In IVP’s Hyper-Growth Podcast series, IVP investors talk with CEOs from the fastest growing companies to understand the ins and outs of company building in the hyper-growth environment.
In our seventh episode, IVP’s Somesh Dash sits down with Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, to talk about her humble beginnings, how the uncharted territories of her life gave her character through her discoveries, and how burnout has led to her success with Thrive.
Arianna’s influence in the space of wellness is unparalleled. She launched The Huffington Post in 2005 and has since been named to Time Magazine’s list of the Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People, as well as Forbes Most Powerful Women in Business, all while serving on the boards of Uber (Nasdaq: UBER) and Global Citizen. Her vision with Thrive is uniquely positioned to change behavior by reaching people at home, at work, and through the technology, they already use to encourage success in modern work.
IVP led a $30M Series B investment in December 2017 to help catalyze the company’s growth prospects. Listen to Somesh and Arianna’s discussion and a few high points from their discussion below:
UNDERSTAND THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WELL-BEING AND PERFORMANCE. THEN PRACTICE IT TO OVERCOME ANY FAILURE.
“I think we are aware of a turning point because of the amazing contributions of science and the fact that more and more people are realizing that, in fact, well-being and performance are closely connected. That’s why we don’t use the term work-life balance at Thrive because it’s not a balance. The two things rise or fall in tandem.”
Arianna then goes on to discuss the challenges for iconic founders like Elon Musk. Elon’s created a whole company based on new uses of energy for cars. Even though he’s a great visionary and entrepreneur living and working in a scientific way, he’s misusing human energy, and it does damage to his brand. As a leader or entrepreneur, it’s critical to take pulse on your people, their well being, and how that’s creating a company culture.
She also speaks to failure, which she sees as “a stepping stone to success,” helping entrepreneurs be more realistic and comfortable with the ebbs and flows of their path.
Arianna’s journey took her into writing and her first book, The Female Women, published when she was just 23, launching her writing career. Her second book was rejected by 36 publishers because it was a controversial book on the crisis in political leadership that nobody wanted to publish. This led to self-doubt, partly causing her to believe that her first book may have been a fluke. However, her instincts told her to keep writing, finding a loan, and continuing on her path.
Arianna’s origin story behind Thrive Global: trying to be a supermom – and also a founder-led to her collapsing from exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and burnout, hitting her head on her desk and breaking her cheekbone.
Her hope with Thrive is to create a behavior change platform that helps entrepreneurs go from knowing what to do to actually doing it as she acts as a mirror and cultural shapeshifter.
CREATE A POSITIVE COMPANY CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY BOUNDARIES.
“At Thrive, we say that a company’s culture is the company’s immune system. If you don’t protect it, then the culture is not strong enough to withhold and to withstand, you know, that toxic human behavior.”
When Arianna gave her first speech at an Uber all-hands after the well-documented cultural crisis, she made sure that the board promised the employees “no brilliant jerks will be allowed in the future.” This theme is something that companies need to embrace if they want to create a thriving and moral culture.
Arianna believes we should celebrate technology while at the same time learn to set certain boundaries around it in order to protect our humanity.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re having dinner with your family and you don’t want to be interrupted. If somebody texts you, they’ll get a text back that you are in Thrive mode until a certain time. And it also gives you a dashboard of your social media and game consumption so you can moderate the amount of time you’re spending. Thus, the app helps entrepreneurs create boundaries that can help. And this behavior should extend beyond her app into the mindset of founders creating boundaries with tech and their employees.
Lessons learned from Arianna: be open with employees, embrace honest conversations, and create change through reinforced values and honest human stories.
People are much more likely to change their minds and be convinced by honest human stories than by data. The microcosm of the individual entrepreneur sets the tone and blueprint for the company culture or macrocosm, and that starts with the individual embracing wisdom, balance, morality, and humanity, setting the broader tone that impacts the company at large.
Full transcript below.
Narrator: Welcome to IVP’s Hyper-Growth Podcast. In this series, we talk with CEOs of the fastest-growing companies and discuss the ins-and-outs of company building in the hyper-growth environment. If you like what you hear, consider following us on SoundCloud or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes. Thanks, and enjoy the show.
