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When it comes to creating a business in the tech industry, Michelle You proves you don’t need to be super technical or an expert.
With no background in coding or programming, but a love for music, she helped to co-found Songkick, a company that helps you find out when your favourite artists are playing live shows.
This business idea came with major obstacles, with long hours scouring the internet for live music listings and an eventual lawsuit against industry giant Ticketmaster.
This left her dealing with the undeniable symptoms of burnout and handing the business over to Warner Music.
With a backpacking trip around the world and a new lease for life, Michelle has now taken on a new venture that battles the issue of climate change and aims to create more diversity in the workplace.
Enjoy this episode and discover how Michelle is bossing the business world.
Here’s everything we cover:
The rhythm and rhyme behind Songkick
Michelle, I’m so excited to chat to you, especially because you’ve smashed it with one startup, you’re in the midst of creating a new one, and you’ve also been a VC [venture capitalist].
So it feels like you’ve got this amazing tapestry of experience to share.
I think it would best if maybe we start at the beginning with Songkick.
So do you want to just cast your mind back and tell me first, how did that brilliant idea come about?
We started Songkick in 2007. I met my co-founder, Ian, in Beijing when we were studying Chinese, during a gap year. He and his best friend from university always wanted to start a business together.
Around that time, we came across Y Combinator and decided to apply to it.
Ian and I had always been really huge music fans. We loved music, we really bonded over music, and I had just moved back to New York after a few years away, and I found it really difficult to know when gigs were happening.
I was subscribed to every mailing list, scouring every website and that was when iTunes and the iPod were starting to become a thing.
I just said, “Can we make something that will look at my iTunes library and tell me when any of these bands are coming to my city?”
Because that’s the source of all the music I love, and it would make it a lot easier if I had a personalised concert listing service.
And that was really the kernel of the Songkick idea that still holds true today.
And just to get this straight. You weren’t a coder, you weren’t a programming genius at this point, you were just confident that you could find the people to make that kind of technology happen?
I wouldn’t say I was confident.
I was not a coder. I studied English and philosophy, and I was a writer. I was working at an arts magazine at the time.
So really as far away from tech as you can get.
I definitely had imposter syndrome, starting a tech company as somebody who wasn’t technical, but I figured out my own way of contributing.
I think that communicating clearly, having empathy for your users, those are all skills that I learned in the humanities that helped us build a great company.
So how did you get Songkick up and running?
So we were really lucky in that we applied to Y Combinator as a first way of getting capital.
We were accepted into one of the early batches back in 2007.
Our first investor came to demo day at YC, and that’s how we met him, Saul Klein, and that really set us off on our fundraising path.
But we then moved back to London and had to do the hard grind of figuring out how to get users, build a product that people loved, and we really learned by doing.
And you raised quite a significant amount of venture capital.
Was that all from Saul? I think it was more than $6m in the end.
Oh, no, it was far more than that.
We raised several rounds of funding from angel investors, Index and Sequoia, and we ended up merging with another business back in, I think it was 2015, and we raised funding off the back of that as well.
So I don’t remember the full amount, but well over $6m.
That’s an old number.
We ended up exiting the business to Warner Music, so it was acquired by Warner.
Which is just the most amazing sale to make, knowing that the acquirer is completely allied with the needs of that business and wants to make that live music industry thrive.
A business making money from day one
So I want to hear all about how that came about, but how did you make money in those early days, or does that not matter when the tech is just so compelling?
We did make money from day one.
So the way the product worked was it would scan your music library, whether that’s your iPhone, your Spotify, etcetera. It would find all the bands that you loved based on your listening history, and then send you a notification anytime a gig was announced for that band.
So it was very simple concert alert service—a personalised concert alert. Then we would aggregate all the ticket links across all ticket vendors.
When those concerts were announced, we would send you off to the ticket vendor to buy a ticket.
That was the first initial way we made revenue, and we would get a small affiliates fee for any ticket that was bought off of our recommendation.
Later on, we started getting into ticketing ourselves.
So at one point, we were ticketing, I think a third of the concerts that were happening in London, and we became a ticket vendor.
So we acquired inventory, sold it to our users, and we tried to create a really great ticketing experience, because I know that fans have been perennially frustrated with how to buy tickets online for their favourite bands.
