Shawn Owen of Equa: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive
Warn your family and talk it over. I am embarrassed to say it now, but I didn’t fully warn my family and partners about how life might be for me as founder and CEO. Perhaps I didn’t fully know but I wish someone had told me the importance for setting boundaries up front so I could prepare them better for the time and commitment leadership takes. Knowing this going in might have prevented some frustrations when I stopped answering phone calls and text messages as I used to right away and other inevitable miscommunications as I grew into the role. Heading off these kinds of things can make for a much easier transition into a sometimes all-consuming job. Balance and rhythm really are important to a sustainable business and personal life.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Owen.
Shawn Owen, Founder & CEO of Equa, is a serial entrepreneur and trailblazer in the blockchain world with over 25 years business operations experience. A bitcoin advocate since early 2011, Shawn helped pioneer cryptocurrency-backed lending with the launch of SALT where he remains involved as a Board Member. In 2019, he started Equa to bring company formation and governance solutions into the future by leveraging his expertise in corporate structure and crypto-backed technology solutions. Shawn envisions a world of friction-less, self evident, and transparent truths beginning with corporations and extending into the daily lives of shareholders.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I began my professional career in the hospitality and food industry, which trained me to be customer-centric and a problem solver, but I’ve always been fascinated by financial systems and financial technology. The specific path that led me to start a fintech company? When I was working as an opening chef of the Stonefire Pizza Co. in Wisconsin in 2006, I started investing in real estate and some other assets, including stocks. Suddenly, I watched my portfolio get destroyed in 2008. Everything I thought I knew about money and investing changed. I became fascinated with money, and the concept of historical hard money like gold. I dug into alternatives, gold and silver, which ultimately led me to Bitcoin.
By 2011, I downloaded my first Bitcoin wallet and it quickly became a complete obsession. Initially, not many options were available for working with what has now become the best known asset in its class. I had repurposed some spare computers and attempted to start mining Bitcoin and quickly realized I would be better off just buying from someone if I could find anyone who had them, which took a while. Then, around the time when Bitcoin was valued at $90 USD, right before the infamous Silk Road crack down, I convinced a group of restaurants and bars under my management to accept Bitcoin as a currency. The appeal was that there were no fees for transacting compared to credit card fees charged to the businesses.
This led to the first in-person Crypto meetup in Colorado. People flew in from all over to connect, spend Bitcoin to buy beer, and socialize. An organic network emerged. Some early business partners and I started whiteboarding ideas. First, I looked into starting a payments system because it seemed like Bitcoin could compete with fiat currency. Then two things changed: regulation and the subsequent impact on crypto-spending behavior. The IRS made cryptocurrency a taxable property. My staff, who were getting tipped in Bitcoin, started holding instead of spending, treating it like an investment.
I watched, held onto my cryptocurrency as well, recognized a new asset class had emerged, and came up with the idea for SALT. I quit everything and went all in. This early effort at crypto-backed lending faced a lot of hurdles. We couldn’t integrate with banks, for one, and we faced an incredible amount of constantly-shifting regulatory blockers. I spent most of my days navigating these challenges. I am incredibly proud that SALT weathered these trials and continues strong growth in the Bitcoin space. But, more importantly, I am grateful for the experience because it showed me many deeper underlying problems that need tackling: One such problem is that corporate governance, and consensus tools and processes have not kept pace with the last decade of evolution in the financial markets.
This is the path that directly led to me becoming founder and CEO of Equa, an organizational asset management and governance platform that scales from organizational formation to day-to-day investment management and seeks to eliminate many of the problems I and so many business leaders and investors face in trying to compliantly and efficiently manage critical transactions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Sitting in the middle of the crypto-backed lending world between 2016 and 2018 and experiencing whiplash from the speed of change in the cryptocurrency markets was… something. One day, we were wringing our hands with only thousands of dollars in the bank, wondering how we would pay bills. The next day we had millions. Bitcoin appreciated so quickly that every regulator in the world came out of the woodwork. The market hit its peak around $20,000 per Bitcoin at that time and then began to tumble. It was a wild ride and it impacted everything. Conferences went from meetups of die-hards and geeks to world class events with tens of thousands of attendees. It took some distance to process all of this but I think what we experienced was a glimpse of a democratized future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
One of the quotes I live by comes from Yoda, “do or do not, there is no try.”