Narrator: Today’s episode of IVP’s Hyper-Growth Podcast is recorded in front of a live audience. IVP’s Somesh Dash interviewed Thrive Global founder and CEO, Arianna Huffington. Arianna has a remarkable background, including launching The Huffington Post in 2005, one of the most frequently cited media brands on the Internet that won Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She has been named to Time Magazine’s list of the Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People and the Forbes Most Powerful Women in Business list. She is the author of several books and currently serves on the boards of Uber and Global Citizen. Thrive is uniquely positioned to sustainably change behavior by reaching people at home, at work, and through the technology they already use. Their multi-pronged offering yields a revolutionary approach to ending the epidemic of stress and burnout. IVP led a $30M Series B financing in December of 2017, and we are thrilled to be partnering with Arianna and her stellar team to help drive the business forward and catalyze the company’s growth prospects. In today’s episode, we talk about true founder grit, corporate culture, and lessons to help the aspiring serial entrepreneur. Please enjoy this episode.
Somesh: All right. How is everyone doing? All right. First of all, thank you, Arianna, for coming out here to the Bay Area from New York for the event. Just as background, Steve touched on it a little bit. Last year we had an event with Kevin Durant, that many of you in the audience were at. We were doing due diligence on Thrive, and I was talking to Arianna about a day before, and I said, hey, I’ve got to kind of put a pause, we have this event coming up. And I said, why don’t you come to the event? And she said I’d love to. And Arianna came to the event, and by the end of the event, we were convinced that this was a journey we wanted to take on with her. And Kevin Durant invested as well. So it’s an amazing testament to Arianna’s ability to bring together so many people from so many different backgrounds as she’s done throughout her life, which we’ll talk about today. And I’ve had the privilege of working with Arianna for the last year, and I could just say it has been such a wonderful symbiotic relationship where hopefully as a firm we’ve been able to help with some of the scaling challenges. But also, I’ve learned so much about true founder grit in Uncharted territories, which is the title tonight. So thank you again, Arianna.
Arianna: Thank you, Somesh. I must say, it’s kind of a little emotional to be here, exactly a year later. When I was here last year, I didn’t know what IVP would do, I was a little nervous, but I did get a good night’s sleep and actually, we finalized the term sheet the next day. I don’t know if Sandy’s here, but I went to meet with Sandy, who had to be the final approval. Thank you, Sandy. And now a year later, you know that moment when I can hardly believe that I ever run a business without Somesh because I’m so dependent on his advice. And I’m sorry to the other IVP founders here if I take too much of his time, more than my share, but I text him, I call him. I am… I so value his advice and Somesh thank you so much. You’ve been not just an incredible investor and board member, but a phenomenal partner and friend to me. Thank you.
Somesh: Thank you. So, Arianna, the theme of tonight is, Uncharted, and in some sense a lot of people here are aware. Steve mentioned the Huffington Post, but going back a bit more. In some sense, your life has been a lot of uncharted territory. Tell us a little bit about, you know, growing up in Greece and the decision you made to kind of go into a whole new world, which wasn’t typical for someone from where you came from and the decision to go to Cambridge and in a different era, and some of the work you did over there. That’d be just a fun place to start.
Arianna: Definitely. My life has been uncharted. And given that I was born in Greece and in a one bedroom apartment and I saw a picture of Cambridge, literally in a magazine. And I told my mother, I want to go there. And I told everybody, actually, who would listen. And everybody except my mother said, don’t be ridiculous. You don’t speak English, you have no money, and it’s hard even for English girls to get into Cambridge. My mother said, let’s find out how you can get into Cambridge and you can take your GC’s at the British Council. And then the ultimate thing is, she said, I got us two really cheap tickets to go and see Cambridge. Not to go see anybody at Cambridge, just to go see. It was like a modern version of visualizing what I wanted to do. So I owe a lot to my mother who really believed that you could aim for your dreams. But also just as important, I realized that as a mother now, that she couldn’t love you any less if you failed. So there was that sense of unconditional loving and incredible faith in aiming for the stars. And she used to say failure is not the opposite of success. It’s a stepping stone to success. Making us comfortable with failure along the way. And there is no entrepreneur, there is no human being who has not failed along the way.
