Yoonkee Sull, ICONIQ Growth’s new General Partner, on independent thinking, unbridled conviction, and truth seeking in investment
Interview by Matt Jacobson | January 27, 2022
There are certain people who you meet on life’s journey that shock you to your core, who you will remember forever, and who change your course and trajectory. For me and ICONIQ Growth, a fateful meeting with Yoonkee Sull in a hip Chelsea bar eight years ago impacted everything for the better.
Yoonkee carried himself with maturity well beyond his experience. His brilliance was extraordinary, but constrained by genuine humility. His hunger, forged at an early age and carried with him through life, was palpable. His energy to drive and build was (and remains) immense. At the time, the ICONIQ Growth team was five people and a dream, but it was clear that Yoonkee was a critical part of our future.
Nearly eight years after that fateful meeting, Yoonkee has contributed enormously as a core architect and leader in building ICONIQ Growth. He remains selflessly dedicated to the continuous service of our business partners and our team. We are immensely proud to announce his promotion to General Partner.
Yoonkee’s impact has been exceptional and has compounded magnificently over time. Yoonkee is deeply passionate about supporting the ambitions and dreams of incredible founders and teams and works tirelessly as a partner to support them. He was a critical pillar in our partnership with companies such as BambooHR, Dialpad, Red Ventures, Automattic, Wolt, Sendbird, People.ai, Chime, and many others. Yoonkee also serves as a lead partner and/or board member for Fetch Rewards, Wealthsimple, Intercom, Motorway, Recharge Payments, Squire, and Groww.
Within ICONIQ Growth, Yoonkee has been a driver, an innovator, and a mentor. He leads our New York City office and its vibrant culture with strength and followership. In addition to working closely with our portfolio companies, he has heavily invested his time and energy into providing leadership opportunities for ICONIQ Growth’s rising next generation of talent.
“Yoonkee is an incredible role model,” one of his team members told me. “He brings a rare combination of clarity of thought, poise, empathy, enthusiasm, and gravitas which inspires a lot of confidence and respect.”
On the occasion of Yoonkee’s promotion to General Partner, I enjoyed asking him about some of the experiences and philosophies that guide him. –Matt Jacobson, General Partner, ICONIQ Growth
How has your life’s journey informed who you are as a leader and partner?
By the time I was 25, I had lived in South Korea and eight cities across seven states in the US. From an early age, I became accustomed to adapting to new environments and cultures having moved around so frequently. Looking back, the experiences that came with having to make a new best friend every few years helped shape how I connect with people from a variety of backgrounds and my desire to stay curious. I have continued to remind myself of a few things along the way:
Listen and be kind. I received great advice long ago to always give first and give more. As a manager and partner to founders, it has helped me build relationships on transparency and longevity. But knowing when and how to give has come from my desire to be a good listener and recognizing that empathy can open people up and help me connect in ways others may not.
Do not get too comfortable. I think it is hard to plan for much longer than two years out at any given time. Circumstances change. Our assumptions need to change with that, and I have found a lot of value in remaining agile and keeping a flexible mindset.
Create a prepared mind for the right opportunity. The next big thing might be sitting right in front of me, but without at least months and ideally years of preparation, I may not recognize it. I have also learned to recognize it may take longer than I might hope for a specific thesis to play out. But that’s OK because patience can often be highly rewarding.
A few years ago, you urged us to deepen our East Coast coverage and raised your hand to move out of Silicon Valley to lead that charge. What drove that thinking and how has it played out?
Well, I love New York.
In all seriousness, we have long been bullish on the entrepreneurial ecosystems being built on the East Coast and have partnered with a number of companies based here for years. To continue this close partnership with this ecosystem, we needed to be on the ground. When we partner with founders, we begin what we hope will be relationships that last for decades, and being present helps build the mutual trust and alignment we seek in every one of our partnerships.
A few of us moved across the country in summer 2019. Eight months later, the pandemic hit. We had to press pause on the many in-person meetings and events we had planned for, so things have not exactly played out as expected. But it turns out there are incredibly talented individuals who call or want to call New York home! I could not be prouder of our team here, which has more than doubled in size since the pandemic started.
