“I’d Rather Be The Bad Guy In A Good Story Than The Good Guy In A Bad Story”: An Interview With Aviel Ginzburg
The greatest thing about working at a startup is having access to the people who began it all and feeling directly connected to their vision. As one of the greenest employees here at Simply Measured – I joined up in February – I wanted to sit down with one of our founders and find out what I could learn from him and exactly what his vision is. Aviel was game , so I set up a meeting with him in Offset – all of our conference rooms are named after Excel functions, surprise, surprise – and proceeded to do a little research on him. I asked the peeps who know him best – Adam Schoenfeld, our CEO, Damon Cortesi, Simply Measured’s co-founder, and Daniel Worthington, our kickass Director of User Experience and one of Simply Measured’s oldest employees – to give me some insight into Aviel before we met up.
Describe Aviel in three words.
Adam: Aggressive. Bearded. Winner.
Damon: Ridiculously passionate focus – Aviel is a man that takes things to extreme, but with a hyper degree of focus and backed by an undying, fiery-burning passion.
Daniel: Foodie. Passionate. Curious.
Describe a cherished memory with Aviel.
Adam: There are so many it’s hard to pick. There are the dozens of times he dropped F bombs during our last two fundraising processes. It worked surprisingly well with most VCs. There are his reactions when I force him to do his least favorite things – wake up for an early flight. There were many great times in the early days of the company from our initial “founder dating” to our first product releases and first customer wins. One of my favorites was when he came up with the name “Simply Measured.” After we’d been laboring for days over how to rebrand Untitled Startup he just pulled it out of the blue in a moment of brilliance. We were off and running from there.
Damon: Year 1 of the company, in Aviel’s loft apartment almost every night of the week writing new code and deploying crazy things.
Daniel: One of my favorite memories is crossing the street in downtown Seattle with Aviel and some friends from work. There was a seagull crossing the street along with us. Aviel gestured at the seagull with both arms open—“What the hell is that! It thinks it’s a person!” I doubt I would have even noticed that crazy bird, but there it was calmly crossing the street just like all the other people on their lunch break. Aviel has a way of noticing everything that happens, and making memories from the smallest moments.
What value does Aviel bring to SM?
Adam: Aviel is obsessed with delivering great products. He brings a unique blend of creativity and pragmatism that allows him to find the optimal approach to any technology problem. He has a deep passion for Simply Measured and the people here, a great sense of humor, and an epic beard.
Damon: A ridiculous amount of passion and ability to envision the future like nobody I’ve ever met.
Daniel: Aviel has a designer’s curiosity. He wants to know how things work so he can change them. He’s good at it.
After getting feedback from these gentlemen, I was even more psyched to sit down with Aviel and pick his brain. And here are the nuggets of wisdom I found.
1. “The beauty of being an entrepreneur.”
“…is that you don’t necessarily know what the answer is.” Aviel is not afraid of unknowns, as long as he has data to sift through, because he does not believe in “one right answer.” I’m going to call what he describes to me an approach-based approach. He says, “First you pick an approach, then you take calculated action, then you make a decision based off that action, and then you determine the outcome.”
2. “We started this company as Untitled Startup.”
One thing I learned from talking with Aviel was that all success begins with good decision-making – not necessarily a specific goal in mind. When Aviel and Damon got their first seed money, they had no idea where they were headed. “Damon and I just started building things. We knew we we wanted to solve problems for PR professionals and for marketers, but we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do.” It was their hard grind and focus on data that led them where they didn’t know they were headed.
3. “Strong people at every level within the organization.”
When I asked Aviel what he’s seen other start-ups do that he’d like to avoid or replicate, he paused and, in his thoughtful way, told me it was good question. After a few moments of silence, he told me it was tough to know what’s going on inside any company from an external perspective, but that the common thread in companies that make amazing products is their ultra-capable personnel at every level. “You look at it and you think, Man, how can they have all these different products? How can they be building all these things at once? It’s because there’s strong autonomy there, and very, very bright people who are able to take risks and build products and features that you couldn’t with other organization. They’re facilitating for their employees, instead of telling them what to do. A lot of people are scared of hiring people who are smarter than them. I try to only hire people who are smarter than me, or who can one day be smarter than me, because otherwise the best we can ever do is the best that I can do, and that sucks.”
4. “The greatest challenge in my career has been myself.”
At a certain point in our conversation, I felt like I was giving my boss a job interview. One of the questions I asked was, “What has the greatest challenge in your career been?” Aviel cited himself as that challenge. “I have really ridiculously high standards for myself, and it leads me to have ridiculously high standards for others, and it leads me to always be working and always be frustrated. Anger and frustration fuel creativity for me and the work that I do. The biggest challenge is to figure out when you fight and when you let things go.”
