When starting and building a company, the importance of having a strong and supportive family can’t be overestimated. The highs can be very high and the lows can be quite low, and it is hard to manage that roller coaster without people in your life who can steady and inspire you.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Erlebacher.
Adam was formerly COO at Simple where he led Simple’s growth from pre-launch to hundreds of thousands of customers (acquired by BBVA). Prior to Simple, he co-founded PlaceVine, an online advertising marketplace (acquired 2011), and led business development at AI startup Colloquis (acquired by Microsoft). Earlier, Adam specialized in technology, media, & telecom transactions at JPMorgan. He received his B.A. from Tufts University and an M.B.A. from The Wharton School.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me here. I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Fabric, a one-stop-shop for family financial protection that helps parents create free will, organize their family’s finances, and find affordable life insurance.
We believe that every family deserves a secure financial future. When you become a parent, everything changes. All of a sudden you are responsible for this little human, and besides the diaper changing, feeding, and never-ending sleepless nights, nobody gives you a map explaining how to help protect your family’s financial future. Your toaster oven comes with better instructions. How could that be? You’re not exposed to these choices or products before becoming a parent, so they feel completely foreign. Personally, I never thought about setting up a will or buying life insurance before I had kids, and I didn’t know where to start.
The process of getting a will turned out to be very expensive and required a meeting with a lawyer. It was so hard to find a time that it literally took us three years to write a simple two-page document. And when I went to buy life insurance, it took ten weeks, a health exam, and three meetings with an agent who was pushing me to buy a more expensive product that would have earned him a bigger commission.
My Fabric co-founder Steven and I had worked together at Simple, the digital bank, and we had become dads at around the same time. As new dads, we realized that there is no modern way for parents to confidently check these otherwise daunting tasks off their lists, and that’s why we started Fabric.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company?
One of the key challenges that startups face is the focus. We had some potential investors ask us about why we were so focused on families. Why not focus on other customer segments? Wouldn’t you create more value if you served a broader audience? Our answer then and now is that if you’re speaking to everyone, then you are speaking to no one. It’s as important to know what you are going to do as it is to specify what you’re not going to do.
What lesson did you learn from that?
While having conviction and focus is critical, you also need to be open to the universe and change course if the data is pointing in a different direction. It is difficult to hold these opposing forces in your head at the same time. You need to have the patience and conviction required to tackle big projects while keeping in mind that you may be wrong and you may need to adjust your approach.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
We are still very early in our journey, but I would say that what has helped us most is our consistent commitment to our core principles. When we first got started our founding team locked ourselves in a room for a few days to define our core principles — Simplicity, Velocity, Compassion, Exploration, and Joy. These principles weren’t aspirational, they were principles that were already being lived by each of us. They were designed to be immutable and help guide decisions as the company grew.
Today when we are faced with decisions, whether it be in a board meeting, or when a small group is struggling with a thorny issue, or an individual is deciding how to prioritize their work, our core principles are there to provide a framework for decision making without the need for an explicit permission. That empowers everyone to make decisions and move more quickly as an organization.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
* Being a leader at any level can be lonely and it’s important to surround yourself with people who you trust and enjoy spending time with. My co-founder Steven is a brilliant engineer and stalwart partner who brings a remarkable intensity and compassion to his work. And there’s one story about him that epitomizes this intensity and compassion in my mind. Steven grew up in the south and often went goose hunting with his father and others. Once during a winter outing, the group shot a few geese and they landed in a partly-frozen pond. Their family dog would not swim out to retrieve them. Now I’m not a hunter and I wouldn’t recommend this, but rather than have the animals’ lives go to waste, as a young boy he swam into the freezing water to get them. That combination of compassion and grit encapsulates what makes Steven an authentic and effective leader. He’s an incredible person.
* When starting and building a company, the importance of having a strong and supportive family can’t be overestimated. The highs can be very high and the lows can be quite low, and it is hard to manage that roller coaster without people in your life who can steady and inspire you. I think the success of any kind can almost always be traced back to a collaboration of some sort, whether someone was influenced by a mentor, an artist, their partner, a family member, friend, or coworker. It is a fiction that individuals are solely responsible for their successes.
* Make sure you get enough sleep. I am a bit of a night owl and in the past have had a tendency to burn the candle at both ends. It’s not sustainable, and I’ve retrained myself to make sure I’m getting the consistent rest I need.
* Manage your time well. I organize my days in a way that sets aside small blocks of time for emails and calls so that I can schedule longer blocks of uninterrupted work to focus on meatier projects and conversations. This means that some calls and meetings need to happen later or are not scheduled. There are risks to prioritizing in this way because you may pass on meetings that would otherwise have proven valuable. Ultimately, this approach works for me because it allows me a certain amount of control over how I spend time so that I can be productive with an acceptable risk of missing out.
* Make decisions without fear or favor. It can be hard to make unpopular decisions but the most important thing is to be fair. If there is transparency into the reasons for a decision then hopefully people will understand and get behind the decision. It’s also OK if not everyone can.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make time for your family, your friends, and yourself. Your todo list never ends, and unless you have some guardrails around how you spend time, you’ll burn out, and the people around you will, too.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Steve Klein took a chance when he hired me at Colloquis, an early AI startup that developed bot technology. Steve was the CEO brought in to turn around the company and I was looking for my first job in technology after working as an investment banker at JPMorgan. Colloquis was running out of money, I couldn’t code, and I didn’t have any product experience. Two weeks after I joined, more than half the company was laid off. He agreed to bring me on as a contractor to help with sales and partnerships. He trusted me and gave me a lot of responsibility. I absolutely loved it and before long we had worked to bring in Comcast as our first client. That helped put the company on more solid footing and we went on to close many more large clients and sell the company to Microsoft. Steve continues to be a straight-talking mentor and a supportive friend.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
We are on a mission to help every family achieve financial security. Early on we set ourselves a goal of covering 1 million U.S. families and while we are on our way, we still have a lot of work ahead of us! On a personal level, our boys are early risers and we hang out in the early morning before the day really gets going. I love that time with them because it’s quiet with few distractions. I’m also home almost every day to put them to sleep, and am usually back to work after that. On Saturdays, I ask my older one to choose an adventure for us and we just go — he plans it and how to get there. On our last one, he took his scooter and I grabbed a Citibike and we went to Red Hook to check out the Valentino Pier and get some ice cream. Building a startup and having a family, there are only so many hours in the day so it’s important to have these sacred, uninterrupted blocks of time.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I believe that business can and should have a positive, powerful impact that improves people’s lives. I love the work that I do because I believe in the mission. I need to be able to connect my efforts to the benefit that it provides others, and I work to keep that thread going through everything that I do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Don’t procrastinate — make a will! About three in five U.S. adults with kids don’t have a will, and that is a major problem. Without a will that expresses who should be the guardian of your kids, a court can appoint a guardian as the court sees fit. A will is a simple document that takes just a few minutes to complete. Everyone should have one, especially if you have kids.
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