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Founder advice
10 lessons with a serial entrepreneur
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Mike reflects on why being an entrepreneur isn’t a work choice, it’s a life choice.

Whenever we hear someone inspiring talk, it’s often the personal anecdotes that stick with us.

That’s why the Q&A interview format is so great. It’s targeted, digestible and opens a small window into influential people’s lives drawing out some of the tools or hacks they’ve used to navigate the highs and lows of their career and life.

So, inspired by Vogue 73 Questions and Sequoia 7 Questions (but much closer to home!), we’re launching a series of conversations with some of the most interesting people we know in New Zealand and Australia.

Aim is to keep the conversation both informal and short enough for you to read over your morning coffee or tea ☕️

We’re very excited to be starting our series with Mike Carden, the CEO and Co-Founder of Joyous.

Meet Joyous

Joyous is turning HR processes at large organisations into tiny, frequent interactions. It is helping to change the way managers and employees talk to each other, essentially giving workers more of a voice.

Meet Mike

We came to know Mike a few years ago — first as the co-founder of Sonar6, a learning and performance management platform acquired by Cornerstone On Demand, and subsequently through his advisory work with some up-and-coming Kiwi startups. Mike quickly became one of our favourite figures in the New Zealand tech ecosystem. So we were thrilled to have the opportunity to back his new company (Joyous) in its angel round (pre-product!) and lead the company’s recent seed round.

What are you most excited about these days?

Building enterprise software is just really interesting at the moment.

For the past 15 years enterprise software has largely been about taking some kind of on-premise process or software and putting it in the cloud (like what Salesforce did for CRM and Xero did for Accounting). Now we’re moving into a much more meaty phase where we’re actually trying to change the way that enterprises work. And there’s so much more to play with such as micro-transactions, user experience built on top of machine learning and real integrations. This means there’s actually this opportunity to do something really transformative that changes the DNA of the enterprise.

For us at Joyous there is a real sense of purpose to use this new era facilitated by better technology to try and make people’s lives better at work.

What’s the best way you’ve found to manage stress?

I’ve come to accept two things. Firstly, if I want to be an entrepreneur I have to accept that it’s not a work choice… it’s a life choice. I know that every day it will take up a lot of my brain power and as long as I’m doing something purposeful, there’s no reason to fight that.

Secondly, I need to make sure that I have activities in my life that force me to think about things other than work. For example, I play the piano every day, and when I’m playing the piano it’s not very often that I’m thinking about work. I find it also helps that playing the piano has a sense of achievement. I can learn more songs, I can play in a band, I can become a better pianist.

There are numerous other ways people can force themselves to think about something else, whether it’s mountain biking, playing sports or cooking. For me it’s all about having that mental escape.

What’s the hardest thing about being a leader?

I think the hardest thing is the expectation some people have that because you’re the leader you have to be perfect. Whereas in reality you’re completely imperfect and if you’re doing your job right you definitely won’t be the smartest person in the room. You will have hired people who are much more knowledgeable than you in many parts of the business.

So it’s getting comfortable with the fact that you’re imperfect. Then making sure other people realise that so you don’t hold yourself to an unachievable standard. Otherwise, you’ll just end up disappointing people and disappointing yourself.

This actually makes receiving feedback a whole lot easier. At Joyous, we’re very conscious that a strong “feedback culture” isn’t just one where people are willing to give feedback, but one where people are willing to deal with it as well. Using Joyous internally encourages a cadence of feedback even when people aren’t thinking about it or asking for it.

What book are you reading at the moment?

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. You can see why it’s a bestseller. Every time I read part of it, I want to keep reading more of it… yet it’s such a challenge to finish it!

I really like books that provide a pop culture view of history. I’m not a big reader of fiction or a big reader of business books. I like the ones in between where you can get inspiration from somewhere else. My least favourite summer was when I read “Principles” by Ray Dalio. I was constantly making notes and never relaxed.

When reading, I prefer to be in the “let the knowledge flow over me” mode rather than the “research” mode.

