Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring constant peak performance. This often makes it hard to find a balance between one's professional and personal life. Maintaining strong relationships with the co-founders and investors is also not an easy task, where clarity and empathy are not always present. As one of my entrepreneurs says: “It’s not the technological challenge we deal with, it’s the mental one.”
“Throughout my +15 years as a professional, I've always been attracted to the intersection of business and psychology through entrepreneurship - What makes people tick? How do people think and act? And what motivates people in business? What drives me is being there for the amazing entrepreneurs, who are under constant pressure, so that they can make our world a better place. That’s what I’m here for, and this is my podcast – The Human Founder.”
Ep. #75 - With Nadav Shoval, Co-founder & CEO of OpenWeb
At the age of 2, Nadav’s parents took him to the doctor. He became pale. He was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a violent disease which can really harm the muscles and potentially can even cause death. Because of his illness, it was hard for Nadav to even use a pen and paper to write, so he had to take a computer to school, as it was much easier for him to type. Though this brought him shame initially, it was because of this that he got into coding, especially at the young age of 7. This need, coupled with his discovery of the magic of online communication.
There wasn’t a lot of data and research in the 90s about his disease or other things he was later diagnosed with such as ADHD, Dyslexia, and OCPD. His parents were extremely supportive but didn’t know how to help him. It was brutally hard.
“You don’t know what you don’t know. As a kid you’re being told certain things, you're being asked for other things, and you don’t really know who you are. You don’t know why you do what you do, you just think ‘This is who I am, this is life’ because you don’t have anything to compare it to, you don’t have the toolbox to understand and analyze it.”
When joining the army, he knew he wanted to do something meaningful with his service, to contribute to the people. Cut to 2013– he was diagnosed with PTSD after his army service, with the help of Avishai Abrahami, the CEO of Wix, who was one of his early investors. He taught him the valuable tools of meditation, mindfulness, and NLP, and guided him with a lot of wisdom and sensitivity to accept that he’s suffering from PTSD and not to be afraid of it. He was very lucky to have a supportive environment that helped him see his blind spots: “When me and my wife, who is the best thing that ever happened to me, first started dating, she told me all the time - ‘This is not normal, you don’t need to suffer’ and it opened my mind.”
When I asked him if it was the process of giving it a name that was helpful and meaningful, he had a beautiful and unexpected answer: “Yes, although I don't like labelling, because I think each one of us is great at some things and not so great at others, and at the end of the day, we build our own habits, lives, and vision. I don’t want to be like somebody else, and we should always be curious to learn and improve. The only good thing about these labels is that it gives you information. I believe in science, so I can see I’m part of a bigger thing that others deal with as well and can see how they deal with it. It helps you understand what toolbox you can use to continue to function and feel better.”
In the beginning, he had mixed feelings about his PTSD. On the one hand, he was happy to know that there was a name to what he was experiencing, but on the other hand, he was afraid it made him a ‘broken’ person.
But now, as weird as it may sound, he’s grateful for all the hiccups he faced: “I’m not happy about everything I’ve been through, but without the Kawasaki disease I wouldn't know how to code, without my OCPD I wouldn’t be able to build the productivity habits I have today, without my ADHD maybe I wouldn’t be as creative and, without my PTSD I wouldn’t learn deeply about mindfulness and be able to truly enjoy the present moment in life. So, I am grateful. And now I want to help others to enjoy life if I can.”
Nadav knows what it’s like being on the other side, feeling this pain and not knowing what to do with it and how to contain it: “I think a lot of founders, athletes, artists, executives, teachers – you name it– go through a lot of hardship and don’t talk about it because there are stigmas and negativity around it. They are not enjoying life.”
90% of our conversations are about everyday things. We don’t tend to share the best 5% of news of our life because we feel ashamed, and the same goes for the worst 5% we are dealing with. In YPO, a global organization of executives that run companies in every field, they want to change that. There, you don’t focus on giving advice, but rather it’s about sharing openly about your life and listening deeply. Something we all crave but don’t always know how to ask for.
They meet in small groups each month for a few hours. Everyone there is very busy, but they still show up– the consistency of meeting face to face is a core component of their vision.
Being a part of this community taught him a lot but mostly about perspective. Through sharing and listening, he learned that his highest and lowest moments, compared to others, seem normal. Everybody goes through ups and downs. Even in different fields, in the end, everyone goes through the same things. Now they can feel a true relief in knowing - it’s not them, it’s just life. And we can deal with those big issues and still come out on the other side.
“A growth mindset in most cases is knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know”.
There is so much knowledge out there about being a founder of a startup, lots of good and bad advice. But enormous amounts of data can really overwhelm us if we try to digest it all. But in Nadav’s eyes, it’s simple: “It’s about persistence and determination. There are a lot of milestones, and each time you hit one you realize there are 10 more that you didn’t know about. Founding a company is so unique but also so brutally hard - it’s all about being persistent and resilient, and understanding you're going to go through a lot. If you don’t have the strong perspective that you're going to go through ‘hell’ sometimes - you won’t get to ‘heaven’”
Nadav shares that finding his first co-founder, Ishay Green, was a big challenge he faced in his entrepreneurial journey. It took him months to find an original co-founder, and even the right person to be a co-founder isn’t always the right person to be a leader in the next stages of the company. Nadav figured it out the hard way, as he and his partner brought the company together to a very good place, but after that, problems arose in the dynamics of his co-founder and the team, and they realized that it was no longer right for him to stay. His co-founder needed to step down. It was painful but necessary, and they’re still friends today.
“I truly believe no one was born a great leader. It’s all about the ability to help others be the best versions of themselves, work together, grow, and learn. Founders are not leaders by definition. For a founder to be a great leader, they need to go through a lot: know their weak spots, and their strengths, surround themselves with knowledge and the right people, and they need to make mistakes to know what's working and what's not to guide others better.”
We often think that being a leader means taking care of everything– managing and taking all the responsibility on your shoulders - but really, it’s the opposite. It’s opening your perspective and knowing how to guide people you put your trust in, so they can do it too– and perhaps even better than you, to accelerate and help drive the company forward. You all have the same goal - allowing it to be ‘ours’ instead of ‘mine’. It’s really hard, and definitely not for everyone, and that’s okay.
Lastly, Nadav shared with me what helped him the most as a young founder. “Be true to yourself. If you really want to grow a company, put the time, the sweat and the tears into it; it’s going to be brutally painful in most cases, but if you're going to continue to fight for what you care about and have real meaning behind it, and if through all of the turbulence you stay focused and determined - there's no way you won’t succeed. I believe it with every bone in my body.”