How to strike a balance

Creating a healthy separation between work and life may seem like an impossible task within new-growth companies—but this year’s Startup 50 winners are certainly trying

 

Par Nijhawan, Exzell Pharma's chief executive officer is photographed at the company's warehouse in Markham, Ont., Wednesday, August 16, 2019. (Photograph by Cole Burston)

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

Though often flaunted as a badge of honour, burnout has become one of the most insidious symptoms of success in the startup world. All work and very little play make early-stage entrepreneurs a dull, and occasionally sick, group. According to a recent study by HR giant Morneau Shepell, entrepreneurs are disproportionately more likely than the broader public to experience mental health struggles, a phenomenon so widespread it even has its own business buzzword: “founder’s blues.”

Perhaps that’s why laser-like attention is now given to the ephemeral concept of work-life balance. In the nascent stages of running a new company—a period rife with off-hours phone calls, takeout and tenuous sanity—can we actually expect founders to establish an equilibrium between the demands of early growth and, well, everything else?

Reasonable or not, Cole Leitch is doing his best to shield his staff from exhaustion. Back in March 2016, the president and CEO of Winnipeg’s Avant Insurance Brokers (2019 Startup 50: No. 34) was a new founder and a new dad. Initially forced to plan client meetings around nap time, Leitch was hell-bent on establishing a nine-to-five mandate for any future employees. “One of the reasons I started my business was because I felt like most of the insurance brokerages I worked for—and competed with—didn’t have a lot of regard for personal time,” says Leitch.

Despite putting in the requisite blood, sweat and tears to get their businesses up and running, Leitch and his fellow leaders in this year’s ranking of Top New Growth Companies are finding creative—one may say entrepreneurial—ways of helping their subordinates thrive at work, while still having a life outside it.

STAFF AGGRESSIVELY

For Leitch, who has since added two more children and 11 employees to his brood, the way to avoid stretching workers too thinly was simply to have more of them. “Our main investment is our people,” says Leitch. “We don’t have to put costs into raw materials to make a product, like manufacturers would. So we put a lot of money into hiring sufficient staff.” Leitch says that, as far as insurance brokerages go, Avant’s hiring numbers are slightly aggressive, but he built that into the business plan from the outset. “We went to the extent of plotting out what normal workloads looked like for each position, how many clients they’d have, what amount of commission they’d collect and how that would look at the three-, five- and 10-year marks,” he says. Leitch, who plans to hire three to four new staff “almost immediately,” is so dedicated to a balanced workforce that he can often be found helping out at Avant’s satellite offices when they are snowed under. Ultimately, says Becky Reuber—a professor of strategic management at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management—overstaffing can be a solid strategy, but it all comes down, of course, to money: “You’ll need more space, more training, more coordination and more pay,” she says, “but then you’ve got some redundancy, and people know each other’s jobs a little better, which takes stress off of everybody.”

START WITH TRUST

Louisa and Conrad Ferrel, the husband-wife team behind Calgary kombucha-beverage producer True Büch (2019 Startup 50: No. 50), apply a trusting approach similar to Leitch’s when they build a culture. Fresh out of the corporate world—both are CPAs—the Ferrels were intent on letting employees express themselves at work, infusing more “life” into “work,” if you will. “We wanted our employees to have lots of flexibility,” says Louisa, a former recruitment lead at KPMG. “The work has to get done on deadline, but they can do it in a time and fashion that works best for them.” At True Büch, this flexibility has taken shape in different ways: letting their first employee, Greg, come in later to offset the late nights he spent working on his debut fantasy novel; allowing their four-person brew team the autonomy to decide who gets to leave early on Fridays; and, for Conrad specifically, relinquishing control over his prized kombucha formula and empowering the team to cover everything from flavouring to R&D. “For the first couple of years, we were slogging through, day and night,” Conrad says. “We feel so lucky that we’ve got employees now; that we don’t have to handle any of that.”

Over at Ottawa’s Maverin (2019 Startup 50: No. 44), which provides staffing services to the federal government, co-founder Angela O’Leary similarly loops her four-person team into the balancing act early on. “Work-life balance is a moving target, and you can set expectations, but sometimes you can’t think of all the challenges by yourself,” she says. “If you involve your employees in establishing a framework, so they have a voice, they feel like they are relevant to the success of the company.” O’Leary adds that giving her workers—who also have compensation plans for meeting targets—the freedom to take long lunches or daytime walks has not dampened their desire to take a notebook home on the weekend, something she admits even she doesn’t do. “Either you have a good work ethic,” she says, “or you don’t.”

EXPAND THE DEFINITION

“Remember that work-life balance is actually a very individualistic concept,” says Reuber, adding that, for working parents in particular, the idea that there is any meaningful separation between off- and on-hours is a false dichotomy. “Not everything outside of work falls into the ‘fun’ bucket. Still, employers want a happy, motivated workforce—not to drain them and have workers leave. They need policies in place to avoid that, but depending on the demographics of their staff, how those policies look may vary over time.” O’Leary says that, in Maverin’s early years, establishing work-life balance meant investing in an external office space with her partner rather than grinding away at home. Nowadays, the Maverin execs approach work-life policy-making with the same dexterity that makes them such successful entrepreneurs. “It’s good to have guidelines, but we want to be able to accommodate people,” says O’Leary. “With 20 or more employees, that might be hard, but right now, we’re small enough to act with agility.” Reuber adds that defining balance should probably be something of a long game: “I’m not sure that work-life balance has to be achieved in a day, a week or a month. There are going to be crunch moments.”

COMMISERATE WITH PEERS

Navigating the crunch moments of startup life may feel like a singularly stressful experience, and for the first few years of growth Reuber says it may be healthier to “forget about” work-life balance altogether. “Until a company has a stable growth trajectory, it’s going to be really hard to achieve that—and it may still be when a company is wildly successful.” With that idea in mind, Reuber says that healthy venting sessions with like-minded peers can make all the difference. Possibilities include joining a networking group exclusive to startup founders or corralling your fellow executives—“we used to call them friends,” laughs Reuber—for an after-work get-together after you’ve lost a big client. (Avoid doing this with subordinates or, as Reuber phrases it, the people who “look to you to put bread on their table.”) O’Leary says that, in the early days of Maverin, her own partner was a key ally in helping her right the scales. “Never fully,” she says, “but at least we tried to draw a line in the sand.”

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