Meet Sean Adler, a scholar turned entrepreneur. While pursuing a clinical program in China during 2018, he began to sense a significant divide between academic and functional knowledge. This influenced the decision to give up his scholarship from the Chinese government in spite of their generosity, so he could pursue an entrepreneurial career. Sean started GZI during his time as a graduate student in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins while he gained experience with the investing side of entrepreneurship by screening ventures for a number of groups across the United States.
Sean outperformed some of the largest hedge funds in the world during the coronavirus crash of 2020 after the initial development of quantitative trading strategies for international biotechnology companies during the coronavirus crash of 2020, which led to GZI becoming a top-ranked Founder Institute portfolio company with a multimillion-dollar valuation. In addition to his tenure as CEO of GZI, he sporadically participates in startup mentorship programs with the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center and Founder Institute.
Sean’s professional background is versatile across domains in startups and investments but is most concentrated in international tech startups, biotech, and fintech. This includes skills like data science, statistical programming, managerial business, genomic data science, and Mandarin Chinese. He is generally very busy, though, nevertheless, feel free to hit him up if you think you’d get along or if something about his profile speaks to you.
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Table of Contents
We’re happy that you could join us today! Please introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your story?
Sean Adler: The first seven interviews should cover that. My first three interviews cover GZI’s origins. The remaining interviews cover our evolution. This covers how I went from negotiating with armed guards in surgical masks to negotiating company valuations.
CEOs and leaders usually have different motives and aspirations when getting started. Let’s go straight to the beginning. What was your primary goal for starting your business? Was it wealth, respect, or to offer a service that would help improve lives?
Sean Adler: It was a combination of wealth and independence. I once believed honing my intellect how to become successful, but was blind to politics. My biochemistry professor at Hopkins told us to never submit our best work as graduate students and he was right. Academics are reluctant to admit it, but a lot of bright people become stuck in academia. My maternal grandfather was a professor at UPenn. He quoted Kissinger when speaking of academic politics, “Academic politics are so bitter is because the spoils are so meager.”
I wanted something independent of politics that would work the same way regardless of human error. Biotech stocks were volatile but were also one of the only sectors that could net you 1000% without options. I liked that because I needed to stretch what money I had as far as possible. That’s what led me to algo trading for biotechnology companies in 2019. COVID spiked the company’s popularity 2020 and we were rolling up corporate partners in 2021.
Tell us about 2 things that you like and two things that you dislike about your industry. Share what you’d like to see change and why.
Sean Adler: I’ll list the dislikes first. Brutal industry politics and complex legal regulations are the two things I dislike the most. Their existence is often subjective and petty, yet their influence on corporate governance is dramatic. The stakes are high for everyone involved so there is a small group of people who understand what is happening. Everyone is double-checking eachother because of conflicts of interest. The formal term is “Due Dilligence”, but it’s a formal way of describing checking facts and alignment.
Valuations and fundraises will highlight who is on the same page as the executive team and their corporate partners. What the company needs in a 3-6 month period can change when it’s growing. Employees who were once crucial may no longer have the experience to take the company to the next level. In one year, GZI has gone from 500 pages of legal and financial documents to 1,500. The scale of those changes can be nauseating at times.
Here’s the fun part. I love the ability to be my own boss and play around with various technical domains so long as they benefit the company. There is no other job that would give me the same creative freedom and financial gain. Some of the startups out there are developing incredible technology that will touch millions of lives and I’m honored to be pat of that. I am fortunate enough to have more money than I once imagined in company equity, but said money is bound to various caveats.
Companies around the world are rapidly changing their work environment and organizational culture to facilitate diversity. How do you see your organizational culture changing in the next 3 years and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Sean Adler: I’m not going to worry about organizational culture in 3 years because it will change itself. Companies change as they grow. Developing the product, working with partners, and onboarding will continue to change the company so I won’t have to. True organizational change occurs when executives learn to pass the torch to someone who can carry out their vision without them.
If you want to foster diversity, then hire globally. The experiences of each employee from various countries becomes engrained in the company.
We have some early offers to sell the company so I may be responsible for those changes, but may step down.
According to the Michigan State University “An organization’s culture is responsible for creating the kind of environment in which the business is managed, and has a major impact on its ultimate success or failure.” What kind of culture has your organization adopted and how has it impacted your business?
Sean Adler:It’s easier to make umbrella statements about company culture when operations are at a smaller scale. At this stage, I manage relationships and the people we have relationships with manage a separate team that executes a function. GZI manages a remote workforce of about 15-20 people and each one of those manages another 5-10. This lets us scale organization flow without needing any infrastructure.
In a nutshell, I’d say GZI has a very fluid and resilient culture. We try to maintain the features that defined us with relevant trends as they become relevant.
Richard Branson once famously stated “There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” and Stephen R. Covey admonishes to “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. What’s your take on creating a great organizational culture?
Sean Adler: Be genuine. If you can’t truly be the person you want as the CEO of your own company, then you’ve got the wrong team or things aren’t operating the way they should. Biologists talk about symbiotic relationships where both organisms work in unison. That was the formula for company culture. People grow together when you have the right team because they are both similar and different enough from each other. A great organizational culture emerges when people balance each other out. You’ll know it when it hits you because the feeling of finding the right fit with a 1 in 10,000 hire is uncanny.
