Photo By Eberhard Grossgasteiger
Founding a company is a risky business. Gone are the days of someone else worrying about how to keep the lights on; founders play every role, and must at least do a passing impression of a CFO, CTO, CMO and all the other three-letter-acronyms. But more than that, they are there, doing it, because they chose to. It is theirs alone to succeed or fail with.
How on earth do these individuals face the daily uncertainty of running a fledgling business?
Our six interviewees gave us amazing insight into what it takes to turn a spark of inspiration into a roaring fire of a business. The thing they all had in common: purpose. None of these entrepreneurs are in it for the money, or rather profit is not the driving force. These companies were all born out of a desire to change the way the world works. But what about the people themselves – is it just about fearlessness?
AN UNQUENCHABLE DESIRE FOR CHANGE
We humans like routine, predictability, stability. Until we don’t. Only through someone being brave enough to stand up and say “here’s a better way” do breakthroughs happen. The garden-
variety founder is not only comfortable with change, they full-on embrace it.
“Almost to the point of being uncomfortable with stability,” Tessa Clarke from OLIO, the food sharing app that’s dedicated to reducing household waste, told us. This drive to shake things up is something shared by each and every start-up founder we talked to.
For Bruce Bratley, founder of First Mile, and James McMaster, CEO of Huel, environmental concerns are major factors in the companies’ missions. Bratley, who has a PhD in Environmental Marxism, believes opportunities for the next generation will be plentiful – different modes of transport, new means of working, new ways of living – but that there also has to be a shift in how businesses operate, to “fit with this new way of living on this planet.” So First Mile is on a mission to revolutionise business sustainability, starting with waste and recycling. Huel’s aim, too, is to have minimal impact on the environment. Their plant-based meals offer a solution to the dizzyingly large problem of meat production’s impact on the climate. McMaster told us: “The single biggest thing you can do for the environment is eat less meat (beef is the worst – it takes 3,000 litres of water for one burger, not to mention carbon emissions from cows). People want to reduce their carbon footprint, and Huel is a very easy way of doing that.”
When things get tough, as they inevitably will in any new venture, reminding themselves of the bigger purpose is what helps founders stay the course. “We remind ourselves of the problem we’re solving,” Clarke told us, which in OLIO’s case is that a third of all the food we produce globally gets thrown away each year whilst hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night, “and if we don’t do it, who else is going to? That gives us the strength to keep going.”
TAKING THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Start-up founders have balls. Figuratively speaking, of course. How did they get where they are? Is there something in their backgrounds that set them up for taking risks, to take a different route?
Aron Gelbard from online florist Bloom & Wild is from a family of entrepreneurs, but the desire to set up the business was “externalising an internal drive: wanting to make people happy.” Flowers are bought at emotionally important times, so the business wants to make a positive impact on the world in an emotional sense. Perhaps for Gelbard, founding a business felt like a natural rite of passage. This wasn’t the case for OLIO’s founder Tessa Clarke.
She hadn’t always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “A major problem being that there were virtually no role models that weren’t male, and ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’” Whilst studying for her MBA at Stanford, Clarke didn’t take any entrepreneurship classes because she “didn’t feel that was for someone like me,” which, as she quite rightly says, is “a crying shame. It took me a long time to get the courage, and the conviction… for too long, I was looking for an idea, a mythical magical idea. Now I would counsel anybody to forget about the idea, and go and find a problem in the world that needs fixing.”
Unfortunately, even with the number of female entrepreneurs on the rise (and therefore providing those all-important role models for the next generation), funding is still a challenge for female-led start-ups. Ilana Lever, founder of jewellery company for independent designers Motley, told us “it’s hard to fundraise as a woman: only £1 in every £100 in UK venture capital goes to a female-led team.” Asking whether that’s because all the venture capitalists are men, Lever says yes. “It’s not overt sexism,” but rather that people feel safer, more comfortable, with things that are similar to themselves – a concept supported by multiple psychological studies, and Lever’s direct experience. “What we’ve found is that institutions are actually better, even if they are a male-led team, than angel investors.” Clearly, it’s vital to get more women into investment roles, to redress this imbalance.
Overcoming obstacles is naturally something which all founders embrace. But as for an inborn talent, or ‘entrepreneur gene’, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Certainly, academic prowess is no real indicator of future success. First Mile’s Bruce Bratley remarked “it’s a myth that people do well in life because they did well at school and got into a good university. Fundamentally, the people doing ‘badly’ may be brighter, more creative, more resilient …lots of successful business people didn’t do well at school; and lots of academically successful people are now buried in jobs they hate.” He believes that the way you teach entrepreneurship isn’t sitting in a cosy classroom and reading case studies. “Drop them on a hillside with a knife and tell them they have to survive for three days. Or tell them to live for a week on a fiver.” For him, the root of overcoming problems – of being a fearless founder – is resourcefulness when dealing with scarcity: figuring out what choices to make, to make the most of what you have.