One Saturday I was working in a large facility with thousands of guests — it was peak volume, very chaotic, we needed everything working smoothly. Things started to go sideways, machinery started breaking down. A manager working under me, someone holding the critical role in whether or not we could turn the situation around, started freaking out.
I kept giving him specific direction on how to put out various fires. He kept responding, “I’ll try.” This told me there was some kind of mental barrier preventing him from making a commitment to action. He was unsure. So I took him off to the side, looked him in the eye, and told him it wasn’t a matter of trying but that we had to accomplish the following, specific tasks. That seemed to shore him up. He said “OK, I’ll do it” and I told him I had faith he’d succeed. He went right into mission mode, fixed the issues, and the day was saved.
Hospitality teaches you so much about business. It almost should be mandatory for people to work in service for some period. You deal with so many different kinds of people — some nice and some not — and you have to land on your feet, learn how to navigate in the moment. The situational awareness required to work in a restaurant, for example, goes beyond processes and formal learning.
Serving requires you to adapt when circumstances change rapidly — like the crypto world. The things that happen are unplannable. Service makes you extremely adaptable. “Try” has no place here. Try has no place in business. Try leads into failure. When it comes to life and death or reputation or anything that matters — “I’ll try to pay you” — try doesn’t work. I want to hear why you’re going to do it or why not. That’s it.
Today, “there is no try” informs how I put teams into place, build client solutions with guarantees, organize my business, and live my life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Early in my career I read Winning with People by John Maxwell. I’ve read tons of books about leadership but keep coming back to this one as a touchstone. It’s full of amazing lessons on how to really win with people and lead by example. In particular, Maxwell’s advice to “listen before you lead” remains central to my leadership style.
In my first job working with others, I — like so many people — wasn’t thinking about leadership per se. I worked hard to make money, get promoted and make more money. It almost didn’t matter if the job or the promotion directly aligned with anything I was particularly excellent at. I just learned and kept on moving up. When I first encountered this book, so many light bulbs went off. Before reading that book, I was just figuring out how to get things done, how to coordinate. After reading that book, I started listening more, reflecting more and really making sure that in any conversation I was having that all parties were aware of what was being said so they had the ability to just listen, without feeling obligated to immediately respond as so often is the case in conversation. I saw immediate improvements in my ability to team-build and synthesize complicated new information quickly.
Another important thing I learned from that book is that when you have “boss title” like “manager” or “CEO”, people react differently and often say things they might not or hold things back. When this happens you miss critical information. I learned to step back and defuse these kinds of situations, ensure people I am ready to listen, and then, in turn, ask them to hear me out.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Equa is on a mission to actualize the wealth of companies and actualize the wealth of investors. We are building a platform that will facilitate this — an ecosystem of governance tools from organizational formation, to cap table management, to investment management, and everything in between. And we’re practicing what we preach.
The more liquid the asset, the safer, and so the lower the return. Think of the difference between dollars, insurance, and finally stocks. Cryptocurrency promised the liquidity of cash with the benefit of various value-adds depending on the type of crypto asset. What I observed during the ICO (initial coin offering) bubble was this: An ICO was the epitome of accessibility when it came to assets. Scammers really damaged the potential of ICOs and regulators moved in — though it’s a bit of a shame, as these scams only attracted a very small percent of actual investment dollars. So in a way, aspects of this new free market worked. Today, I can still throw away as much money as I want in Vegas but I can’t throw money at crypto assets anymore without going through accreditation. Regulations worked, making this market inefficient to navigate, less liquid, and inaccessible to the individual.
One of my colleagues has held equity in a few different companies over the years. When those companies restructure or change their bylaws, the nature of her shares and their values changed. She expressed how difficult she finds accessing updated information about her private equity and how she ultimately felt the worth of those assets was out-of-step with their “paper” representations.
Private companies and markets are inefficient. Public companies and markets are more efficient, at least for the purposes of this example. These private and public entities operate very differently. There’s a huge gulf, mostly regulatory, between the two. There needs to be an intermediary, a translator between DeFi (decentralized finance), equity in private companies, phantom shares, property investments and CeFi (centralized finance). Companies like Equa, which create a governance layer sitting on top of those assets and under CeFi, are needed to help transact compliantly, securely, and transparently. Critically, rather than representing assets, like a ticker, we provide access to the assets themselves.