This question, I think the answer is going to make my brain bleed, but how did you find out the concert date of every band that’s playing everywhere around the world?
Do you have an AI that like scours the internet for everything related to that data point?
It’s actually an incredible data challenge, and we had such a talented team of engineers that attacked this challenge.
So we would go out and scour the internet for every single live music listing across the world.
I can’t remember how many websites we were looking at every day, but it was in the hundreds.
Every venue website, back when MySpace was a thing, Ticketmaster, TicketWeb, anywhere there was a live music date, our crawlers would go out, read the information, find out when the concert was happening and pull it back into our database.
They’d then clean it up and match it with every source of information there was.
So it was a real data challenge, and we did that hourly to make sure we had the latest concert information and the most up to date, comprehensive database of gigs in the world.
Getting more women involved in investment
Tell me about your experience of fundraising because some of these venture capitalists firms that have invested in you, they are the biggest, most well-known, Index, Sequoia.
So what was your experience going to these pitches? How did you wow them?
Tell me some anecdotes about those times.
Well, I wasn’t the CEO of Songkick, so it wasn’t my primary role to fundraise.
My co-founder, Ian, was a CEO, and he was incredible at establishing those relationships, telling a great story and then rallying the team to back it up with the numbers that we achieved.
But I did go to many of the pitches as a co-founder and as chief product officer. I was there to explain the product strategy, and it was intimidating because I always felt like an outsider in the room.
I was usually the only woman in the room, and it didn’t feel like it was an accessible world to me.
I think that back then in 2007, the conversation around diversity wasn’t very sophisticated, not as sophisticated as it is today for sure. The tech industry hadn’t yet had its inward facing reckoning around its own diversity challenges.
I think that fundraising today is a completely different story, and I’m really proud that one of the things that I set out to do with Supercritical, my second company, was to make sure that I raised half from women angel investors.
Back then, I can’t remember a single investor we had that was a woman.
I might be wrong, but I can’t remember any investor during our Songkick times and that just makes no sense.
Half of our users were certainly women and if you want to change the ecosystem, you have to start somewhere.
So for Supercritical, when I fundraised, I made sure that half of the investors that I raised from were women and I worked really, really hard to make that happen.
I’d love to hear more about that, but I think it’s an important point to make that the world has changed so drastically in a relatively short space of time.
Because I remember I started writing about entrepreneurs around that time, in 2007, and we were always struggling to find women to put on the cover, and we were struggling to find any sort of diversity.
We were all women working on this magazine.
There was a team of four women, and we were quite diverse as a team, but we just couldn’t find the people that we wanted to see on the cover.
And then when we did find these amazing mythical creatures, we would end up asking them, “Well, what’s it like to be a woman in business?”
It would be this sort of obsession, which was sort of necessary, but also somewhat awful to have that be the focus of an interview.
But has the world changed that much since then?
Do you feel like the woman in business conversation is sort of done or is it still on its journey?
I don’t think it’s done until we have equal representation in every aspect of business, and we certainly don’t have that now.
So it’s definitely not done.
It’s changed dramatically. I think it is at least a point of conversation.
Back in 2007, no one was talking about it. I wasn’t even thinking of it as something to be self-aware about.
Now it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about and talk about and in recruitment, I look to have representation in our team.
Whereas we didn’t actively work on that back then. So we’ve improved, but not enough.
Twitter handle mishaps
I did notice because I was looking at your Twitter. Why is your Twitter handle wreckingball37, by the way?
That is such an embarrassing question.
I set up Twitter and I didn’t think it was going to be a thing and at that time one of my favourite songs was Wrecking Ball by …
Is it Miley Cyrus?
No, no it was before that.
It’s a guy that came out of the band, Wolf Parade, which is like a Canadian indie band.
And I just really love that song, and I’m quite critical I think and can be pretty full on and critical at times.
So I just picked it, but now I wish I changed it to my real name because it’s a little bit cringy.
I love that that’s your story because that’s exactly what I’ve done.
I’m still sparky000 on all my social media because I set it up like the early noughties, and I’ve just never changed it.
And now I’m stuck with a teenage handle, which was my first ever AOL handle when I used to do IMing when I was just a little nerd.
Old school, so I sympathise.
The mission of gender parity both at home and at work
I was looking at your Twitter, and you’ve been tweeting about some of the big issues that I think a lot of women are facing right now.
