3 lessons from a serial founder

I didn’t want to be a repeat founder. In fact, when I made the decision in 2016 to leave the position of CPO of my first company, the music concert platform Songkick, I had planned to leave the life of an entrepreneur for good. As exciting as it is to be a founder and see your idea come to life, it is also an exhausting experience where the ups and downs are felt intensely. And that can wreak havoc.

After Songkick, I spent a year traveling, and this space gave me time to think about what I wanted to do next, what made me happy, and what I found important.

For me, that was the goal and the impact. The only way to overcome my fear and despair over the urgency of the climate crisis was to try to address it. I started looking for ways I could personally have the biggest positive impact, and that search led to Supercritical – a platform that increases carbon removal by helping businesses get to net zero.

After restarting my life as a foundress, here are the lessons that I apply a second time.

You don’t need to be an expert to get a good idea

My two founding experiences were very different, but both stemmed from strong personal passions and a belief in the importance of mission, not areas where I had previous experience.

I founded Songkick because I loved going to concerts and wanted to know when and where my favorite bands were playing. I was no software, product or music industry expert, but I knew we had a great idea.

Fast forward 14 years, I found myself with another business idea in a field in which I had no experience. After having my first child in 2018, the urgency of the climate crisis became physically tangible to me. It was born a month before the publication of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, with the very clear message that we must reach net zero by 2050 to avoid catastrophe. This timeline became very real in the context of the world he would grow up in.

I wasn’t a climate scientist or an expert on the finer details of corporate greenwashing, but I now had experience building and scaling a software platform and in building a mission-driven team. The rest I was ready to learn.

My experience building Songkick has given me the confidence to dive headfirst into something new. Once you have an idea, the fastest way to get answers is to launch an early version of your product, get quick feedback, and then iterate.

The best entrepreneurs I’ve met are radical and fearlessly independent in their thinking – they apply a first-principles mindset and question things the world takes for granted. When I started researching the world of carbon offsetting, I gave myself the freedom and space to really question the market, its premises and whether it had any real impact on the climate.

And in doing so I learned How? ‘Or’ What I learn better (essential when you start something in a field where you are not an expert): do a lot of reading and thinking to get to the heart of a problem, get advice from experts that I respect, read a lot and apply to my situation and most importantly have a fail-quick-and-learn mindset.

Be deliberate and persistent about your values

At Songkick, we were fortunate to be supported by Y Combinator, Index and Sequoia before heading to Warner Music.

I have come to appreciate the value of investors and your board and the importance of this relationship. At the time, I felt privileged to work with investors who had backed tech titans, and I didn’t have the confidence to ask why I was the only woman in the room, even if it’s a fact of which I was fully aware.

The experience of founding Songkick catalyzed my ambition to do something about the acute gender disparity when it comes to building a business. As a non-technical founder of a tech start-up, I was thrown into the mix. I had my first experiences of sexism and became hyper-aware, even paranoid, of the assumptions made about me – I was shrewdly aware that I was always the one unlike anyone else.

When it came time to fundraise for Supercritical, that was something I wanted to change. I have set myself the goal that women represent half of my investors.

I knew it would take me longer to fundraise, but it was fine with me. If only men invest, then only men are welcome to invest, and only men have the exits that allow them to invest in the next generation of founders.

It’s a vicious cycle, compounded by the opacity and inaccessibility of investing and the crippling impostor syndrome that so many women I spoke to had about investing. Women in leadership positions at publicly traded companies told me they didn’t know how they could help because they knew nothing about climate technology. To me, that seemed completely unfathomable given their hard-won experience building a business.

Fighting for a 50% female cap table was my small attempt to break this cycle and steer the industry towards more positive change. My position as a second-time founder also made raising easier – my background allowed me to be more selective about who I accepted on my cap table.

You can be a 9 to 5 founder

My final lesson is that you can and should set clear boundaries from the start.

As a young, first-time founder with no family, I was willing to invest every hour I had into the business. I prioritized work over everything else – my relationships, my rest, and the hobbies and interests that energize me and make me a whole person.

I am proud of what we have achieved, but it has come at a cost. In the end, I burned out – something I realized when I found myself super negative, jaded, and unenthusiastic about every new idea that came my way.

With Supercritical, I had no choice but to do things differently because I became a mother. My priority is to be the kind of parent my son deserves and to be there for him. For me, that means ending the day at five o’clock and spending time with my family until he goes to bed.

This balance is so important to me and it’s a value we embraced in Supercritical. We expect our team to take care of themselves and know what they need to work hard. We have an unlimited vacation policy with a minimum number of days off. I’m the first to scold people if I see them emailing outside office hours. I hope this means we have a more motivated and energetic team that brings dynamism and clarity of thought to their work.

Every founder will tell you that they have found the recipe for success. The second time around, my biggest lesson is not to be afraid to do things your way.

Michelle You is co-founder and CEO of Supercritical. Don’t miss her at our next Sifted summit on October 5-6. Get your tickets here.

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