Career & Success , Entrepreneurship , Leadership & Management

Evan Reas: "Do The Most Impactful Thing Every Single Day."

The cofounder of mobile social app Circle discussed the high-impact life, and the value of strong mentors.

May 01, 2014

| by Erika Brown Ekiel

Evan Reas is the cofounder of Circle, a mobile social app that helps people know when their friends are nearby and acts as a local news network, updating users on activities and events. The app counts 12 million registered users, and Reas says millions of people actively use Circle each week. Reas graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2009. He spoke with us about living a high-impact life, stalking potential advisers and learning from imaginary mentors.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Connect people who are near each other.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Marc Andreessen, one of our investors, told me in our first meeting that I should choose to spectacularly succeed or spectacularly fail, but not allow myself to fall in the middle. In business, as in life, it is a helpful reminder to make sure you are aiming big. Shoot for the stars! I don’t let myself get upset about the small things, like a flat tire. I think, “What can I do that is powerful today?”

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

Some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with think differently than I do. My mistakes have been in not putting enough time or energy into understanding them. One of my mantras is: “Seek first to understand, then give your point of view.” I’m a very competitive person, and oftentimes I just want to win an argument. I am trying to let go of that and actively get to the best answer, versus trying to win.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Do the most impactful thing every single day. When you are running a business, there are always so many things to do, and you can get stuck on things that don’t matter. There are very few things that matter: product/market fit, great team, retention. It starts with identifying your goals. On a weekly basis, I think about the goals I want to achieve. From that I create action items. I constantly reassess. Each morning, I spend an hour thinking about the three most impactful tasks I can do that day. I compare them with my weekly goals. I keep them in a booklet in my pocket. I don’t go to bed until each of those three things are done. When I catch myself doing something else, I say “Why are you wasting your time?” and I switch gears. I schedule very few appointments. I do almost everything over email asymmetrically.

If there were one thing that has enabled you to be successful as an entrepreneur, what would it be?

It comes down to this: Are you going to give up or not? That is how I got my first investor, Scott Cook. He spoke at Stanford, and I emailed him afterward. I told him I would love to stay in touch. He never responded. I kept sending him updates on the company every month for the next seven months. At the bottom of each note, I said, “If I am annoying you, let me know and I’ll stop.” He never said to stop, so I kept going. Finally I said, “This thing we are working on is growing well, I’d love to see if you are interested in investing.” I shared some stats on our growth. He emailed me in five minutes. I have tons of stories like that. I will do whatever it takes. I think it’s my Wisconsin work ethic. When I was an undergrad, I went to a small village in Africa with a volunteer program. We needed to dig an 8-foot hole for a latrine. I was told it would take a week. I didn’t sleep for 26 hours, and then it was done. People would watch me digging and laugh.

How do you come up with your best ideas?

I have a set of people I go to for advice. One example is Ben Horowitz, an investor of ours. He is a phenom when it comes to management, leadership, and providing feedback. I read a lot of management books. I have advisers I have never met. I do visualization exercises. I imagine I am sitting with them: What would this person say to me right now? What advice would they give me? I got the idea from reading books by athletic coaches. They talk about the power of visualizing yourself winning a championship or a trophy. I thought, “What if I visualized the best mentors? What would our conversation be like?”

What is your greatest achievement?

I think I have figured out how to deliberately improve myself. It is a process of learning on a day-to-day basis. After we leave school, we forget how to learn. It starts with a specific goal — say, “I want to become one of the best recruiters in the world.” I look for the best teachers, the five best recruiters I can think of. If they are nearby, I will email them and tell them I want to learn from them. If they are not nearby, I read about their methods and set goals that are objective and measurable. For example, with recruiting, I might say I want every single person I email to come to the office or everyone I interview to say yes to an offer. I read everything from those experts and set specific objectives based on their advice. I have pretend sessions where I sit with them and they tell me how I did that week. I’m learning from the best.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

Any day when I didn’t get better over the previous day. There are urgent things, like taxes. You have to pay them, but while you are doing them, you are not getting better. I want to do things that are important but not urgent, like being great at recruiting or building a great product.

What values are important to you in business?

Persistence. Execution. Loyalty. Directness.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I want to touch as many people as possible and make their lives better than if I hadn’t been there. I have lots of ideas on how to do that. One way is by connecting people and making it easy for them to interact with each other.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I am unemployable. I don’t like rules. If I worked at a large company and my boss told me “I need X report” and I didn’t think it was important, I would say “That’s a waste of my time, and I’m not going to do it.” I see the world as it is, but then I like to pretend nothing is there. If this were totally new, what would it look like? If I started from scratch, what would I do? I try to think like this at least once a week with my company. That can ruffle feathers sometimes.

What was your first paying job?

I had a lot of little jobs as a kid. I mowed lawns and sold lemonade. I sold gems I mined in Montana. Every two months, I would get a new hobby. Then I would turn it into a business. When I was 14, I got interested in the stock market. I started with a fantasy account. After a while, I convinced my parents to let me invest $10,000 from their retirement accounts. A week later 9/11 happened, and I lost 80% of it in one day. I couldn’t breathe. Then I got disciplined. I said, “I’m sure there are undervalued stocks out there. I’ll find the best ones.” By the end of the year, I got it up to $11,000. I didn’t tell my parents what happened until I made it back. It was a great lesson in failure. You have to keep going.

Do you think there is such a thing as balance? How do you achieve balance in your life?

As humans, time and energy are the most important things we have. We can allocate them however we want. The more you can allocate toward something, the better you will get at that thing, and the faster it will happen. It also means you will degrade in everything else. People who have become the best in their fields sacrificed everything else. They had to always be thinking about it. You sacrifice mind space, too.

What is the best business book you have read?

They Call Me Coach, by John Wooden.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Phil Jackson, the former coach of the L.A. Lakers.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

Touchy Feely.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

The smartphone.

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