By Andreas Souvaliotis, YPO member and Founder and CEO of CARROT Rewards
Two and a half years ago, just as I was launching my latest business, CARROT Rewards, I stepped into an MBA class at one of the most prestigious business schools in Canada. A few hours later, I walked out with a fresh grad, a woman half my age, as my co-founder.
I was judging Sarah Richard’s new venture project presentation that day at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario. She was pitching an idea that seemed particularly gorgeous and exciting to me, perhaps because it was so dangerously similar to the foundation of my brand-new business. I was busy building a national wellness rewards platform — a mobile app that would reward millions of Canadians for living healthier; she was dreaming about creating an app that would reward people for not texting while driving.
Up until I walked into that classroom, I thought I already had everything I needed to build another successful business — I had the niche idea, the backers, the clients and the technology suppliers. But then I listened to Sarah’s incredible pitch. Suddenly I was craving the wisdom, the focus, the fearlessness and the passion of that incredibly “plugged in” millennial in front of me.
We haven’t looked back since. The deal was done in a day; she joined the business when she graduated and, together, we built CARROT into a national (and soon global) success story. Everyone around us — clients, employees, investors, suppliers, friends — they all watch us and talk about us with endless fascination, because we truly look like the ultimate startup odd couple. Apart from the startling age difference, we are such extreme opposites: she is painfully methodical, I am all impulse; she is all digital, I am so last-century; she lives for consensus while I simply push. But we both dream; we both drive; and we both love to argue.
Here’s a quick peek at how we’ve made it work:
- We talk (a lot): We’ve built a company of talkers. The traditional tools (like email, phone, team meetings etc.) weren’t even enough for the amount of communication we needed to have, so — at my passionate co-founder’s insistence — we introduced the Slack messenger app as the main “social network” inside our business. We’re all hooked on it. Everything, from project plans to data reports to client announcements to media clippings all the way down to in-office gossip flows through Slack … and there’s no such thing as Slack down time. If I ever need to reach Sarah urgently, I don’t phone, text or email her — I just ping her on Slack and we’re on it right away.
- We stay aligned: We are both acutely aware of the impact of our personalities on the business and understand the importance of presenting an authentically united front for our team. Though we give each other leeway in terms of how we go about achieving objectives, we ensure that we’re completely aligned on the dream and the big direction. There is never a question about priorities because each of us knows what the other is focused on. We may look and sound and behave very differently from each other, but the whole world around us knows that we’re partners.
- We keep it positive (and productive): While we both thrive on optimism and positivity, we’re not immune to the endless stress that comes with building something so new and so high profile from the ground up. From managing development delays with our app, to working through complicated client deals, creating the most popular wellness app in our country took a great deal of grit. We’ve had plenty of ugly, scary, demoralizing and exhausting days along the way — but we share a similar mentality that even during the toughest times, we need to always be everyone else’s jet fuel. Stress and pressure can often accentuate the differences between our thinking and behavioral styles, but we know that our ultimate job is to lead the business and serve as real role models — and we do that with a consistent high dose of “relentless calm.”
- We started with trust and just kept building on it: We realized early on that in a startup environment, moving at “CARROT Speed” as we call it, there was not going to be time to let trust develop naturally. It was too risky, and there was just too much at stake, so we needed to make it deliberate. We took the plunge from day one and quickly realized how much fun it was to essentially trust a stranger. We literally learned about each other on the job and we even used some of the trust techniques I mastered in my YPO forum — we never lived in fear of the other and we never failed each other in that sense. When we did a joint radio interview recently, we were practically finishing each other’s sentences. Two and a half years into it, we’re as impenetrable and as efficient as it gets.
- Above all, we learn from each other by challenging each other: We argue (privately) more than anyone can imagine. We’re both proud, passionate, stubborn, opinionated and reasonably smart (she certainly is!). And our perspectives, styles and worlds are so different from each other’s that we gain an incredible amount every single day by challenging each other. That magical push and pull in our partnership serves like a multiplier of our respective strengths. She helps me grow and I help her grow up. We constantly teach each other to learn or unlearn behaviors that matter for the culture of the company. We startle each other with ideas, fascinate each other with our different reactions to those ideas and help make each other a wiser, cooler, sharper leader every day.
A big slice of the success of our unique business comes from my early decision to pair up with the most unlikely of co-founders. It was one of the most beautiful, exciting, scandalizing and ultimately rewarding gambles in my career and it helped us both grow and grow up in truly spectacular ways. Whoever first coined that old cliché about opposites attracting must have been running a cool startup.
YPO member Andreas Souvaliotis is the Founder and CEO of Toronto-based Carrot Rewards. He has been recognized globally for his social change achievements and for his bestselling memoir, “Misfit — Changemaker with an Edge.”
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