The Ladder

Razor-Sharp Advice

How a startup CEO stays on task.

Andy Katz-Mayfield.
Andy Katz-Mayfield, the co-founder and co-CEO of Harry’s.

Harry’s

The Ladder periodically takes a break from addressing pressing workplace problems to ask successful people about career advice and productivity. This week, I talked to Andy Katz-Mayfield, the co-founder and co-CEO of the razor subscription company Harry’s. Katz-Mayfield helped launch Harry’s in 2013; before that, he worked for the NBA, Bain and Co., and Brighter.com, and he got his MBA from Stanford.*

Anderson: Growing up, did you get any career advice from your parents or teachers that stuck with you?

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Katz-Mayfield: My parents always encouraged me to just do what makes me happy, which probably sounds trite. But my experience has been that your willingness to put in extra hours and incremental effort, to really pour yourself into whatever it is you’re doing professionally—which then yields better outcomes—is actually partially a function of whether you enjoy what you do. Sometimes people view those things as a zero-sum game, but the advice that I got when I was younger and my experience has been that they are actually additive and feed on each other—that if you enjoy what you do you’re actually going to be that much better at it.

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If you could travel back in time to your college graduation, what advice would you give yourself that you wish you had known at the time?

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I think I would probably tell myself, “You’re overweighting risk.” In retrospect a lot of what I viewed as risk at the time wasn’t really actually that risky. “Pursue what you want to do and not worry so much about risk”—that would have been sage advice. And particularly at that life stage, if you do fail (however you want to define that) in your early 20s or mid-20s or whatever, the ability to recover and learn from the experience is pretty significant.

Did you already know you wanted to start a business then?

I didn’t, but I followed a pretty tried-and-true career path. I went into management consulting and then did private equity, and I think that those decisions were at least partially influenced by my assessing, “Oh, those are low-risk, societally acceptable things to do that are going to propel me to some further place.”

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What’s your advice to someone who wants to start a business? At what point should people feel ready to take the leap of trying to start a business of their own?

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I think it’s when you really feel passionate about something organically. Harry’s was truly born out of this very personal frustration and experience that I had. It was authentically something that I got passionate about, and that made it much easier. It happened to be a good business opportunity, but the risk is doing it the other way around, which is searching for the business opportunity and then trying to apply [yourself to] something that isn’t something that you’re passionate about. I think you kind of know it. When you’re really excited, you can’t sleep at night. You’re working exceedingly long hours, but you don’t really notice it because you’re enjoying it. It’s so hard to start a company, and so much of it is sheer force and will, and what’s going to allow you to keep going against these obstacles and break through them, it’s going to be passion. It’s not going to be, “Is this an interesting business opportunity?”

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You founded Harry’s with a co-founder, Jeff Raider, and I’m curious to hear what you think about finding someone to partner with when you’re starting a business. What should people be looking for?

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I certainly find it tremendously valuable to have a partner. Obviously, there’s just more bandwidth and capacity to do work, but more importantly, it’s somebody who can be a sounding board, who can give you feedback, who you can bat ideas around with, and who can also just empathize with the experience and what you’re going through. I’m not sure I could have done it alone.

How do you select a partner? Again, I think it’s much better if it’s organic. Jeff and I had been friends for 10 years and knew each other really well. We’re pretty different in terms of our skill set and our personality, but we had this level of trust, mutual understanding, value alignment. It’s a marriage. In the same way you wouldn’t—well, maybe some people would; I wouldn’t—get married to somebody after dating them for a week, you actually need to build a relationship.

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What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?

I’ll give you two. They’re both from the same guy, who was my favorite business school professor, this guy Irv Grousbeck, who was a sage, wise man when it came to this kind of stuff. One, which relates to the point I was making earlier about risk, is: Ask yourself, what is the one thing in the world you would do if you knew that you wouldn’t fail? And then just go do that. Do what you want to do, do what you’re passionate about, don’t worry so much about the risk. That was one.

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And the other is: Every out-front maneuver that you make is going to be uncomfortable, and that feeling of discomfort is good. It means you’re pushing yourself. And if you get to that point in your day to day where you just kind of feel content and satiated, it means you’re not really doing anything; you’re not actually pushing yourself and being out front and ahead of things. I’ve got a list of like 20 things from Professor Grousbeck, but those are two of my favorites.