In other words, we are taking the “be your own bank” concept further to “be your own everything.” Wealth and agreements will be actualized and more liquid. We will put investments in your pocket next to your cash, your credit cards, your stocks, and your real estate investment. We don’t want innocent people to face the guillotine set up for the guilty because scammers ruined the possibility of freer markets. Just because an electric wire shocks someone doesn’t make electricity bad — it just needs to be harnessed.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Prototype what you think you want to do, design it first before you do it, once you have exhausted every ability you have to architect the blueprints of your idea, then proceed with knowing that you’ll never have a perfect plan. Just iterate and evolve your ideas as they get tested or fail, and let the outcomes of your decisions inform your learning curve. As long as you persist along that curve and stay true to your motivation, you will succeed. Accept that your dreams being fulfilled may come with extreme sacrifices and unintended consequences, and just persist and enjoy the ride, and it’ll work out for you.
You’ll never really know how things will turn out without trying, but it will most definitely be harder than you would have imagined. Some days, you’ll feel like you’re staring into an abyss and you’ll wonder why you’re doing this. Have faith; remember it’s what you asked for, and it will all be worth it.
All that said, I would never advise anyone to follow what I’ve done unless they’re really motivated or really enjoy consistent reflection of failures.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Lots of people have told me that you should surround yourself with the smartest people and ask what they would do. It’s sound logic and good advice. But if you do what people tell you — at least all the time — you might end up ignoring something more important, which is to listen to your gut instinct as the final decision maker.
For example, one time a partner and I were at the very end of a very long negotiation process related to buying an asset. We were going round and round about who should handle the final negotiations at the eleventh hour. We ended up choosing to let a third part do the final round “as the professional”, due to concerns about how to follow the process and all, but my gut just knew it was something best handled directly without the chance of anything being lost in translation. Needless to say, it was a mistake and I learned again that it is never a good idea to vacillate when you know deep down what to do. They may be highly skilled in a particular field but will never know as much as you do about the big picture — or have your instincts.
Now I surround myself with the best but always ask myself “is that what I would do? What do my instincts tell me?” I’ve regretted following every piece of advice that didn’t align with my gut instincts to date so now I will simply not follow anyone’s advice if it does not also pass the final gut check.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Persistence: I’ve been told hundreds of times that people think I’m insane. I have never given up. Half the challenge in succeeding is just sticking with it. This is not to be confused with cutting one’s losses, which is a whole other topic unto itself. After the crash of 2008 I was totally underwater on a rental property I bought at the peak of the market. I was terrified and felt like it was going to be impossible to get back above water due to how badly the property value had dropped below my mortgage. Many people around me actually advised me to just walk away and let it fold in bankruptcy. I didn’t have it in me. It took many years, but after renting it out and doing improvements over time, the market came back and I was able to get out all of the original principal and the gains in equity, without any black marks on my credit. I know that not everyone was in a position to do this in 2008, but for me it was just a matter of having the determination to keep the long view in mind without getting overwhelmed by the immediate fear and gloom.
Durability: I’m extremely resilient. I can take a beating and still say, “OK, let’s go some more.” I weathered the initial peaks and troughs of the Bitcoin market which is definitely not for the faint of heart. This was exacerbated to the extreme when I lived through the ICO madness intact both on the rocket ship up, and the meteoric crash down. I’m still here fighting for the possibility of a better financial system and better market ready to see what comes from nonfungible tokens and beyond.