Along with resourcefulness, resilience is a requisite for those at the forefront of nascent businesses. Throughout our interviews, one phrase that came up repeatedly was ‘being comfortable with being uncomfortable’, something no doubt all-too-familiar to anyone who’s launched a business venture, or indeed struck out on their own into the world of freelancing.
“As a founder, you’re constantly wired,” Mindful Chef’s Giles Humphries told us. He and his co-founders started Mindful Chef to make healthy eating easy and sustainable, and bring balance to people’s lives. Of course, keeping a balance in their own lives was challenging with the pace and pressures of a start-up. “You go through cycles,” Humphries told us, speaking also of the doubt they sometimes felt (“Had we thrown away our jobs for nothing?”) in the earliest days. “But the highs compensate the lows. You’ve got to push through.”
Co-founders are important to share the tough experiences with, Humphries – who founded the business along with his school-friends Myles Hopper and Rob Grieg-Gran – explained; a sentiment echoed by Ilana Lever of Motley. Lever and her co-founder, Cecily Motley, had met at university but then taken very different professional paths. When they started Motley, they realised early on that taking care of the founders – themselves – was taking care of the business. They realised: “we are our most important assets right now.” Spending a lot of time early on analysing their individual ways of working helped to strengthen the Motley founders’ bond. Lever explained: “having recognised that our working backgrounds and styles were completely different, we talked in-depth about process, resolving conflicts, triggers, push points… at the beginning it was really exhaustive, kind of like intensive therapy.” And therapy works. “It was very, very helpful. Many founders start strong and decline as things test them; we’ve been the other way round.”
Unsurprisingly, all of the founders we spoke to were no strangers to failure. But, as noted by Bruce Bratley of First Mile, “You get stronger from failures: failure builds resilience.” Bratley thrives on stress. “Every day you fail something, and every day you figure out how to get over it.” For him, the stress is enjoyable because he has fun figuring out how to solve problems. Being strong, psychologically, is of course necessary to be comfortable living in stress, and for that protecting mental health is paramount.
Switching off is obviously hard, especially in the early stages, but without doing so burn-out is all too likely. “You need to have at least one day off [per week],” Giles Humphries urged. In Mindful Chef’s first couple of years, it was relentless for the three founders. “It was the three of us packing boxes, 12 hours every Saturday and Sunday. There was no time off.” Then, they outsourced the packing, providing welcome relief and the chance for that essential downtime every week.
For Bloom & Wild’s Aron Gelbard, he was aware that at previous jobs he’d pushed himself too hard, and his mental health had suffered, so he is “better now at taking holidays – and actually being offline.” Gelbard credits a few things to helping him shift his attention from things other than work, not least of which was becoming a parent.
What’s clear is that resilience must be nurtured, deliberately and with great care, in tandem with founders’ mental wellbeing. Downtime is essential, as is (of course) remembering why they are doing it in the first place.
SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOURSELF
“Being mission-focused is a big deal – we’ve got more heart and depth as a brand.” Huel was started because of a drive to make the world a healthier place (both its inhabitants and the planet itself). James McMaster told us “we want to help people eat better, save money, and improve their impact on the environment. We want to do something we can be proud of. That’s where the Huel mission came from.”
Ultimately, when the shit hits the fan, a company’s purpose is the deciding factor between prospering and perishing. A strong culture, built around a meaningful mission, allows founders and employees to push through the fear, the uncertainty and the exhaustion.
Huel’s success is testament to the power of purpose: they went from making £1million in their first year to £40million in their fourth. “We’ve created a movement,” McMaster told us, “people wear the T-shirts with pride.”
For OLIO’s Tessa Clarke, their mission is too important to walk away from. “What we discovered about food waste truly shocked and horrified us – like a nightmare where you’re screaming and no-one can hear you,” referring to the $1.2trillion worth of food that gets thrown away every year, and the millions going hungry that could be fed on just a quarter of what is wasted in the Western world. Shocking indeed. “If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. A landmass larger than China is used every year to grow food that is never eaten.” How does a mission that important correlate with staying the course as a start-up?
“There are two types of founders: mercenaries and missionaries,” as Clarke put it, “and we are missionaries. I believe missionaries go the full length of the race.”
Where do founders like Tessa Clarke find the fortitude to survive the journey? “By drawing very, very deeply on our mission,” she asserts. “There are days and weeks, and even months, when you think ‘is this worth it?’ – but we have such an enormous mission, failure for us is not an option.”
Founders of start-ups interviewed by Justin Small, June-Sept 2019
Bloom & Wild – Aron Gelbard
Mindful Chef – Giles Humphries
OLIO – Tessa Clarke
First Mile – Bruce Bratley
Motley – Ilana Lever
Huel – James McMaster