Startup Life/Opinion/

3 lessons from a serial founder

Second-time founder Michelle You shares how she's approaching building her second startup differently, and the lessons you can learn

Michelle You
Michelle You

By Michelle You

I didn’t want to be a repeat founder. In fact, when I made the decision in 2016 to step down as CPO of my first business, music concert platform Songkick, I had planned to walk away from life as an entrepreneur for good. As exciting as it is to be a founder and watch your idea come alive, it’s also an exhausting experience where both the highs and lows are felt intensely. And that can take its toll. 

After Songkick, I spent a year travelling, and that space gave me the time to think about what I wanted to do next, what made me happy and what I found important.

For me, that was purpose and impact. The only way I could get over my fear and despair about the urgency of the climate crisis was to try to do something about it. I started looking for ways I personally could have the biggest positive impact, and that search led to Supercritical — a platform that scales carbon removal by helping businesses get to net zero. 

After restarting life as a founder, here are the lessons I’m applying second time around.

You don’t need to be an expert to have a good idea

My two founding experiences have been very different, but both have stemmed from strong personal passions and conviction in the importance of the mission, not areas where I had any previous experience. 

I founded Songkick because I loved going to concerts and wanted to know when and where my favourite bands were playing. I wasn’t a software, product or music industry expert, but I knew we had a great idea. 

Fast-forward 14 years and I found myself with another idea for a business in an area I had no experience in. After I had my first child in 2018, the urgency of the climate crisis became physically tangible to me. He was born one month before the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was published, with the very clear message that we had to get to net zero by 2050 to avoid disaster. That timeline became very real in the context of the world he would grow up in. 

I wasn’t a climate scientist or an expert on the finer details of corporate greenwashing, but I did now have experience building and scaling a software platform and building a team motivated by a mission. The rest I was willing to learn. 

My experience building Songkick gave me the confidence to dive headfirst into something new. Once you have an idea the fastest way to get answers is to throw a first version of your product out there, get feedback quickly and then iterate. 

The best entrepreneurs I’ve come across are radical and fearlessly independent in their thinking — they apply a first principles mindset and question things the world takes for granted. When I started researching the world of carbon offsetting, I allowed myself the freedom and space to really question the market, its premises and whether it was having any real climate impact. 

And in doing so I learned how I learn best (vital when you’re launching something in an area you aren’t an expert): doing a lot of reading and thinking to get to the heart of a problem, getting advice from experts I respect, reading a lot and applying it to my circumstances and, most importantly, having a fast failure and learning mindset. 

Be deliberate and persistent about your values

At Songkick, we were lucky enough to be backed by the likes of Y Combinator, Index and Sequoia before we exited to Warner Music. 

I came to appreciate the value of investors and your board and how important that relationship is. At the time, I felt privileged to work with investors who’d backed the titans of tech, and I didn’t have the confidence to ask why I was the only woman in the room, although it’s a fact I was keenly aware of.  

The experience of building Songkick catalysed my ambition to do something about the acute gender disparity when it comes to building a company. As a female non-technical founder of a tech startup, I was thrown in at the deep end. I had my first experiences of sexism and became hyper-aware, even paranoid, about the assumptions being made about me — I was astutely aware of always being the one who didn’t look like anyone else. 

When the time came to fundraise for Supercritical, this was something I wanted to change. I made it my goal to have women make up half of my investors.

I knew it would take me longer to fundraise, but I was okay with that. If only men invest, then only men are asked to invest, and only men have the exits that enable them to invest in the next generation of founders. 

It’s a vicious cycle, made worse by how opaque and inaccessible investing is and the crippling imposter syndrome so many women I spoke to had about investing. Women in C-level positions at publicly listed companies told me they didn’t know how they could help, as they didn’t know anything about climate tech. To me, that seemed completely unfathomable given their hard-earned experience in company building.

Fighting for a 50% female cap table was my small attempt to break this cycle and steer the industry towards more positive change. My position as a second-time founder also made it more straightforward to raise — my track record allowed me to be more selective about who I accepted on my cap table.

You can be a 9 to 5 founder

My final lesson is that you can, and should, set clear boundaries from the start. 

As a young first-time founder, with no family, I was prepared to invest every hour I had into the business. I prioritised work over everything else — my relationships, rest and the hobbies and interests that energise me and make me a whole person. 

I’m proud of what we achieved, but it did come at a cost. In the end, I burnt out — something I realised when I found myself being super negative, jaded and unexcited about every new idea that came my way. 

With Supercritical, I had no choice but to do things differently because I became a mother. My priority is to be the kind of parent my son deserves and to be present for him. For me, that means ending the day at five and spending time with my family until he goes to bed.  

That balance is so important to me and it’s a value we’ve adopted across Supercritical. We expect our team to look after themselves and know what they need to work hard. We have an unlimited leave policy with a minimum number of days off. I’m the first to tell people off if I see them emailing out of office hours. I hope this means we have a more motivated and energised team who are bringing drive and clarity of thought to their work.

Every founder will tell you they have found the recipe for success. Second time around, my biggest lesson is to not be afraid of doing things your own way.

Michelle You is co-founder and CEO of Supercritical. Don’t miss her at our upcoming Sifted Summit on October 5-6. Get your tickets here.

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