The Startup Roller Coaster

The Startup Roller Coaster

Just over a week ago I gave a talk at Startupfest on a topic that is extremely important to myself and my Co-Founders — mental and physical health at startups. You can see the slides here and I’m aiming to publish the video of the full talk in the next few weeks but until then, I thought I would provide some context to the slides.

What makes me qualified to give a presentation on mental and physical health within startups?

In my 20+ year career, I have launched businesses, been through 2 acquisitions, Co-Founded an accelerator, been a Venture Partner at a Venture Capital firm and am currently an angel investor.

All this to say, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve seen a lot and all of these experiences have left me uniquely equipped to speak to the impact that health can have on startup founders but also on their employees.

Although today I make an effort to have balance and lead by example, I’m definitely a recovering workaholic. Even when I was at school, I always pushed myself to excel and exceed expectations. In high school, simply doing well in class wasn’t enough. I completed several extra courses on my own just by using the textbooks and graduated with honours. In college, I worked 30 hours a week, hosted a radio show and went to school full time, and, once again, graduated with honours. In university, I managed a restaurant full-time, had a full course load and was a Teacher’s Assistant for two courses. Jumping ahead to my four years in San Francisco I worked 10+ hours a day and was often working 7 days a week. I’m not proud of it but my son was born on a Saturday and on Monday morning I was at the office, back to business as usual. I never had family time and we rarely took a vacation. The crazy part is that this was 13 years ago and San Francisco believes more in the hustle than ever before.

In fact, the average San Franciscan has less than 6 personal hours a day!

I knew things needed to change. My wife and I made the decision to move back to Montreal and I assumed things would calm down a bit. How naive I was!! Shortly after the move back I joined Real Ventures and Co-Founded FounderFuel whose first tagline was “Say goodbye to your family, your friends and your pets because you’re going to work your ass off!”. We were running 2 cohorts a year and I was doing alone what a full team does now. Worse yet, I was repeating my past mistakes — my second son was born two days before Demo Day so I didn’t take any time off. Throughout this time I gained weight, I was stressed and I was tired beyond belief, and I wasn’t alone. I have heard countless stories of founder or employee burnout, and of people not taking time for themselves, their families, or their loved ones.

One thing I have learned from all those experiences is that startups are a long term game. Most take years, even decades to become successful. There are very few startups that are all about the land grab like Instagram or Uber. And building this slow and steady value not only takes time but it takes a really strong leader.

It takes a CEO who isn’t constantly sprinting, but who is ready to run a marathon.

Before I take a look at what makes a good CEO, it’s important to define the role. In my opinion, the CEO has 3 main responsibilities — setting the vision, building the team, and keeping money in the bank. I make sure that I am 100% focused on these 3 every day, otherwise, I am delegating so as not to overload and burn myself out. CEOs also have 3 sets of stakeholders — the team, the shareholders, and the customers. You can look at these like a 3-legged stool if one breaks then the whole stool falls down. It is the CEO’s responsibility to keep all 3 happy.

For the purpose of my talk, I focused on the team and how they can be kept happy. And no, I don’t mean by having ping pong tables, or free beer, or unlimited vacations.

I mean real happiness, and to myself and my Co-Founders, this means work-life balance.

I recognize that this can be quite difficult because it is different for everybody but the trick is pushing yourself and your employees to find their balance and ensuring they are living to work and not working to live. My work-life balance means being home for my family, owning my weekends, and being able to disconnect without fear or stress. We have worked hard as founders to set a positive work-life example for our employees and have made it clear that we understand that life happens and sometimes you need to take your child to the clinic or take a personal day to unwind from a heavy sprint.

It’s important to note that despite the fact that we try and set a positive work-life balance, this doesn’t mean we don’t hustle or get shit done. I see it as the difference between working hard and working smart. We have a very rigorous hiring process to ensure that everyone we hire is an A level employee and can accomplish huge amounts during a normal week.

I’m happy to see that work-life balance is finally starting to be promoted within the startup culture. We’re slowly seeing an end to the concept of the more you work, the better you are, or the crazier you are the more you’re revered as a rockstar founder. I think we should all be pushing to recognize and showcase entrepreneurs who are building successful businesses with strong and healthy cultures.

But how does a CEO do that? First, you need to focus on your own health and balance. Below are some of the tips I put into practice to try and achieve this.

  • 45 minutes off email before going home

  • Block off family & social time

  • Don’t let your emails be the first thing you do when you get up

  • Surround yourself with smart people

  • Have Co-Founders!!

  • Set working hours

  • Unplug when not working

  • Schedule “me” time

  • Prioritize your physical health

  • Eat well

  • Meditate

Once you’ve found your own balance you can start focusing on building healthy and happy teams. At Breathe Life, we’re investing heavily in this. As you’ve seen in previous blogs, we have a set of five values — HumanTrustingResourcefulProactive, and Playfulness that we strive to bring in to all aspects of the business. We even do our annual reviews based on them.

We also put extra effort into diversity because we recognize that great companies and great products are only built when employees come from different backgrounds with different lived experienced. ⅓ of our team are women, our employees range in age from their early twenties into their fifties, come from 10 different nationalities and speak a combined total of 8 languages. On top of this we put an effort into acting and behaving healthily. Our team bonding centers around activities rather than drinking. We’ve gone rock climbing, escape room’ing, and SUP’ing to name a few. Some of our team members have also organized a running club, and volleyball, softball and soccer teams. We also make sure that all our snacks and catered meals are healthy. It’s important for us to promote health but also recognize that this is different for every employee so we let all activities be driven from the bottom up. On top of supporting our employees in living healthy lives, we have above average benefits including a healthcare spending account, access to a telemedicine app and 5 weeks off a year (one of those is over the December holiday season to ensure people get the time to go home and visit family). Finally, we have several tools to measure employee happiness including Officevibe, NPS and weekly feedback sessions.

I strongly believe that because we put such a focus on ensuring our employees are healthy and happy that they are more committed to the success of the company.

It also means that when we do have a huge deadline looming and need to work that 70 hour week, people are happy to contribute because they know we value them and their time.

In what I have seen, healthy and balanced employees are happy employees and everyone knows that happy employees drive significantly more ROI for companies. It’s a no brainer!



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