In part one of my conversation with Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Wespire, she talked about how her company combines the interactivity of social media and the fun of game mechanics to help people live better.
In this second part of our conversation, Susan discusses some of the immense challenges of running a startup—especially as a woman and a parent. She also gives some important advice on how to develop a realistic path toward growth for your company—and it may not always involve you at the helm.
More information: https://www.wespire.com/
Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder & CEO of WeSpire, an award-winning employee experience technology platform focused on engaging people in purpose-driven initiatives, ranging from sustainability to social impact, holistic wellbeing, and inclusive cultures.
She founded WeSpire to use her digital behavior change expertise to help people embrace healthier and more sustainable lifestyles after her son was diagnosed with serious food allergies.
She was named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year for New England, a Boston Business Journal Woman of Influence, and to the Environmental Leader 100 list. Prior to WeSpire, she spent 9 years at The New York Times Company, most recently as SVP/General Manager for Boston.com, a $60M digital media division.
DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Susan Stevens 0:00
My advice when I speak and coach with entrepreneurs, is so much around just you know, even if the business sucks, it doesn’t mean that you suck. And to really recognize that they need to take care of themselves first and foremost, and if they aren’t doing well, then their startup isn’t going to do well.
Alexander Ferguson 0:26
In part one of my conversation with Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Wespire, she talked about how our company combines the interactivity of social media and the fun of game mechanics to help people live better. In the second part of our conversation, Susan discusses some of the immense challenges of running a startup, especially as a woman and a parent, she also gives some important advice on how to develop a realistic path towards growth for your company. And it may not always involve you at the helm.
Susan, I’m excited to continue our conversation and really hear now, how you have grown and evolved over the past 10 years, I’m sure you’ve run into a few challenges over that that time period of what’s an Insight Learning that you could share to another leader that they have to go through as well that they can get glean an insight from what you’ve gone through, that could be having to go through a pivot or change how to acquire your first couple clients? What kind of insight can you share of this from this journey that you’ve been on?
Susan Stevens 1:27
Sure. So I was an entrepreneur right after 911. And I actually lost my startup, in the wake of 911, we were in New York City based startup. And you know, I started this company right in the middle of the Great Recession, I would describe this ride for the last 10 years, as you know, one of the most advanced roller coasters ever, you definitely needed to be five foot five, and certainly couldn’t be pregnant. Or to survive this rollercoaster. So, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all of that in entrepreneurship has been the importance of separating your own personal identity from your, your company and your business. And I think one of the things entrepreneurs do that makes us incredibly passionate and powerful, but may be Achilles, an Achilles heel is that we don’t separate our identities we are our businesses, and therefore how the business is doing is how we feel that we are doing, which causes us to have anxiety, sleepless nights, you know, a lot of lack of confidence, self confidence issues, you know, entrepreneurs have higher alcohols and rates, divorce rates, suicide rates, and I think a lot of that is this inability to separate their personal identity from, you know, from from the business. And so I think my my advice, when I speak, and coach with entrepreneurs, is so much around, just, you know, even if the business sucks, it doesn’t mean that you suck. And to really recognize that they need to take care of themselves first and foremost, and if they aren’t doing well, then their startup isn’t going to do well. And that health and well being and maintaining perspective and keeping a sense of humor, you know, having at least one interest in your life besides your startup. Um, you know, and I think one of the most important things for me in in respire over the last 10 years is that I started it as a mother, um, you know, and so I had when I started it a, you know, gosh, she was two and six, you know, you’re old. And so I had no choice but to ensure that I stayed engaged and, you know, had another responsibility and had another interest. And that didn’t make it easy. But it’s certainly made, I’m not sure there’s anything else you could prioritize, you know, more than a business and perhaps your kids and so it made it easier.
Alexander Ferguson 4:06
You are You’re a wonderful testament to be able to run a successful business and have kids and a family life and to stay well, well being in your own mind. That’s,
Susan Stevens 4:15
that’s part yeah. And there’s been, you know, ups and downs on that, for sure. You know, you have to work hard at it, you can’t take it for granted. And you know, and you know, you have to learn the habits and the patterns that are gonna work for you. And not everybody’s the same. Mine happens to be that I love to get on a bike in the dark with 60 other people and pedal my heart out. I’m missing that immensely right now. I’ve had to find other ways to do that. You know, for others, and I love to dance and do that. For others. It may be painting for others that may be you know, another form of exercise, you know, but you’ve got to find your outlet and your identity separate from your company. And I think that’s particularly true like if And when you choose to raise venture capital, because one of the things you learn is that, yes, you are the founder, but ultimately they are the boss. And, you know, many, many founders get removed as the CEO, you know, by investors, and you know, if you’ve spent your whole life thinking you are the company, it leaves you really, really bereft, even if that might be what’s best for your vision,
Alexander Ferguson 5:25
the necessity of separating yourself from the company is paramount to your own well being and health and the future of the business itself.
