3 lessons from a serial founder

He didn’t want to be a repeat founder. In fact, when I made the decision in 2016 to step down as CPO of my first business, music concert platform Songkick, I had planned to walk away from life as an entrepreneur forever. As exciting as being a founder and seeing your idea come to life, it is also an exhausting experience in which both the ups and downs are keenly felt. And that can take its toll.

After Songkick, I spent a year traveling and that 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 purpose and impact. The only way I could get over my fear and despair about the urgency of the climate crisis was to try to do something about it. I started looking for ways I could personally make the biggest positive impact, and that search led me to Supercritical, a platform that scales carbon removal by helping companies get to net zero.

After restarting life as a founder, these are the lessons I am applying for the second time.

You don’t have to be an expert to have a good idea

My two founding experiences have been very different, but both have come out of strong personal passions and conviction in the importance of mission, not in areas where I had prior experience.

I founded Songkick because I loved going to concerts and wanted to know when and where my favorite bands were playing. I wasn’t an expert on software, products, or the music industry, but I knew we had a great idea.

Fast forward 14 years and I came across another idea for a business in an area I had no experience in. After having my first child in 2018, the urgency of the climate crisis became physically tangible for me. It was born a month before the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released, with the very clear message that we needed to get to net zero by 2050 to avoid a disaster. That timeline became very real in the context of the world he would grow up in.

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

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

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

And in doing so I learned What I learn better (vital when you’re launching something in an area you’re not an expert in): reading a lot and thinking to get to the heart of a problem, getting advice from experts I respect, reading a lot and applying it to my circumstances, and most important, have a quick fail and learn mentality.

Be deliberate and persistent about your values

At Songkick, we were lucky enough to have the backing of Y Combinator, Index and Sequoia before moving on to Warner Music.

I came to appreciate the value of investors and their board and how important that relationship is. At the time, I felt privileged to be working 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 though it was a fact I was well aware of.

The experience of building Songkick catalyzed my ambition to do something about the stark gender disparity when it comes to building a company. As a non-technical founder of a tech startup, I got caught up in the deep end. I had my first experiences with sexism and became hyper-aware, even paranoid, about the assumptions being made about me: I was cunningly aware of always being the one who didn’t look like anyone else.

When it came time to fundraise for Supercritical, this was something I wanted to change. I set out to have women make up half of my investors.

I knew it would take me longer to raise funds, but I was okay with that. If only men invest, only men are asked to invest, and only men have the outlets that allow them to invest in the next generation of founders.

It’s a vicious cycle, made worse by how opaque and inaccessible investing is and the crippling impostor syndrome so many women I spoke to had about investing. Women in C-level positions at publicly traded companies told me they didn’t know how they could help as they didn’t know anything about climate technology. To me, that seemed completely unfathomable given his hard-earned experience building businesses.

Fighting for a 50% cap table for women was my small attempt to break this cycle and lead the industry towards more positive change. My position as founder for the second time also made it easier to raise – my track record allowed me to be more selective about who I accepted into my cap table.

You can be a founder from 9 to 5

My final lesson is that you can and should set clear boundaries early on.

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

I’m proud of what we accomplished, but it came at a cost. Ultimately, I burned out, something I realized when I found myself being 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 father my son deserves and to be there for him. For me, that means ending the day at five and spending time with my family until he goes to bed.

That balance is very important to me and it’s a value we’ve embraced at Supercritical. We expect our team to take care of themselves and know what they need to work hard. We have an unlimited license policy with a minimum number of days off. I am the first to scold people if I see them emailing outside of office hours. I hope this means we have a more motivated and energetic team that is bringing drive 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 it at our next Sifted Summit on October 5-6. Get your tickets here.

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