//

Serge Saxonov, CEO of 10x Genomics: “The combination of intensity and humility is unusual but incredibly powerful”

Humility is key to growth and improvement. I only found this obvious in retrospect. People who become awesome have a healthy dose of self-doubt and self-awareness. They push themselves because they are keenly aware of where they and the team fall short. They push themselves first, but they also have healthy paranoia around the challenges […]


Humility is key to growth and improvement. I only found this obvious in retrospect. People who become awesome have a healthy dose of self-doubt and self-awareness. They push themselves because they are keenly aware of where they and the team fall short. They push themselves first, but they also have healthy paranoia around the challenges facing the company and will keep the organization honest. Where this becomes non-intuitive is that you also need your team members to be intense and awesome. The combination of intensity and humility is unusual but incredibly powerful.


I had the pleasure to interview Serge Saxonov, Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of 10x Genomics. Serge co-founded 10x Genomics in 2012 and has served as the CEO since its inception. He has defined the company’s vision and strategy, contributed to core inventions, and led 10x through multiple phases of rapid growth. In 2016, he was honored as one of Goldman Sachs 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of the Year. Prior to 10x Genomics, Serge was Vice President of Applications at QuantaLife, where he was responsible for building content, driving new applications, and identifying key diagnostics opportunities for the core ddPCR technology. Before QuantaLife, Serge was the first employee at 23andme. As Founding Architect and Director of R&D, he defined the initial conception of the product, recruited a lot of the earlier team and built many key elements of the technology. Serge received a Ph.D. in biomedical informatics from Stanford University and an A.B. in applied mathematics and biology from Harvard College.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The key point came about mid-way through college. I was interested in science, liked math and data analysis. I was exploring what I might want to do after college. I came across a panel discussion on entrepreneurship. The panel was made up of founders from a few very different companies and included the professor whose lab I worked in. He was a famous academic with a no-nonsense manner of making cutting arguments. I was curious to see what he would share in that setting.

As usual during these things, the last part of the event was dedicated to audience Q&A. Someone asked whether the entrepreneur life allowed for other pursuits. Sure, the experience sounds interesting and rewarding, but what about work-life balance? How do you create time for other activities and interests? One of the people on the panel started delivering a comprehensive answer, but my professor interjected mid-way and said to the audience member, “The fact that you are asking the question, probably means that entrepreneurship isn’t for you.”

That answer struck a chord with me. It was precisely this sense of all-encompassing purpose to build that something of sustained value that resonated with me. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to build companies that matter.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

There were plenty! The main point is that there is no single story or single challenge — it’s a non-ending succession of them.

The very first challenge was getting our initial financing. Our kind of company, combining hardware, chemistry and software, required significant capital just to get going. It’s hard to bootstrap when your very first purchase is a $200,000 microscope. While we had previous success, none of us had previously run a company. Really, all we could offer our potential investors was ten powerpoint slides and a commitment to figure out everything we were going to need to figure out.

Those negotiations were tough. Investors were completely correct in seeing very limited tangible value in the company. While I agreed with their view, I also saw very clearly that our initial team had an extraordinary capacity for solving problems. I felt fully confident in making a bet on that problem-solving ability above all else. It was my job to convince investors of that.

This was just the very beginning. We had many many crises in our future. From various R&D dead-ends, to commercial challenges to really difficult organizational problems. The key thing was to treat each challenge as a new problem to be solved.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

By focusing on the people who joined me on the journey. Most importantly, the employees who have joined the company, entrusting their careers and reputations to the success of 10x. But also investors and partners who made a bet on our success. Not wanting to let others down is an incredibly strong motivator.

The impact we were making or stood to make was another massive motivator. This has grown in importance as the company has progressed. There is nobility of purpose to our mission. Our work makes important life science research possible, it will accelerate the arrival of new cures and ultimately large numbers of saved lives. Reminding ourselves of the mission puts all the challenges in perspective and gives us the energy to overcome just about any obstacle.

