Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring to constantly be at 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 58- With Sharon Barak, CEO and Co-Founder at Solutum
A strong “why”
Sharon always wanted to create something of her own but didn’t know what and how she was going to do it. What she did know is that it had to answer two criteria:
1) It needed to be within her area of expertise - an arena where she knows what she's doing
2) Have a good impact on the world
She spent years as an employee and had a great career. In her last job, she learned a lot about the world of plastics - the good and the bad - and then the dots connected; she knew that plastic is necessary for user consumption, but it creates huge pollution at the end of its life. She was determined to find a solution for the planet. So, she quit her job and became an entrepreneur.
Then came some turbulence at the age of 35. Her relationship at the time ended, and she had no job, which meant no money and no place to live. She hit rock bottom. But from that place, she realized what it means to be there for oneself; she learned that power needs to come from within. She invested her whole self into her startup, while living in her aunt’s and uncle’s apartment for a year– essentially creating something out of nothing.
From nothing to everything
How do you keep on going when there's no promise for achievement in the future?
1. Sharon had no plan B - there was no other way. She was passionate and believed in what she was doing.
2. She enjoyed what she was doing so she could give it her all.
3. She had a good support system - she had her family, and she met Maya, who she started the company with, who showed immense faith in her. Even as adults, we need that one person who believes in us, that will help us take the next step.
Sharon shares that in hindsight, she probably made every mistake in the book on her journey of founding her startup. She shares about trying to bring a person she admired for his knowledge in tech and business to be her co-founder, although he wasn’t really into it. In the process of making a contract, they couldn’t come to an agreement and things turned ugly, to the point where they had to involve lawyers, which meant that the business was at a loss before it even started - it was a scary point for her.
She handled the situation by being very upfront with the investors, and luckily, they were willing to take the risk. The second thing she did was put the lawyers aside and met with him in person. This made a huge difference and allowed them to end things on friendly terms. That was a big lesson for her, teaching her about the importance of making a contract from the very beginning of working together - don’t just trust luck.
I (Gali) always tell the entrepreneurs I coach - if we’re not willing to speak about the major parts, in the beginning, then later they will find their way and bite you in the behind- as even bigger problems. It’s crucial to know if you are aligned before you choose to work with someone. Look the fear in the eyes, don’t avoid it.
In her 4th year at university, Sharon had a big project to present in front of the entire chemical engineering department - the thought of which was terrifying to her. She was frustrated, thinking of what she could do and when a friend told her about the debate team - she jumped at the opportunity.
The first few sessions were terrible. A couple of months later, she won first place in a debate competition - and completely fell in love with it. It taught her many lessons that served her later as an entrepreneur - the value of listening deeply to the other opponent, how to study and practice before the debate itself to plan the strategy for convincing others, and of course - how to speak in front of a crowd: “I don’t know how I would have done the startup without it.” Now when she needs to do a pitch, she can manage it with all the tools she learned.
The power of listening
As the founder of her startup, while managing her team she found that what helps her employees shine and express their great ideas is simply to shut up and listen. In meetings, she resists the urge to speak first and gives her team the space, and they come up with amazing ideas - that’s why she hired them, after all. She still makes her voice heard, but she allows others to actively speak up by waiting to make her point. It's not easy, but it’s a learning curve, and the benefits are enormous.
Bringing entrepreneurship into a traditional industry
Sharon definitely ‘stood out from the crowd’, and people didn’t really know how to handle her unique position, coming from such a different world. When she went as part of Darya Henig Shaked’s Weact delegation to Silicon Valley, people didn't know what water-soluble plastic even was, and Sharon faced the challenge of raising money as a woman entrepreneur, as well as pitching something that didn’t have a “sexy” ring to it.
The turning point was when she realized words are not enough - they need to see it with their own eyes. So, she showed them a plastic bag that can dissolve in water - and indeed, it made a huge difference. Now she had them hooked and managed to raise a few million dollars.
When I asked Sharon what she wishes for herself for her soon-to-come birthday, she shared about how lucky she feels with her life partner, 2 kids and her startup, and that she simply wishes for it to stay that way; enjoying and maintaining the beautiful relationship with her supportive partner, raising her two sons, raising the next financing round for her company, and enjoying the great team she has built.