Like gender pay parity.
The fact that even the high-earning women, especially during the pandemic, are still taking on a lot more housework and childcare.
And you are attacking a lot of these issues with Supercritical, but how does that play out in your life?
Are you still doing more dishes at home?
So, I guess my entry point into these kind of issues was when our first employee at Songkick, a man, told us that his wife was pregnant, and we thought we need to have a parental leave policy.
I’d never thought about this before. I was 25 years old. I had no idea.
My instinctive reaction was, well, it should obviously be the same for a man and a woman.
They should get the same amount of leave. I then learnt about the statutory requirements where men get two weeks’ paid time off, women get six weeks’ paid time off and up to a year unpaid.
I was thinking two weeks versus a year. That makes no sense.
I just became really interested in how parental leave impacts a woman’s career and that has just carried on. I still see it as a personal passion project of mine.
I’m really lucky that I’ve got an incredibly supportive husband who tries to be as fair as possible.
We took the same amount of time off when my son was born, and we self-consciously talk about housework and childcare and try to split it as fairly as possible.
It’s a work in progress.
It’s hard to know what is fair and how you balance and estimate what fair is. But we actively work on it, and I feel really lucky that I’ve got a partner who tries his best to support me in that.
You don’t need to feel guilty for leaving a company—even if you did help found it
So why did you decide to leave Songkick?
Was it very much related to the fact that it was a much bigger entity and Warner was buying it, and it was time to do something else?
Or what was the sort of catalyst for you thinking right, my time here is done?
It was a really slow realisation. I had been doing it for nine years and by the time I left, I was well past the point of burnout. I was just tired.
We had gone through the merger, we were suing Ticketmaster, which was incredibly exhausting, and we were in acquisition talk.
So it was just a lot going on.
I just found myself lacking the energy and the enthusiasm to bring to the team. I just don’t think that’s a healthy place to be.
It’s really hard to decide to leave the company that you started.
There’s a lot of conflicting emotions, a lot of feelings of disloyalty and responsibility.
I think when I decided to leave, it was easily nine months later that it should have been. But I was just burned out and tired.
I was tired of the challenge.
I was tired of thinking about the same problem. I was even tired of music.
I didn’t listen to music for six months after I left. Literally not a single song because I just didn’t want to think about music anymore.
So it got to a pretty bad place.
Burnout: The warning signs to look out for
But that’s really frightening when you feel trapped in that way, trapped by responsibility, I suppose.
And when you say you were way past burnout, is that the typical symptoms of burnout, like not sleeping, being anxious, the stuff that we read about in the press?
What were your burnout symptoms?
I was just really unhappy and detached.
I didn’t feel any positive energy about anything we were doing. I was just going through the motions, and I was very negative.
When people would come up with ideas or want to try new things, I would just slam it down and find ways that it wouldn’t work. And that’s just not a healthy place to be as a founder or anybody working really.
I think in my personal life, I was just very withdrawn, just going through the motions and not engaged, not feeling anything.
The trials and tribulations of taking on Ticketmaster
You mentioned there suing Ticketmaster, which that phrase, just sends cold chills down my spine.
Can you talk about that?
I don’t know if it’s long enough ago that you can talk openly about that experience and tell us a bit of the ins and outs of that.
Well, there’s definitely stuff that I’m not allowed to talk about, but we sued them for antitrust violations in the state of California.
Basically once we merged with the other company, we started selling tickets on behalf of artists, and we were working with amazing artists like Adele.
We ticketed her comeback tour, which was probably a career highlight.
But the better we were doing, the more we felt that they were clamping down on our business, threatening artists and telling them not to work with us.
So we sued them, and this was before the scrutiny that big tech has today. We ended up settling with them out of court, so we didn’t go all the way to court.
Although, I think my inner film nerd would’ve loved that epic David and Goliath moment, but we ended up settling with them out of court because they offered us a settlement that we couldn’t walk away from.
So it was a $130m settlement, which is massive, but as a founder, it feels like a failure because you don’t start a company to end up in a lawsuit.
No, but you stood your corner, and you didn’t just let them swallow you up.
At least, you went to battle.
Yeah, we did. But the timelines of lawsuits are years, whereas a startup works in days and months.
So that the kind of outcome is very, very slow-going.
Goodbye business, hello backpacking
So when you did leave Songkick you said that you didn’t listen to music for six months afterwards.