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You told Business Insider that you organize your time by making a list of priorities and cutting out everything that is not in line with those priorities. How did you come upon that approach to productivity?

It came out of a realization that my days were being consumed by meetings, by emails, phone calls, whatever it might be. They were things I wasn’t driving, they were often things that I was getting pulled into. I was spending my time in ways that weren’t necessarily aligned with what I viewed as the most important things that I should be working on. So once a month—and it doesn’t even take long, it takes 30 minutes—I just kind of reset, like, “Hey, what are the things that I really need to accomplish this month.” I try to make it no longer than four or five things. Then I make sure that my meetings, phone calls, emails, however I’m spending my time, are aligned with those things. And if they’re not? Don’t go to that meeting.

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Can you give me an example of some of the things that are on your list now or have been on your list recently?

One thing that’s always high up on the list in some form or another is recruiting. There have been two senior hires, somebody in sales and marketing and somebody in global supply chain, that we’ve made in the last couple of months. Those were both at the top of my list, so I was making sure that I was spending a lot of time with candidates. Those are always time-consuming processes when you do them right.

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I get how this is a great way of managing your time as the CEO of a company, but if you’re in middle management, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of being able to say, “No, I’m not taking this meeting because it’s not in line with my priorities.” Do you encourage your employees to take a similar strategy with their time?

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Yeah, I think so. My priorities are effectively the company’s priorities, and so the company’s priorities should be governing what everybody’s priorities are further down in the organization. We actually have a quarterly activity planning process that links all those things together to try to ensure that everybody’s priorities are aligned. We do encourage people, Hey, look at the meetings that are on your calendar and ask yourself, do you really need to be in that meeting or not? Are you required there to make a decision? Is the information being disseminated really critical? If it’s not, then don’t go to that meeting.

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I think email is the other one. It’s so tempting to manage your life by inbox and let that be your to-do list. And there’s absolutely no guarantee that the emails that are flowing in have anything to do with what your priorities are. So whether it’s just being selective about the time that you’re dedicating to clear out your inbox, or trying to actually limit the flow of email, there are absolutely ways to do it regardless of where you’re at in the company. What I’ve tried to do is not be in my inbox all day, so I’ll try to spend some time in the morning, usually sort of check it midday, and again at the end of the day, as opposed to being in it all the time.

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Before you started Harry’s, was productivity ever a challenge for you? Or do you think of yourself as a naturally productive person, and you’ve channeled that productivity into good ways of managing your time at Harry’s?

I don’t know if people are inherently productive or not productive. Some people work well under pressure, some people don’t. Some people work well with others in an office environment, some people need to be at home. So I think what I’ve been able to do is identify what works for me and then try to schedule myself accordingly. For example: I tend to work better if I can lock in and focus for extended periods of time, so I’ll put in headphones. My wife will make fun of me, but I just completely drown out any distraction and absolutely crush work for three hours. I don’t work that well in like 30 minute increments, and I know that about myself, and so I make sure that as opposed to having meetings where I have 30 minute breaks all day long, I try to actually block out multiple hours of time where I can lock in and be productive.

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How do you keep from burning out?

I like my job, so it’s not like “Oh, Friday, 5 o’clock—great!” For me work and life blend together a little bit, and that’s OK. I actually enjoy that, and I like what I do, so it doesn’t feel burdensome. Flexibility has always been really important. If I’m feeling antsy and I want to go for run at 4 o’clock, I’m going to go for a run at 4 o’clock. That also might mean I’m answering an email at 10 o’clock, but that’s OK.

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Exercise and sleep in some order are things that are important for me, so I try to prioritize those things. I have massively diminishing returns after 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock at night, so I usually shut off; sleep is going to be more valuable at that point than an incremental hour or two of work. It’s different for everybody, but identifying what creates that semblance of balance for you and then prioritizing it the same way you would prioritize whatever is on your professional to-do list, ultimately that leads to being a happier person and therefore being more productive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Need career advice? Got a problem at work? Email theladder@slate.com.

*Correction, April 21, 2016: This article originally misstated that Katz-Mayfield helped launch Harry’s in 2012. (Return.)

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