Fresh from holiday we made our founder Brien Keegan talk about his least favourite subject - himself! He's six years into the journey of being a founder and business owner. Here he sits down with our Chief of Staff Pip Spyksma and shares his journey to date and his top five lessons from Founderland.
Sprout just hit its six year anniversary, that’s six years for you as a founder and business owner, on top of decades of global recruitment, leadership and business experience. So often you’re talking to other founders and startup leaders about their journey, ambitions, and learnings so today we thought we’d turn the tables on you to learn more about your journey as the Founder of Sprout.
How did the idea for Sprout come about?
The idea came about by understanding that there wasn’t a lot of support for high growth SME’s in New Zealand (and globally) to support people growth and strategy. Fundamentally, we saw an opportunity to provide forward thinking people support, linking strategy to people and execution. The forward thinking aspect speaks to ensuring the founders, CEO’s and business owners are ready for what is coming, versus reacting when they are there.
From a recruitment aspect, we knew the approach needed work. Large recruitment companies don’t necessarily understand the world of start ups and scale ups, we have now figured out that it is largely a different mindset required and we have mapped these mindsets to ensure success for both the businesses we support and the job seekers we engage with.
What were the initial challenges you faced when starting out, and how did you overcome them?
It’s hard, looking back you always look through the lens of what you know now.
Communicating the breadth of what we do was something we got a little lost in for awhile. We solve the core challenges facing scaling businesses; hiring the right people, building enviable cultures and lifting leadership capability. I always felt this is what we do, but if you had asked me three years ago I would have listed out 20-30 different challenges and an equal number of solutions, now we have clarity.
Could we have got there more quickly? I don’t think so. This is the challenge of providing innovation in the services industry, you have to go through the hard, make mistakes, and iterate to get to the point of clarity. Now the reward for this is that we truly know what helps businesses grow.
How has Sprout evolved over the six years in business?
We’re much more clear on what makes us unique, the problems we solve and the best way to go about solving them. Our why has remained the same - we exist to grow people and grow communities.
What advice do you have for founders starting out?
Truly understand your market opportunity and your product/service fit, then build clarity about how you help your customers solve their problems and at the same time be clear with your team on this as well. The same advice we give to our clients, we take on board for ourselves, “if you don’t know where you are going, then how will others help you get there?” Don’t underestimate the importance of building a great team, no-one gets there alone.
What’s it really like to be a founder? And don’t say it’s all roses!
Any leader of a growing business will tell you, growth isn’t a straight line. I’ve been challenged, made mistakes and learnt, I’ve had to step back to move forward, move fast and slow. It’s exhausting, lonely and self-doubt can creep in but getting to carve a new way of doing something and solve problems that matter to you makes it worth it.
Ironically the biggest challenges and learnings are almost always around people. I have made my fair share of mistakes in this area and with people it is personal. These learnings have made us better in supporting our clients, one of my fears is that when we move past scale up ourselves is remembering what it is like when you are growing a business, it’s really hard.
On the positive it’s awesome seeing your team grow, our clients grow, the brand build and recognition of what now exists due to having a go and starting a new business.
You mentioned it being lonely, this is something I hear a lot from leaders. What have you found helpful in dealing with this?
Find your people - use mentors, an advisory board, network groups - get involved in the community.
Hire well - you will spend a lot of time with your leadership team, make sure you have a mix of skills and perspectives each aligned with where you want the company to get to.
Find someone you can talk to (in your team or externally) who can operate in the grey with you, someone you can soundboard ideas off without it impacting, or stressing them out. For me personally I need people around me that can understand what is in my head and bring that to life, I can often see the outcome, but not necessarily the steps to get there.
In saying all this, one of our principles at Sprout is to ‘not tell a founder what to do’ - to be entrepreneurial is to try something new, to back yourself against many doubters, so get all the advice in the world, but then don’t be scared to back yourself and go the other way if you believe that is the right path.