So what were you doing with your time after you left?
It was the best time.
My husband and I went backpacking around the world for six months straight.
I feel so lucky that I had that opportunity, and it was probably the best thing I’ve ever chosen to do. And after doing that, I’ve kind of resolved to try and do that every 10 years.
Every career break, go backpacking because it really takes you out of your normal world and your comfort zone, and it makes you evaluate what’s important to you.
You literally see the world in a way that you don’t have the chance to in normal times.
I read that you were living on something like $2 a day. Was this like an almost departure from capitalism?
Because you had obviously just come out of this company, you had money in the bank, but you wanted just to live a simple life.
Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I mean we had a very strict budget, so we had to make the money last, and we travelled to incredible, relatively cheap, countries so we were able to do that.
But when you have to downsize to a backpack, not just in terms of money, but your belongings, you really have to think about what’s important.
We tracked every dollar we spent on a spreadsheet, like literally every coffee and every food truck snack, we put into a spreadsheet.
You can really see what you’re spending money on and if it’s worth it.
It made me evaluate what was important to me in life.
I think extracting my identity from Songkick, kind of trying to understand, who am I outside of this company?
And what do I have to say for myself outside being a founder of this company?
That was really painful and hard as well, because for nine years, they were one and the same.
I was the founder of this company, and it was my identity.
So it took a long time to figure out, but I feel really lucky that I had the chance to take that break and go away and see the world in the way that I did.
There is no timeline to finding the right business venture—give yourself time to find what’s right for you
Did you do anything else just in terms of practical advice for anyone else who’s like, “I’m adrift now, my anchor is gone?”
The thing that I did that I found really hard, and frustrating was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next.
I just gave myself time to wait until I found the right thing.
So I consulted a little bit and I started helping companies, and I really thought maybe my career’s not important. Maybe I can just make money as a consultant and not work half the time and have a great personal life.
I tried that a little bit, but then I found it too boring.
I wanted my own challenge that I could own and really care about.
That’s when I joined LocalGlobe, the VC fund as a venture partner and that was really my place to learn.
When you’re at a VC fund, you see so many different ideas, after being heads down in music for nine years, being able to look at the whole world of what was going on in tech, it was really exciting and stimulating.
I was exposed to so many new ideas and around early-stage founders as well.
When you feel the energy of an exciting founder, who’s passionate about their idea, that’s very invigorating.
But I was there on and off for two or three years.
That’s when I really started focusing on climate change and I needed to just give myself the time to learn and talk to loads of people and be patient with myself. I got to a point where I was very frustrated.
I’m the kind of person who likes to execute and not just wait for the plan.
I was like, “When am I going to figure out what I’m going to do next?”
After a couple of years, I realised investing was not for me. I’m really not suited for it.
I like to go deep on one thing and have a long-term relationship with it rather than loads of different startups doing lots of different things.
When I realised that, I started to think, “Well then, what am I doing? What’s the thing that I’m going to go deep on?”
And I found it really challenging to give myself this space to be ready, to figure it out and let it arrive organically rather than have a practical plan because it didn’t really work that way.
Wrapping your head around the world of offsetting
What was the eureka moment?
When did the little germ of the super critical idea take root in your mind?
Was there a particular thing that happened that made you think, oh, I’ve been missing this the whole time, this is what I want to do?
It wasn’t really a eureka moment.
I had the idea for it a year before we started, but I needed that year again to work with a coach to get the confidence, to start another company because I felt I hadn’t worked through what had happened with Songkick.
But there were a few things that helped me come to the idea of Supercritical.
The first was my very first angel investment. It was in a climate startup called Project Run, which is a consumer subscription to offset.
So you can measure your carbon footprint as an individual, your flights, your meat eating, etcetera, and then you could subscribe. It was like $10 a month to offset your life.
That was my first entry point into the world of offsetting, when I invested in them.
I love that team so much. They’re so great. They care about the right things. And they’re so full of energy.
I was helping them, doing loads of calls, helping with the product.
I started going deep on the offsetting bit and I thought, “This seems super weird, what people are paying for? How does this make any sense?”
I just did a lot of research, talking to project developers and reading the market research. The offsetting industry is very small and nascent.
Since I invested in 2019, it’s exploded, but I think coming in as an outsider I thought offsets seemed weird.
