Life Reimagined Insights with Investor and Entrepreneur Breanden Beneschott
Meet Breanden Beneschott, an insanely ambitious startup founder, investor, and philanthropist. I first met Breanden in 2016 while working for one of his companies. I’m proud to say that he’s been an incredible friend, mentor, and leader since that first encounter.
Over the years, I’ve been impressed by Breanden’s intelligence and ambition. Whenever I think, “I can solve this problem and grow this business by X,” Breanden reminds me that we can solve the problem better and grow the business by 4X. His endless appetite for growth, alongside his ability to work harder than anyone I know, is what makes him so successful in his ventures.
While I first met Breanden through business, I’ve continued to hang out with him because of his kind heart. When my mom passed away in 2018, Breanden stuck by my side despite me leaving his company to pursue another endeavor. He rented a badass car, drove to the funeral, and took me back to his house to hang with him and his amazing daughter. Their support and generosity helped me get through the first few weeks of grieving in one piece.
I’m elated to share my wide-ranging interview with Breanden in which he discusses his life and business philosophy, leadership lessons, favorite books, and more.
Who is Breanden Beneschott?
Breanden Beneschott is the cofounder and CEO of Mechanism, a venture firm that partners with founders to fund, launch, and scale ambitious companies. In his 20s, he lived in 30+ countries while cofounding a staffing company that bootstrapped its way to more than $100 million in annual revenue.
Outside of building companies, Breanden is a dedicated father to his four-year-old daughter, an avid polo player, and a frequent writer. He splits his time between Florida and San Francisco.
You grew up as a lower middle class kid in Reno and got accepted to Princeton when you were 16 years old. How did that happen?
The 16 years old part comes from starting school a year early and skipping the 8th grade.
I think my ambition to go to a top university started when I was six during my first year as a gymnast. I remember walking into the gym, and there was a big commotion around one of the older athletes. My mom explained to me that he had just gotten a full-ride scholarship to be on the Stanford gymnastics team.
She explained how Stanford was a big deal, and it was clear from all the commotion that people agreed. He didn’t have to pay for college because he was an elite gymnast and a top student. I admired the respect that everyone had for him, and I wanted to be like him. So I decided, “Okay, I’m going to Stanford as well.”
So at six-years-old, getting to Stanford on a full-ride became my goal, and I took gymnastics very seriously. I started competing across the country and trained 5-6 days a week. In school, I studied diligently and tried to take advantage of every opportunity I could get.
I was fortunate to get accepted to the Davidson Institute early on, an organization that helps “profoundly gifted” kids accelerate their academics. It unlocked unique opportunities for me, like doing research within the Mechanical Engineering Departments at Stanford and UNR when I was 13. I ended up spending years and hundreds of hours in clean rooms and labs as a teenager and eventually coauthored several research papers. Working alongside professors and post docs as a teenager motivated me to work harder and to be smarter. I was pretty much never the smartest person in the room.
Those events, alongside luck and very supportive parents, led me to Stanford.
However, I got hurt when I was a senior in high school, which ended gymnastics for me and upset me a lot. So being a not-very-rational teenager, I decided I wanted to go far away and chose Princeton instead.
What did you learn growing up that still sticks with you today?
One of my earliest memories is waking up one morning and telling my mom that I wanted to build a spaceship. I think I was four or five.
My mom, being endlessly supportive, responded with something like, “If there’s anybody who can do it, it’s you.” I was fired up, and I went to my dad to get started, and he said, “Okay, we’re gonna do this, but we have only one trip to Home Depot. So you need to think carefully.” He used to frequently tell me, “Measure twice; cut once.”
My dad and I then spent the whole day using hacksaws, measuring things, and cobbling together a spaceship. It was a very fun and empowering experience.
I don’t remember what we did with the spaceship, but I think about that experience often. I feel lucky to have had extremely supportive parents who valued education and creativity. My dad was pragmatic and realistic, and my mom emanated endless love and support.
I think that mix of pragmatism and unconditional belief has helped me tremendously in my life and career. It’s allowed me to confidently pursue new ventures and solve hard problems in a sensible way.
And I think I learned dream-big-start-small at a very young age.
You built a $100M+ revenue, fully remote company in your 20s while traveling to over 30 countries. How did you do that?
I cofounded Toptal from my dorm room at Princeton with a business partner who lived in Palo Alto. I was studying chemical engineering at the time, so in between lectures and labs as a senior, I took calls, sent emails, and talked with clients on Skype. We were winging it, but we had good traction right from the start. I remember running the numbers, and it took us about eight weeks to hit a $1M run rate.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that you needed to go to Silicon Valley, raise money, and open an office to build a successful tech company. But with how well we were doing out of a dorm room, I realized that we could succeed outside of the traditional paradigm.
So instead of having the massive overhead of Silicon Valley talent and offices, we decided to skip the Valley and head to cheap, awesome countries in Central Europe to continue growing the company. We started in Budapest thanks to a recommendation from a friend.
Budapest was an amazing place to be in my twenties. The power of the dollar was much higher than what it was in San Francisco. We weren’t paying ourselves much, but we could still have a penthouse apartment in the downtown area. We were living like kings.
With low overhead, we were able to invest more money into growing the business. Traveling, in a funny way, proved to be very ROI positive for the business. Wherever I went, I met extremely talented people who were not on the radar of any US companies. We were able to hire thousands of these individuals and deploy them to work with clients all over the world. By the time I settled down, I had traveled to 30+ countries, and the business had grown to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
At a relatively young age, you’ve led fast-growing and large organizations. What’s been your biggest challenge or lesson as a leader?
I think I’m best at being a scrappy, individual contributor. I like owning design, growth, engineering, and doing whatever it takes to go from zero to one. It’s exhilarating.
As a leader, I think that kind of generalist skill set is critical when a company is small. But once you go from 5 to 10 to 50 to 500+ employees, companies need different types of leadership.
As your company grows, your job becomes more about building and empowering your team — helping them get what they need and helping them get shit out of their way. Every little thing you used to do yourself becomes the job of another person, team, or whole department. That process is hard for me. I like doing things myself, but that just doesn’t scale.
Over time, I’ve learned to delegate, but it doesn’t naturally occur to me. I literally write reminders to myself like, “If you’re not the only person who can do this, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to do it.”
Learning how to let go has been a hard, but important lesson. I’m still working on it.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
My best friend in college, Eliot, was a brilliant physicist who saw greatness in everyone he met. Even when he had nothing to gain, he had this amazing curiosity about people and the world. I feel like he was the Pygmalion effect incarnate, and the greatness he saw in people inspired them to be great. I’ve never met anyone else like him.
Unfortunately, he died suddenly and tragically, and it hit me hard.
Since his passing, I’ve tried to be more like him. I try to see greatness in people, and I try to be good to people. In business, even if someone screws something up badly or is no longer the right fit for the company, I try to be very good to them.
Over the years, I think this philosophy has helped me build a great network. I feel grateful to consider thousands of people around the world to be my friends. As I encounter different problems in life and business, I usually have friends who are a call away. I think I am very lucky to have that. Eliot showed me that being good to people is the best way to operate.
What books have greatly shaped your thinking?
I first read Ender’s Game in sixth grade, and I loved it. It’s a science fiction story about Ender Wiggin, an extremely smart and empathetic child who is forced to lead a grueling military operation.
Ender navigates uncertain and harrowing situations in such an impressive and inspiring way. I’ve consistently turned to his logical and empathetic thinking process to navigate hard times in my own life and business. I find it effective and calming.
This book breaks down personality disorders like narcissism and borderline in plain-English. It explains why people with personality disorders behave the way they do, and it teaches you how to effectively deal with them.
More than 10% of people have some type of personality disorder, often caused by some kind of childhood trauma. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve had deep and extensive interactions with people who have these issues. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done and sometimes continues to be. This book has helped me navigate those situations a lot.
This is an entertaining read about the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman. Feynman was a very intelligent and curious person.
A good friend once told me, “You can’t be curious and judgmental at the same time.” Feynman embodied this principle to his core. He was infinitely curious. He wanted to know how everything worked — including the safes at Los Alamos National Lab where he was part of the team working on the atomic bomb in the 1940s. He figured out how to crack them, purely for his own amusement.
I have a tendency to be judgmental at times, so I try to remind myself to be more like Feynman. To be curious. I think it’s a more effective and joyful approach to life.
Wharton Professor, Adam Grant, has a theory that the world has givers, takers, and matchers. Givers give without expectation. Matchers do tit for tat. Takers take more than they give. If life is a race, takers often pull ahead initially. But over time, givers come out ahead.
I try to fall into the giver category. I think takers are assholes and matchers aren’t much better. However, after seeing so many takers “accomplish” big things in the world, I’ve asked myself, “Am I doing everything wrong?” This book made me feel much better about the long-term benefits of being a giver and a good person. It not only feels better, but it’s more effective in the long run.
What random stranger has had the biggest impact on your life?
In my 20s, I fell in love with playing polo while living abroad. After a long stint in Eastern Europe, I moved to Argentina to live on the side of a polo field in a big house with colleagues.
I’m a competitive person, so I took polo seriously. We’d get up at dawn to practice before coming back for a day of work. In the evening, we’d do it again. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
Early in the trip, though, I got hurt pretty badly while playing. The injury put me out for weeks, which fueled a lot of anger and resentment. I moved there to play polo, and all I could do was sit around feeling sorry for myself while my friends played.
On the way to a physical therapy session, I hit my low. Late to my session and stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, my frustration peaked. I looked over to the side of the road.
There was a child–maybe 6 years old–near a house located a couple of meters away from a freeway exit. Not a place you’d want to live. And it wasn’t really a house – it was more of a hut that barely stood and it sat jammed in next to a hundred just like it. The child didn’t have shoes or a shirt. His shorts were tattered and dirty.
But he stood there with a small rock in his hand. He bounced it up and down, running around to try and keep it in the air. All the while, he had a giant smile on his face. He looked genuinely and profoundly happy.
That moment punched me back to reality. I was sitting in my car angry about traffic and my inability to play polo. Meanwhile, there was this kid who appeared to have nothing but a rock and a pair of shorts next to the freeway. And he was happy.
I never met him, but I think about him every day. He shifted my perspective in that moment and to this day. I’m much more grateful for what I have. I lose that perspective at times, but remembering the vivid contrast of that situation helps me get back to a better place.
What’s one habit that’s improved the quality of your life?
Scheduling time to worry.
Everyone has bad things in their lives – a toxic person, business problems, burnout, and so on. A lot of times, these things are beyond your control. I end up spending endless hours being anxious about problems that are outside of my control.
So when I have a problem that worries me and is outside of my control, I will literally schedule a block of time on my calendar to worry. Worrying could mean reading emails about the situation, or it could mean just sitting there imagining the worst-case scenarios.
But that’s the only time I’m allowed to do it, which mentally frees up the rest of my time. When anxious thoughts enter my head, I give myself permission to dismiss them because they have a set time when they will be dealt with. And I move on.
This practice helps me stop catastrophizing. It’s been this strangely simple, but important mental hack. By the time I get to the calendared event, I usually don’t end up worrying nearly as much as I’d feared.
You’re now the Cofounder and CEO of Mechanism Ventures, a startup studio operating across industries. What do you hope to build over the next few decades?
I see my purpose in life as creating the maximum positive impact on the world. So when I left Toptal to pursue my next venture, I wanted to work on something that would allow me to scale my impact beyond the scope of one company. I wanted to go the Elon Musk route – building multiple big and impactful companies that change the world.
Mechanism, for me, was born out of that desire. When my cofounder and I sat down to plan out what we wanted to build, we talked about the company as our life’s work. We didn’t want to build and flip businesses. We wanted to build dozens of successful, highly-impactful, and ambitious companies.
We have a unique hypothesis for how to achieve that vision. Unlike traditional VCs, we want to have a very high on-base percentage. We want all of the companies we cofound and fund to succeed.
To get there, we focus on achieving early profitability and then building a big business on top of that. Our first company hit a $15M run rate and was profitable within months of launching.
We now have two portfolio companies, and we’ll launch three more this year. Mechanism is some of the most fun and interesting work I’ve done in years, and we’ve been able to build an incredibly empowering team and culture.
So over the next few decades, I expect us to have launched and scaled dozens of highly ambitious and highly successful companies.