Somesh: That’s amazing. And it’s interesting, you go from Greece where English is your second language to become the third, actually three female presidents at Cambridge Debate Society. What was that like for you walking in there the first time? Seeing…I’m imagining, I’ve seen the pictures actually, very traditional, all male British debate society. How was that experience?
Arianna: It was actually hard because I was ridiculed at the beginning. You know, if you think people don’t like immigrants here, try having an accent at the Cambridge Union, you know, it was literally, I was always called last when the chamber was practically empty. But I practiced and learned, I was a terrible speaker. When anybody says, you know, they’re afraid to speak or anything, I tell them my story. But I was so excited about the spectacle of hearts and minds being moved by words that I wanted to learn, and it was truly learning. And now it’s just something I love more than writing because there’s nothing like that live communication.
Somesh: That makes sense. And another thing a lot of people probably don’t know is Arianna was a very celebrated author for many years before she started The Huffington Post. What was the reason? You touched on speaking, but you initially went into writing and writing books.
Arianna: It was an accident. And I really believe that. I’m sure everybody here can look at their lives and find something that happened, that they have not planned, you know. So even all the Type A people here who think they’ve done everything themselves in their lives. The truth is we haven’t. So I have a little saying now on my desk that says, life is a dance, between making it happen and letting it happen. And becoming a writer was definitely not my intention. I actually had applied to go to the Kennedy School after Cambridge and I got a place. And then after I became President of the Cambridge Union, I participated in a debate on the changing role of women, which was televised by the BBC. And I got a letter from a publisher saying, we’d like you to write a book on the views you expressed in the debate. And I wrote back and I said, I can’t write and meaning I can’t write a book. And he wrote back and he said, can you have lunch? And literally, I went to London. I had lunch with him and he said, I will subsidize you for a year in a really modest way. And at the end of it, we may have a book or may not, I’m willing to take the risk. And that was my first book called, The Female Woman, which came out when I was 23 and which launched me into my writing career. Incidentally, the first book was a big success. The second book was rejected by 36 publishers because it was a book on the crisis in political leadership that nobody wanted to publish. It was finally published. But if you read it, it’s called After Reason, you’ll understand why nobody wanted to publish it. It was incredibly dry. And anyway, I finally ran out of money, using the money I had made in my first book and was very depressed. I thought the first book was a fluke and maybe I need to go a completely different direction. And I was walking down St. James’s Street in London where I lived at the time. I saw Barclay’s Bank and something made me walk in and ask to see the manager and ask for a loan. Or what the Brits call an overdraft. And for some reason, the manager, I had no assets, I had nothing, the manager gave it to me and his name was Ian Bell. And I still send him a holiday card every year because he changed the trajectory of my life, you know. He made it possible for me to keep it together for another 12 rejections until finally the book was published. And he also made me feel like when you read fairy tales and you know, the hero or the heroine is lost in a dark forest. And out come all these helpful animals, to help guide them out. Well, there was a helpful animaI in the guise of a bank manager helping me find a way out.
Somesh: That’s amazing. The other… as your journey continued from the UK to the United States you wrote several books. And then, you know, speaking of serendipity and accidents, you know, Huffington Post kind of came out after an interesting political period, not too dissimilar from a lot of what’s going on now. What was the origin of that, that first kind of tech entrepreneurial journey, media entrepreneur journey for you?
