Skip to content

Tech leadership reinvented: “Move fast and break ignorance”

Joe Betts-LaCroix — co-founder and CEO of Retro Biosciences — talks to Big Think about invention, authenticity, and Sam Altman’s “art of the startup.”
Illustration of a smiling bald man with a leadership hack, wearing a dark zip-up jacket against a yellow background with abstract green and blue waves.

Credit: Claire Merchlinsky

Key Takeaways
  • A crucial aspect of good leadership is “matching people with the challenges that fit them.”
  • Aspiring CEOs should use “actual values and desires” to drive startup selection.
  • Slowness incurs costs but speed is inspiring and progress energizes us.

Joe Betts-LaCroix is co-founder and CEO of longevity tech company Retro Biosciences. Under his leadership, and backed to the tune of $180 million by Sam Altman, Retro built its laboratories, at a fraction of the usual cost, from re-fitted shipping containers. The company mission is to “increase healthy human lifespan by ten years […] by focusing on the cellular drivers of aging.” 

Raised by countercultural parents in Oregon — and educated at Harvard, MIT, and Caltech — Betts-LaCroix counts invention and experimentation among his lifelong companions. His previous ventures include computer hardware startup, OQO, which created the world’s smallest Windows device (a Guinness World Record in 2006) and was sold to Google; and medical research automator, Vium, acquired by Recursion Pharma in 2020. He has been a part-time partner at the accelerator Y Combinator and has invested in numerous startups.

Try Big Think+ for your business
Engaging content on the skills that matter, taught by world-class experts.

Today, at 62, he embodies an approach to work that seeks solutions at speed — and his business philosophy is built on ideas and principles that would benefit any leader, in any industry. 

In true “smarter, faster” spirit, Big Think asked Betts-LaCroix about role models, startup culture, his implanted ID chip, and more. His fascinating and insightful responses include our favorite hacked business maxim of the year so far: “Move fast and break ignorance.”

Big Think: How did your Oregon childhood of tinkering and curiosity shape your current leadership philosophy?

Betts-LaCroix: Curiosity comes from within: My models for leadership (my parents) didn’t force interests on me. I love what I do because it’s authentic to me, and that makes me productive, so I find that people who are doing their work because they love it are a good fit. It’s a quality I select for. To me, leadership is matching people with the challenges that fit them, as well as what excites them, and what they need for that next challenge.

Big Think: Mentorship is a great way to pass on your experience to new waves of startups. What are some of the discoveries about leadership you try to impress on startup neophytes?

Betts-LaCroix: Trust yourself. You become a followable leader by being true to your instincts. People can smell inauthenticity; if you try to be someone you are not, you become bland or worse. Don’t let the conservatism of the world shrink your ambitions. Choose a startup that aligns with your actual values and desires, and that alignment will drive everything: fundraising, recruiting, partnering, and most of all, yourself, during all the intense doubts and challenges you will inevitably face.

Trust yourself. You become a followable leader by being true to your instincts.

Big Think: What are some of the leadership techniques and practices you use to encourage innovation at Retro?

Betts-LaCroix: For one, I avoid the use of the word “innovation” — I pretty much only hear it used by companies I classify as “dead players.” People will immediately dismiss a culture tenet the CEO doesn’t exemplify. So I invent constantly and openly: I normalize it. I rarely take “it’s not typically done this way” as an answer if that means we have to go slowly; there’s almost always a way. Sometimes there isn’t, but it’s the optimistic sense that there probably is that means I find one 90% of the time.

Big Think: You have an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip implanted in your hand? What are the advantages of this enhancement and what does it tell your team about your approach to leadership?

Betts-LaCroix: I never have to worry about forgetting my key fob to the building. I don’t have a strong key habit because I don’t own a car (it’s more efficient to take Lyft because I can get work done on the way). But the main reason I like my chip is that it’s fast: I don’t have to fish a fob out of my pocket or attach one to myself every day. I also like the feeling of connecting my body with the company. 

