is important when moving to a new environment because each culture has different ways of transferring knowledge. If we want to be successful in a new country, we need to understand the culture and how people gain knowledge and build relationships.
Another lesson he shared is that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the world to start a company, you need the drive to succeed and execute. People that build great companies are not always the smartest people, but they are able to bring smart people together and motivate them to build great products. Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma shared a similar idea: “At first, I knew nothing about technology. I knew nothing about management. But the thing is, you don’t have to know a lot of things. You have to find the people who are smarter than you are. For so many years, I always tried to find the people smarter than I am. And when you find so many smart people, my job is to make sure the smart people can work together.” The most successful leaders can motivate great people to work together and accomplish great things. They are definitely smart but not the smartest in their field. They understand that it is impossible to be the best at everything and the importance of finding people that are stronger in the areas where you are weak. It is often recommended that startups have a technical founder and a business founder and, as this HBR article explains, the most successful startups are founded by technical founders who can quickly hire businesspeople.
Writer & LinkedIn Top Voice for technology
Seyi shared a story about his mom visiting the U.S. His teammates asked his mom how Seyi was as a kid and his mom said he always read a lot and then tried to summarize the information and share it with others. She then said that he was doing the same with the business since he was getting all the information from the market and trying to make sense of it by creating and running the company. This is a very interesting perspective, as business leaders have shared that they are avid learners and readers (see Bill Gates). I believe the key to their success is the knowledge that they have acquired by reading and the ability to connect with other people that can complement their knowledge.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Seyi about his experience with the LinkedIn Top Voice award, which he received in 2017 in the technology category. It was interesting to hear that the articles he worked on the most did not become as successful as the one that made him popular. He wrote the article after having a conversation with a friend about Uber . He went home and wrote the article before putting his kids to bed and posted it before going to bed. The morning after, he found out a top Editor at LinkedIn had re-shared the article and that it was going viral. This story made me think about what Adam Grant mentions in his book Originals: Many artists and scientist became popular for specific pieces of their work but before that they had been creating an immense volume of ideas. Grant says “Originals also have lots and lots of bad ideas. The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most. And if we want to be more original, we have to generate more ideas.” It’s true that quantity often goes against quality but it’s also true that producing many quality projects increases the chances of getting noticed and creating the right masterpiece that can influence many people. For this reason, Seyi agrees that creating lots of content is a good thing and, in his case, this helped him open many new doors. Seyi has written several books and at the time we spoke he was writing a new book about smart cities.
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