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9 Questions on honing your CEO craft with April Koh

SOAKED AT SLUSH 2021 – ARTICLE 3/10

April Koh is the Co-founder and CEO of Spring Health, a comprehensive mental health benefits platform for employers – and as it happens, also the youngest female unicorn founder in the world. 

Not only did April grace us with her presence on the Slush 2021 Founder Stage, but we also had a chance to chat with her afterwards. In the third instalment of the series, we took the opportunity to dive into how April got to where she is, and what she’s learned on the way. 

 

#1: What’s one habit without which you wouldn’t be here today?

Writing memos. It’s one of my strengths that I’ve used to my benefit both professionally and personally.

On the personal side, I do a lot of reflection through lists like ‘what I learned in my 20s’ or ‘hires I made a mistake with and why’.

On the business side, for every major irreversible decision, I’ll sit down and force myself to write out my logic. It’s helped me communicate more clearly and rigorously.

 

#2: In your early 20s, what should you have spent significantly more time on?

Firstly, having conversations with people I admire. I’m an introvert. Socialising drains me, so I choose my interactions scarcely. As such, I didn’t purposely seek out any of those people, which, in hindsight, was terrible.

Secondly, cultivating EQ. My entire life I’d been oriented on being the smartest – that’s always been my MO. Looking back, I think IQ barely matters when it comes to founding a successful company, whereas EQ is critical.

 

#3: What important thing are you better at than the vast majority of founders?

Having the discipline to do what I need to do. I’m very honest with myself about what needs to be done and very good at prioritizing it. It helps me make hard decisions, resolve conflict, and resolve ambiguity. It also ensures I get through tasks that feel boring, tedious or laborious.

This is a trait that is undervalued among CEOs. A lot of founders are very focused on being visionary and charismatic, when what actually matters is setting the tempo of the company and holding people accountable to their commitments.

 

#4: What important traits have you had to cultivate?

Verbal communication, both 1-on-1 and in public forums. Before Spring Health, I had never talked a lot because it’s not my natural element. I don’t like processing thoughts verbally. Starting out as a CEO, I struggled to express myself coherently and fluidly. After some time, it became a lot more natural. These days, I would say I’m very good at speaking because it’s literally what my entire days are filled with.

Seeing the glass half full. Frank Slootman of Snowflake once said: “terror is a normal state for a CEO at all times”. I’m very much like that. My whole life, I’ve been fuelled by paranoia and fear. I have a tendency to be very critical of myself and everything around me.

When leading a company, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we should be paranoid about the state of mental healthcare today. A healthy level of paranoia allows us to improve all the time, approach our work with a sense of urgency, and address important problems early on. On the other hand, most people are not motivated by paranoia. Rather, they need a very clear articulation of where we’re headed; a North Star. Over time, I’ve had to build discipline around celebrating positives and approaching the future with a certain optimism.

 

#5: What do founders spend too much time on early on?

PR – this is an easy one, and a mistake that we made. When you don’t yet have a real business, no one cares, and you should just focus on execution. I look at back at some of the PR I did when we just had an MVP and think that it was not the best use of our time.

Job titles – Early on, you should only have titles to the extent that they signal what people do. VP this or SVP this is artificial and meaningless at 10 people.

Office decor, swag, and business cards. None of that stuff matters in the beginning, it’s just a waste of time and resources. Many founders buy this stuff to ‘feel cool’ versus work on their business and things that move the needle.

 

#6: How do you proceed when there are no good answers?

I don’t. Instead, I’ll make sure we uncover a good answer.

First, I try to understand why there are none. Are the available answers genuinely bad, or do they just feel painful? Humans are inherently averse to pain. A lot of founder CEOs fail because they avoid pain and therefore avoid making the right decision. If something feels painful, it’s a great signal that I should force myself to confront it.

On the other hand, if there truly aren’t any good answers, that’s cause to look deeper. What happens quite a bit is we’ll be brainstorming big bold bets for the company for the next year. My team will generate a list and nothing will feel fundamentally innovative. Those are moments in which I push back and ask them to generate more.

 

#7: How do you judge which decisions to make yourself?

First of all, Jeff Bezos’ framework for reversible and irreversible decisions is a great starting point.

Within it, I try to limit the things that I decide on to three categories: strategy, mission and values. Those three are non-negotiable. Anything else I’ll delegate.

To give you an example, individual compensation decisions are pretty straightforward so I should delegate them, and I have. However, the framework within which that is done needs to be approved by me because I need it to be aligned with our strategy and values.

 

#8: When you need your whole company to understand something, how do you communicate it?

In every single medium, because people have very different preferences when it comes to communication. Some people need to hear stuff said out loud in all-hands, some internalize things best in 1-on-1s, and others are very visual learners. When something is very important, we really try to go through the list of possible media and utilize every single one.

For me, communicating and receiving things in writing comes very naturally, and it took me very long to understand that most people won’t read long memos. That said, memos are very good for:

  1. Historical documentation
  2. Clarifying your own thinking
  3. Helping a group pick apart arguments and make better decisions

However, as a medium for announcements or communication, memos are the worst possible option. I would opt for powerpoint presentations — both live and recorded and shared on Slack.

 

#9: What separates truly exceptional founders from good founders?

From my vantage point, some non-negotiable characteristics of an exceptional founder are:

  • Self-awareness and low ego – exceptional CEOs put the mission and team before themselves. CEOs who are obsessed with themselves or the role of “CEO” are a recipe for disaster.
  • Long-term thinking – exceptional founders actively push themselves to build foundations that are going to outlive them. That’s a prerequisite for creating a company that is going to last for 100 years.
  • An ability to endure pain – exceptional founders run towards hard decisions and pain, rather than avoiding them.
  • Kindness – the best founders tend to be incredibly humane and kind.
  • Exceptional communication – founders that communicate exceptionally well and spend 75% of their time on internal communications are very successful.

In some sense, an exceptional founder exhibits a balance of all the individual characteristics that make good founders good.

However, I’m still trying to figure this out. My story is not done, so I’m not sure I’m fully qualified to answer.

Personal Mental Health at Scale

April Koh (Spring Health) & PJ Pärson (Northzone)