Arianna: Well, that was a personal wake up call. And when I began to see, you know, after the 2004 election, and that the whole conversation was moving online. But a lot of people that I wanted to read and hear from were never going to go online because they were never going to start their own blog. So I started with an idea of creating a place where a lot of great people, you know, writers, scientists could take a break from whatever they were doing to share their views on the events of the day. And I remember the first person I invited to write was Arthur Schlesinger, the great historian. I sent him a letter and asking him to blog in this new enterprise I was launching. He wrote back, what’s a blog? I explained. He said, why don’t you have lunch with me at the Century Club in New York and you can explain. So I had lunch with him, it’s just hilarious, because it is a very traditional club, and there I was explaining blogging to him and at the end of it, he said, OK, I got it. Anytime I have something to say, I’ll fax it to you. And I remember, you know, a lot of people I tell the story at the time, nd a lot of people were saying, well, if he faxes it to you it’s not a blog. And I said you know what? If he sends it to me by carrier pigeon, it’s a blog. It’s like he’s having something to say about what was happening. And that’s really what happened. Now, I invited everybody I knew. And that is the beginning of The Huffington Post as a collective blog and curation of the best from the Web. And then as our revenue increased, we created our whole journalistic enterprise with investigative reporting that won a Pulitzer, etc. So it was always a combination of the two.
Somesh: Midway through this journey, you’re at this frenetic pace, Huffington Post growing really fast, something happened to you, that was kind of the origin story in some sense of Thrive Global. Do you want to share some of that?
Arianna: Well, it was actually early on in the journey, just two years into growing The Huffington Post, 2007. I was a divorced mother of two teenage daughters. Anybody here with teenage daughters? Except you Lyla, you’re a perfect child. But Lyla, incidentally is a wonderful writer. And her dad, the great Lazlo is also amazing. And with Humu, the great startup. And.. but my daughters, were a lot more problematic as teenagers. So it was a combination of trying to be super mom and also a founder. That led to my collapsing from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and burnout, hitting my head on my desk and breaking my cheekbone. And as I came to, I had to really ask the question of what was I doing wrong? And in the process, studying all the latest science that shows unequivocally that we are all, or at least the majority of us, living under this delusion that in order to succeed and build amazing things, we have to burn out in the process.
Somesh: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you know, you’ve talked about this theme in Thrive, but a lot of the scientific community was pretty dubious at first that there is a link between sleep and performance. What were kind of the things that you were able to introduce or ideas that just made it kind of simple that sleep is linked to wellness and performance over time?
Arianna: So actually, the scientific community knew it. It was the entrepreneurial and the business communities that were skeptical and remained skeptical for a while. Actually, there was an interesting turning point, a couple of weeks ago, I listened to Hoffman’s, Masters of Scale, podcast, which is an amazing podcast that founders and any kind of entrepreneur listen to religiously. And Reid actually endorsed all these Thrive ideas. And that was a new thing for Reid too because he had been a skeptic himself and he and I had had this conversation, and did it in a beautiful, powerful way. And so I think we are aware of a bit of a turning point when because of the amazing contributions of science and the fact that more and more people are realizing that, in fact, well-being and performance are closely connected. That’s why we don’t use the term work-life balance at Thrive because it’s not a balance. The two things rise or fall in tandem. And I’m a big believer, I’ve always been a big believer in our entire media career up in teachable moments. And right now, our culture has an amazing teachable moment in Elon Musk. Because there is a great visionary, a great entrepreneur who is living and working in a pre-scientific way. It’s like, it’s kind of ironic that somebody who has created a whole company based on new uses of energy for cars is misusing human energy and the results are so clear. You know, I mean, just one dimension, one, you know, in the middle of a sleep-deprived night he tweets that I have the funding to take Tesla private. The SEC launches an investigation. At the end of the investigation, he is stripped of his chairmanship. Asked to pay $20 million. In the meantime, a lot of damage is being done to the Tesla brand. There are many other examples. So what is great now is that more and more people are understanding the connection between well-being and performance and the whole goal of Thrive, as you know, is to create a behavior change platform that helps them go from knowing what to do to actually doing it.
Somesh: That’s interesting. The other piece of Thrive is… that I’ve been so impressed with, is your boldness to take on, in some sense, the use of technology. And we’re here in Silicon Valley on a Friday night and a lot of skeptics say, are you anti-technology for basically saying that people should put down their cell phones or not use technology? And, you know, how have you been able to coalesce sponsorship of this idea that actually you can still be pro-technology but not have to be… have this addiction? And what is your view on it?
