Sue Sirrs of Outside Landscape Architects: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder
Overcome any fear of asking for help as quickly as you possibly can. The smartest business people I know have mastered the art of seeking advice, mentorship, and support.
Hire amazing people who know more than you do. Then get out of their way and trust them to do the work.
Pay yourself from the beginning. The business has to have a sustainable, profit-generating foundation. Your time, energy, and creativity are not renewable resources!
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Sirrs. She is the founding principal at Outside! Landscape Architects Inc., an international award-winning firm dedicated to innovative landscape design with a focus on creating amazing outdoor spaces. Sue is a year-round outdoor enthusiast and avid traveler, and her projects reflect her sense of adventure and love of the outdoors. The firm is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The natural world has been a longtime love of mine. I’ve always gravitated toward the land and inherently knew I felt better when I spent time outside. I discovered landscape architecture when I was on a University exchange program in Melbourne, Australia. I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies. I remember my professor talking about plants, structures, and exterior design in a whole new way. It tapped into that part of me that loves the land, and from then on, I was hooked. I continued on to get my Master’s degree in landscape architecture, and I’ve been working with clients ever since.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Without an entrepreneurial background, learning has happened through trial and error.
I learned a lot first-hand in my early experience as a founder and I found my way to several business programs, mentors, and resources that helped me get better systems and processes in place. A big takeaway for me after networking with other business owners was that most of our experiences, challenges, and pain points were shared. As founders, many of us are dealing with the same things, and that’s valuable — the earned wisdom of my peers can be my lesson and vice versa.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
A crucial lesson was offered to me early on. My mentor taught me to change my language, and that created a domino effect that’s still playing out in the day-to-day of my career. Instead of encountering a problem and thinking something along the lines of, ‘Why are things so hard?’, my mentor taught me to turn that around and ask, ‘Why is it so easy for me to figure this out?’ This small switch in our language can go a long way in changing our experience. There is a lot to figure out. But I get to wake up every day and engage with challenging, invigorating, life-giving things.
Surrounding myself with other successful business owners has been by far the best strategy in refreshing and renewing that drive to push forward and continue. Other founders in my life are an amazing resource, a constant and contagious source of inspiration. When I encounter challenges, I’ve learned to turn their way — to seek help and support, instead of trying to do it on my own.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
In my story, perseverance and resilience have been key. I’m grateful for my years as an endurance athlete, and the knowledge I embodied through those experiences; I lean into that when times are tough. For a fundraising event, I swam 16km to Prince Edward Island. In the middle of the swim, the water was rough — the waves were choppy, the wind kicked up all around me and the strong tide pulls you off course. I felt like I was in a washing machine! I remember the temptation to give up, to throw my hand in the air and have a rescue boat carry me the rest of the way. But I finished the swim the way I started it, one stroke at a time.
Every now and then, I get that same rough patch feeling at work! I reflect back on that swim as a tangible lesson. Focusing, limiting distractions, and taking things step by step gets the job done.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Most of those hard-earned lessons weren’t funny at the time! When I was first starting, my biggest mistake was not charging enough for design services and overdelivering on the projects. Design can be really difficult to price, and my inclination was to go above and beyond. Before long I realized this was an unsustainable way to run a business and a surefire way to burnout. If I kept moving that way, I wouldn’t have much to offer — I learned to change my mindset and support a sustainable business with better pricing and understanding of what a project really takes.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I reflect on the projects I’ve designed and smile; I feel like my inner 4-year-old has been an integral part of my work. I’m often amazed that, with some convincing, people and institutions alike are open to more creativity, play, and fun in their designs. Almost always, there’s more room for fun than we think, and it delights me to see some of my firm’s more playful designs becoming a place for active living and connection out in the world. It’s my belief that we all need more things to make us smile, remind us of our inner child, and give us a chance to connect with one another as we move through our days.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The burnout vs. productivity equation is delicate, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. As a consultant, I recognize I’m trading my life energy for dollars. I think of every project along with these terms, and I know it has to be an awesome trade — most of us have endless demands on our energy bucket.
