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That time when I learnt about the magic of Founders

“They are sane enough to know that every day is a survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can do it anyway.” – Eric Schmidt

Amen to that Eric.

By the time I had landed at Shazam there was just one Founder still left as an employee of the company; Avery Wang. Internally we viewed him as somewhat of a god-like figure – he was the person who invented the algorithm after all. He himself was incredibly humble, and continued to work towards new horizons for the business.

I can remember the day I met Chris Barton; the guy that came up with the original idea for Shazam and who remained very much involved, though not day-to-day. When he was in the building you could sense it, and his energy and enthusiasm was infectious.

At Onfido we are lucky to have our Founders in much closer quarters, which has meant that I’ve had a lot more time to observe the special energy of Husayn Kassai, Eamon Jubbawy and Ruhul Amin.

As unique as they might be as people, as Founders they mirror a blueprint that I’ve been lucky enough to witness before, in the Shazam Founders. The traits and characteristics that enable them to operate as mavericks, as crusaders, as folks who give zero f’s about what the world thinks about their bold idea and do it anyway.

They don’t just do it anyway. They convince folks like me, with all my years of experience, to hop on board and start building alongside them.

That, my friends, is magic in the truest sense.

There are many who have the spirit of Founders, but who never harness the power of that magic to make their ideas turn into real things. The rebel hearts, the free thinkers, the challengers; I likely fall into that camp.

That’s what makes a little rebel like me the perfect ally to a Founder, because I’m already asking the big questions and have the desire to challenge the status quo; I just haven’t yet summoned up enough magic to turn my ideas into real things.   An innate maverick mindset means that it’s never going to take much persuading to get you to hop on the bus.

But back to the magic of Founders, and some of my observations of what makes them so special.

Heart and realness

To be someone that people want to invest in, we have to be able to see and feel your heart. We have to be able to connect to the energy within you, and feel an authenticity behind your mission. People may still get on your bus without it, but they won’t stay there for very long.

Love is the foundation of everything. Starting your business from a genuine platform of love will provide the bedrock that your business needs to grow.

Spirit and passion

You must have something that’s infectious about your spirit, something that lifts us up with you and helps us to do and deliver things that we never dreamed of doing before.

We will tell you ‘it’s not possible’, and you will keep telling us it is, until we find a way to make it work. That’s the spirit that made Shazam the magical app it became; Chris Barton badgering Avery Wang to invent the clever algorithm that made musical discovery dreams come true for millions of users.

Investment and commitment

I mean investment of self here. Of your whole life in a lot of cases, and certainly most of your time and energy. When we see you invest yourself fully, we are inspired to invest in you right back. It’s important to note, however, that we need to feel like you are invested in us too. We need to feel like we are important and valued, and that we have a voice in what we are joining you to achieve. Investment in the product is awesome, but you need to keep those that have hopped on your bus, on the bus.

Influence and persuasion

You have to be able to be the most persuasive person in the room. You have to be able to connect with people in a real way in order to influence them to adopt your way of thinking, or at least see hope in what you say. You will be smart enough to map out your argument and will have enough data so that we become inspired by your words.

You ideally will be charming. Or you will be great at recruiting charming people who can pick up the slack around you when you can’t be!

Flexibility and fluidity

To survive in startups, the ability to pivot is a must. If you get too hung up on the original thing that you thought you’d be, you’ll quickly become irrelevant. One thing that Onfido has done so well is the evolution of the product offering over the years to become the de facto identity provider to global businesses, and now making inroads with where we go next in the drive towards consumer owned identities.

Humility and groundedness

At Onfido our Founders are at the heart of most change initiatives. They are constantly striving for excellence and to “find a better way” of doing things; which is one of our core values.

Long term Founder-ship will inevitably mean hiring smarter people around you to keep developing the even bigger dreams that you are cooking up. That means you’ve got to be great at asking the right questions and really listening to the answers. Hire ambitiously and act humble. Another thing that the Founders at Onfido get so right; hiring phenomenal talent to come in and see the gaps that we might be missing and defer to their expertise when it comes to making some of the decisions.

