“I thrive on chaos”Life can be pretty chaotic when you’re the founder of a successful startup, something Bellabeat Co-Founder Urška Sršen knows all too well.
Since winning the Pioneers Startup challenge in 2013, Urška Sršen’s life has taken a dramatic turn. The co-founder of Bellabeat has been able to raise over US $4.5 million in funding and currently has operations on three continents. The Red Bulletin caught up with the entrepreneur at the 2014 Pioneers Festival to talk about life under pressure, dealing with stress, and how to network.
THE RED BULLETIN: How has the Pioneers Festival changed since last year?
Urška Sršen: I think there are more people here this year. It’s been quite hard to move around the venue this time. I’ve definitely seen a lot more people. The event is really connecting people, and it’s encouraging to see so many participants coming to network and to learn.
How different do you think this festival is in comparison to festivals in America?
I think the biggest difference is the venue. The Imperial Palace in Vienna gives it such character, a specific stamp that leaves a certain positive feeling that you can’t forget. It’s very similar to events in the States, because it’s so relaxed and easy to network; much more so than other events in Europe. That’s what I really like about it, it’s like a rock concert basically. You’re not afraid to talk to people at a rock concert, right?
Can you explain how networking goes on at an event like this?
Last year’s Pioneers was a game-changer for us because we met Michael Seibel, who’s a partner at Y Combinator. He was the judge at the startup competition last year, so we met him and it helped us get into YC and bridge over to the States. Just having this one connection completely changed everything. We also met a lot of people who we’re still in contact with, or are actually working with. When you’re networking, it mostly just looks like you’re exchanging a couple of business cards, but in fact you might be holding a game-changer in your hands and you don’t even know it yet. It’s really important that this network is more than just a word, but that you really pursue it. Exchange contacts and keep in touch, and see how you can help each other.
So the key is to follow up?
Of course. If you just take business cards and do nothing with them, then what’s the point? But even just taking them is a step in the right direction because you may see them again in the future or at other events and they become more approachable because you feel like you already know them. Things become much easier after this, in contrast to everything being really scary at the beginning when you don’t know anyone.
What do you think is the most important thing to consider when networking?
I’d say the most important thing is to be respectful at all times, and don’t jump on people straightaway. But then, on the other hand, people are expecting to be jumped on at events like this, and this is why we’re all here. At events in Europe, we have to learn to have the confidence to just approach someone and be like, ‘Hey, can we talk.’
As a startup, you should always have your pitch ready. It’s very important that you practise your pitch in advance so you develop a certain language, a way of describing what you and your company does in an understandable manner. The biggest mistake made by founders is that they over-complicate their explanations because they’re so over-excited about what they’re working on. If you want to present yourself to a person, then he has to get a good impression, and he has to know exactly what you’re doing in 10 seconds, so practise your own language of explaining things in a way that’s understandable for others.
So if we were networking now, how would you describe Bellabeat?
Right, so Bellabeat is a company developing self-tracking tools for women with a special focus on prenatal care. We’re trying to change prenatal care by introducing wearables [wearable tech] for women.
There’s a great emphasis on design with your products. Where did you get the inspiration for your designs?
Before working on a startup, I was a sculptor, but I mainly worked with wood. Nature is a big inspiration for us.
What did you sculpt?
I mostly worked on conceptual work in wood and stone. My sculpting career was actually quite short-lived though, as I founded Bellabeat in my last year of uni.
So the idea just came along from one day to the next?
Yeah, I’ve always lived my life like this. I was actually enrolled in med school first, and then I dropped out to study sculpture and then I founded Bellabeat. I’ve always been someone that believes in just following your instincts. You should always try to do what you like, and love what you do. I think having this mindset, as a startup, is really important because it is a very unpredictable career, so you have to adapt really quickly. You constantly find yourself out of your comfort zone, and when you start getting comfortable you know that you’re doing something wrong, because then your company is basically stagnating.
What does a normal day look like when you are not at a convention?
Actually now it’s starting to become a little more normal than people would think. But when you’re a small startup, you’re probably working from home, so that means you don’t leave the house or get dressed out of your pajamas for weeks. The only time you get dressed is for a few meetings or something. You basically wake up and start working until you go to bed. It’s still the same now, but at least I change my clothes daily because I have to go to the office with other people! You work every second that you’re awake, and living and breathing so everything else is on hold right now.
So no work-life balance at the moment?
Having a startup is like being an artist. It’s such a personal thing, and a personal type of work. The process is very creative. Your work and your hobbies and everything else merges together into one mission, into one project. That’s why I think people lose this work-life balance because it is not needed, for a while at least, because this is your life, and it is your work at the same time.
Do you have a way of relaxing?
I usually escape for a couple of minutes when I’m doing a bit of research like stalking on other companies or reading TechCrunch, so that’s my getaway right now, and it’s also connected to work.
What about turning off your phone at night?
No way, no chance! Our customers and investors are in the States, we’re in Europe and have part of the manufacturing in Asia, so we’re basically working through three different time zones. When things get really intense then it’s around the clock. I wake up at three to have a Skype call with China, go to bed for an hour or two, then wake up, work with my team in the office and then have a nap again and then wake up and have calls with the States. It goes on and on like this.
Do you have any tips for people on how to deal this kind of stress?
I think you have to love it. I think founders are a very special breed, almost a little bit masochistic. You’re really stressed, but at the same time you really love it, and wouldn’t want to do anything else. What I’m really battling against is when you have really high ups and downs. There’s a danger that everything becomes kind of flat. You can’t really experience the intensity of joy or sadness anymore because you’ve been living on the limit, so it’s really important to step back and contemplate that and think about your emotions and know that it is going to be like this for quite a while.
Acceptance of the situation?
Kind of like acceptance, but also seeing those early markers because this flatness is depression. I think it’s called founders depression and it’s quite common. You have to recognise this and constantly battle against it, and do something about it if it happens. We’re only human at the end of the day, and you have to take care of yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. Even more important than your company or whatever you’re doing. It’s still very hard to find this balance, but that’s when having co-founders and a team really helps to balance things out – and it does get easier.
Eating healthy is also important. Bellabeat is all about health so we are trying to be ambassadors for this, to eat healthy and lead a healthy lifestyle. Y Combinator also has one piece of advice for you. Work and exercise, and I think that that’s a good point because if your body lets you down then it’s your company that’s at risk.
If you had one week of free time, without work pressure or responsibility, what would you do?
That’s so abstract to me right now I can’t even imagine it! But I think that if I had a week then I would probably sleep from Monday to Sunday evening. Now that I think about it a bit more, I think I could read so many books, I could go places, watch TV, but in reality I think that I would just drop dead and sleep.
Do you perhaps fear the moment when you have free time?
Yeah exactly. I thrive on chaos. I love chaos. I haven’t had a free day for a very long time.