Optimism: I wake up every day feeling like anything is possible. Optimism is a state of mind, a choice. It’s important to remember that there are plenty of reasons to be a pessimist or live with fear, uncertainty and doubt. Just turn on CNN if you want a reminder. Pessimism only robs you of what is in front of you in your own life. It is far too easy to become concerned about issues and topics that you have absolutely no control over. Just imagine how much you can get done in a lifetime if you simply focus on only what you can control that improves your own mission in life. When you feel like all is lost just focus on what you have and what you have achieved and it’s pretty easy to get optimistic again. A simple trick that anyone can use to practice this is to replace the expression “have to” with “get to”. For example, “I get to go to work today” instead of “I have to go to work today.” Changing the way you speak about your reality in this way only offers a profound upside: optimism.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Executives have to assimilate a lot of incoming information, digest that information, and come to consensus with other stakeholders to tee up decisions. Many leadership roles come with a job description or a specific list of duties and responsibilities. When you get to the C-Level, while you might have specific duties to accomplish, your primary role is to aggregate and synthesize information as it rolls up so you can set priorities across the organization. Ultimately everything comes down to decision making. Focus on working as a team to make the best possible decisions and let go of who is right or wrong. It is also paramount to tune out as much of the noise as possible as it is easy to get bogged down by a lot of potential tasks, projects or decisions, when in reality it’s far more important to block time and space for the few very important make or break topics. It’s embracing the 80/20 rule completely and wholly.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s a common myth that being CEO is a great job and comes with lots of glory. The reality is, you have people pulling at you from 360 degrees most of the time, and often what the world thinks you should focus on is simply a distraction. Another myth is that CEOs get paid a lot. While this is certainly true for the big public companies, it is often not true when it comes to early stage companies and privately held companies. With that being said, people often underestimate just how hard this can be to get the return on investment from sweat equity.
Finally, there’s a persistent myth that reaching the top of the organizational chart is something everyone should aspire to. That’s not right at all. The C-suite is ideal for certain personality types and a certain kind of problem solver who thrive when taking on the responsibilities specific to an organization. But, this is absolutely not for everyone. Other jobs are equally worthy and critical. In fact I would say that it is by far more important to make sure that you fully understand the day to day duties and responsibilities of a job, and confirm that they align with what naturally motivates you over striving for any type of position or job title no matter how prestigious it will look on the resume.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
It’s a common mistake to assume that there is some magic process that will always work because it worked before, perhaps even worked many times before. You can’t overestimate the amount of work it will take to accomplish big objectives, and no two companies or organizations are exactly the same. So not being flexible can get the best of any new executive or manager. Simply put, it’s essential to maintain a growth mind set to avoid this pitfall in a career.
It is also very common to overestimate what can be done in a short timeframe. If you have five things to do, pick two, and if you have two things to do and less time, pick one. Focus on the one targeted objective that ranks highest towards the ultimate mission, and then stay obsessed with that specific objective until it is completed with the best possible outcome before moving on. Just focus on tackling what is possible before committing to the next priority or multiple priorities and so forth.
One more massive mistake executives make is not delegating. It may seem like you can do it yourself faster or better, but in reality, the minute you start doing work that could be delegated to a professional who has the fime and ability to complete a task, you are no longer able to manage or take on anything new that comes up. This one is so hard because often the work that should be delegated to others is something that motivates you or is work that you enjoy doing. But just remember that if you really want to be doing this work, then you should change your job description so that you can exclusively focus on this work.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
How difficult it is to keep up with taxes, accounting, and regulatory compliance. You have an idea, you start a business. Suddenly, you have 15–30 service providers each of which has mandatory and differing compliance requirements related to consumer protection. It takes an enormous number of resources to collect vendor responses and ensure compliance is met. And while this kind of consumer protection compliance is required as an essential part of a business’s infrastructure, it isn’t directly tied — and sometimes not even related — to the value your services or solutions bring to the customer. Nevertheless, businesses have to do paperwork and business leaders never anticipate how much this will slow them down. Most startups and small companies vastly underestimate what they will need to commit for these activities until it’s too late.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Do not focus on building large systems or teams until you have the feedback from customers that what you are selling they want to buy. There is plenty of advice given that should be avoided, but if you lose sight of the customer and the product or service being purchased, then everything else falls apart quickly. Focus on the customers above everything, regardless of circumstances. I learned this in hospitality first, for sure, where customers have infinite options as the consumer and can choose to take their business anywhere else if they are not getting great value all of the time. In some ways, I had to relearn this outside of that industry. And now I reaffirm it every day, which I believe is wise practice for any complex business with competing priorities. Every week, sometimes every day, I ask my team to assess and evaluate their work with respect to adding value to our customer. The only reason to be in business is to provide as much value as possible to your customers. If you forget that, you can forget your business.
