Clayton Lewis knows what it takes to win — both on the race course, and in the boardroom.
Lewis, the longtime Seattle-area tech executive who is now CEO of scientific wellness startup Arivale, shared several entrepreneurial lessons from both his experience as an Ironman athlete and as a company leader at an event last week in Seattle hosted by Lane Powell.
After leading tech companies such as Onvia and Market Leader through IPOs, Lewis joined B2C venture capital firm Maveron as a general partner. In 2014, he teamed up with biotech pioneer Dr. Lee Hood to launch Arivale, a company that uses a combination of genetic data and real-life coaches to help people improve their health.
Lewis has learned a lot about the difference between success and failure during his decades as an entrepreneur, investor, and Ironman competitor. Here are five lessons he discussed at the event:
Drive toward your passion
After a few years leading Arivale, Lewis said he’s realized how important it is for founders to drive toward their passions as they embark on a startup journey. His other jobs have been “intellectually interesting,” but Arivale is different because of Lewis’ lifelong interest in health and wellness.
“I’m having more fun at 60 than any point in my life,” he said. “There’s a lot less pain, even though it’s no less hard.”
Once that passion is there, Lewis said it’s then important to be clear about what success looks like and in what time frame. “If you don’t have clarity of what success looks like from your funders, board members, strategic partners — you get sideways so fast.”
Life is about relationships
Lewis recalled how Maveron turned down investing in Blue Nile, the Seattle-based online jewelry shop. But despite missing out on a lucrative opportunity, the VC firm and its co-founder Dan Levitan continued building a relationship with Blue Nile co-founder Mark Vadon, who would later go on to help launch e-commerce powerhouse zulily. Maveron decided to invest early this time around and ended up earning more than $700 million off a $10 million investment, Lewis said.
It’s one example of the importance of relationships. Lewis advised entrepreneurs to get to know investors even before they ask for startup funding.
“Life is long, and relationships are wickedly valuable,” he said.
Set audacious goals — and come up with a plan
Lewis likes to set “crazy” goals. For example, he wanted to finish a marathon in three hours and 15 minutes and needed to slash his per-minute mile time by 70 seconds in order to do so. He got the right coaches, the right training plan, and accomplished his mission.
“I’ve had the same experience in my business profession,” he said. “When working with a team or with a board, set real clarity of audacious goals that seem crazy as heck, but dissect them and come up with the work plan to achieve them.”
However, it’s important not to overreach, or in the Ironman world, overtrain. “In business, we tend to set ourselves up for failure because we’re trying to do something that we haven’t adequately planned or resourced for,” Lewis said.
Reflect and learn
Half the time, with the right team in place, you’ll reach those goals, Lewis said. But half of the time, you won’t, and that’s OK.
“Those give you the best scar tissues and the best lessons to ultimately learn,” Lewis said of failure.
It’s important to not only understand failures or missteps, but make real adjustments in response, Lewis added. When he gets an injury while training for an Ironman race, Lewis recalibrates his workouts. It’s the same when employees at Arivale get off task for an important goal.
“We pause and reallocate resources,” he said.
If Lewis is in a bad mood, his employees notice.
“People will think something is wrong with Arivale and there will even start to be a buzz,” he said.
The CEO said it’s important for leaders to smile and project positive energy. But they must also balance that with providing transparency about problems or issues the company is facing.
“It’s understanding that you have a bigger responsibility in your respective leadership roles in terms of what you are actually doing to motivate and inspire people, and also being somewhat transparent about what you’re working to solve,” Lewis said of his message to Arivale’s executive team. “If you hire people and they’re a good cultural fit and invested in and driven by your mission, they will do extraordinary things as long as they’ve got confidence. People will have confidence if you have clarity about what you’re solving for.”
Smiling more can have an effect with all interactions, Lewis added.
“Even if it is someone on the street who smiles at you, you tend to smile back,” he said. “If someone doesn’t look at you and frowns, you sort of think you don’t exist. That’s true in every part of our lives as we go through every piece. That’s so simple but so undervalued.”