5. “We definitely have a vibrant, loud culture here.”
Simply Measured puts a high premium on creating a company culture it can be proud of, so I though it would be cool to ask Aviel what advice he’d give to an SM hire in the first 60 days. He immediately answered, “Don’t play it safe. We work hard, we play hard. I would say not to be afraid. I think a lot of people join companies and try to feel out where the walls are. And they try to stay within those. I would encourage people to not look at the walls and assume they’re there for a reason. Push. Ask questions. Learn and don’t try to fit. If people did that, we’d be fucked. Thankfully, I don’t feel like we have people who do that. I would tell people not to look for the limits of what they can or should do, but instead define them.”
6. “Just because you think you understand the why of something doesn’t mean that you do.”
Often, when you look at someone who has accomplished so much, it’s hard to imagine what he or she was like at the beginning of his or her career. So I wanted to know, “What’s one piece of advice you’d give to young Aviel?” to get a better idea of where he started. He told me that when he first started out, “everything I saw, I disagreed with. I argued we should do this instead, or that. Whereas realistically, in the positions I was in, I never had enough context to understand what was behind the decision-making. So I would say, Be more trusting of people with more context into the why. You don’t understand all the complexities that go on within an organization, all the competing priorities and horse trading – all that fun stuff that goes into making good decisions.”
7. “There is nothing you can’t have.”
When I ask Aviel about qualities an SM employee should have and shouldn’t have, he tells me he doesn’t like the exclusivity of that question, and inadvertently demonstrates his defining trait of wanting to figure out how things work. “I don’t think there’s anything that people can’t have. If there was a quality that people here thought a Simply Measured employee ‘can’t have,’ I’d want to know what that is so I can understand why. It would be a shitty place to work if that were the case.”
8. “It is absolutely absurd that our culture expects men to wear closed-toe shoes.”
I ask Aviel if there’s anything else he wants the world to know about him. He cites his aversion to closed-toe shoes. “I was turned away from multiple bars and restaurants in Miami because I was wearing sandals. Just because I don’t want to wear foot prisons doesn’t make me some unsanitary or evil person. I get weekly pedicures. I take very good care of my feet. I hate shoes. I find them uncomfortable. Your body doesn’t breathe enough. I feel like I’m always too hot. It’s just generally uncomfortable. I don’t feel as connected with the world. There’s something always between you and everything else. There’s something beautiful about being grounded. I love just slipping in and out of them. It’s completely freeing. And at the end of the day we’re just monkeys, so I feel no need to pretend.”
9. “Everybody who works hard isn’t just an asshole.”
Another thing Aviel wants to share as we wrap up is that “there’s no glory but also no shame in spending your twenties working all the time.” He tells me, “I didn’t do a lot of things other people did, like take normal vacations. Sitting here where I am, it’s totally worth it. It’s exciting to be going into my thirties with all this experience and all this knowledge. I’ve packed twenty years of my professional experience into the first decade, and I think it tends to be a polarizing subject for people. I guess the point I’m trying to make is, there is no wrong answer, but I really don’t like the vilification of people who work hard. Everybody who works hard isn’t just an asshole.”
10. “In your career, the rewards for things you do are very delayed.”
I ask Aviel about recent discoveries, and he cites delayed gratification: “You need to expect and accept delayed gratification, and for almost all good things that you do, that’s how it actually comes. Don’t get impatient that you’re not getting the recognition immediately, and don’t get impatient with the ways things are today. Remember that every moment in life is in between a place that you determine and another place. You’re going there. You’re doing this. A lot of the decisions I made early in my career to stick to things completely paid off with the connections I made and the things I learned.”
11. “I’d rather be the bad guy in a good story than the good guy in a bad story.”
One of the most enlightening things Aviel shared with me was his deep aversion to stagnancy, and his philosophy on how to avoid that. “One thing I definitely don’t want to do and what I see other start-ups do is be stagnant. That could mean getting too attached to an ideology or being stagnant because you’re afraid or content. I always want to be building and creating, and that means change and disruption, but it also means momentum and progress. That’s the one thing I want to do here.”
I’m the Head of Marketing Communications here at Simply Measured, where I'm responsible for our content program, social media marketing, PR, and comarketing ventures. I love yoga, The X-Files, peaty scotch, hiking, and poetry. If I were a social media channel, I’d want to be Instagram, but I think I’m Twitter.