Balancing the Grind with Alex, Carlos & Max, Co-Founders of Upworth

Alex, Carlos and Max are the co-founders of Upworth, a platform where you can track your net worth in one place, plan your journey to financial independence and grow your wealth.

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Let’s start with your background! Can you share with us your career journey and what you’re currently up to?

Alex: My background is a combination of finance, consulting and entrepreneurship across Europe, APAC and LATAM. I started my career in investment banking in Europe before spending the bulk of my time working for McKinsey & Co in Sydney with a leading role in developing QuantumBlack (McKinsey´s AI arm) locally.

I went on to work for 3 years in Mexico as right hand to the founder and CEO of ZeBrands, a house of D2C brands that includes Luuna, the Mexican equivalent of mattress-in-a-box company Koala in Australia. Following that phenomenal scale-up experience, I set out to form the best team and bring together all my experiences to solve the problem of financial independence and inclusion with Upworth, starting in Australia

Carlos: My professional journey started as a research assistant for a scientific research on Human respiratory syncytial virus implementing bioinformatician methods to study a specific protein from that virus. After spending one and a half years in that research I realised that my aptitudes are richer in the computer science side rather than the biological one.

Then I joined CADETECH, a Chilean engineering firm where I spent 4 and half years building systems and learning how to be a proper engineer. Then, looking for new ways to work I discovered being remote, and since then I’ve worked remotely for different companies across the world, and in one opportunity I arrived digitally in Mexico to work closely with the CTO of Zebrands and formed the Production Engineering team. I eventually left Zebrands and I was introduced to Alex who invited me to team up with him and Max to build Upworth.

Max: At a first glance, my education and career can seem a little chaotic, as I worked in 10 different countries and studied in 4 across 5 continents. However, if you go beyond this, I have always been consistent in my passion for entrepreneurship and global impact.

After a first master in international affairs where I also got the opportunity to become an army officer, I was part of the early days of the biggest European startup incubator in Africa (Rocket Internet). I realised many founders had backgrounds in strategy consulting and private equity, so I decided to work in a private equity fund during my MBA and I joined strategy consulting firms upon graduation (Roland Berger and PwC Strategy &).

That said, I quickly came back in the startup ecosystem, as MD of two fast growing Rocket Internet ventures, Zen Rooms in Malaysia and then Flash Coffee in Indonesia. After 4 years, I felt I had accumulated enough knowledge and experience to work on a new project of high impact from the ground up – I joined forces with Alex and Carlos to build Upworth!

We’d love to know what a typical day is like for you. Could you describe a recent workday?

Alex: The typical answer to the typical day question is that there is none, I guess! Banter aside, I love the exhilaration of the early company formation stage in no small part because it is a fast-paced chameleon job.

In the span of a day, I am CEO, CFO, CPO, Counsel, CHRO, CSO, you name it. For instance, I may have to design our product and iterate with our tech team, deeply understand and negotiate critical contracts and figure out regulatory frameworks, build and motivate our team, raise money with a variety of individuals. The job is very hands-on

Max: Indeed, as Alex mentioned there is no such thing for an early-stage entrepreneur. The diversity of it all may be the biggest common point. From raising funds, setting up the operations, developing and implementing the growth strategy and building a solution people love, it can be very different from day to day and hour to hour. This width of activities, this mix of strategy, planning, execution and interaction with users and partners is very energising. Thankfully, considering the work that needs to be done!

Carlos: My workday always starts with a standup meeting to check the current status of the engineering team. After that, my day is distributed across pair-programming and code-review sessions, meetings with providers and research on regulatory frameworks.

Can you define work-life balance for yourself and share with us your approach in maintaining it?

Max: I think balance is indeed really something you build at an individual level based on what you know about yourself, your environment, and the different constraints that you must deal with. Personally, I have always chosen works that I love so I don’t feel frustrated being very involved.

Especially as a founder, I don’t believe in the frontier between personal and professional life. There is just one life, and what matters is to live it to the fullest, do things we love, learn every day, contribute to society, and build meaningful relationships. By the way, the whole expression work-life balance seems problematic to me: if you put work on one side and life on the other, doesn’t it mean that work is not considered part of life?

I feel sad for people who hate their job so much they don’t even consider it a part of their life! For me, the problem is somewhere else: not having work-life balance but having balance in life! And that means growing a consciousness of oneself in terms of physical and psychological capabilities and needs.

I have always worked hard, but I also took care of my physical and mental wellbeing by never compromising with sleep, eating healthily, regularly exercising and having fulfilling social interactions. So, in practice, working on weekends has never bothered me, but I am not going to boast that I worked all night to finish something. Sacrificing one’s health is never worth it.

