When you learn that Everest cofounder and CEO Francis Pedraza got a degree in history from Cornell in 2011, it's not a total shocker.
You can sense it in his comfort with Latin, the unapologetically broad sweep of his vision, and the adorability of his hero worship.
Take Leonardo da Vinci, who inspired the self-realization startup.
"Da Vinci was a human being and I’m a human being," Pedraza says. "If I’m made of the same stuff as he was made of—even remotely the same stuff—then you have to look at his life and say, 'Oh my gosh, is that what I’m capable of? Is that what everyone else on the planet is capable of?' We have so much potential."
Everest—an app that's equally social network and organizing productivity hack—is his and his 10-member team's attempt to help turn people's potential into reality.
How so? By systematizing discipline that productivity gurus preach: taking amorphous goals and turning them into actionable steps. In other words, Everest acts as a translator for turning dreams into actions, so instead of feeling tongue-tied about how to learn a language, go on a world trip, or climb a mountain, Everest helps us describe what we need to do to ourselves—and share the journey with others.
As Pedraza tells Fast Company, that high-level vision radiates throughout the company.
Dreams are usually left unrealized due to two de-motivating factors, Pedraza contends: a lack of structure and a lack community.
He found this himself back in school: When he wanted to organize his personal goals, he found that there wasn't a tool tailored to self development. Sure, he could scribble onto a notepad or toil at a spreadsheet, but there was no way to track if he was actually on the path to progress.
"I felt like there was a missing hole in the software that existed," he recalls. "There should be something like this."
Pedraza had seen that software could shape behavior. Back in 2009 he helped launch DoBand, a bracelet that acted like LiveStrong meets Nike+. Each DoBand had a number on it allowing it to be trackable. You'd type in the number on the website then perform some positive task—like doing 20 pushups, learning the harmonica, or going on a road trip—and then pass it along to a friend, who could look up whatever hijinks you got into while the thing was on your wrist. It became the It Thing on campus for a while—and showed that well-executed software and hardware could create a positive ripple effect.
So upon graduation, the goal became clear to Pedraza: to take the action-shaping, potential-catalyzing lessons of DoBand and apply them on a larger scale. So, as entrepreneurs do, he shipped out to Silicon Valley.
In the summer of 2011, he had a fateful phone call: He talked with Victor Mathieux, a designer who had made an award-winning—and profitable—paper product called A Goal Planner, which helped people focus on one goal and realize it.
"I had read dozens of books about goal-setting and personal development," Mathieux says, "but had yet to find a single well-designed product that guided people through an effective goal-setting process, so I decided to scratch my own itch."
Soon after the phone call, Mathieux was sleeping on the floor of Pedraza's Palo Alto apartment. They found another cofounder in Katherine Krug, who would become the COO. They found advisors, sought funding. And then came an email on New Year's Day of 2012 from Peter Thiel saying "All right, I’m going to put in the first check; you’ll get the rest."
Everest's potential was starting to show. They launched the iPhone product this New Year's and iterated through May; version 2.0 is set to launch in October. So if a Goal Planner was the analog answer, the app would become the smartphone solution—all of which comes from vision.
Pedraza has stirred some electronic waters: He wrote a Svtble post lambasting the Lean Startup movement for lack of conviction:
The Lean Startup Movement has been the dominant school of thought in Silicon Valley for too long. I am an outspoken critic, because although it has given us a valuable tactical framework, it has removed from the conversation [the] casus belli. For years now, Silicon Valley has talked of nothing but battles, and forgotten about war.
The casus belli, for those of us without a Cornell education, is "the cause for war," the reason behind what it is that you're doing. Pedraza distinguishes between opportunist companies and visionary companies: An opportunist sees a hole in the market need and tries to fill it; the visionary sees a hole in human need and tries to fulfill that. Everest—which has the tagline, unlocking human potential—is firmly in the latter camp.
And as is the case with highly functioning companies like GitHub, Everest makes sure to bring in only those who are fitting the same wars. This is the foundation of their culture: a desire to make a difference in the world.
Which is what, Pedraza says, makes Everest exceptional:
We don't have to do what Google does, which is, "Hey, we provide a whole bunch of free shit," right? We don't have to do what a lot of startups do, which is we have this really, really, really great working environment, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We do have a great working environment. We do have a great culture. The differentiating quality is that everyone is deeply, deeply motivated by creating an impact and they've bought into our vision.
Which is why, by virtue of the speed necessitated by Everest's superhuman ambitions, Pedraza is a leader who doesn't manage.
"If you have to be responsible for everyone else individually contributing, there’s just not enough time to go around," he says. "We think of the first scaling problem as the pace at which everyone is learning. If everyone is growing at an accelerating rate as individuals, then the company will grow at an accelerating rate as a company."
That commitment to the casus belli also allows the startup-like aspects of the culture to emerge organically. They do meet-and-teaches (like an intern instructing everybody in kung fu). They go for hikes; they go rock climbing. Not because they're forced to, but because of the way the people relate.
"Really, it’s the simplest thing in the world," Pedraza says. "It's just like culture comes from people and relationships, right? The atomic element here is the people on the team and their relationships with each other. From that emerges the desire to be together, to do things together and help each other in our lives because we have shared values like personal growth."
Which brings us back to da Vinci. And vision.
Taking a pyramid block from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Pedraza notes that everyone has Big Things that they want to do in life—whether you call them goals, desires, ambitions, or, as Everest prefers, dreams. They could be big or small, but they're parts of our identities and if they don't get met—if you've always wanted to be musical but never learn the guitar—we grow frustrated.
Everest is the tool to help articulate those goals and engage in a conversation about them.
"If Facebook is a social network that defines people by who they know and your identity is built around who you know," he says. "With Everest, you’re defined by what you do, what you want to do in the future and what you’ve done in the past. We think of it as an action network. We also think this is dark data, the same way location data was dark before Foursquare."
So if you share your goals on Everest, you can find how other people completed them. Like if you're in San Francisco and want to become a chef, it can send information on cooking classes your way. Or if you want to get good at tennis, it can connect you with other would-be players. Which, in theory, could be as lucrative as it is catalyzing—since they'll be able to connect brands or providers to people who could use their product to realize their dreams.
Which is how Everest itself aims to become profitable, with alignment between all the stakeholders:
"We think we're going to be able to monetize in a more authentic way than previous platforms because we’ll just be bringing brands or providers into an experience in a very, very controlled way where their position is helping people accomplish their goals, not where they’re advertising."
In other words, the advertisers, the team, and the users will all agree on the same casus belli: to unlock human potential.
[Image: Flickr user Fred Postles]