The more energy I have, the easier I find it is to engage in my creative work, and I know that positive energy is an essential part of client engagement. To be at my best, and for the benefit sake of my clients, I need to make time to recharge. Throughout the pandemic, I found myself spending way more time online. To recharge, I need exactly the opposite — to spend time outside in nature, completely disconnected from technology in order to, basking in the healing benefits of being in nature outside. Slowly, I’ve learned to take this nature-cleanse commitment as seriously as I take an appointment on my calendar — it’s a non-negotiable in my business world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When my entrepreneurial life was in full force, I often heard my colleagues talking about mentorship as an integral experience. They spoke about professors, senior colleagues, or big industry names that tucked them under their wings and in their youth and changed the course of their career. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of those experiences too, b, too. But it’s it was my experience that as I progressed in my career and grew into my role as a founder, I needed mentorship more than ever.
Often, we think of one kind of mentor-mentee relationship: an organic teaching relationship that springs up early, in the style of professor to student. I hired a mentor when I was in my early 50s — a long time after I thought I would be seeking that kind of help. In retrospect, it was the best thing I did.
It’s hard to articulate the importance of having advisors, confidants, and role models, especially as business owners. I’ve always wanted to work toward a high bar, and hope to leave my field better than it was when I found it. Connecting with mentors that embody that standard, and who move with that purpose every day, has taught me more than I ever thought was possible to learn. I owe them so much everything as I tackle the next chapter of my professional journey.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Recently, my team has put all of our focus on bringing amazing, uplifting projects into communal spaces and residential projects. We’ve worked on land-based healing programs, outdoor play areas for children, and outdoor learning environments for adults in underserved communities. It’s been life-changing to see the difference these projects can make, and it doesn’t take long for that change to take place.
I remember my Mom telling me, ‘We all do our part in the middle’.’ That’s something that’s rings true in my mind as I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on these projects. Many people are involved in all stages of design, from idea generation through construction. It's really been an honor and a my pleasure to contribute to wake up and work toward creating these engaging and inspiring places spaces.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Comparison kills joy. You’re on your own journey and it’s unrelated to the trajectory of your competition.
- Overcome any fear of asking for help as quickly as you possibly can. The smartest business people I know have mastered the art of seeking advice, mentorship, and support.
- Hire amazing people who know more than you do. Then get out of their way and trust them to do the work.
- Pay yourself from the beginning. The business has to have a sustainable, profit-generating foundation. Your time, energy, and creativity are not renewable resources!
- Take vacations and disconnect. Stepping away from the day-to-day operations is the best (and only) way to gain a clear perspective around what really matters.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder?
When I started keeping a kind of ‘self-love menu,’ my professional and personal life changed for the better. I kept a written record of the things that recharge me — a walk in the woods, fitness with friends, a great meal shared with good company. For me, it’s the simple things that make me feel like myself again, but it’s also those grounding habits that fall away when work takes over. Keeping a list means I have concrete options I can use before I over-analyze a low mood or a multi-day creative slump.
I think founders in particular are at risk of falling into the 24/7 trap. Working long hours is sometimes necessary, but I often marvel at the insights I have when I’m stepping away from work my desk. When I can convince myself to slow down for a while — whether it’s washing the dishes, or enjoying coffee in the morning before turning on my screens — that’s often when the creative insights find me. I need to make space for inspiration and insight to strike by stepping away and resting my work mind. There’s a practice called ‘soft fascination’ when you’re able to notice things around you without having to really focus on them — like the birds or the sound of the wind in the trees. This is the sweet spot — where your mind can rest and reflect, quite different from focused time on the computer.
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. :-)
In recent years, I’ve been having fun turning over the idea of a slower-life movement; I think we’re living our lives way too fast and missing out on some of the best times. It would encourage a holistic approach to renew mental bandwidth, psychological rest and physiological health by replacing our digital habits with opportunities for fresh air, physical activity, and deeper connections with one another.
I’m dreaming of a movement that gets people outside, away from their devices and into a slower pace. Such a movement would depend on the evidence-based healing properties of the natural land, and it would happen in a setting that allows for silence, rejuvenation and reflection. I would want to encourage a holistic approach to renewing mental bandwidth, psychological rest and physiological health by replacing our digital habits with opportunities for fresh air, physical activity, and deeper connections with one another.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!