It didn’t make any sense that people were paying for these things.
It was understanding how the concept worked, where you emit a ton, but you pay someone to stop emitting. How does that offset what you’ve done? Your carbon dioxide is still out there.
So just logically, it made no sense to me.
The other contributing experience was the founder of LocalGlobe, Saul, tasked me with getting the fund to net-zero.
He was like, “Okay, we need to get to net-zero. This is what good looks like. Our LPs are asking us about our ESG strategy. Michelle, you go figure it out.”
I found that process of researching ‘what does net-zero mean?’
How does a company like a venture capital fund or a tech startup gets to net-zero when all the guidance was really talking to heavy emitting industries like steel and factories?
I remember thinking, “What does a VC fund do?”
I found that process incredibly frustrating and confusing. It took me easily six months to get my head around measuring our carbon emissions.
I just knew from my time in consumer internet, if you don’t make it super simple and straightforward people won’t act, because there’s just too much friction.
Anything that’s too hard to do, people will just not do.
How Supercritical can help businesses get to net-zero
So tell me about what Supercritical offers then.
I mean, you’ve talked about the crazy world of offsetting and how some stuff just really doesn’t make sense. And some stuff is complicated, and some stuff is very expensive.
So in terms of cracking it, how does Supercritical approach things differently?
Who are the companies that are coming to you?
Because I’ve seen some of the people who are working with you and some of them are digital agencies and not the people you would immediately think have a carbon footprint through the roof.
So tell me about the whole Supercritical approach.
We have built a software platform that helps companies get to net-zero.
So we automate the process of measuring a company’s carbon emissions.
Now that is everything upstream in their value chain. So all their suppliers, such as your AWS usage, your business, travel, your employee work from home emissions and then downstream in the product usage as well.
So for example, if you’re a digital gaming company, how much energy is used while somebody’s playing your game, and how do we measure that?
We’ve started out by working with tech companies and that’s because tech as a sector, actually has more emissions than that of aviation.
That’s something I’ve learned. I think tech companies also align with climate action.
One of the number one reasons why tech companies come to work with us is because their employees are asking them to, and they care.
So they have younger employees that are asking their companies, what are we doing about climate change? How can we do the right thing here?
So talent is a real big driver for businesses to work with us.
The second half of what we do, once we’ve measured your carbon emissions, we help you come up with a reduction plan and actionable advice around what can you do to start shrinking those emissions.
We only sell carbon removal offsets.
In the world of offsetting, there are two main types.
There is what’s on the market today, conventional offsets that are basically paying other people to stop emitting carbon dioxide.
This is what’s known as emissions avoidance.
So there are projects like a renewable energy project, a wind farm, or a clean cook stove project, that subsidises somebody to switch from diesel to a cleaner burning fuel.
These basically prevent emissions from going out there in the atmosphere.
So that’s the avoidance bit of it.
But if you think about the world of net-zero, if you emit a ton of carbon dioxide, and you pay someone to stop emitting a ton, your ton is still out there in the atmosphere warming the planet.
That doesn’t get you to net-zero.
You have to literally absorb the carbon dioxide you’ve emitted and store it permanently to get to net-zero.
That’s what carbon removal is.
Carbon removal is this early-stage technology that is really kind of nascent.
The best example is something called direct air capture, which is literally a stack of fans filtering the air, absorbing carbon dioxide, and burying it underground. Now there are tons of these early stage technologies.
They’re all very exciting, but the macro climate reason why we focus on carbon removal is, all the scientific modelling, that plots our planet’s path towards staying below 1.5 degrees of warming.
Now, limiting us to 1.5 degrees of warming is what all the scientists say we need to do to have a liveable planet.
The IPCC, which is the UN body of scientists that do these studies, have assumed that these carbon removal technologies will scale to removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the sky by 2050, around 10 billion tons annually.
These technologies to date have only removed a few thousand tons.
So there’s this really urgent scaling challenge of, we need to get from thousands to billions in the next 10 years.
How are we going to do that?
No one’s really focusing on scaling that part of the market. And no one’s really, I guess, being called out.
We’re assuming we get to billions of tons, but where is that coming from? Who’s going to scale the technology?
So our hope is that by aggregating demand across all these tech companies, we’ll provide a real signal to the market that there’s demand for these renewal technologies, they are more expensive.
