Sarah Tavel

Sarah Tavel (@SarahTavel) was on the Product Hunt Podcast with Erik Torenberg (@ErikTorenberg) to talk about products, Pinterest, and personalized venture capital. Tavel spoke widely and sharply about a host of start-up and series A investments and any entrepreneur would be better off listening.



1- How Hobbits explain Pinterest’s success.

In the story Lord of the Rings, it falls to a hobbit, who wants to do nothing more than eat, garden, and eat some more, to destroy the most powerful ring of all. Hobbits weren’t as strong as man or sharp as elves. They didn’t have the gumption of dwarves or desires of orcs. They were different – and because they were different only a hobbit could destroy the ring.

VC’s would do well to be more like hobbits,Tavel was.

At Bessemer, she led the series A round in Pinterest (when there were 5 employees). How did you see something other people didn’t Torenberg asks.

“When there are a lot of the same people looking at companies,” Tavel said, “they come to the same conclusion.”

Or, “maybe it wasn’t hyped in the valley because the valley wasn’t the core user,” Tavel added.  

Or, it could have been her experience working with or because she was a woman, or any host of other reasons. The only definitive conclusion was that Tavel thought different.


No one could have predicted the success of Pinterest – or any startup unicorn. The only thing a person can do is be prepared to spot one. Tavel did the work to be prepared.

Casey Neistat mentioned the same thing the day before his snowboarding through Time Square video exploded online (12M views). The day before he made it, Neistat said (5:10):

“They’re forecasting one of the worst storms ever to hit New York City, should that happen I want to be positioned to make an awesome New York City blizzard movie. If there’s enough snow to make the movie, there’s too much snow to do any prep. I’m primitively organizing all of those logistics now so if I wake up and there’s 10 inches of snow I’m ready to go.”

Chris Hadfield followed the I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll prepare like crazy path too.

So how do you prepare? You build career capital.


2- Career capital, it can start by selling ads on whiteboards.

This blog is like a broken record of praise toward Cal Newport’s idea of career capital, but it comes up so much the point has to be continually hammered home. Sophia Amoruso built it via eBay, photograpy, and vintage clothes. Brian Koppelman and David Levien built it via Rounders, Oceans 13, and their other movies (and cashed some in to make Bilions). B.J. Novak built it via The Harvard Lampoon, Raising Dad, and 18 months of stand-up.

Tavel created career capital too. Even though she “stupidly tried to negotiative my title” at Pinterest she was a utility player. If something needed done she did it. “Before I knew it,” Tavel said, “I became a product manager.”

This do anything that needs done attitude built up a toolbox of skills and got her promoted at Pinterest. Tavel explained that she got hired for jobs within the company only because she was in the company. If she had applied as an outsider they would have turned her away. Being there and showing people she could do the work was the most important thing.

Sophia Amoruso writes about this in her book #Girlboss:

“You want to know what four words I probably hate the most? “That’s not my job.” Nasty Gal is not a place where these four words fly. At the end of the day, we’re all here for one reason and one reason only—to make the company succeed—and there will undoubtedly be a day (perhaps every day) when you will have to roll up your sleeves and dive in where you’re needed. When a company is growing quickly, there will be times when there are holes—there is a job that needs to be done, and there is no one there to do it.”

That’s what Tavel did, and “before I knew it, I became a product manager,” she told Torenberg.

Tavel’s career capital looked like this; sales and cold calling skills (from being in college and selling advertisements), product manager skills (shepherding internal projects at Pinterest), and technology (“(I) learned whatever I needed to learn about technology even though it wasn’t part of any of my experiences”).

Okay, that sounds like a lot. It is, but there’s a silver lining, you don’t have to be great, just valuable.


3- You don’t need to be great, but you do need to be valuable.

Tavel is undoubtedly very skilled. She’s a Harvard graduate. Has a LinkedIn profile employers would salivate over.

But, she’s not world class in any one thing. BUT, her combination of good skills is world class. To succeed in business you want to be more like the decathlete than the sprinter. You want to be valuable because of your mix of skills.

This idea was first introduce to me in Scott Adams’s book, How to Fail at Almost Everything an Still Win Big:

“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.”

Tavel did good work at Pinterest, but one day Greylock Partners approached her asking if she wanted to get lunch. Lunch led to a job offer and she left Pinterest. The option only came though because of Tavel’s diversity of skills. She knew consumer product. She knew about investments. “I was one of the rare people,” Tavel said, “that checked all the boxes.” She was a world class business decathlete.


4- Have the right KPI.

One part of the interview that Tavel and Torenberg don’t spend enough time on – for me at least – was the idea of Key Performance Indicators. Tavel touches on it twice:

Once she gave advice to people who want to join a startup and advised that people want to look at the trend of the company and industry and user growth rates to see if they were really joining a rocket ship.

The other was with her investment philosophy. Tavel said she wants to do investments where she’s the first one a founder thinks to call. If that’s not the case, then she probably doesn’t need to invest because she’s not going to add value.

Both Chris Sacca (“I only get invovled in deals I can personally make an impact”) and Mark Cuban mentioned this first person to call mindset and share it on the Shark Tank television show.


5- Everyone needs a default ‘No’

A default no is a good tool for avoiding bad decisions. Mellody Hobson said their investment default choice is no. “Scouting’s not about finding players,” Michael Lombardi said, “scouting’s about elminating players.”

Charlie Munger said, “we have three baskets; in, out, and too tough… we have to have a special insight, or we’ll put it in the ‘too tough’ basket.” Billionaire Seymour schulich wrote, “the path to superior results is to accept only the best ideas.” You guessed it, Tavel had a default ‘No’ as well, hers was about work.

When she was at Pinterest, Tavel said she had a default ‘No’ when people asked if she wanted to leave. It wasn’t until she met with the people at Greylock that she changed her mind. She also advised people who are thinking about leaving their jobs to have a default ‘No’. “Don’t leave just because you think you should,” Tavel said. Rather, keep a no I won’t leave my job mindset until something good comes along.


6- Be there – wherever there is for you.

When asked where a start-up should be, Tavel said they should be in Silicon Valley. Or, if they were a financial tech company in New York. The key is to be where you need to be.

The story of Samuel Zemurray is told in the – wonderful – book, The Fish That Ate the Whale. The book describes Zemurray’s life going from a Russian immigrant with a single cart of bruised bananas to one day becoming the owner of the largest banana importer in the United States.

Throughout his career Zemurray was on the boats from New Orleans to Hondros. He supervised the work on  plantations. He dug ditches. He did the work. While his competitor – United Fruit – was in Boston making plans, Zemurray was on the ground doing things. “They’re there, we’re here,” was his rallying cry.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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