Sonny Vu, Founder and CEO of Misfit, “Lessons from Failure and How I’m Going to Build My Next Company”

By Alex Garcia (Kai Co-President)

A few days ago I had the privilege of attending Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford at the Said Business School. I took notes for the sessions I attended, and hope that these might be useful for other members of the Wesleyan entrepreneurship community. In the master post linked here you can find links to the notes of other lectures I attended. Said Business School also video-recorded them, and when they’re posted I’ll update these posts with the links. These notes definitely don’t do justice to these talks.


Sonny is the founder and CEO of Misfit, a wearables company founded in 2011—starting right at the tremendous growth of the wearables market. Their first product, Shine, launched via a highly successful Indiegogo campaign. For those thinking of using crowd-funding, Sonny claims Indiegogo is better and “friendlier” than Kickstarter. The campaign raised $846,675 which far exceeded their initial $100k funding goal. Over the years they have launched several other wearable tech products aiming to improve fitness. The goal of Misfit is to make wearable tech “that doesn't look like wearable tech.” These days, Sonny seems measured about the future of the Wearables market. He noted the retention problems many wearable companies face, and put it this way, “if you forgot [a wearable] at home you wouldn't go back to get it. For your iPhone you definitely would.” Future wearable technology will have to become “indispensable” if they are to be successful. Possible future approaches could be making wearables act as keys, payment systems, and home-control. Under this logic, Misfit has now expanded into the smart home market and has products such as “smart” LED lights that can be controlled by an app.

After giving this background info, Sonny went into the meat of his topic. The advice in this talk can be split into the categories of hiring, culture, values, and people.


According to Sonny, hiring is by far the most important aspect. In hiring he was greatly influenced by Jack Sculley’s catch phrase “only hire people you like,” because, as you may know, startup work weeks can get up to 70 hours a week. He added “hiring people you don’t like is one of the most terrible life situations you can get in,”  and that hiring out of “desperation” has never worked for him either.

The next component of hiring is looking for skills, and not just IQ. The main focus of this advice is the avoidance of hiring smart, but egotistical people that will be toxic to the company. Along these lines, he believes wisdom is more important than experience. There have been times when he’s hired people who say they have twenty years of experience, but in reality “have only one year of experience twenty times.” In other words, people that are not team players and have been jumping around for quite some time. Lastly, there’s hiring for cultural fit. He says performance is one thing, but values are non-negotiable.

Culture and Values

 In regards to culture, it is important to set the foundation early he cautions. In what some people might view as undesirable, he advocates for work-life integration. He calls startup life “a bit of an obsession” and argues that it is actually desirable to always be thinking about work. There are plenty of examples of great work cultures, and he says Netflix and Google have built an entrepreneurial culture within their companies. Towards making this kind of culture he thinks having small “autocratic” teams that are allowed to fail is a great approach. In other words, these teams can make decisions on their own and avoid bureaucracy.

In Sonny’s discussion of values he immediately recommended looking into the author Jack Welch. Jack writes on topics such as values versus performance that Sonny find to be true. Below is the chart he cited in his talk:



From this chart Sonny gave the anecdote of a great salesperson he once had working for Misfit. This salesperson was fantastic and could “sell sand to someone in the desert.” However, as the salesperson moved up the ranks the person would become more and more entitled and make subordinates do more of the work ze was supposed to be doing. Ze started to see hirself as above taking out the trash and other simple things, and it became clear ze did not share Misfit’s team values. So, Sonny fired this person. As he concluded, “sales were crippled for a quarter, but it was absolutely worth it.”

(ze and hirself are gender neutral pronouns) 


For people, he thinks that even cash strapped startups should spend time and resources on their employees. A key component of this is what he calls “the right to regular, bi-directional feedback processes.” This goes for managers, subordinates, and even himself. In this section he then pitches the startup life as a place where “you get to do things you are not qualified to do,” thus providing tremendous growth opportunities. To get involved though, one should make sure the work they’re doing is personally meaningful because work days can go from 7AM to 7PM.



So after this part the lecture opened up to questions and there were a few responses I’ll include that were particularly interesting.


•“Sales really is your job day in and day out.”

•"Build a business, not just a product. Be lean. Otherwise just be a product manager somewhere."


•You really need to find investors you can call when in trouble. Good investors provide help and comfort that let you know you’re supported.

•Most recent investors include Xiaomi. Xiaomi likes Misfit’s access to Western markets, and they like Xiaomi’s supply chain.

•Founder Fund example of group that is very founder friendly.

In Closing

Overall, I thought this lecture was a great rehash of considerations any new or small venture should have in mind. Again, the advice was very cliche, but I thought Sonny’s presentation and anecdotes did add an extra dimension of realness to these lessons. Another aspect was that he was very open to quoting and giving credit to thought leaders that have influenced him. This was a great example of a presentation presented in a mentor, not "I'm a hero", style format.