Bravery and boldness

Last but not least, you just have to be brave and bold. Brave enough to commit to it, over and over again. Brave enough to stand out from the crowd, live on nothing and keep stepping one foot in front of the other in the direction of your dreams.

Bold enough to ask the cheeky questions, invite yourself to the right meetings and own your presence in the room when you do. Bold enough to make the decisions when one needs to be made, even when you have no real way of establishing likelihood of success.

So you see my friends, there’s a whole lot that comes together to create that magic dust that fuels Founders to create the perfect storm to successfully launch and sustain a startup.

Magic personified.

That time when I learnt to embrace fear

Fear is a big word. It’s big, because most of our negative decisions stem from this very place. By negative I don’t mean the big stuff, I mean the tiny decisions we make day after day. The ones that prevent us from growing into the person we are capable of becoming.

I am constantly inspired by my work in the startup space in that sense. Our Engineering teams embrace ‘failings’ as learning opportunities. They aren’t expected to know everything, they are allowed to learn, but are trusted to test things out and experiment along the way. They feel the fear and do it anyway.

Fear of failure simply does not drive our best performance; in work life and in personal life. If we don’t try new things, we are stifled as people and as businesses. The mindsight of our teams is the thing that keeps us propelling our business forward.

I allowed my life to be dictated by fear, and that fear was enough to keep me plodding on in a failing situation for 12 years. I wasn’t able to identify fear as a feeling at the time, but I allowed it to keep me in suspended animation.

The tipping point for me was when the pain of staying in the situation became bigger than leaving it. Honestly, that’s the truth. For me to leave, the pain of staying had to become unbearable. The body is a clever piece of machinery, and it turned my pain from emotional to physical, so that suddenly the message was loud and clear.

Big decisions to change things (even when they hurt us) are SUPER hard. The only way that I was able to make them successfully was by turning them into little ones. Little. Happy. Choices.

If you are faced with making a decision about something huge, focus on the here and now; ask yourself if you are making small choices that support your growth or hinder your development, be it the food you eat, the quality of your sleep or the people you spend time with. Be as honest as you can be.

Looking back on the situation (much as I wouldn’t change it, for each tiny detail makes me who I am today) it has given me cause to reflect on why I let myself become stuck, largely so that I can learn to not to let my choices be dictated by fear in the future.

Mo Gawdat writes beautifully about this in his book, Solve for Happy and has some ideas that are worth applying. Once we identify what our fears are, he encourages us to ask the following questions:

What’s the worst that can happen? It’s normally no where near as bad as we first catastrophised.

So what? The worst case scenario that we are imagining, normally isn’t that bad.

How likely is it? Probably very unlikely. How many times has the worst case scenario actually happened?

Is there anything I can do now to prevent this scenario? Is it even within your power? If it is, then do what it takes.

Can I recover? Absolutely yes, I am sure of it.

What will happen if I do nothing? What is the price of the current status quo?

What is the best case scenario? Visualise it and make that your focus instead.

He also suggests that at the heart of most fears is a fear of rejection. I would agree. We want to be accepted and we want to belong, so we often clip ourselves to mitigate that risk.

The bigger risk, as far as I’m concerned, would be to let fear rule over everything and dictate your choices.

The fear I held was of the unknown, of what life might be if I completely changed everything within it, of what it would feel like to lose everything. But guess what? I DID lose everything that I had before, but I gained SO much more. Suddenly I was free, free to figure out what my life could look like with me in charge, free to embrace the love and support of others.

It took time to rebuild and I’m still figuring so many things out, but that in itself is wonderful. My choice to move positively away from pain and to allow myself to evolve into a different kind of life was the best choice I ever made.

What I am trying to harness the energy of now is the ability to live fearlessly. To take risks, to try things and to realise that if things don’t happen to unfold the way we hoped, sometimes that allows us to tap into something even greater, just like our Engineers.