I’m a participant in our autophagy (cellular recycling) phase-0 trial. I give blood immediately when scientists need it for a study. I’ve never understood the idea of “work” because I’ve always followed the maxim: pursue projects I love. So for me there is no separation between work and life, and the phrase “work-life balance” is like a typo; it’s semantically invalid. So it’s natural for me to merge with the project.

A man sitting on a metal box.
Joe Betts-LaCroix at the Retro Biosciences lab in Redwood City, CA.

Big Think: Recruitment can make (or break) companies. How have you positioned Retro’s company culture to make sure you’re successful in this regard?

Betts-LaCroix: Extremely capable people love to build what matters, so the first criterion is to choose a mission that matters: a really challenging one. Another is to give people room to run. Authoritarian cultures destroy creativity. I trust people a lot. I have a positive view of human nature, and mostly that works well for me. Sometimes I’m extremely disappointed, and experience painful exceptions [to my default positivity], but they pass — and statistically, they are indeed exceptions. Believing in people helps them believe in themselves.

Big Think: Which leadership virtues will be the most effective and valuable in navigating the decade of accelerating technologies that lies ahead of us?

Betts-LaCroix: Valorizing rate of learning over amount of knowledge. Information gets outmoded faster and faster, so to thrive in the coming times, we must get really good at adapting and learning, not resting on our stale knowledge base of ten years ago. So I look for people to hire who’ve mastered several new things over a short period of time, and promote people who learn quickly.

Big Think: Is it time to rethink the accepted wisdom of tech leadership? Does “move fast and break things” still hold as a practical mantra?

Betts-LaCroix: Speed is everything. My job is to maximize the probability of mission success given limited resources. Slowness incurs costs: salaries, rent, and everyone’s patience. Conversely, speed is inspiring. Progress energizes us, and attracts even more talented team members, which further increases progress, which drives acceleration. 

Subscribe for a weekly email

People confuse fast with sloppy, but we expect more of ourselves. On a two-dimensional chart of fast and accurate, I expect us to be in the upper right quadrant. Fast means knowing you are vastly ignorant and have the self-confidence to find out why: Don’t hesitate to devise a rapid experiment to see if your hypothesis is wrong. So yes, I think we should move fast and break ignorance. I celebrate iteration. An experiment that disproves your hypothesis rapidly is considered a success here.

For me there is no separation between work and life, and the phrase “work-life balance” is like a typo; it’s semantically invalid.

Big Think: Over the course of your life and career so far, which leaders have you most admired and why?

Betts-LaCroix: When I was a kid, it was Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller (whom I got to see lecture in Oregon) and Nikola Tesla. Later, I was in awe of my advisor at Harvard, because, not only was his mind a paradise to play in, but also it was amazing how he remade his world: the prodigy sent out by his fundamentalist community to disprove this “ghastly theory” of continental drift, only to realize how beautifully true it was — then devote his life to being a world leader of elucidating other such truths. 

Jory Bell, the co-founder of my first venture funded company, OQO, was inspiring to me because he taught me that I can have an aesthetic point of view about machines. I knew that dogwood trees in the spring, and Käthe Kollwitz paintings, were beautiful — not until meeting Jory did I appreciate that some machines were also beautiful, especially when the focus is on their function, not on decoration. But I didn’t really have any inspiring models after that until I met Sam Altman, which was a long gap.

Big Think: Altman’s backing of Retro has caught the eye. How has his involvement inspired your leadership and vision?

Betts-LaCroix: Sam has been a shockingly positive influence on me as a leader and on the company culture. At first I wondered, why is this Sam guy concerning himself with the art of the startup so much? Then I realized that startup is the lever that drives all inspiring change. I love learning to do hard things that enable exciting outcomes, and startup culture is the key: it became legitimately interesting and then intensely empowering once I realized it could (and should) be authentic, which means I can bring my whole self to the task (including my body, lol). I don’t get judgement from Sam, just constructive ideas: “Have you considered ‘X’? Here’s a practice you could try.” There’s zero learned helplessness.

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo