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Startup leadership wisdom: From “hands-on humility” to trusting your gut

Veteran investor Sujal Patel, co-founder and CEO of Nautilus Biotechnology, helps us sift golden nuggets from the loose shale of entrepreneurship.
Illustration of a smiling bald man in a suit with a purple complexion against an orange background with ribbon-like shapes.
Credit: Claire Merchlinsky
Key Takeaways
  • Sujal Patel sold Isilon Systems for $2.25 billion and has backed more than 85 startups.
  • Here, Patel discusses the “most common mistake” made by startup leaders — and how to avoid it.
  • He also explores the importance of a leader’s internal compass, and the art of storytelling.

Sujal Patel is the co-founder and CEO of Nautilus Biotechnology, a life sciences company on a mission to properly understand proteins. Unpacking the devilishly complex proteome carries the golden promise of a revolution in drug development, and demands a synthesis of vision, leadership, and entrepreneurial courage that Patel is uniquely placed to deliver.

His track record is impressive: In 2001 he founded data storage company Isilon Systems, which was sold after little more than a decade to EMC (since acquired by Dell) for $2.25 billion. He is no stranger to investment, having backed upward of 85 startups, and is a strategic director at Madrona Venture Group. He also holds a generous fistful of patents.

All told, Patel has amassed such a wealth of technical and startup wisdom that Big Think Business jumped at the chance to quiz him on leadership, innovation, the importance of instincts, and more. Read on to find out the most common mistake he has seen startup leaders make, and the most overrated piece of advice CEOs are given.

Big Think: What aspects of your background and education best prepared you for success in the startup world?

Patel: Nothing can really, truly prepare you to face the challenges of being a startup founder/CEO. Quite simply, the learning and the experience comes from the doing. That said, while my education at the University of Maryland College Park — I took every entrepreneurship and computer science class I could — was formative, my dad encouraging me to be an entrepreneur was really what lit the spark. 

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After that, it was all about the experience and the doing. You have to go and find people who’ve been through the journey. You have to consume as much information as you can. You have to put on your critical thinking hat and you have to work your butt off. It doesn’t matter what business: Every experience is new. So be open to learning and just plunge in and do it.

Big Think: Which core leadership qualities are essential in the startup environment?

Patel: Nothing ever — EVER — goes according to plan. You have to be, to a fault, an eternal optimist and keep pounding away and persevering through every challenge in front of you and the business. Everything can be solved: You just have to keep trying.

A great example was our Series B fundraising efforts, which began in early 2020, just before the pandemic really began to take hold. It very quickly became clear that raising $50 million was going to be a real challenge in that environment, no matter how compelling our story. But we started down the road of getting commitments which included meeting with one of our existing investors and participating in their first ever Zoom pitch. Naturally, it didn’t go well: Those days everyone was in a bad mood sitting in their living room with their dogs barking.

Nothing ever — EVER — goes according to plan. You have to be, to a fault, an eternal optimist and keep pounding away and persevering through every challenge in front of you and the business.

At that moment, it felt like the world was crumbling down around us and the clock was ticking to get to that $50 million goal. Instead of letting ourselves get discouraged, we rolled up our sleeves, pounded the pavement, and met with every investor we could. Thanks to our significant perseverance we raised over $75 million in an oversubscribed round.

Big Think: How do you deal with the challenges of managing multi-faceted teams?

Patel: Like most businesses, Nautilus requires a very wide range of talent to be successful — everyone from PhD scientists to accountants to marketers — all of whom think about their work in very different ways. Some see their job as a stepping stone, some are looking to build long-term stability, and for some of the younger people on our team, they have not yet figured out what makes them tick.

So, one of the biggest challenges in this job is figuring out how to motivate such a wide variety of people. How do you set goals for them when each of them [is] at very different places in their individual work journey? And, to be honest, these are challenges that can never really be “overcome.” As a CEO the best you can do is manage the ever-changing dynamics of the workplace and listen to your gut. I try to do that by staying very close to the organization, setting clear goals for teams, and providing constant support and feedback. 

Big Think: What’s a common mistake you have seen made by startup leaders, and what steps can be taken to avoid it?

