Switching from a hyper-growth company to a lifestyle business

Published on
April 18th, 2022
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Alex MacCaw, founder of Clearbit, talks about running a hyper-growth start-up, making the switch from a VC-backed company to a lifestyle business, managing people, and working remotely on a sailboat.
After stepping down from running Clearbit day-to-day, Alex started working on Reflect, which he recently launched with the Product Hunt community, reaching #1 Product of the Day and Week.
This week, we interviewed him as part of a rapid-fire AMA on Twitter, and today we’re diving deeper into how he got here, what Reflect is, and what made him decide to work on it.
Good to see you back on Product Hunt with a new launch. For those who haven’t followed Clearbit’s journey, give us a brief introduction of who you are and what you’ve worked on.
Hello 👋. I’m a British founder although these days my accent resides somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
I’ve created a few companies, most recently a note-taking company called Reflect. And before that, a B2B data company called Clearbit.
I’ve also done a fair amount of open-source work, and have written some books on engineering and management.
Lastly, I live on a sailing boat and am currently pottering around the Windward Islands in the Caribbean.
Tell us a bit more about Reflect.
Here’s the issue: every day we’re inundated with more and more information. Meetings, zoom-calls, todos, notes… it’s an endless onslaught. So we turn to computers to help us manage all this data. But the tools we have just aren’t adequate.
This is a problem we all face, but I became acutely aware of it running my previous company Clearbit. My note-taking system was sporadic. Sometimes I’d stick it in Apple Notes, some Google Docs. I’d have a separate todo system, a separate bookmarking system… it was all very disjointed.
So that’s why I decided to create Reflect.
Reflect is, at its core, a note-taking tool. However, with a bit of a twist. Key concepts in your notes can be linked to each other (we call this backlinking). This mirrors the way your memory works through association. It means that when you’ve built up your notes in Reflect you can use us as an instant memory recall tool.
We’ve also integrated a lot of your favorite products (GCal, Kindle, Chrome). Adding your meetings, contacts, and books, are all a few clicks.
I've been hacking on Reflect with a small team for the last year. We’re finally ready to release it.
And what made you want to make the switch from running a VC-backed company to working on Reflect?
Great question! I've written quite publicly about this but it was essentially a matter of skillset. My skills and passion lie in the zero-to-one part of company building. There are much better people than me to scale up companies.
The note-taking space is a crowded one. What makes Reflect stand out? And how do you view competition?
It sure is! There are so many tools because everyone's mind works slightly differently. I encourage people to try a few and see which works for them. If you want to know what we stand for, check out our values. Everything we do is based off them.
Let me quickly elaborate. Our values are: Speed, Security, Reliability, and Less is more. Speed and Security - sounds obvious, right? But so many apps are bloated and slow. And so many have fundamental security issues. There’s nothing more personal than your notes, so there’s only one answer to securing them: end-to-end encryption.
Reliability - also sounds like an obvious value for a note-taking app, or indeed any SaaS app. But it has lots of ramifications. Not only do we have to have rock-solid uptime, but we have to make sure the business has ‘uptime’ too! We need to make sure we grow sustainably so we’re around for as long as possible.
And what surprised you most about switching from a larger / venture-backed business to a lifestyle one?
Honestly how well the switch went. I had so much fear around resigning. We ended up finding a brilliant replacement, Ross Moser, who has done a much better job than I would have done.
Venture is great for businesses where you need to grow-grow-grow. Maybe you’re trying to capture a market before the competition. Or perhaps you have to make lots of upfront investments. Certainly, it was the right decision for Clearbit.
But other businesses shouldn’t raise venture. A personal note-taking tool should be bootstrapped in my opinion. Or maybe just raise a crowdfunding round from customers. If you take venture money for a business that shouldn’t raise, you’re inviting disaster. Investors (and employees) will push for more and more growth. Eventually, you’ll flame out, get sold (if you’re lucky), and shut down.
What's one thing you're doing with Reflect now that you wish you'd have done while working on Clearbit?
Hmm, this is a hard one. Tactically I wish I'd hired a CFO at Clearbit earlier. They're worth their weight in gold. From a technical perspective, I wish we'd used TypeScript and a managed DB. That would have helped with scaling.
But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Reflect is a very different business than Clearbit, and therefore is run very differently.
So you now live on a boat. Tell us more about that. What is it like? What do your days look like?
So living on a boat is full of both mundane and glorious moments. Yesterday I was deep in the bilges fixing our desalinating water-maker. But then later that day I watched the sunset, beer in hand.
The thing I like about sailing is a combination of freedom, travel, and problem-solving. You have to be very self-sufficient. Often you’re miles away from anyone who can help, so you’ve got to solve problems yourself. Your auto-pilot has conked out. Your fan belt is making a weird noise. A sail just ripped. You’ve got to figure it out.
As someone who’s spent their life in the realm of bits and bytes, working with atoms is a refreshing change.
You've written extensively on management. What's your biggest advice for those managing people, particularly from your own learnings?
Don't try to make people something they're not. People have a Zone of Genius. An area of competency that gives them energy. Help them find it. Move them between roles if necessary. Focus all your feedback on honing people's areas of strength.
What’s next? What are you most excited about right now?
I’m really excited about our roadmap at Reflect. We’re a small team, but we punch above our weight. It’s remarkable what we’ve achieved so far, but this is just the start.
For example, I’ve been hacking on a todo-management feature for Reflect. Not much is more fun than working on tools you know you’re going to use every day.
Comments (5)
Super excited for Reflect!
Siddharth Saxena
Awesome, congrats! Very inspiring.
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