Decision Making

Why This YC Founder is Building His New a16z-Backed Company in Public

Andrew Logemann
March 14, 2023

In May of 2021, Sam Corcos did what very few founders do: he published every investor update and team all-hands recording that was over a year old. And he's done it every month since.

When the Levels CEO and Co-Founder originally decided to build in public, or release sensitive company information to the world after a 12-month lockup period, not everybody was on board. In fact, most employees were against it. Some investors even accused him of negligence.

But in the spirit of his company's transparency principle, Sam pressed on. A firm believer in the idea that "ideas are cheap and execution is hard," Sam wasn't worried about competitors stealing his company's strategy. Or the threat of legal consequences.

Almanac's CEO, Adam Nathan, caught up with Sam to talk about his decision to build in public and how it's shaped every aspect of his company. Here's their full conversation.

Sam's big decision to build Levels in public

Adam Nathan: Hey Sam, let's get into it. What was the biggest decision you made in the last ten years?

Sam Corcos: A really big one was around team transparency and building in public. We share all of our investor updates publicly. We share our team all hands. We share a lot of our strategy. We share a lot of documents. I think that's pretty atypical. It was an important decision that's had a lot of downstream consequences.

Adam Nathan: Fascinating. I'm curious, why were you considering building in public in the first place?

Sam Corcos: Well, some of it was just based on personal preference. There's a lot that people can learn from each other. Another big part of it is we have a cultural value of treating people like adults. The first step towards building in public is you have to share information internally with each other. It's reasonable for an adult to want to know why certain decisions are being made, so we started sharing a lot more of those internally. As we started sharing more and more information, even externally, we started to see more benefits from it. At some point, we wrote a memo and really pushed forward on sharing even more information than we were previously.

Why writing about the decision helped overcome initial resistance to the idea

Adam Nathan: I'm biased and couldn't agree more with you based on what we do at Almanac, but I'm curious how the organization thought about the same decision at the time.

Sam Corcos: Yeah, it wasn't super popular. One of the nice things about long form written documentation is that it was very clear from the memo why we were making this decision and what the known trade offs were. People on the team wrote out why they disagreed, and we addressed those. We talked about each of these ideas in writing, so that when people two years from now want to know why we made that decision, it would all be documented. Even though the majority of the company was not in favor of building in public, we were able to overcome their objections and move forward because of the documentation we had in writing.

Adam Nathan: What were some of the tension points at the time from the team?

Sam Corcos: Yeah, they ranged. One of the biggest ones was just a general fear or anxiety that competitors or other companies would use this information against us in some way. Or legal exposure. There were even investors during our seed round who accused us of negligence for sharing so much information publicly. Obviously, we didn't end up working with those people, we had just a philosophical disagreement, but there's definitely a lot of tension and negative sentiment towards really doing anything that is not standard practice. So I think it was normal to expect that sort of resistance.

How a primarily async process helped Levels decide which information to make public

Adam Nathan: So with all those risks and issues that were brought up, did you ever seriously consider not doing it?

Sam Corcos: I knew that there was some degree of transparency that we wanted to do that was more than normal. The degree to which we were transparent was not a foregone conclusion. It's certainly not standard practice across the industry. Whenever something is not standard practice, there's usually a reason for that. So we wanted to make sure we understood why that was. This is the Chesterton's Fence example of: why don't people share more of this sort of information? There was definitely a real possibility that we would be sharing a lot less than we are today.

Adam Nathan: It sounds like you maybe wrote a memo and got feedback on it. What was your decision making process internally? How did you share your thoughts and eventually get to a final answer?

Sam Corcos: I spent a couple of days deeply thinking about writing. I read a few books on related topics. We wrote a long memo on what transparency and openness would look like at Levels. I had a few proposals in there as well. Some of them were more extreme than what we ended up doing. For example, one of the proposals in there was that all compensation data should be made public for everyone. We ended up not doing that one. But there were a lot of ideas in there, like what information could be made public and why. Then I shared with the team, they read the memo, and they wrote out their thoughts. Then, we had a synchronous conversation to sort out where some of the agreements and disagreements were. But most of it was done asynchronously in writing.

How building in public has been a boon to Levels' recruiting efforts

Adam Nathan: And looking back, how did it turn out?

Sam Corcos: I think it's been phenomenal. We've been able to get a level of buy in that we would not have been able to get otherwise. It's also been, sort of unintentionally, a really good recruiting tool. Most people who end up joining Levels say that they know more about our company–having only been here for a couple of weeks–than they knew about their existing company (even if they were there for five years!) because there's so much information available and they're treated with respect. So they know more about strategy and goals than they would at most other companies.

Why you should establish a culture of writing before trying to build in public

Adam Nathan: Yeah, I've certainly seen your videos and content on Twitter. It seems like you've developed quite a cult following around these types of announcements. I'm sure there's lots of founders listening in who are at similar stages in their startups' trajectory, so I'm curious: what advice do you have for other CEOs who might be considering building in public?

Sam Corcos: You should do what makes the most sense for your use case. Certain industries have different requirements around confidentiality of information. In general, writing is a good thing. And the nice thing about writing is that it becomes content. And content is inherently easy to share, as opposed to meetings. Sharing information in the form of writing gets a level of buy in that is really, really hard to do otherwise. So I would say before even thinking about building in public and doing all this transparency stuff that we're doing, you have to have a culture of writing.

Adam Nathan: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more with everything that you said in this podcast. It's great to hear someone else who's committed to building in public and to hear your story about how you got the team to buy into the concept at Levels. Thanks for your time today, Sam.

Sam Corcos: Sure thing.

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