We have also learned how to effectively work as a distributed team with a focus on advancing our cultural values. I think we will look back on our expansion to the East Coast as a source of many learnings that we will apply to our growth elsewhere in the years to come.
Going back to the original goal, we are more excited than ever about the founders and communities on the East Coast and can already look to many examples where our presence, even during the pandemic, has helped us forge numerous new partnerships and deepen existing ones.
Many of our colleagues attribute their personal growth and development to your mentoring and admire you deeply as their role model. Why are you so passionate about developing others and what are a few core pieces of wisdom you impart as a mentor?
Hearing that gives me so much joy. I have been lucky to have great mentors, many of whom are my ICONIQ Growth partners and have contributed immensely to my growth. Their investments in me have been transformational, and I want to pay that forward.
What drives me is executing against a huge vision—to partner with incredible founders and companies and help them achieve their ambitions. Our ability to be successful depends entirely on who we hire, how we develop talent, and how we push, enable, and support each other. My hunger to win is partly why I am so passionate about helping develop others.
The other part is personal. When you give exceptional people the right tools and environment, they will achieve amazing things, and there is nothing more fulfilling than watching people I so deeply care about flourish. I have also been pleasantly surprised by how much I grow myself just by being an active listener and doing my best to support the aspirations of my colleagues.
Pieces of wisdom? Be patient and empathetic. Find and exercise your own unique voice. Look up and ahead. Stay hungry and humble.
Looking back on your career, what are the key learnings you’ve had as a partner?
We have partnered with many incredible companies when faced with uncertainty: Early in the pandemic. Significant customer concentration. Real competitive risk. Maturing unit economics. Less proven budgets. But they were balanced by differentiated points of view that might have required a certain level of optimism others did not have. I think it can be easy to fall into the dangerous trap of herd mentality, but it is critical to develop independent thought to participate in exceptional value creation.
I also believe having unbridled conviction in teams matters most. I have learned this painfully by passing on partnership opportunities where I failed to recognize the strength of the leadership. I have also had the fortune to partner with incredible founders who have executed way beyond imagination. Building is an ongoing journey of ups and downs, and the best teams should prevail no matter the environment.
Lastly, things are neither as good nor as bad as they ever seem to be. It does not mean a great situation will become challenging or that a challenging situation will necessarily turn around. But it does mean seeking truth with a balanced framework is important.
What are some potential areas of transformation that you are thinking about?
There are a few themes and questions I have been thinking through recently:
Full stack models—will more value eventually accrue to consumer services that are end-to-end and more integrated even if they are lower margin?
Globalization of commerce—what are the different infrastructures, systems, and rails that will enable frictionless commerce anywhere and for anything?
Distribution of financial services—will disproportionate economic share be captured by applications with which people already have relationships?
Rise of digital assets—what are the tools and services that need to be built in order to support the rapidly growing interest to own and utilize digital assets?
All the same, my interests are broad and varied, and there is nothing more fun than when I meet founders who are willing to challenge my theses and illustrate aspirational futures I never considered.
Why should a founder choose to work with ICONIQ Growth?
People talk about the importance of network effects for good reason. It is powerful to be a part of a platform where every incremental node in the network enhances the experience for the collective. I believe this is what we have architected at ICONIQ Growth.
Over time, we have meaningfully deepened our relationships with our founders and management teams, our team, and our extended network. We have also significantly grown the relationship set. When founders choose to work with us, they not only have access to our incredibly vibrant ecosystem, but also the opportunity to contribute to it and influence what more we build in the future. We are fortunate to have partners on all sides who are excited to invest into the platform, which enables us to have unique impact commercially, personally, and societally.
The other aspect is who we are as humans. My colleagues are some of the most hardworking and hungry yet humble people I know who love to win as a team and thrive on giving more than we receive. While any one individual might represent us on the board, founders really have a relationship with every one of us. Trusted partnerships, humility, excellence, integrity, and diversity—those are the values written on our walls, and we strive to live them out every day alongside our founders.
What is your advice for founders seeking to build a next-generation company that can scale for the long term?
Define and stay with your values, and hire and empower great people who will help advance them.