What’s one thing you’d tell a 16 year old today?

I always remember William Burroughs’ “Words of advice for young people” — slightly politically incorrect, but he says “avoid the screw-ups, you all know the type — no matter how good it sounds, everything they have anything to do with turns into a disaster.” I wish I’d known that a lot sooner!

On a more serious note, when you’re 16 everyone drills this mantra into you that life is short.

I’d instead remind 16 year olds that life is actually long. Decisions you make in any year of your life can have consequences that play out for a long time afterwards. That’s how history is written. You don’t want to spend the second half of your life making up for the first half.

What’s been the main difference founding a business second time round?

The first time you start a business your existence is constantly under threat as you’re always undercapitalised and you don’t necessarily have the depth of experience in your team.

Second time around you now have the experience and a track record. This means you’re a less risky investment proposition and the nature of any capital market is that if you can reduce your risk, you can increase your access to capital.

However, what stays consistent every time you start a business is you still don’t know shit. The world changes so quickly and if you think — “we built this business in 2010 which was super successful so we’ll use the same playbook” — you’re going to make a huge mistake as that playbook is now wildly out of date.

People forget, most decisions made in a business aren’t that strategic. They’re typically made under duress and you rationalise them later and most advice is just nostalgia from people reliving an era that no longer exists.

How have you managed the shift from running everything alongside your co-founder Philip to now looking after a team of people?

I think the one thing that can really make a difference between success and failure is hiring really, really great people.

So at Joyous we’re focused on building an environment that great people want to work in.

On one hand it’s about the mission of the company and on the other it’s about empowering your employees. We’ve done this at Joyous by fostering a learning and teaching culture. People want to learn from others in the team, people are willing to share their experiences and everyone is deeply respected for it.

We want people to feel that during their time at Joyous they’ve learned so much more here than they could have via any course or at any other company. Every year we want to be able to look back as a team and think — “gosh we were naive at the beginning of the year, we’ve grown so much!”

What has been the biggest change in the New Zealand tech scene since you started your career?

Fundamentally there is more capital available. In 2006 when we started Sonar6 we had to convince people that software as a service was a good idea. By 2010, people realised it was a good idea and capital started flowing into the market. The flow is now bigger and bigger and this has meant you’re able to grow faster, but it’s also meant the market for developers has become more competitive and other barriers to entry have increased.

If you were Jacinda Ardern, what’s the one thing you would do to help more founders build and run successful tech companies in NZ?

The fundamental thing you need when you’re growing a business (whether it’s tech or any business) is a stable Government, low compliance costs and a good global reputation for your country.

We’ve been fortunate that successive Governments in New Zealand have done that which has resulted in a relatively “inventive economy” — certainly more inventive than Australia (in New Zealand far more GDP per capita comes from new industries and new technology).

However, the one thing that would be helpful is if we could encourage more engineers into the workforce and inspire more people to be interested in technology. Kennedy’s drive to land a man on the moon “before this decade is out” really shifted the US in the 1960s toward a more inventive and more tech-focused economy — it was a big ideal everyone could get behind. This is starting to happen, albeit slowly, in New Zealand.

What societal issue worries you the most at the moment?

The way politicians and large corporations have worked out how to manipulate the social media echo-chamber for their own gain.

When social media first started out it was about sharing updates with your friends and family. Now the initial altruistic aims have quickly morphed into the world we have today, where social media, new media and the online world are distorting the truth and breeding hate. Facebook has now become the Philip Morris of tech where it’s almost morally unconscionable to work there. They’ve allowed things like the live streaming of massacres with no real sense that it’s their responsibility.

If you look at the people in charge, whether at a policy level or at the top of organisations, no-one seems to have a handle on the moral compass. The UK election had all sorts of rules around TV advertising and virtually no rules for online media.

The idea that the internet was going to create a much more democratic, free, open world has been subverted. We have a much more closed world where the traditional sources of power have embedded themselves more and more and a few players dominate the dialogue.

It feels like we’ve become almost incapable of solving the large problems the world faces.

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