Susan Stevens 5:32
Exactly. And being able to know, you know, hey, maybe the problem is me, you know, and that it’s time if this business is going to achieve what it needs to achieve, maybe the best thing to do is to to bless someone else with this next phase. And how you figure that out is really challenging. My advice is to surround yourself with amazing mentors, a really strong board, and be willing to ask the question of your team, so that you’re hearing and getting the feedback you need.
Alexander Ferguson 6:00
As you have scaled over the years and grown, is there any tactic tactical advice that you can share of? What does it take? What can you do? What have you done to scale? Your clients and the business?
Susan Stevens 6:14
Yeah, my best advice is to stay incredibly close to your customers. Most of our growth has come by really listening to what customers needed problems customers needed solving, that weren’t getting solved effectively, and wasn’t necessarily just about how we were doing today, I think it’s very people think customer focus means that you ask them, you know, would you, you know, recommend our product or service on a scale of zero to 10. And I listen, I’m a big believer in net promoter, it’s an important thing to measure. But more importantly, is tell me how you’re doing? And how’s the business doing? And what’s keeping you up at night? And what problems are you looking to solve? And that’s one of the things that when we really, yeah, that feedback loop that’s bigger than you, you know, as a business, because what I really saw in that, if I had been, you know, it’s sort of it gets a little unto you know, what Henry Ford said, if I’d asked my customers want, they would have said a faster horse, you know, so if you keep asking, like, in conjunction with what I do today, what do you need, you’re gonna get one piece of data. But if you ask them, you know, what problems? Are you looking to solve? What is keeping you up at night, what’s worrying you, what you may learn is what an opportunity is. And by having those conversations with our customers, what we learned quickly, was, some of them were really were really worried about losing their jobs, because they saw this conversion happening. And they didn’t have the skill set, or the talent or the familiarity or the ability to do X and saw that there was this was happening. And so one of the things we could do is by developing that capability, and be able to make them look really skilled and talented into this, they would bring us in a partner and be able to, you know, be able to demonstrate to the organization mastery in this area. And that was
Alexander Ferguson 8:10
helpful. Did you personally do this? Did you have a team of people that you would distributed to? And did it happen? Like, when did happen to have this feedback loop and connection with them? How did you
Susan Stevens 8:21
execute? No, we’ve always invested disproportionately and always over benchmarks in customer success. And we’ve always hired people in customer success, who are very skilled, and very talented. And you know, my right hand person in the organization is my head of customer success. And I think I took that approach, because I knew from having been on the buyer side, that technology doesn’t win or lose based on features and functionality, technology wins or loses based on whether it’s delivering value to, you know, an organization and you only weigh you know, that is if you’re talking enough to the people about the value they’re getting, and you can’t talk about value that they’re getting and, and more and have that relationship unless you’ve established a cadence for that communication. And I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes a lot of technology companies have is they, you know, they sell their technology, they implement their technology, and then they, you know, come back once a year. I mean, we’re on the phone with our clients every week. You know, we do quarterly business reviews, we have, you know, regular roundtables to get their feedback and hear what’s on their mind. And I think that has helped us navigate a very changing dynamic in the market that we operate in. And in this world, wow.
Alexander Ferguson 9:45
For you personally, any books or podcasts or audio books that you can recommend that have helped you as a leader and innovate and keep innovating?
Susan Stevens 9:55
Yeah, so um, I interestingly enough, there’s the next big Idea Book Club is something that one of our advisors, Adam Grant has formed with Daniel Pink and some others. And it’s a set of books that arrive quarterly, that are on leadership, self improvement, you know, all these things, and I just find that those books in general are excellent. Um, you know, and so, like right now, one is on successful aging, it’s just fascinating to read. And so it’s a nice variety, learn a ton, and feel like there’s all these, you know, resources to, you know, podcasts and web conferences and things like that, that are really cool around it. And then as an entrepreneur, I love how I built this I and I think the thing that I love most about how I built this is I realized that the trials and tribulations that I have been through are pretty similar to the trials and tribulations that the vast majority of entrepreneurs go through. And what’s funny is that, you know, a lot of entrepreneurial Mita media is so focused on funding rounds, because in the early days, it’s really the only thing a company really announces, customers won’t let you announce that you design this big customer, and you know, all of this and so, the world gets so focused in entrepreneurship, on the stories of financing and sort of the, you know, you know, what zoom has done in 10 years, or Slack has done in 10 years or things like that. And, you know, you don’t hear about Tate’s bake shop and how, you know, she started, you know, on her father’s farm and then built it up and then lost it all and had to rebuild again. And, you know, those are the motivating stories to me that just, you know, I think the the Winston Churchill quote is one of my favorites when you’re going through hell just keep going.
Alexander Ferguson 11:43
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