Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken a trip back to the early 2010s, watching Jared Leto, Amanda Seyfried, and Joseph Gordon Levitt bring some of the most infamous tech founders and their fall-from-grace-stories alive on the silver screen. I was an early employee at food delivery and health tech startups during this pivotal time in the tech industry’s history. I remember navigating our own highs and lows while reading headlines about #DeleteUber or Elizabeth Holmes denying the Wall Street Journal‘s explosive charges.
Now, as the founder and CEO of my own health tech startup, Wheel, it’s been interesting to reflect on this growth-at-all-costs approach. On one hand, if you want to create and deliver a world-changing service, you need to build a sustainable, world-changing business. At the same time, it’s impossible to grow without hitting bumps along the road.
That’s the burden—and the gift—that today’s generation of leaders face. Moving fast without breaking things is much easier said than done. Building a high-growth company within the confines of accountability and sustainability can often be a painful and exhausting process. But we also have the opportunity to demonstrate a new roadmap to success and pass it down to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Determine your own way to measure success
Investors may be looking for fast growth, but they’re also looking for a solid and sustainable business. Revenue isn’t your only measure of success. Work with your investors, board, and leadership team to determine which metrics matter the most as key drivers for the business. Then identify your North Star metric and align your team around it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean taking the WeWork path of focusing on “community adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization).” But it does mean thinking outside the box from how we’ve traditionally measured success. Something we’ve found valuable—and surprisingly unique—is reporting our employee satisfaction results to our board of directors. At a time when the labor market is incredibly competitive, these metrics help to identify our investment in employee retention and sustainable growth.
While it’s much harder to measure, we’ve also made clear that our success is dependent on being a responsible actor. Of course, having a healthcare regulatory attorney as a cofounder helps—along with bringing on investors with strong expertise in helping high-growth companies navigate complex, ever-changing regulation. But it’s our responsibility to prioritize compliance and communicate our progress regularly with our investors, clients, and employees.
Balance the daily grind with long-term sustainability
It always rubbed me the wrong way when Elizabeth Holmes said that she didn’t have time for a personal life, implying the only way to grow a successful company is to put your own life on hold before the company’s needs. I believe the longevity of a business is often tied to the longevity of a CEO. You need to be physically and mentally prepared for the daily grind of building a world-changing service.
And as someone with an autoimmune condition, I don’t always have the luxury of putting my health and well-being on the back burner. Of course, there are times when I have to pour myself more into work, which can sometimes lead to a flare up with my condition. It still feels scary to be vulnerable with my team and my board, letting them know I need to take some time away to focus on my health. But I know that I need to be up to the task in the long run.
Expect bumps in the road, but be honest about shortcomings and mistakes
The path to building a high-growth company can be challenging for even the most seasoned leaders, but we’re always presented with forks in the road. For example, if you scale too quickly and need to make the difficult decision to cut costs, you can either follow the example set by Adam Neumann and throw a private concert with Run DMC to gloss over layoffs. Or you can follow the honest and transparent path set by Brian Chesky when Airbnb let go of 25% of its employees at the beginning of the pandemic.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions from Wheel employees recently about the state of the economy and whether we’re prepared if we enter a recession. The truth is, we don’t know what’s around the corner. But I’d rather explain to employees how we’re thinking about an uncertain future rather than avoid the topic altogether. And setting that example creates a halo effect around the company, encouraging employees at all levels to prioritize honesty over hype.
It’s important to recognize that companies like Uber, WeWork, and Theranos are the outliers rather than the norm. That’s why Hollywood is bringing their stories to our TV screens. But I hope their legacy does little to tamper the excitement behind world-changing ideas. We can still build high-growth companies while prioritizing accountability and sustainability. And we have the incredible opportunity to set a new example for tomorrow’s leaders.
Michelle Davey is cofounder and CEO of Wheel.