Robert Sweeney on the Hard Lessons Learned from Launching Startups
One of the things I appreciate about Netflix is that when I’m watching The Queen’s Gambit or some other series, I don’t have to search for the next episode. It starts automatically.
Robert Sweeney is the guy who built that feature for Netflix. A recent visitor to our podcast, Robert left Netflix in 2012 to become something of a serial tech founder. He’s launched three companies: Attack Pattern, a software-development company; Numetric, an SaaS analytics firm; and most recently Facet, a technical-recruiting operation.
We talked about some of the hard lessons he has learned along the way, starting with perhaps the hardest one of all: getting fired from your own startup (Numetric). The reason? In part, because he had embraced the Silicon Valley ethos of working around the clock in hopes of a big payoff.
“I was very vocal about how, ‘You’re going to be working 70 to 80 hours a week.’ It was very taxing on people. And it was very taxing on me. But I felt justified, thinking things like, ‘It’s OK that I’m missing my daughter’s violin concert because I’m on a mission.’”
Then one day he was called into a meeting with the board and was handed a termination letter.
“I’d put a bunch of my own money in, didn’t take a salary for three years,” Robert told me. “The money I can accept. What I can’t accept is that I gave up on those moments with my kids and with my wife. You can’t get those back.”
He has transferred that lesson to his work on Facet. Of those 80-hour workweeks, now he says, “You might get more done, but is it really worth it? For me, it’s not. Even if it’s the difference between success and failure in a startup. It’s not worth it.”
As for Facet itself, Robert’s goal is to build a talent-sourcing company that finds those so-called “passive” job seekers who are not actively looking for a new gig but who would be open to great opportunities.
“When I was at Netflix and Microsoft, I would get contacted about these low-paying jobs —just recruiter spam,” he says. “At Facet, we’re kind of like a Bumble for jobs.”
With Facet, people who might be interested in new jobs can specify the position, salary, and even company size, and they’re matched with jobs. No recruiters—it’s all private. Moreover, companies must be transparent about their interview process, salary levels, and anything else a would-be employee wants to know.
I asked Robert if he thought AI could help with recruiting. It has had a checkered history in that realm: Amazon famously developed a recruiting algorithm that excluded women, a project the company later scrapped. But Robert still sees potential. “AI can help identify signals about a person’s ability,” he says. “Intelligence is important, but you need to give an AI model more. Things like being agreeable, having integrity, whether a person is an extrovert or introvert. Because the ideal candidate is not an intelligence score. What’s ideal varies depending on the team makeup.”
COVID-19 has thrown another wrinkle into recruiting and hiring, Robert says. By his estimate, the number of companies open to remote work has tripled during the pandemic, a figure that is not apt to change. “There may be some pullback in the future, but there are strong benefits to this approach,” he says. “You can put people who are highly skilled in places where the cost of living is lower and see some savings. Plus, there is no commute, so people are more productive.”
For Robert, the pandemic also has made him reflect on his life and career. He lost a sister to COVID-19, which has led him to focus even more on his personal life and family. Some of his thoughts can be found in a regular blog he writes and in LinkedIn posts. He touches on everything from unlimited vacation time (“a scam”) to job-hunting tips (“If you are currently unemployed, just put ‘Co-founder – Stealth mode startup’ on your LinkedIn profile. It’s basically the same thing”). One recent post hit one million views.
Work is changing as the ground shifts due to economics, disease, technology. Plus, as this tech entrepreneur has found, it’s worth thinking hard about one’s priorities. That could lead to a more humane workplace.