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Surviving the founder journey – Megan Avard, CEO of SurePact

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Today’s guest post features an interview between Colin Kinner, Founder and CEO of Startup Onramp in Brisbane, Australia, and Megan Avard, Founder and CEO of portfolio and project enterprise risk management software company SurePact.

Colin: I’d like to focus on the founder journey. Not the glamorous story that we tend to read about in the media, but the real story of what it’s like building a company from nothing.

I know a lot of founders who’ve been through tough times as they’ve built their companies. For some, it’s taken a toll on their physical or mental health, and for others, it’s affected their relationships.

So first, I want to thank you for agreeing to talk candidly about this topic. Can I start out by asking you what your founder journey has been like?

Megan: Well, I should start out by saying that I’m glad I started my company!

Over the last five years, I’ve built a great business. We’ve grown to a team of 21, raised money from a venture capital investor, and delivered a product that our customers love.

But I’ve got to be honest… I had no idea how hard the journey would be.

I came from the corporate world. So when I started SurePact, I didn’t have other founders in my network. I probably didn’t have a realistic idea what I was about to step into.

Early on, I met with a few founders who told me that by starting a company I would be making some sacrifices, and that being a founder could jeopardize my health and affect my relationships. I didn’t believe them at the time, but in hindsight, I can see that they were right.

Everyone’s experience as a founder is different, but for me, the biggest challenges I’ve faced have been stress and lack of sleep – which are of course interconnected.

For me, the stress comes from a few things. First, being a perfectionist. I used to get very worried about not responding to an email within two hours. Everything I did went through a mental filter of, “Is this the very best job I could do on this?”

This created a lot of stress. I’ve had to work hard at letting go of perfection and learning to be comfortable with “good enough” on most things.

I’m also a habitual over-thinker and not great at switching off. My to-do list is continually going through my mind. Even though I have a fantastic team, there are always more things I need to be doing as CEO than I can fit into a day.

Plus, like a lot of startups, we’ve had our fair share of growing pains. Since our funding round, we’ve been busy hiring and on-boarding new staff. At the same time, we’re trying to make sure that we keep our best people. It’s a tough environment out there, and we’re constantly seeing larger companies trying to poach our staff.

I also have a family that I don’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like to. I know that I’ve made some big sacrifices by not being there for them like a “normal” parent and wife.

The effect of all this has been a lot of stress, exhaustion, lack of sleep, and missing out on time with my family.

Colin: Clearly this has been a major challenge for you. How much sleep do you get, and how does lack of sleep affect you?

Megan: Typically, I get around four hours of sleep per night. Everyone knows how important it is to get good sleep, but knowing you need good sleep is not the same as actually getting it.

I’ve tried natural supplements. I’ve tried music. I’ve tried meditation. These things all work to some degree. But there have definitely been times when I’ve been running on empty, and I know my ability to function has been compromised as a result.

There was a time a few months back when I was working more than 100 hours a week for months on end. And I was not getting nearly enough sleep. One day, I was driving back from a meeting, and I almost fell asleep at the wheel. I was lucky to avoid crashing, but it was a frightening moment that showed me just how much I needed to address my stress levels.

Colin: What has worked for you, and what advice do you have for other founders?

Megan: Everyone is different, but there are a few things that have really helped me to reduce stress levels and get some degree of balance in my life.

The first of those has been to build close relationships with other founders. Nobody else truly understands the journey you’re on. Your family and friends are most likely supportive of your journey—but they’re not on it—and it’s difficult for them to fully understand why you’re making such sacrifices.

By sharing my challenges with other founders, I’ve been able to tap into their strength and be part of a mutual support network.

Next, I’ve learned to delegate. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but I’ve found that by hiring based on cultural fit, I’ve been able to build a team who proactively identify things they can take off my plate. I’ve learned to trust them to run with a lot of things that I might previously have viewed as “my job.”

Another thing that’s helped me a lot was forming an advisory board. In our case that started out as an informal group of three people whose guidance I trusted, and this allowed me to stop second-guessing myself and know that decisions I was making were backed by some smart people who wanted me to succeed.

We now have a board of directors who have taken on that role. One piece of advice I’d offer founders making a transition to a formal board is to ensure you establish an open and honest dialog with your directors from the outset.

Initially, I tried to be the model founder, wanting to over-deliver on my board’s expectations, even if it meant working crazy hours. But then I realized that my board didn’t expect me to be super-human. They knew I couldn’t do everything, and they didn’t want me to burn out by trying to over-achieve all the time.

The final thing that’s helped me to regain some balance is to commit to doing things that bring me joy. For me, that’s horse riding. My horse is my passion. There’s nothing that helps me disconnect from the stresses of startup life like going for a ride. Even if I have a million other things I could be working on, I make sure to carve out some time each week to enjoy riding and I find that it really helps me to decompress.

My advice to other founders is to work out what protective measures are right for them, and to put these in place from the very beginning of their founder journey. I’ve realized that as a founder you have to protect your physical and mental wellness, along with the relationships that matter to you. If you don’t do this, it doesn’t matter how successful your company is, it won’t have been a worthwhile journey.

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