Arianna: Absolutely, obviously, we are all here to celebrate technology and Thrive Global is a technology company. I mean, we are also a media company and we do live workshops. But ultimately the way we’re scaling the company is by building this product. And I’m delighted to say that Yardley Pohl and Cheryl Porro are great leaders, our Head of Product and our CTO are here tonight. And also that I’m also very delighted to say that they’re both women.– And Somesh as you know, there was one board meeting when a certain board member said, Arianna, you should stop looking for women to lead the product and engineering. You have been presented with many great men – hire one of them. We are being delayed. And I said, I really want you to trust me. I do want to hire this find, which takes a little longer. They are there, but it does take a little longer. And I said I want to find them because actually, in the end, it’s going to help us grow. And it’s true. What’s happening now is that because they’re great women leaders, they are attracting other women engineers and designers, and product people faster than would happen otherwise. So Somesh thank you so much for supporting my decision to go a little more slowly then but ending up with two great women leaders. And so to answer your question about technology. We all see now that we have become increasingly addicted to our phones. And 2017 was the year of the great awakening. About how can we celebrate technology while at the same time learn to set certain boundaries in order to protect our humanity. So it’s not either or and actually in a sense, the products we’re building our technology in the service of helping us to occasionally disconnect from technology. So we launched the Thrive app, for example, that helps us put our phone in Thrive mode when let’s say we’re having dinner with our family and we don’t want to be interrupted. And then if somebody texts us, they get a text back that you are in Thrive mode until such and such a time. And also gives you a dashboard of your social media app and game consumption. And you can set limits if you want. We did that on Android because as you know, the Apple API is very closed. But Apple now launched Screen Time, which is very much everything we have on Android except for the Thrive mode. Which is another indication that even big tech companies are now recognizing the need to acknowledge that people need occasional breaks from their phones and from social media.
Somesh: Switching gears, just a little bit Arianna. You’ve also been involved in a couple of companies. Steve mentioned you’ve been on the board of Uber for a few years and you’ve seen at Uber some sense the price paid with these hectic cultures is…you know, is your sense that our industry, the technology industry, is progressing at the right place? Are we behind what we need to do or are we… are you optimistic that these lessons aren’t just gossip and fodder for media consumption, but actually things that founders are taking seriously and instituting into cultural norms? How do you view the impact of this?
Arianna: Oh, absolutely. I mean, actually, I met through you just to give this one example, Tim Junio, who is the co-founder and CEO of Qadium, a great cybersecurity startup and also a portfolio company of IVP. And Tim and I became friends, and we’ve been talking a lot about how can he have a sustainable startup that applies these principles? And he sent an e-mail to his entire team that we published on Thrive Global and I highly recommend it because it sums up what young founders like Tim are now beginning to do. As he put it you know, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We want us to build an amazing company. But we want to do it in a sustainable way. And it goes on like that. And I think that was missing at Uber. And Uber, obviously is a phenomenal growth story. But it was not done in a sustainable way. And in the end, the business was affected. That’s really why Uber was also a teachable moment. I mean, Uber had cultural values that included being always on. That was a cultural value. Working harder, smarter, longer. Working smarter and longer are not compatible. And then, of course, it had something which is still prevalent in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, which is the cult of the top performer. Like if you’re a top performer, everything is forgiven to you. And that spreads across the company because people see people at the top misbehaving and not being held accountable. And that makes the culture incredibly toxic. And at Thrive, we say that a company’s culture is the company’s immune system. If you don’t protect it, then the culture is not strong enough to withhold and to withstand, you know, that toxic human behavior. And when I gave my first speech at an Uber all hands after the crisis. I said that the board promises the employees that no brilliant jerks will be allowed in the future. So the theme of no brilliant jerks is something that companies need to embrace if they want to create a thriving culture.
Somesh: You’ve been obviously an amazing role model to so many young founders, executives in technology and media. I’m just curious, you know, you talked about your mother, who was I think you know, I’ve talked to you about this, your greatest role model. But were there other people along the way that kind of helped you find your path as role models, people that you still think about their advice in these times today?
