Strategic well-being: Tips for founders by founders.
New year, new milestones to reach, new customers to attain, new product features to launch, new employees to hire…. This list could go on and on for most deep tech start-up founders. It is early in a new year and these goals seem exciting and achievable. I mean, there is an entire year ahead of us, right?
Most start-up founders may not have factored in their personal well-being into their ever-growing 2019 roadmap. This is worrying.
Much light has been shed on the tough (but equally rewarding!) life of a founder — pressure from investors, employees and customers plus the worry of cash flow, family commitments, etc. I could go on, but most readers already live this reality.
As Head of Community & Talent at Cicada Innovations, I have had the privilege to work with dozens of ambitious tech founders. I have seen founders succeed and some fail — both outcomes which are acceptable and expected in the land of start-ups.
So what is a “successful founder”? I will break it down to the most simple markers of “success” which I have defined for the purpose of this post.
1) Their company is scaling.
A start-up, in particular in the early stages, needs to be constantly kicking goals or else it may be time to re-evaluate the business strategy or market fit.
2) They have a diverse team with low turnover
It is also well documented that a diverse team is the most productive. Low-turnover is a strong signal that the company culture is worth sticking around for.
3) Successful founders seem to have their sh** together.
I’ve found this observation to be the most interesting and somewhat of a surprise. There is definitely a stereotype out there that to be a startup founder, you need to be burning the candle at every conceivable end, working non-stop, night and day to achieve your goals.
But contrary to this, the successful startup founders I’ve met and worked with at Cicada Innovations — whilst being incredibly hard workers — tend to make their own and their teams’ personal wellbeing a priority. Deep tech startups and science-based technologies naturally take a much longer time to get to market. This requires a sustainable lifestyle that can be maintained for the long run.
Therefore, these founders have integrated personal well-being into their business strategy which is vital to them achieving the aforementioned markers of “success”.
While I am not an advocate for evaluating anyone’s well-being based on how they present themselves externally, the most influential and successful founders I have come across have a calm and collected approach to dealing with the surmounting pressures of daily startup life.
As the heart and mind of a new start-up, a founder’s well-being will impact their approach to the business. Think of a founder as the vital organ of their startup. If this organ starts to fail, the company will follow suit. If the organ stays healthy, the company will get the sustenance it needs to flourish. Metaphors aside, a founder’s well-being and subsequent approach to their business will carry through to the decisions made, culture of the company and ultimately to the success of the business.
I asked a few standout founders to share their approach to personal wellbeing and how this underpins their success of managing the stressors of running a start-up.
Check in often.
“Every day, I check in with myself and make sure I am practising self-care. For me it can be as simple as eating breakfast in the morning. It is like checking ‘what is for dinner?’…What do I feel like I need today?”
It is important to check in with yourself as often as you need and adjust accordingly.
Take real breaks.
“I now choose more constructive habits to deal with stress (yoga over wine or walking home from work). Activities, like yoga, can take you out of your mind because you are too focussed on not falling over! You need the mental space from work, activities that take me out of my work-mind.”
Taking a break from work can be a huge challenge for most founders. When you are able to step away from the to-do lists that run in the background of your head, you are able to come back more focussed and creative in your approach.
Use others as your barometer.
“I think people need to find the right person to work with you (mentors, teachers, trainers, etc.) I have a personal trainer that comes to me each Saturday morning to help me reset with an intense workout. I have been seeing him for a while, so he knows me. He can check in and tell me if I seem run down, etc. It helps for someone external to let me know if I seem off in case I am not able to recognise it.”
Choose what works for you.
“TThere are too many prescriptions for managing your work and life out there that don’t work for everyone. It takes time to find the habits that suit you the best and something you can integrate into your daily life with the minimum of hassle in order for it to become a natural extension of your self-care regime. You need to see through the noise and find what works for you. Never force yourself into a silo.”
There is no prescription to well-being and no two people are alike! It is great to choose and test various strategies and find an approach that works best for you.
Trust your team.
“Listen to your body more. If you are tired, get some rest. When I spend time to disconnect, I come back with more clarity. During those time periods, I need to rely on my team. Surround yourself with people who can do the job. As much as you want to do everything, you need to trust the people you have hired and let them do it.”
Founders are naturally ambitious and want to do it all. However, a strong leader is one that knows when to outsource.
Choose your work environment wisely.
“Your working environment is important. Being in an incubator and working in an environment where everyone knows the challenge of deep tech has been a huge support network and very different to when I was working out of various co-working spaces. To have both the support and understanding from others, is really helpful.”
Leverage your networks and lean in to others for support and then do the same in return. This is the foundation of Cicada’s “pay-it-forward” culture that underpins our supportive and sustainable deep tech community.
About Ben Lee:
Ben Lee and the Invertigro team, currently 4 full-time employees, joined Cicada Innovations in 2018 after graduating Cicada’s agrifood tech accelerator GrowLab. Invertigro came to fruition in 2016 after Ben pivoted his previous start-up Homefarms.
Ben Lee is one of Cicada’s Community Champions, awarded the “Outstanding Community Award” in 2018. He actively gives back to the incubator, sharing his enthusiasm and lab-grown greens with the entire Cicada community.
When Ben isn’t working on Invertigro’s most recent goal of fundraising and building the sales pipeline for 2020, you can find him at Cicada’s weekly yoga sessions, joining the swim/run club for a lunchtime workout, sharing his range of hobbies — cooking, alcohol, cheese or knitting — with fellow deep-techers.
This balance didn’t happen overnight for Ben. It has taken Ben time, resilience, and consistent effort to adjust to the busy world of being a startup founder.
Like many founders have experienced, the road to starting a new business is not easy. There are the pressures of quitting your day job, business pivots and more.
In 2015 in Singapore, Ben needed to pivot the start-up, then known as Home Farms. He was tasked to pick up the pieces after his co-founder was no longer a part of the business.
When Ben and his husband moved back to Sydney, Ben ended up in the hospital with an array of symptoms that he now recognises as by-products of stress. It was a huge wake-up call that led him to share the following tips, in the hopes of preventing others from reaching that critical point.
We hope you can adapt some of these wise words to maintain your own well-being and factor time for self-care into your 2019 strategy.
Over the coming weeks we will post more tips from Founders within the Cicada community to help you consider your own tailored approach to well-being.