Editor's Note: Cindy Eckert will be appearing at the 2020 Inc. 5000 Vision conference the week of October 19-23.

Early on in her career, Cindy Eckert thought she'd take the traditional path. After college, the CEO of Sprout Pharmaceuticals and the Pink Ceiling, a business incubator for women, planned to get a job at a big company and work her way up.

That was, until she realized something important: Those companies were a "sea of sameness" that homogenized everyone who entered.

"I didn't quite fit," Eckert told Inc. senior editor Christine Lagorio-Chafkin who interviewed her in a Real Talk stream event Tuesday.

Striking out on her own, Eckert founded Sprout ("a classic startup" with three desks above a garage), which grew to eventually successfully push the FDA to approve Addyi, a controversial drug designed to enhance women's libidos. 

She eventually sold the company to Valeant Pharmaceuticals, in 2015, for $1 billion, departing the company she'd founded. Two years later, after layoffs of her original team by Valeant, Eckert bought Sprout back and managed to rehire many of her former employees.

This tortuous road has given Eckert insights into how startups, their investors, and employees can thrive. Here are a few she shared with Lagorio-Chafkin:

Culture Is Everything

"Culture isn't aspirations, it's your actions," Eckert says. "How do you show up every day? How are you gonna walk the walk and be that?" 

One way Eckert has created a culture for her team (aside from giving everyone a nickname, a habit she's had since she was a kid) is creating a feeling of shared ownership. The most important thing is "everyone having skin in the game, genuinely participating in the outcomes." That can mean stock options or bonuses based on company success. "Not just for a paycheck," she says. "But for a payoff."

For Eckert, accountability is key. "Peer to peer, we hold each other accountable," she says. "If the company is winning, everybody is winning."

Honesty Is the Best Policy

"Be an open book," Eckert says. For her, that means talking to her team about where the company is every day--and never sugarcoating the truth. "We're constantly communicating," she says, especially now that her team is working remotely because of Covid-19. "There's nothing I've been holding back from them."

Candor is also part of her social media strategy, according to Eckert. Performing or over-curating your life for your followers is "not worth your time or energy because you're not being yourself." Eckert has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, where she's known for her signature pink outfits as much as for her advice and inspiration.

Three Things a Good Pitch Needs

Having pitched her company many times (once even finding herself on the receiving end of snickers from potential investors), Eckert has figured out three things every founder needs to know going into a meeting:

  • What are you trying to uniquely do?
  • Why are you the person to do it?
  • What's in it for the investors if they go on the ride with you?

Watch the whole interview above.