Arianna: Yes, I must say that I’m- And, you know, Somesh, that’s one of the ways you and I first connected. I’m just a big student of ancient cultures. And we connected because you come from an amazing culture and the Greek culture isn’t too bad either. I went to India when I was 17 years old and studied comparative religion at Shandling and Carrington University outside Calcutta. And so I draw tremendous inspiration from ancient texts. Whether it’s the Bag Beragetta in India out or the Tao in China, or Zen philosophy in Japan. And to see the connections among these great cultures and how they are now validated by modern science is incredibly inspiring. And that’s why in our work at Thrive, we customize our offerings because we are a truly global company. As you know we don’t just call ourselves Thrive Global because we could buy the URL. And bringing back to Indians their own culture. Or back to China their own culture.It is an incredibly important part of how we can create the culture shift that we seek.
Somesh: My last question for you is, you know, you’re a second-time founder doing it again. A lot of learning for the first time. If you had to go back, there’s a lot of first time founders and executives in this room, and highlight…you know, the most important things to remember the first time you’re doing it. What would those be for those in the audience?
Arianna: It’s actually interesting because I met a second-time founder here who had a great exit, sold his company to the Ford Motor Company. I don’t know if that outs him or not. But he was telling me that he is doing it differently now. That the first time around he ended up having panic attacks, you know, as so many founders, you know, basically sacrificing their own health, well-being. But also what we now know, our own decision making is impaired. And so I’m definitely doing the founding of a company and growing a company and scaling a company very differently the second time. But also, I was lucky that I had my wake up call very early into the growth of Huff Post. So the rest of the time, which was the majority of my time at Huff Post, was spent very differently. And I’m so excited about the fact that we now have so much evidence that there is a better way to build and to create something amazing and to deal with uncharted territory. And we can learn from each other. And I really want to end by asking all of you who have stories to tell, other stories of burnout, a wake up calls, to share them on Thrive Global. Because what we have learned is that people are much more likely to change their minds and be convinced by stories than by data. So, on the Thrive media platform, we bring you every day the latest science on the subjects. We bring you ancient wisdom. But the thing that’s moving the needle, again and again, is stories of very successful people who are introducing these better, more effective, more scientifically based ways to work and live into their lives. And just to give you a couple of examples, when Jeff Bezos wrote that he gets eight hours of sleep a night because it improves his decision making, In fact, his headline was, Why am I getting eight hours of sleep is good for Amazon shareholders, and in his very analytical way, he wrote about when he doesn’t get all the sleep he needs, he said, my decisions are five to 20 percent less good. And the future of Amazon, he wrote, depends on the quality of my decisions, not the number of my decisions, and then tons of examples. I have to give you one more, if I may, from because we talked about the relation with technology. Phillip Schindler, the chief business officer at Google. He told me once, which is how often it happens. People tell me these things in social settings and then I text them until they write publicly. So he told me once, I had this amazing moment of an epiphany. I came back from a trip. I told my young children, dad is taking you to the playground. And my son says to me, Oh, no, can’t the babysitter take us? And he said, I was crestfallen. I asked why? And he said, because when you’re in the playground, you’re always on the phone. And he said, that is the moment when I realized I travel a lot. I work hard, when I’m with my children, I’m going to be with my children. And it had an amazing impact, starting with his own org and then around the world, because people need to basically be given permission to stop being afraid that if they occasionally take their foot off the accelerator, they’re not just suddenly going to be left behind. On the contrary. And that’s why it’s so exciting that we are in the middle of this transformation. And hearing from you, hearing from people in the arena can accelerate the transformation. And that’s why now we have 35,000 contributors on the Thrive media platform. It took me eleven years to get the number of contributors on The Huffington Post to 100,000. We are going to be two years old in November (2018) and we already have 35,000. So if you join that, we’ll get one hundred by the end of next year.
Somesh: In closing, I just want to say a personal thanks on behalf of IVP, for you to come out here and share your thoughts and enjoy your dinner, guys. Thank you, Arianna.
Arianna: Thank you.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to IVP’s Hyper-Growth Podcast. You can learn more about us on IVP.com or join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @IVP.