- Hire slow, fire fast. I was in the middle of a startup that had great mojo and an excited team that was thriving like they all have caught lightning in a bottle. We were hitting scale (a unicorn recipe for success) but there were multiple warning signs about a certain person that wasn’t a good fit who had been hiring in as we started to scale. No one could tell me specifically why, but it was in retrospect obviously a gut feeling that everyone had that was ture. Each day or week I would hear something different about what happened in a particular meeting, or something that was said that just didn’t quite fit. We were busy putting energy into different initiatives so no one thing stood out as problematic and as a whole there were a lot of second chances given in good faith. Despite a gut feeling shared by, quite frankly, just about the whole team, we gave this person too many chances, ultimately to the detriment of everybody and the magic of the team spirit. We lost opportunities we might not have if we had fired quickly. And it is very clear to me now that we should have parted ways sooner. Waiting for the right people no matter how long it takes is the only way to win.
- Instead of saying “go for it” when your team shares a good idea, say “don’t do anything until you are done with what you are already doing” then talk. Only tackle one major business objective at a time. When it comes to launching a product, opening an office in a new market, acquiring a subsidiary — big endeavors — pick one and focus on it. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to see tons of opportunities,it’s what we do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of this, taking on too much at once, over diversifying, spreading myself and my teams too thin. When I first got started as an entrepreneur — and an investor — I did well. But I learned two lessons. First, just because you’re winning doesn’t mean you’re right — just because you’re making money doesn’t mean you’re right. And secondly, you only have so much time in the day and the week so focus is important.
- Warn your family and talk it over. I am embarrassed to say it now, but I didn’t fully warn my family and partners about how life might be for me as founder and CEO. Perhaps I didn’t fully know but I wish someone had told me the importance for setting boundaries up front so I could prepare them better for the time and commitment leadership takes. Knowing this going in might have prevented some frustrations when I stopped answering phone calls and text messages as I used to right away and other inevitable miscommunications as I grew into the role. Heading off these kinds of things can make for a much easier transition into a sometimes all-consuming job. Balance and rhythm really are important to a sustainable business and personal life.
- Don’t try to make everybody happy. Years ago, I was on a team of executives that met routinely every week so everyone could come to consensus. Everyone had an opinion and the outcome wasn’t always to make the right decision as people often want their opinions to be heard equally even when they are off topic, or even worse flat out wrong. It’s better for a leader to make a decision when s/he can and take ownership for it. Someone telling me that could have saved me some time. Now I’ve learned to just make a decision, even if it upsets some people or even everyone. Bad things can happen when you stall, and even worse things can happen if you make bad decisions in order to make everyone happy. You will never have all the information or time you want so you will have to learn how to gain as much quality information and expert advice and then gut check it all so a final decision can be made.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Be honest with what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. If you are not sure what you’re bad at, just ask the people around you who are close to you and they will usually be happy to tell you. One way to promote this culture is during the interview phase. When you ask someone “why do you want this job?” you need to watch for a response that aligns or not with your mission, vision, and values — though those are important — but rather with the fires you need putting out. You want to hire people who will free bottlenecks in your organization and keep things moving faster because they’re honest about being able to do so or if they are not capable of the challenge. Honesty pays dividends when assessing the right positions for team members.
Accountability is part of that. If you have a good team, your team will support the ability to identify gaps and help move people into the right positions to solve problems that arise. Good systems can allow you to promote accountability, too.
The virtual world certainly adds a new challenge. We’ve always been virtual but now many other businesses are as well. You can’t put everyone in the same room any more and you can’t always read body language. You have to find other ways to lend transparency to where people are with respect to business goals. Part of taking on the challenge of the virtual world creating an interconnected team that holds itself accountable. One way I do this is by having the team share their objective or priority for the week. And then the following week, we will all review if that objective was met or how it went. The more specific we are the better this works. No one can boil an ocean.
Finally, a leader can create a good culture by putting the team’s needs first after customers, of course. This is beyond motivation, feelings, or passion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d start a movement for everybody to love each other more than they do today. We live in such a polarized and hostile world for what seems like no good reason. We can’t all agree but we can put our differences aside to get along better and at least agree to disagree. Cooperation is the one thing that has made our species unquestionably more successful than others.
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Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!