One of the most valuable pieces of advice I've received since founding online loan company Grouplend was from a trusted company adviser. He boldly claimed that, for certain people, it's not about work-life balance. Rather, it's about optimizing work-life imbalance. I've learned to take this guidance to heart over the past year.
I often look around the office and am amazed at how hard my entire team works. Long nights and weekends spent away from families are the norm in the startup world. We often chuckle at glamorized notions of the startup lifestyle: table tennis games, fully stocked kitchens and generous stock options. Those idealized perceptions tend to skip over the less glamorous side: Red Bull and espresso-fuelled all-nighters, seemingly less-than-minimum-wage salaries and the very humbling experience of putting your hopes and dreams on a PowerPoint slide deck and pitching to investors for capital.
Sometimes building a company can be quite literal. In the early days, the first task every new Grouplend employee had to complete upon joining the team was assembling their own desks. In addition to world-class developers, financial innovators and data junkies, Grouplend is now home to some of the world's foremost experts on IKEA furniture assembly. We work long hours, we are not paid much, and even after raising over $10-million within our first year of operations, we still have a mountain to climb in our efforts to expand this company.
How have we built Grouplend in such a way that this level of continuing commitment is not only possible, but actually sustainable? Why is it that our team, and many other of Canada's brightest individuals, are working 80-plus-hour weeks and still showing up at the office smiling every day?
Great companies, whether they're startups or mature organizations, find a way to optimize the work environment to be as conducive to success as possible, both for the good of the business and their employees. From the first time we meet a potential hire, we ensure that he or she knows exactly what they are signing up for. Working at Grouplend – like working with many successful tech startups – is not a 9 to 5 job. It requires a level of commitment far beyond a typical employer-employee relationship.
We have also ensured that each employee has an unyielding belief in the company's mission. If anyone in the office doesn't believe they're a part of something incredibly meaningful that will truly reinvent banking, they'll likely struggle to relate to their co-workers and eventually "burn out." The best employees for innovative young companies are driven by passion above all else. Great startups encourage this passion by empowering their employees with major responsibilities and legitimate autonomy. Micromanagement is death for a startup.
We looked to other Canadian startup success stories like Hootsuite and Shopify, which have taken the approach of generously sharing equity with the employees, and subsequently reaped the rewards of a motivated and successful team. Team members having a piece of the pie is the surest way to align everyone's interests around the long-term objectives and vision of the business.
We've also made a concerted effort to include spouses and families in company events as often as possible. We design our social events, outings and retreats with employees' families in mind as we realize that it's not just the employee who has committed to this lifestyle – the people in their inner circle are also directly affected by this decision. Our husbands and wives help pick up the slack on our long days, and our kids put a smile on our faces after stressful meetings. Many of our team members have young families, and we do our best to respect their needs through flexible hours and by encouraging the ability to work from home when needed.
While the work can be challenging, the rewards are endless. Being a part of something real with the potential to make a huge impact is a feeling like no other. Being able to look back years from now and see how we were able to change the face of an entire industry is what drives me every day. Having said that, it takes a special kind of personality to seek out (and succeed in) such an uncertain and risky environment. At the end of the day, I guess you still need to be a little nuts to succeed in a startup.
Kevin Sandhu is the CEO and founder of Grouplend, a Canadian digital finance company. Connect with him on twitter @kevin_sandhu and @grouplend