I mean, they can range from 10 to a 100 times more expensive than the conventional offset to date, but our customers are willing to pay that premium because as tech companies, they understand being an early adopter, paying for something that’s more expensive, helping it scale, and they really align with that challenge.
People are passionate about climate change
How passionate are people about this?
How quickly are people joining you?
I mean, people are really passionate.
I think that it’s just been so encouraging, reaching out to CEOs of tech companies, and they just say, “Yeah, we need to do something about this. I don’t know what to do.”
Most of the businesses we work with, there’s a self-organised group within the team that is focusing on recycling or going out to plant trees or switching to LED bulbs.
So they’re trying to do things, but until you’ve done that initial carbon emissions audit to know what you’re actually doing, none of that activity is based on real data.
So that carbon footprint measurement is the first step.
Then you can see, okay, actually we’ve been worrying about flying internationally, but our IT hardware purchase is like five times more than that.
So let’s focus on addressing that part of our emissions. So that carbon audit is the first step.
I think that the other really encouraging thing is that the most common person we work with is the head of HR, the chief people officer, because again, as I said, they really see this as an employer, branding, talent retention piece of work.
I mean, some of my favourite things to do once we’ve worked with the company is to do an all-hands presentation or lunch and learn where we talk about carbon removal and get the team engaged in what they’re doing.
Everyone wants to work for a place that you feel is aligned with your values.
And climate is probably one of the most pressing problems and issues of our time.
So people care about this stuff.
Creating a good work-life balance to avoid burnout
You mentioned that at Songkick, growing that business became an almost myopic journey, and it consumed everything.
What you’re doing now with climate change, so pressing, so terrifying.
How are you going to stop yourself from burning out again? Because I can imagine this would be totally consuming.
I’ve always been really mission oriented. I have to really believe in what I’m doing to put everything into it.
I still believe in the value of live music.
I think it’s probably one of the most unique, magical human experiences that people can have. It’s life changing. And enabling people to have that connection with their favourite artist and giving them that emotional connection, I still think a valuable thing.
I just have moved on from that I suppose, but I have the same amount of belief and passion in Supercritical.
I think that I feel completely convinced that this is the right answer.
Carbon removal needs to scale. I’m doing my bit to help that industry scale. But whether I do it or not, somebody needs to do it and that helps me focus.
But working out how not to get burned out and how to have a better balance was what I needed to do with that coach, for the year before I quit my VC job to start the company.
From having the idea to actually starting it, I needed that time to work it all out, I’m a mum now.
I had a kid three years ago and being a mum means I have a completely different set of priorities in my spare time.
I just had to work out, how do I be the kind of mum I want to be and found a company that I feel I can put my everything into, and how do I make that balance?
It’s not easy.
I definitely find it super, super challenging, but hopefully I’m doing it differently this time around.
Inputting boundaries to prevent work from consuming your personal life
Can you give me some examples of boundaries that you’ve put in place, that’s been really helpful in terms of drawing a little line between the professional and personal sides of your life?
Yeah, I think it’s really knowing myself and how I like to work.
So I remember when we first started Songkick, we were working every weekend for at least a year, and then we all realised, weekends were invented for a reason.
We need a break.
Otherwise, we’re just going to be brain-dead and not very smart.
So we instituted weekends again, and I didn’t have to make that mistake with Supercritical. I knew I needed a weekend and I like to be off when I’m off.
Some people like to have it blend in, but if I’m off, then I’m not checking email, I’m not on Slack, and I’m very clear about that because I can’t really rest until I can have that disconnect.
So when I’m off on the weekend, I do not check emails and I do not use Slack and I don’t expect the team to either.
The other thing is I have a hard stop at 5pm, and it’s really important to me that I spend from five to seven with my son before he goes to sleep.
I don’t break into that time unless it’s really urgent.
It’s such a little amount of time at the end of the day because he’s in nursery all day. That two hours is so important to me to spend time with him.
It is not easy. I still have daily challenges of how do I make this decision? Do I do this call now?
Or do I go on this trip or let it eat into my personal life?
We all have to work and balance family and other commitments.
It’s kind of crazy.
Finding women to be angel investors and creating a diverse workplace
I want to go back to what we were talking about right at the beginning of our chat, about your new approach to gender parity in all things.