In the past five years what has been your biggest challenge as a leader and what did you learn from it?
Separating you from the business.
This is really hard, when you start your own business, it’s personal. Especially if it is innovative or challenging an established marketplace.
But if you don’t create the separation it can own you. The losses and the challenges hit you harder and this can really impact your own energy and happiness. If someone says something negative about your company it hits you really hard.
Also on the positive side you pretty quickly learn that the wins and the success are something you are a part of, it’s 100% true that you can get further with a team.
My advice here is to ensure you are really clear about your non-negotiables as the business grows and expands. What will not change and fight hard for that.
Also, look after yourself. Create space for yourself to have time to think, reflect, plan and grow.
What are the big Sprout wins for you?
I feel that six years in we have a business that we are proud of, that now has a life of its own rather than reliant on one or two individuals and truly makes an impact on the areas we set out to help.
We have supported over 100 growth businesses and even just getting past the five year milestone was huge for us, we all know the statistics of small businesses and their fatality rate.
We are a people business and we get to work with the most committed and inspiring leaders and entrepreneurs. It’s pretty unique. And our team, both past and present, have all added an enormous amount to our growth. I am really proud of our team (past and present) and what they have achieved and excited for them in their future.
Looking back, what would you do differently?
Structurally I had this idea initially of setting up a variety of entities to provide ownership and equity to individuals and then grow our business that way. Without going into detail that didn’t work! It meant I was essentially running 4-5 start-ups and the administration and governance time and costs that came with that.
Also at times I have the tendency to over complicate things, this comes from building a business in your head at times and over thinking things through. I am lucky to have had great mentors and advisors from before Sprout was founded to help me with this.
Outside of Sprout, what is important to you and how do you maintain that balance?
Due to the quality team we have, I am really fortunate to live in Taranaki and commute to Auckland for work (or around the country to our clients). This is huge, it enables me to structure my week to be work heavy in the early part of the week and then be more family focused in the second half.
I have an awesome family, an amazing wife and three kids. One of whom has developmental challenges, but she is an inspiration and also a leveller. Work and business is just that, and she teaches me more everyday about overcoming challenges and growth.
I have also been really well supported throughout my time at Sprout by our leadership team in ensuring that I can find time to do things outside of work, within the working week. For example, I love playing golf. It’s been important for me to have our leadership team endorse me taking time out, it stops you feeling guilty. The reality is when you start a business you are switched on thinking about it for a lot more than the 40 hours, so it’s important to ensure you create balance.
Give us your top five lessons learned
Don’t lose sight of your vision and what you are trying to achieve, there have been times where I have got lost and that massively impacts your motivation, self belief and confidence
Don’t overcomplicate - language is important. Don’t say something in 50 words when you could use five (something our team will tell you I am still working on.)
Ensure you have the right group of trusted advisers that can support you through the rollercoaster ride and build the right team to ride with
Getting the speed of growth right is tricky - moving fast, getting your team on the journey and in a services business getting the cashflow and growth balance right
Recognise your strengths and lean in to them and then hire carefully for your gaps, this is important for us in helping the clients we work with and funnily enough key for us as well, at times it would have been great to have a Sprout, help Sprout!
Lastly, what would you say to the fresh faced Brien of 2018?
Believe in yourself and surround yourself with others that believe in you. Mentors, advisors, your leadership team, family and friends are key.
You don’t have to invent everything. I went through a period where I felt like everything we did needed to be 100% our IP and unique to us.
Be prepared for a pandemic?!?! But seriously, be prepared for rainy days, especially in services build up your cashflow so if there are tough times you can make it through it more easily
Enjoy the ride. Sometimes this is hard, but you do have to stop and reflect to realise the great things that the business, team and clients have achieved. It's easier in some ways to focus on the challenges, but that can become overwhelming.
To all the founders out there going above and beyond to make it happen, we see you. We’re here for you. Reach out if you need a soundboard, Brien Keegan.