Levels: A Cultural Anomaly

P: (512) 949-0782

A: 1250 S Capital of Texas Highway,
Building 3 Suite 4000 Austin, TX 78746

E:connect@txvpartners.com

Actionable insights

If you only have a couple of minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders can learn about Levels.

  • We are in a metabolic health crisis. Nearly 9 out of 10 Americans live with poor metabolic health. That’s significant, as this can contribute to fatigue, brain fog, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It also costs our healthcare system trillions.
  • Simple devices can help us improve our health. Using a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) opens up a world of data. You can see which foods spike your blood sugar, and using a system like Levels, make healthier decisions. It’s simple but powerful.
  • Building in public has obvious advantages. Levels shares almost all of its thinking publicly. That includes all-hands meetings and working sessions between company founders. Opening its doors has been a sharp move: despite being in beta, Levels has a groundswell of consumer support that’s unusual for a company at its stage.
  • You should protect your team’s “deep work” at all costs. Traditional work environments optimize for rapid-fire communication. Meetings, Slack, text messages, and stand-ups are examples. Levels thinks these defaults are disastrous and reduce the amount of “deep work” its team can do. It does everything possible to protect this time.
  • One CEO’s guide to productivity. Sam Corcos, Levels’ CEO, has been called the  “ultimate optimizer of work, life, the universe, and everything.” I studied his productivity playbook and pulled out tactics almost anyone can try for themselves.

This piece was written as part of The Generalist’s partner program. You can read about the ethical guidelines I adhere to in the link above. I always note partnerships transparently, only share my genuine opinion, and commit to working with companies I consider exceptional. Levels is one of them.

There is not a company on earth that runs quite like Levels.

That may sound hyperbolic, but after two months of following the team’s operations, talking with angel and institutional investors, and digging through every crevice and corner of their internal documentation, it is the only conclusion I can come to.

Other businesses may operate entirely remotely — and do so with great success. A slimmer subset may embrace asynchronous communication, jettisoning tools like Slack in favor of less urgent, more thoughtful discussion. A tiny fragment may have done away with meetings, too. And perhaps, an even smaller number also favor “building in public,” transparently sharing their successes and setbacks online.

All of which is to say, there are probably a handful of businesses that leverage this particular operating system — but I have found none that execute it with the fervor and intensity of Levels. It ratchets each one of these choices up to heights that, at first glance, might look absurd:

  • Levels is not just remote, the company’s CEO, Sam Corcos, is fully nomadic. He moves from city to city, state to state, living out a backpack with a few black t-shirts, a laptop, and his handmade “focus goggles.” That sets the tone for the company’s commitment to being location agnostic.
  • Levels is not just asynchronous by default, it “fights” meetings, Slack, and excessive emailing. Though not entirely outlawed, “synchronous” communication is treated warily and often assumed to be counter-productive.
  • Levels does not just build in public, it shares everything. Really. The company’s “Secret Master Plan” is open for anyone to see. Even weekly team forums are posted on YouTube, publicly available to view.

The sum of these decisions is culturally and operationally profound. At its heart, this approach is designed to optimize for one thing above all others: maximizing deep work. Levels has assembled an elite team unusual for a company its size; it is obsessed with giving that talent the mental space to flourish.

Operationally, these choices seem to have turned Levels into an executional machine. Though investors are naturally bullish on the companies they back, superlatives are rare. Highlighting one startup can sometimes be seen as implicitly damning others.

When it comes to Levels’ operational excellence, that etiquette is quickly dispensed with. Every investor I spoke to emphasized that this was not just a high-functioning team, but a genuinely exceptional startup, running at a pace that many had never seen before.

Vijay Pande, a founder of Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio Fund, is no stranger to working with healthcare unicorns. He said of Levels, “They just move faster than any other team I’ve worked with.”

In today’s piece, we’ll try to unpack why that’s the case. We’ll trace Levels’ origins, product innovation, broader strategy and pay particularly close attention to the cultural and operational playbooks that have generated such esteem. We’ll make sure to cover:

  • Inauspicious beginnings. The company that became Levels was just days from being shut down before a new team member delivered a new lease on life.
  • A colossal problem. Levels is seeking to solve the “metabolic health” crisis. Though you might not be familiar with the term, its impact is immense.
  • Building an “NPS unicorn.” What do Peloton and Warby Parker have in common? The answer is fundamental to Levels’ growth strategy.
  • A unique culture. How does Levels manage across countries and continents with close to zero meetings? A thoughtful, intentional culture helps. So do dozens of Notion documents and hundreds of Loom videos.
  • The Sam Corcos Starter Pack. After being dumbfounded by the insane output of the Levels’ CEO, I’ve spent a weird amount of free time watching Loom videos of how he organizes his life. I’ll walk through the biggest lessons.
  • Hiring founders. Levels has a remarkably tenured, high-caliber talent base for an early-stage startup. That’s the product of a savvy recruiting playbook.
  • Grading investors. When it comes to adding value™, VCs have a less than stellar reputation. Levels tracks how its investors perform and rewards those that contribute most effectively. It seems to get much more out of them, as a result.

By the end of this analysis, you’ll not only have an understanding of the opportunity Levels is chasing but what makes it a true cultural anomaly.

Origins

The path to founding Levels was not a straight one. It involved three different names, two CEOs, a green juice, a road trip, and more than a little luck.

Magic rodents

The mice had superpowers. There was no other way to say it.

Josh Clemente, an engineer at SpaceX, was stunned. He’d been spending his time working on a system designed to keep astronauts safe in high-oxygen environments. While most of us that have dreamt about visiting the universe beyond our planet might worry about running out of air, an abundance of oxygen can be equally if not more dangerous. Such an environment is highly flammable for one thing, but just as critically, too much oxygen can essentially poison us, shutting down our central nervous system.

In thinking through that challenge, Clemente had stumbled upon a paper by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida, focused on studying metabolic health. In the study, D’Agostino outlined how mice could survive up to 12x longer in a high-oxygen environment if they were in a state called “ketosis,” in which your body burns fat to fuel itself.

To Clemente, such a finding was radical. As an engineer, he’d always seen the body’s interaction with food as a relatively simple system with one calorie as good as the next. D’Agostino’s work suggested that was far from the case. Eating different types of foods could not only meaningfully change a complex animal’s body, it could be the difference between life and death.

Clemente was particularly primed to find such a message compelling. Despite being young, healthy, and active, he was often exhausted. The long hours at SpaceX were part of the problem — he spent many nights catching a few hours of sleep beneath his desk — but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something larger was causing his lethargy. In a pique of concern, he’d even visited a doctor, announcing that he was sure he had a terminal illness; he just needed help finding it.