C-suite career advice: Brennan Spellacy, Patch

How important are specific certifications? “Show me what you've shipped, not what you've studied.”

Headshot of Brennan Spellacy, Co-Founder and CEO at Patch

Name: Brennan Spellacy

Company: Patch

Job Title: Co-Founder & CEO

Location: San Francisco, CA

Brennan Spellacy is the CEO & Co-Founder of Patch, the platform scaling unified climate action and empowering companies of all sizes to help rebalance the planet. The climate-tech startup offers businesses the broadest selection of carbon credits available through product integrations, direct purchases, and multi-year offtake agreements—all of which enable climate project developers to scale their solutions at the critical pace the planet requires. As CEO, Spellacy has solidified Patch's position as a market maker, bringing together players from across the ecosystem to scale climate action. Prior to founding Patch with co-founder Aaron Grunfeld, Spellacy worked in a range of product and engineering roles at Sonder and Shopify. He received a degree in chemical engineering from McGill University.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? I’ve had to learn to embrace that career paths within startups are non-linear and that's okay. Some of the greatest learning opportunities I've had in my career have come from moves that would be traditionally considered "backwards" or "sideways" rather than forwards. Startups are not a ladder you climb, but a jungle that you swing from vine to vine from.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Founders tend to believe their business is completely unique while investors tend to over index on pattern matching. The reality is almost always somewhere in between: if you're facing a problem, there's a high likelihood that a problem like it has been solved before. The key is finding the domain specific context that can't be ignored.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? The advice I generally give for climate tech also applies to tech more broadly, and that’s leverage your existing skill sets and experience. Subjects like climate science can be learned over time, but tangible skills and work experience cannot. At Patch, we’re looking for diverse backgrounds across industries, so I’d encourage candidates to showcase where and how they’ve applied their skills to support mission critical work.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I’ve always known I wanted to spend my career focusing on addressing the climate crisis but realising that through climate-tech was a journey for me. I studied chemical engineering with the intent of starting a career in renewable energy, but after graduating from McGill University, I was only able to secure jobs in the gas and oil industry. This didn’t align with my career goals, so I dove into programming and got an opportunity to work at Shopify as a web developer. This trajectory allowed me to develop the skills necessary to later build Patch in early 2020 and eventually work on making a positive impact towards addressing climate change.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started at Shopify as a web developer shortly after college and then moved on to a hospitality startup known today as Sonder. Both companies offered me the opportunity to develop skills outside of my traditional chemical engineering background.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? There is an over indexing for tech enabled businesses to focus on driving down cost rather than building an unbeatable customer experience. When you focus too much on minimising cost, your upside is capped when you hit zero, whereas focusing on revenue maximisation theoretically has no cap. To win the long game, the focus should sway towards an incredible customer experience so you’re building loyal customers who want to pay to cover your costs.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a C-level position? Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. This is still essential for me in my role as CEO. The Patch team of 60+ is by far the most talented group of people I’ve worked with and in another life, I could certainly be reporting to anyone on my team.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always been to contribute to the climate crisis in a meaningful way. Of course, we have far more work to do, but I can confidently say Patch is on that trajectory. Over 75% of the companies buying carbon removal on Patch had never done so before, and we're seeing that number increase over time. This tells me that Patch is growing the voluntary carbon removals market, inching towards putting a dent in climate change.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? As a founder and CEO, I am of course balancing a lot, but I think it’s important to follow passions outside of work and prioritise rest. I recently saw someone equate startup work to running a series of sprints during a marathon - we’re in it for the long haul but we absolutely have to maintain the energy to be able to sprint. A balanced life with interests and relationships outside of work helps maintain that energy long-term.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn’t change anything because it got me where I am today. I feel incredibly privileged to be building Patch.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Whichever you think will get you a job in programming sooner. Product programming is the only thing that matters.

How important are specific certifications? Show me what you've shipped, not what you've studied.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Coincidentally, we have three “core principles” we view as critical to success at Patch and are non-negotiables for us when hiring.

First, we’re looking for candidates who take the initiative to build the future they want - who work to understand the levers needed to scale climate solutions and then go out and build those solutions. Second, successful candidates understand we’re all in this together - i.e., we won’t be able to achieve our mission alone and therefore have empathy and communicate directly with everyone we work with. And finally, we’re looking for employees that are truly ready to amp it up and move fast with unreasonably high standards. We have less than a decade to solve climate change, so anything less won’t do.

What would put you off a candidate? Candidates that do not demonstrate systems-level thinking likely won’t be successful in the climate tech space. Climate change is inherently complicated and interconnected. We need experts that will apply systems-level thinking from across sectors to help prevent a two steps forward, one step back cadence within the growing climate tech space.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I think there's a tendency to try to know everything instead of showing you're capable of learning anything. Rate of learning has been the best indicator of success in my experience - try to demonstrate that to the person across the table.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Both are essential to a successful business, so it ultimately depends on the goals of the individual. I also think there’s value in having a blend of both. I’m grateful to have had the time to work on my technical skills during the initial stages of my career as it has allowed me to now shift some focus to the business side of running a startup. As mentioned above, transferable skills - whether technical or business-specific - are something I’ve found to be a career win.