Alex: I approach work-life balance from the perspective of energy and what matters to me is to maintain a sufficiently high-level of energy. Working in demanding industries helped me gain self-knowledge of my boundaries and preferred working ways.

Practically, for instance, I am ruthless when it comes to time optimization and pushing my own productivity during the week. As much as possible, I will reserve time blocks of 2/3h in a row and turn down any calls that would drop in. I have found it is the only way I can reach the required level of focus and deliver meaningful outcomes.

I will also take advantage of time zone differences to engage on the shoulders of the day; Australia’s remoteness can be turned into an edge for focus. Besides, I try to limit week-end work to a minimum to be able to spend time with my family, especially my 11-month son. And I take vacations. They are underrated when it comes to energy replenishment.

Carlos: Being a co-founder and building a product from scratch takes a huge amount of time and energy. In order to preserve my quality of time with my partner and with my other interests I have allocated time slots to exclusively focus on them.

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Change is constant, and it’s essential for growth. Have you made any lifestyle changes in the past year to improve your work-life balance?

Carlos: I found that being an early bird allows me to go to the gym and invest time in other activities that I enjoy a lot, and of course sleeping the necessary amount of hours for a proper rest is a must. That way I’m able to focus the rest of the day on my work and try to progress as much as possible.

Max: I think my most significant lifestyle changes and improvements came thanks to COVID. As I experienced lockdowns, I had to organise myself independently and really benefited from reading more about nutrition and the way our body and mind work to make the most of it. It made me realise we are just functioning in default mode without knowledge or understanding of what is best for us.

For instance, I was eating way too much high glycaemic index low fibre carbs, which made me feel sleepy after meals. Once I understood the science around it and changed to high fibre lower glycaemic index food, I was much more energised by meals and gained a lot of productivity. Understanding the beauty of a (20 minutes) power nap is another of my best discoveries. It shows many workplaces are still living in the Middle Ages while others are innovating and building efficient habits.

When I worked in Vietnam for the first time in 2014, I was fascinated by the fact that almost all employees were taking a nap midday – they would bring mattresses to the office and shut off the light. That was increasing everyone’s productivity tremendously, but this is still totally out of the picture for most offices around the world today!

Alex: I recently became a father, which means suddenly increased happiness and equally decreased sleep. So, I had no choice but to make radical adjustments, mostly in the form of evening work. The late nights just don’t fly when all is left are 3h of sleep. Sleep may well trump VC money when it comes to funding you and your venture. I simply realised that I was better off sleeping early. It may be obvious but it was certainly quite an adjustment

We’re always on the lookout for new resources! Can you recommend any books, podcasts, or newsletters that have helped you in your journey towards balance?

Alex: Personally, I have found classic literature to be a very helpful companion in the long run. Mostly because it is entirely unrelated to my day-to-day life. Classic books are invitations to travels and experiments, feature countless encounters with colourful characters. They are the metaverse before we called it this way. Go and grab a book from Hermann Hesse, for instance, such as the Wolf of the Steps. It claims to be reserved to fools but it may turn you into the soundest person

Carlos: I think that in order to achieve proper balance we need to pay attention to our mind. The book Altered Traits from Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson is a good resource to learn about the potential of our mind and the scientific findings on the impacts of contemplative methods like meditation.

Max: I have always found mind-blowing that we can spend our entire schooling and university years without getting exposed to any theory of psychology or proper analysis of our minds and emotions. And for me it is a necessary first step to understand oneself, the world and others.

Hence, I would recommend the Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown where she shares the latest research on ninety core human emotions. As humans, we are also so imperfect and prone to errors, the least we can do is to be aware of it – the book The art of thinking clearly by Rolf Diobelli unveils a hundred of the most common biases we have. Learning about them and trying to avoid them goes a long way to build a healthier and happier life.

Before we wrap up, do you have any final words of wisdom or insights on work, life, or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Max: Einstein once said ‘We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life. All that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.’ While I don’t think it is the only factor, I do believe being passionate about what you spend most of your life on is one of the keys to happiness. 

Another one is to live in accordance with our values and the meaning we want to give to our life, and consequently overcome our fear of death. This is what Irvin Yalom, a leading psychiatrist from Stanford, calls ‘Staring at the sun’. I strongly believe the way we deal with our own mortality ultimately defines how we live.

Carlos: Learn about yourself first. What is your purpose? After that you can take control of your life and spend your time on what is most valuable for you.

Alex: Be yourself. That means, define the terms of what fulfilment looks like to you. Don´t just adopt the off-the-shelf definition of success. The moment you truly do so, you bid farewell to the road to serfdom and misery and open the possibility of living your own life. I wish someone had made me understand this piece of wisdom earlier along with the daily struggle it implies to live up to it. Maybe it can only be learnt. Go and learn it then!

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.