It’s important to emphasize that “Always treating your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” is true when interests align. It can be harmful when employees have conflicts of interests because it exaggerates them. Being a decent human being is tantamount to company success if everyone is being honest. This doesn’t always happen when 7-figure contracts govern.
The overwhelming majority of more than 9,000 workers included in a recent Accenture survey on the future of work said they felt a hybrid work model would be optimal going forward, a major reason for that being the improved work-life balance that it offers. How do you promote work-life balance at your company?
Sean Adler: Everyone works remotely so they can choose their own hours if they meet our timelines. Number of hours worked is less relevant that the work completed. Infrastructure is online when you run a tech startup so I rarely force people to meet in person because it’s not necessary if things get done.
Remote work also expands the hiring pool open to you, which creates infinite opportunity.
How would you describe your company’s overall culture? Give us examples.
Sean Adler: Our company’s culture is increasingly defined by our corporate partners. The founding team defines the culture for smaller and early stage companies. Corporate partners and investors begin to influence company culture. At that point, the company reflects its original self and its partnerships. The operations of one company become entwined with that of another and I can’t say anymore.
Birds of a feather flock together. When interests align, the flock expands. When they’re misaligned, the flock splits in different direction.
It is believed that a company’s culture is rooted in a company’s values. What are your values and how do they affect daily life at the workplace?
Sean Adler: I do my best to be flexible beyond that since I’ve stopped counting the number of people I manage or engage with on a weekly basis. The scope of our workplace is vast enough that what I do has a minimal effect unless I am dealing with an individual corporate partner directly.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts.
Sean Adler: Letting an advisor go because he wasn’t right for the company, in spite of me having immense respect for him and remaining friends. This was in the company’s best interests, but I still find the decision somewhat unsettling.
Company operations became easier after we let him go, but I still wish everyone’s professional interests were aligned.
An organization’s management has a deep impact on its culture. What is your management style and how well has it worked so far?
Sean Adler: In 2020 and early 2021 my management style was technical and focused on quantifiable details in tech, science, and finance. Legal agreements have shifted my management style to a more politically savvy one due to constant negotiations. My management style was perfect for early stage companies. Now I’m dissatisfied with the constant negotiations that happen when large contracts are in question. There’s a constant back-and-forth where nobody is completely forward at the beginning. The higher the stakes become, the more opaque everyone’s intentions become.
Every organization suffers from internal conflicts, whether functional or dysfunctional. Our readers would love to know, how do you solve an internal conflict?
Sean Adler: At this stage, our legal team helps with internal conflicts and I stay away from them. I’ll step in if it means letting people go or their presence adds enough value to be deterministic for the company. GZI has numerous corporate partners, each with their own set of rules and agreements that the company is bound to. I generally deal with people representing an individual organization. Rarely do I have time to handle things at an individual level unless people are signing contracts. I do my best not to sign contracts that aren’t in alignment with what’s signed.
According to Culture AMP, Only 40% of women feel satisfied with the decision-making process at their organization (versus 70% of men), which leads to job dissatisfaction and poor employee retention. What is your organization doing to facilitate an inclusive and supportive environment for women?
Sean Adler: Gender doesn’t matter to GZI, experience does. Our top UX designer is a woman. We chose her over a glut of male candidates because her designs were faster and better than everyone else’s. This can get more complex if a female employee is raising a young child while managing her career. I’ve allowed key female employees to bring their children to meetings if they deem it necessary.
Neglecting her children will have a negative impact on her performance at the company. We’ve also relieved key male employees of their duties after they’ve made unnecessary sexual comments. Focus on results, not gender.
What role do your company’s culture and values play in the recruitment process and how do you ensure that it is free from bias?
Sean Adler: It’s not free from bias and I don’t think it ever is. Our culture is somewhat competitive by nature because our partners expect results. If results aren’t produced, our partners will ask me why.
My favorite employees are the successful ones who come from untraditional backgrounds. We’ll hire designers who work with cryptocurrency. Then we have the product revamped by designers in music or healthcare consulting. Doing that tailors the product to subsets within the initial population. You’ll attract customers in finance who like music or biotech and target customers. Doing so keeps us relevant and original.
We’re grateful for all that you have shared so far! We would also love to know if there was one thing that you could improve about your company’s culture, what would it be?
Sean Adler: I’d like to decrease the company’s workload so I have the privilege of being more patient with employees. It’s hard to motivate people as a slave driver and easy if they know you care. I wish I could spend more time with each person but there are so many that I can’t manage it that way anymore.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Sean Adler:What should be simple at an executive level is often complex and perverted by organizational politics. Nobody wants to say it, but everyone knows it’s there. So right now our legal and accounting team is stuck on the receiving end of everyone’s committee. The committees agree on the same valuation, but all three of them are giving us different answers. Everyone participates under their contracts and interests.
Offers are being finalized for closing the financing for this round or initiating a sale of the company. I enjoy being the face of the company but have grown tired of loyalties being as deep as their contracts
This has been truly insightful and we thank you for your time. Our final question, however, might be a bit of a curveball. If you had a choice to either fly or be invisible, which would you choose and why?
Sean Adler: Be invisible. The happiest week of my life was the one without emails. Messages will keep rolling in and I’d still respond to my inbox in mid air if I could.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sean Adler for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sean Adler or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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