Seventeen years ago, Max Levchin co-founded (along with Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and others) what later became PayPal. Since then, Levchin, a 39-year-old Ukrainian-born entrepreneur and investor, has launched a handful of companies, including Slide, a social media sharing network that he sold to Google for more than $200 million. Levchin's latest venture, HVF (Hard Valuable Fun), has spawned two companies so far: Glow, a fertility-tracking website and app, and Affirm, a finance startup that's taking on the banking industry. So how does Levchin, the father of two--ages 3 and 5--juggle multiple startups (along with his board seats at Yahoo, Evernote, Yelp, and others)? By having a regimented approach to email, a communal office, and a morning ritual that gives him an early sense of accomplishment.
--As told to Liz Welch
A productive day for me is when I'm falling asleep, thinking, "Today, I had full control of my work--it didn't control me."
I'm usually awake by 5:30 a.m. I spend the next hour catching up on what happened overnight, mainly emails from China. Glow, the fertility-app company I co-founded, is Shanghai-based. When the American financial markets open, I check the news. Then I'll sketch out a short "five top things" to-do list. Some of it will be carryover, so I typically start by copying the previous day's to-do list into Evernote. I'm not an obsessive list maker, but I do this daily to know exactly what I need to get done.
Then I'm on my bike--or if it's cold or rainy, on my indoor bike trainer, which is actually more efficient, because it's nonstop pedaling for 90 minutes. My goal with the bike is to get to the point where my reptilian brain fully takes over: I'm not thinking, just pushing. I like having this super intense experience early in the day. It gets me pumped up and energized. But another part of it is psychological--it gives me a great sense of accomplishment. So even if it's a bad day at work, at least I pedaled really hard.
I usually get to the office around 8 a.m. I like being in early, because that's when the buzz of activity is the highest. I travel a lot, so when I'm there, I want to be available. I have two desks on different sides of the office, but I rarely sit at either. Instead, I usually sit at the very center of the office in the cafeteria area, on a bench, across from the bathroom. People know that if I'm not on the phone they can come talk to me. I've forced myself to do this after sending an anonymous-feedback survey to employees last year. Many said, "We don't really know where Max is at all times. We understand he's busy, but it would be great to know where he is."
A CEO's job is to continually find ways of getting other people to do their best work in service of a shared goal. To accomplish that, you must be available. I'm an introvert, and talking to other people all the time is exhausting for me. I prefer long stretches of intense work and focus, but being CEO means being constantly interrupted and thrown into some other challenge. So the decision to make myself available in the lunch area came from realizing that I'm already distracted all the time. The additional distraction of people asking me questions isn't going to be that costly to me. And it's going to be valuable to them.
Sitting across from the bathroom was a strategic choice, because everybody has to go at some point. There's always someone passing by who can say, "Oh, yeah! I wanted to ask you this." This has also helped reduce emails. Instead of four or five email exchanges, people can sit next to me and have a discussion.
I hold an executive meeting three times a week for 30 or 40 minutes, during which all of my executives gather to air difficulties we're running into. For those, I'll go find a private room. But if a conversation isn't secret, I prefer having it in the open. Recently, I was talking with our CTO about Affirm's road map; we had that conversation in the cafeteria. At Affirm, we've been pushing this notion of transparent finance--we're trying to build a bank for the future. Nonstop transparency is key for a successful financial institution that caters to young people who are disenchanted with the secretive, hard-to-understand world of banking. So debating choices about which products get built and which don't, that's all done in the open. Sometimes it can get heated. But it is great for people to see how decisions are made.
If I really need to focus on creative work, I'll go to a coffee shop. I like the anonymity--all these people buzzing around, ordering drinks and going about their lives. Also, I drink a lot of coffee. Every day, I dedicate a couple of two-hour time slots to cutting myself off from everyone else--to do whatever needs to be done. Unless it's my wife, I won't pick up the phone. I don't check email, and I turn off my messenger apps. That has really helped my productivity.
I've experimented with ways to measure how productive I am. For example, I track the length of meetings, and how many topics I am able to cover in each one. I also obsessively track my reading speed, and I can tell you my inbox levels for the past 20 to 30 days.
My goal is to get my inbox down to zero, but on any given day, I get about 800 emails. If there are just 100 emails still unanswered by the end of the day, that's a productive day. If it's more than 200, I won't go to sleep until I clear them out. I've tried all these different email-management programs, but for me, they just make more work. So I just try to plow through my inbox.
To do that, I push the people I work with to write very short, one-topic emails. I'm militant about this. If you need to send a longer email, you must preface it with a subject line like "This is long. I don't expect a reply." Emails that require immediate responses need to be about one topic only. And if I'm included in a group email and I don't think my input is necessary, I won't respond.
One small thing I do that's extremely useful is set little goals throughout my day. I might say, "I'm going to clear 50 messages from my inbox in the next hour." There's always other stuff to do--that list is long--but it still feels pretty good to get the small, annoying stuff out of the way.
I've learned that the biggest productivity killer for me is content switching, or moving from topic A to topic B. No matter how quick or clever you are, there is an enormous cost to settling into a task. I try to organize my day into blocks with natural breaks in between. So if I have to do a bunch of things for Affirm and then I have to start thinking about something for Glow, I'll try to arrange my schedule so that the switch occurs, say, during lunchtime. That way, I don't have an abrupt moment when I have to flush everything out of my head and go on to another thing.
My biggest mantra is "stay focused." If you're fretting over the competition, or worried about fundraising or anything else, it takes away from productivity. Anytime colleagues say, "This company is in our space" or "I'm worried about this competing product," my response is always, "Stay focused." If I'm not spending time worried about the competition, why should they?