So, how are things going today? 🙂

Really well, but not without challenges. In fact, if there were no difficult problems or massive challenges ahead, I’d conclude that we weren’t aiming high enough. And, for what we want to achieve, we have to aim higher than most.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I got a call from a JP Morgan banker inviting us to their annual Health Care conference before anyone had ever heard of 10x, I told him I’d think about it. For context, this is the marquee event in health care and there is something like a 100:1 competition for private companies to get a speaking slot. The banker’s response was “OK…..”. To give him credit he was polite and measured. He gave me time to figure out that he’d just given us an awesome opportunity that anyone would have jumped on.

I am not sure if there is a great lesson to be learned, except it’s fine if you don’t know the ins and outs of the investment world. Since then, we have spoken at the last five conferences, The most important thing is to execute and build a great business. The rest will take care of itself.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our mission is to accelerate the complete understanding and mastery of biology for the advancement of human health. Both the scale of our ambition and the potential to make a positive impact on the world make 10x special. The other core aspect of 10x is a very multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems and building products. We have deep expertise across chemistry, hardware, software, biology and many other disciplines. We’ve worked really hard to create and nurture a culture of collaboration across many very different fields to enable diverse teams to build amazing products together.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I believe a bigger threat is the fear of burning out. Much of the time you need to push yourself very hard in order to win and create something of sustained value. The most important thing is to focus on the impact you are hoping to make with your work. That puts the effort in perspective and makes the work rewarding.

The focus on the ultimate impact also help avoid getting sucked in by an ever-present multitude of less important tasks and projects. Take (short) breaks and assess carefully whether they improve the speed and the quality of your decision making. Take more if they do, take less if they don’t. Kinda obvious.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

No silver bullets:

First of all, and perhaps this is the first thing, there are no silver bullets. Just about all advice is context specific. For every rule there are exceptions. For every maxim there are nuances. Avoid attaching yourself too dogmatically to any particular precept — including this one. The challenge will always be to figure out what to do in a given instance. Engage intellectually with the problem at hand. There are no shortcuts. With that as a caveat, there are many instances where I wish I had had more experience and a different approach going in.

Let your culture evolve:

You need to let your culture evolve. At 10x, we had a very strong trajectory in the early years by focusing maniacally on development and on the one product we needed to bring to market. Our success in that stage convinced me that this maniacal approach were essential for our success going forward. In fact, we ran into multiple problems once the company grew larger, became commercial and expanded to multiple products in development. We had to evolve our culture to adapt to the much larger complexity of the business, while retaining the sense of urgency that has been at the center of our success. I held on to the outdated elements of the culture for too long, and our eventual transition had to be drastic and more painful than necessary.

Importance of Humility

Humility is key to growth and improvement. I only found this obvious in retrospect. People who become awesome have a healthy dose of self-doubt and self-awareness. They push themselves because they are keenly aware of where they and the team fall short. They push themselves first, but they also have healthy paranoia around the challenges facing the company and will keep the organization honest. Where this becomes non-intuitive is that you also need your team members to be intense and awesome. The combination of intensity and humility is unusual but incredibly powerful.

Leadership, communication and trust:

I underestimated just how important communication is to good leadership. I prided myself on being able to solve problems and on execution. I knew where we were going and how we would get there. I saw only limited value in sharing my thoughts with others widely. But, in fact, it is imperative to communicate the vision and the path forward. And to do so broadly and repeatedly. Communicating your intentions to others in the organization is important, even if knowing those intentions is of no tangible use to them. Most crucially, communication builds trust, which is the tissue that binds the company together.

As we get larger and have offices globally, the need to communicate grows exponentially as more people need to buy in and support the culture and decisions. Much better to err on the side of over-communication. In fact, if you don’t feel some discomfort with how much you are sharing you are probably not sharing enough,

Also, one of the keys here is to appreciate that communication takes work. The larger you grow the more work it takes and the more intentional you need to be with how your share information.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

“The challenge will always be to figure out what to do in a given instance. Engage intellectually with the problem at hand. There are no shortcuts.” with Serge Saxonov and Chaya Weiner

by Yitzi Weiner at Authority Magazine
Community//

The 10x Epidemic

by Rick Snyder
Community//

Student-Teachers Create Success

by Rick Miller

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.