You mentioned something really interesting, which is when you were looking to raise finance for Supercritical, you actually wanted to get female investors on board.
Just for other founders who are like, I want to do that, I want to have a more balanced investor portfolio.
How did you do it?
There is no secret magical network that I tapped into and just magically got 12 female angels. It was a lot of hard work and grinding and there were some dark moments where I was not meeting enough women.
I was thinking, “How am I going to close half the women if I’m just not meeting enough?”
It’s like a funnel problem.
There are amazing lists of women investors now, like I think Sifted has one and there’s a female angel network here in the UK. I can’t remember the name of it. I just asked for intros.
Any male investor I talked to, I just said, “Tell me if you know any women who are angel investors.” And I got intros.
I think the other thing I did that was helpful was I asked women in my network who had never invested before. I just told them, I want you to invest in my company. Just write me a check for £5,000 if you can.
So explaining what it means, because if you’ve never invested before, you’re like, what does this mean? Am I qualified? What risk is there? How much time commitment is it?
I just kind of walked them through what I wanted and what the relationship would be like and how much money I wanted.
People even talked about cheque sizes, how much does it cost to invest in these sorts of things?
So I’m really happy that some of my investors have never angel invested before, and they were happy to take a chance on our company.
And then on the flip side, I’m interested on how you’ve got a diverse employee base.
So how have you attacked that problem?
We’re very early and very small. So it’s an active work in progress.
I think again, it’s about seeing diverse candidates in the first round and making sure that you’re advertising in the right places and reducing bias in your interview process.
It’s also about writing the job description in a way that appeals to all sorts of backgrounds.
My co-founder, Aaron, actually has a lot more experience in hiring.
So he was a CTO at Songkick and really prioritised this at Songkick. One of the things he told me that they did was they used to advertise their jobs on GitHub.
They did an analysis of the GitHub audience, and it was 95% male.
One of their developers was like, “Well, why are we advertising here if we’re trying to get a diverse candidate pool? We just won’t.”
So it’s kind of looking at the tweaks you can make and how you’re reaching your audience.
Then it’s about how you’re bringing your audience into the hiring pipeline, to make sure that everyone’s got a great chance of getting the job at the end.
Be inspired by the fearless women around you
Can I ask you a little bit about role models?
Because it feels like everything that you are doing in terms of your approach to business, you are a role model.
You are someone that people can look to and be like, she’s doing things the right way and hey, that’s great for business.
But I’m curious, who have you looked to in your life, who you’ve thought, you’ve done things the right way and that’s been inspirational to me?
Yeah, my mum is a huge inspiration.
I mean, she was an immigrant to the US. She went there for graduate school, she got into tech as a software developer then worked at Apple and IBM. Then she moved into startups, doing sales and marketing, and ended up being a VC.
She left VC to go back to school to study to be a chaplain.
Now she’s a chaplain at Stanford Children’s Hospital. She is completely fearless in her career changes.
I mean, we’re very different because I constantly feel insecure and have imposter syndrome, whereas that’s not in her vocabulary, she doesn’t understand or relate to it.
Even when we talk about sexism in the workplace, she’s had horrible experiences, way worse than me because it was the 1980s and 1990s.
And when I go and cry to her, she’s just like pick yourself up and get over it. She gives me tough love.
How to deal with imposter syndrome
You’ve said that imposter syndrome has been a struggle.
A lot of people, male and female struggle with imposter syndrome.
But do you find like this new approach to life and wanting to be more direct, has that helped with the imposter syndrome? Has that kind of started to disappear from your life?
I still have it for sure, but I think that being at LocalGlobe, the VC fund, and seeing hundreds of CEOs over the course of my time there, I learnt that there are so many different ways of being a CEO.
I think before with Songkick, I only had one example of a CEO, the one that I worked with and started the company with, and he was incredible.
And it was like, that’s how I have to be. Otherwise, I’m not a good CEO.
But then being exposed to so many different types of founders and CEOs, it showed me that there are so many different ways of doing it and I could find my own way that felt real and authentic and possible for me.
It was about understanding my limitations and not feeling like I had to have everything nailed down and be good at everything.
It was knowing how I could complement my weaknesses with other team members who were better at things than me and being okay with that rather than thinking I had to be good at everything.
So I think I am able to have a more realistic and non self-destructive approach to my limitations with Supercritical.
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