“Having some sort of a commitment ... is a wonderful pulling force to give you purpose.”
Constant improvement is the best indicator of long-term success, according to Tomer London who speaks with Michael Matias for 20-Minute Leaders
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Can you believe you were at Gusto for 10 years?
I started with my two co-founders Josh and Eddie almost 10 years ago. Now, we’re 1,600 "Gusties" across the US. We're helping over 200,000 small businesses in the US start and grow their teams. Helping them is helping people who are the underdogs and people who make the community much more wonderful and colorful.
I never thought that l’d do anything for 10 years. Even within the military, I changed jobs multiple times. I always was the type of person who would get bored really quickly and want something else. I think that there's kind of two sides to it here. The first one is my job as a co-founder and product person in the company has changed basically every year or two organically. But something else on a deeper level: when I asked myself why I kept looking for new things, why I was bored, why I kept changing—I think I was looking for a meaningful and deeper purpose. But once I had that moment, that commitment really to my co-founders that we're doing this for the long-term, I found the purpose that's just deeper.
It's a purpose within the customers that we serve, to my co-founders, around Gusties. This brings me to this point around motivation that comes from purpose. It's really easy in today's world where you can do anything you want. Having some sort of a commitment is a wonderful pulling force to give you purpose. That's what keeps me going for 10 years now. I think it will keep me going for a long time.
Where do you find that purpose in the day-to-day?
When I want an answer to "What is my purpose?" The answer is “it’s in my commitments”., "Let's look at the commitments that I have. How can I do better?" How can I be a better husband, father, friend, co-founder? When I'm in my lowest lows, when I'm not motivated, when I feel like I lost my way and I'm not sure why I'm doing what I'm doing anymore, I do that search of, "What's my commitments? Can I do better?" That just gives me tons of purpose. I really believe in that point, that purpose is in your commitment.
When do you know that you're a good leader? Tell me about your perspective on leadership in the day-to-day and this aspiration.
I feel under-qualified to answer what's a good leader, but I'll tell you what I've seen in other people and what I try to emulate. When I see people, whether I interview them for a junior position or for running a department in Gusto, what I'm looking for and what I've seen as the best indicator for long-term performance is this idea of constant improvement.
Looking at what mistakes have I done and then let's make sure I don't do them again and I learned from that and move forward. I think that's true in business but also in your personal life. Thinking about the people that you hurt, what you can learn from that, and how you can do better. I think when you go through life where you think of yourself less as a static thing and more like changing, constantly learning, improving, and growing from your mistakes—it's just like a much lighter load in life too. Because it's okay. You give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes. That's really important.
How do you have time to stop and reflect: am I being a good husband, a good father, a good leader?
Everyone has 24 hours every day, and it's all a matter of your priority. For the Gusto world, it's a part of our culture. Doing these retros, asking yourself, What's gone well? What didn't go well? Just, you make time for this. This is part of our weekly operating rhythm, whether you're within a pod of engineers or you're within a larger leadership team.
Me, Josh, and Eddie, who are my co-founders, every week we spend time together and we talk about things. I think that in a relationship that's long-term and committed, you also have the opportunity to give people advice. Josh just gave me this really, really hard truth to my face about my family. That was incredibly valuable because there's just a very few people who know you very well for 10 years, tell you some things, and help you then resolve things.
What have you learned about building a great culture?
I would say being intentional around your values and around your principles and what makes you you and how you want to build a company is really important. Culture, either you define it and it happens according to what your overall direction is, or it just happens to you and then you need to kind of fight it.
In Gusto, we were always kind of two steps ahead. We defined our values a little bit earlier than most companies, like when we were four or five people, as opposed to when we were 30 people. The other approach looking at this is that people are the most important thing that makes your company. If you want to make sure you bring in the right people, you want to make sure you help them grow in a way that aligns with your culture in the long-term. So, I highly encourage (founders) to take this really thoughtful approach a little bit ahead of the curve, spending the time, having the tough conversation ahead of time to really talk about values.
Your co-founders came from different backgrounds, countries, and cultures. Because this is really building values for a family, how do you deal with those conflicts?
I learned throughout my time in Gusto, and I think every founder learns this: companies are not families. You don't manage people out in families. You stick with your families through ups and downs no matter what. Companies are more like teams, in my opinion. We are all here together for a mission. The most important thing is the customer and to do a great job for them. Sometimes there's just not the right alignment, and you need to part ways and that's okay. I will highly encourage founders to not use the family language as early as possible because when you transition from “we’re family” to “we’re a team,” a lot of early employees may not like that.
To your point around founders and alignment, actually, we were quite aligned. I think value is something that you do come from home with and from your life experience. Josh, Eddie, and I connected in that we are here to serve the customer. It's more important for us to have an impact on our customers for our small businesses and their employees than on our teams. That's the hard thing to say. If you talk about a value and there's no trade-off implied, then it's not really a value. It's just like a truism.
In middle-school in Haifa, what really fascinated you?
I loved books. I love standing in front of big shelves of books about any random topic and just feeling the enormity of the stuff that I could be learning. On one side, it was intimidating, but on the other side it was truly inspiring to just see there's so much I don't know yet.
Today, something that inspires you?
Kids inspire me today. I have three young children. Shira is five, Coby is three, and Lavie is one. Seeing how they develop, learn, and grow is just so inspiring.
Three words you would use to describe yourself?
Optimist, impatient, and family member.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan