The secret to life is running, reading, and coffee.

Interview with Alexander White, CEO at Subcity
April 25, 2022
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Alex White co-founded the music data company Next Big Sound in 2008 and was the CEO until the company was acquired by Pandora (NYSE: $P) in 2015. Alex spent 5 years at Pandora, ultimately running all content and personalization across music, comedy, and podcasts and reporting to SiriusXM's Chief Content Officer. Along with his Next Big Sound co-founders, Alex launched Next Big Ventures investing in 3-4 data analytics companies a year from 2015-2020, and developed and taught a Music Data Analytics course at NYU as an adjunct professor over those same years.

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After a year-long sabbatical, he is spinning up a new company called Subcity. The startup is dedicated to helping small manufacturers discover, claim, and collect economic incentives. One of their first clients, the community-oriented producer of natural personal care products, Dr. Squatch, has just been awarded a historic $10M tax credit (among the top 25 tax-credits ever awarded in California) to support their continued growth and development in the Golden State. Fresh off a $3m financing round Subcity is hiring their “first five” founding team members.

More info at or shoot him an email!

What was the biggest risk you've taken in your life?

I need to share some impossibly sad background for this question: I've lost two people in my immediate family. Seeing the fragility of life has forced me to have a different perspective on risk. Starting companies from scratch, managing cash or financing concerns, re-organizations, leadership changes, and other moments that others think are risky or debilitatingly scary - those all pale in comparison with the finiteness and fragility of life.

Fear is one of the biggest motivators we have. How do you use fear against itself (by finding something you are even more afraid of) to power you towards what you want?

Quitting my consulting job before I started in the Fall of 2008 to co-found a music startup was, on paper, the biggest professional risk I've ever taken. Yet, it seems far riskier to me to spend precious years working at a job I don't enjoy, with people I don't respect, on a mission that doesn't deeply resonate with me personally.

What are the traits of successful leaders?

Here are a few of the big ones I always keep in mind:

  1. Self-aware of their strengths and where they need help.
  2. Authentic to their own style.
  3. Willingness to really listen to other points of view and not afraid to have hard conversations.

I'm a believer in Daniel Pink's three drivers of professional motivation (from his excellent book, Drive) → autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

I believe leadership's job is to set the context for people to do the best work of their lives along these dimensions.

Who’s your role model?

Rather than having single role models, I like to unpack what I like or respect about various individuals and figure out how I can emulate or apply that to my life. I've been fortunate to meet many of my personal and professional idols in my career: world-famous musicians, business executives, investors, and entrepreneurs. The closer you get to anyone, you realize that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and the polished, shiny posts you've seen from afar aren't reality. At this point in my life, I'm particularly impressed with serial entrepreneurs (who know roughly what they are getting into and still proceed) and can have a family, social life, or just maintain a semblance of balance and perspective.

What inspired you to start Subcity?

I was fortunate to be able to take a year off and spend time with family and really relax. I quickly realized that I never wanted to retire: I just wanted to work on hard, impactful problems with smart people.

As I searched for my next mountain to climb, I knew I wanted to use my interest in collective intelligence and predictive analytics in complex, adaptive systems to improve cities. Cities have always been engines of opportunity and upward mobility for humanity. In 2006 the planet crossed a wild threshold, with more than half of the world’s population residing in urban centers. It is now expected to rise above 75 percent by 2050.

At Subcity, we want to democratize access to capital for America’s small businesses by first leveraging our dataset to pair small manufacturers with the billions of dollars in local, state, and federal economic development incentives and tax credits already allocated to support this strategic industry.

What’s your advice to founders or would-be entrepreneurs or leaders?

The secret to life is running, reading, and coffee. Now you know.

The first two I stole from the great modern-day philosopher, Will Smith.

The reason why running is one of the secrets to life is that it’s hard. Every second on a treadmill, a little voice inside your head tells you to slow the speed down, lower the incline, or run a shorter distance than you were planning on running. A big part of life is overcoming that voice in your head and pressing on to the completion of your goals.

Reading is one of the secrets of life because you aren’t the first human being to ever live. Much human wisdom has been collected, consolidated, and bound into books over the last hundred years. Learning at the speed of life is too slow, and reading is one of the best ways to accelerate that learning curve.

Finally, coffee. The reason why coffee is the third and final secret of life is not for its obvious caffeinated properties but rather the way a 30-60 minute chat over coffee can forge a new relationship, change your perspective, or connect you to a life-changing opportunity. In the same way that reading about the journeys of other human beings can accelerate your learning, nothing important in this world happens without other people. Whether you drink tea, water, or a delicious cortado, meeting people over a beverage to listen to their experiences and get their advice is invaluable.

Together with the advice and relationships built over coffee, the knowledge from reading, and the drive to see things through to completion, that’s all you really need to live life to your full potential - whatever that means for you!

Exaltitude is a learning community for ambitious engineers who are looking to get to the next level through exploring people management, senior tech lead, or leadership roles. Through the 8-week Leadership Circle program, gain more clarity about yourself and your career goals while building relationships with like-minded engineers and mentors who will help you unlock your full potential!

Subcity is hiring!

Fresh off a $3m financing round Subcity is hiring their “first five” founding team members.

Their seed round was led by Homebrew with participation from BoxGroup, Slauson & Co, V1VC, The Fund, IA Ventures, Garuda, current and former executives from top FinTech companies like Intuit, Stripe, and Plaid and several other great angels and institutions. 

Apply here.

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