That time I embraced my inner child

We all feel fulfilment from having a sense of purpose in life, a sense of feeling useful, and like what we do in the world has value. As employers, it’s important for us to tell our story of what our purpose is, who we are and what we stand for, but to allow the openness for that story to evolve with the people that work within our businesses.

This was very much the theme of the Changeboard Future Talent conference at the end of March. Honestly, its one of the best conferences I attend each year.

Alain de Botton is an exceptional philosopher and I am lucky enough to have heard him speak twice now. He’s also hilariously funny. The humour will be lost in translation here I’m sure, but I felt like I should share some his brilliant musings with you good people.

Building on the theme of openness, how do we then create that in our own lives and that of our businesses?

The workplace is a place where a lot of our immaturities show up the most in terms of the way we react and interact with others. Ask someone to speak about what annoys them about their work, and you will almost invariably see them light up and launch into a tirade of some sort, perhaps along the lines of; this person said this, they did that on purpose and so on. Sound familiar?

The truth is; emotional intelligence is just as important as all the other knowledge systems, if not even more so, but we often aren’t taught about it as children. We progress through our school systems focused on learning other skills, and only generally learn this stuff by innate ability, by chance, or by having some kind of life altering epiphany and making a choice to put in the ‘work’ to learn it.

When we learn to see our fellow humans as their inner children expressing from a place of vulnerability, it becomes much easier to view interactions lovingly and prevent their escalation from your own childish reactions (essentially the reaction of your own inner child to theirs, then press repeat, and so it goes on).

An act of love therefore, is the willingness to look beneath the tricky exterior and love and forgive anyway, whatever the interaction. To look at the person through a forgiving lens as if they were your beloved three year old, who didn’t mean to cause the harm they had with whatever they had done.

What we need as leaders and organisations therefore is a blanket admission of our collective deficiencies more along the lines of:

  • We are all a little crazy.
  • We are all hurt.
  • We are all anxious.
  • We are all vulnerable.

From that platform of openness, we can learn to take pride in our emotional milestones, share more, forgive more and generally create better working environments and more space for growth. For all of us.

The trouble is, in our modern world, we have created the perfect platform for a ton of distraction. We spend so much time not in tune with ourselves, it becomes near impossible to create that honesty with others.

So what we need first is to create better relationships with ourselves. I have found a number of ways of creating that environment for growth for myself, the most significant have been:

  • Daily meditation and space for connection to myself, space for thought, space for reflection.
  • Turning off distractions when travelling around the world, just be you with your breath and the humans you live amongst. Take a break from your screen, your music, your newspaper.
  • Stopping anaesthetising against feeling ‘stuff’ with food and other mind altering substances.
  • Sharing my challenges with others, and creating the space for people to do that with me in return.
  • More recently, taking the time to read and be inspired by others.

Once we create the foundation of knowledge of self to build upon, we are better equipped to teach, learn and grow. Alain speaks of the importance of teaching, from all of us, to the world around us, and that essence of love is to teach someone something – and learning is just as beautiful.

If as leaders, rather than our people seeing us as strict or severe and feeling wary of us, we were able to say; ‘I’m not evil, I’m just worried’, we would create a much stronger bond with our people, and a platform for mutual support and forgiveness. We would also have far greater opportunity to learn from one another.

We are all emotional creatures and we must not try deny our fragility. Especially as leaders. We just need to work on our self knowledge first to be able to share ourselves with our organisations.

As for me; I continue work on my knowledge of self and my own child-like reactions every day (and I will always remain a work in progress). I take pride in bringing my real self to my team at work. That person is honest, vulnerable, silly and a little eclectic but also strong, passionate, brave and supportive. They get the lot, and that’s a whole lot of Penfold haha.

If you are reading this and considering where you might be able to bring a little more realness, a little more ‘you’ to your day to day interactions, then why not take the opportunity to try doing so. For you and for the people around you.

And if you ever get the chance to see/hear Alain speak in real life, I highly recommend you do that too.