Patel: The most common mistake is not paying enough attention to product-market fit: TRUE product-market fit. I see this in companies I’ve led, companies I invest in, and startup pitches that come at me. I see it on Shark Tank

Product-market fit, first and foremost, is what you read in every book — here’s the market, here’s the product, and here’s why it’s better than what’s already there, which means we’ve got product-market fit, right? No, that’s about 5% of the equation. You need to ask, is it better ENOUGH? 

The most common mistake is not paying enough attention to product-market fit: TRUE product-market fit.

Is it going to force somebody to move from where they are today, where there’s already inertia? That inertia against change is so great that you must be relentless in your analysis. Are you going to be able to reach that customer in a cost-effective way? Is there enough gross profit in what you do to pay for that? Is there a way for you to then go and sell that customer something else that will provide a steady revenue stream? Looking at this holistically is the only way to say, hey, I have a real business here.

Big Think: You described yourself as the “janitor” at Nautilus in the early days. Why is it important for leaders to promote this startup virtue of “hands-on humility”?

Patel: Well, so it’s important for two reasons. Reason number one is, of course, that you expect every person in the organization will do anything necessary to make the company successful. For that mindset to take root, you as a leader of that team have to model that behavior. 

Secondly, as a startup CEO, you have a fixed number of dollars available to you. In the early days, through good times and bad, it doesn’t make business sense to hire, for example, an IT person and a marketing person. Whatever needs to be done, you tackle it. It’s your responsibility to take care of every job until it can be done better by someone else — then you can go and hire. 

A man in a suit speaks into a microphone while holding a glass of champagne.
“One of the very core skills of a CEO is being able to tell stories effectively.” Sujal Patel, CEO Nautilus Biotechnology

Big Think: You have spoken about the value of storytelling — how can startup leaders finesse their storytelling skills?

Patel: One of the very core skills of a CEO is being able to tell stories effectively. It is about crafting a vision and a story that will be compelling for investors, that will appeal to press and analysts, and that will get customers engaged and excited about what you’re doing. 

There are a few key aspects to this storytelling. Number one is that you have to have complete mastery of all of the information that you are presenting — every last bit of it. This doesn’t mean simply memorizing a canned presentation. You want to be fast on your feet when you’re adapting the story to the particular audience that is in front of you. Job number two is to have done enough repetition of that story that it’s really muscle memory. That means lots of practice pitches in front of the mirror, in front of your colleagues, then in front of your audience.

Job number three is to have the humility to get help. There are a lot of tricks in terms of presentation, where to take pauses, how to modulate your voice, what to not say, how to pace yourself appropriately, how to use pace to your advantage. To become skilled at these techniques, there are resources and professionals you can work with to help master them. Lastly, be able to shape your story with context that is relevant to your audience. Speaking with an investor audience is very different from speaking to a prospective customer. 

Big Think: What is the most overrated piece of advice leaders are given?

Patel: CEOs and senior leaders are too often told to focus on the details or to “sweat the small stuff.” Do you need to have a grasp on the details of your business? Of course, but it’s possible to get too deep in the weeds. As a CEO or senior leader, it’s critical that you focus on the big picture. 

By focusing so intently on the small challenges, leaders can wind up overlooking more crucial issues. For example, do I have the right leaders in the organization? Are they set up with the right goals and strategy? Do we have the right structure so that I can give them the rope they need to execute and learn? 

Do you need to have a grasp on the details of your business? Of course, but it’s possible to get too deep in the weeds.

More importantly, by overly focusing on the small stuff you also run the risk of not dedicating enough time to the issues that you as the leader are uniquely equipped to address. There’s a huge opportunity cost to going in and micromanaging too much.

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Big Think: If you could impart one nugget of leadership wisdom to Big Think readers, what would that be?

Patel: There’s a phrase that has always guided me and my actions: “Trust your instincts.” As a leader, there are so many ways to get pulled in different directions, whether by competing interests, or by what seems like the right thing to do in the moment. The only thing you have to guide you in those moments is your own internal compass: the thing that made you a founder/CEO/leader in the first place.

Having faith in your instincts does not, however, mean you don’t take counsel or consider alternative points of view. Quite the contrary. But being flexible and inclusive in your style and approach doesn’t mean you have to lose who you are as a person. Good leaders are clear about their values and consistent in the way they adhere to and manifest them.

Trust your gut, rely on your own counsel, and, above all, act in a way that you know in your heart and in your mind [is] maximally beneficial for the business you are entrusted to run.

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