Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Carin Gan, Co-Founder & CTO at CoffeeSpace

Carin Gan is the Co-Founder & CTO at CoffeeSpace, a curated startup community platform to help founders build, launch and scale their startups.

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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?

Currently, I am the co-founder and CTO of CoffeeSpace, a curated startup community platform to help founders build, launch and scale their startups. We build tools such as VC office hours, founders circle, co-founder search etc. to solve founders’ needs at every step of the journey.

Honestly, I didn’t expect myself to end up as a startup founder at the age of 26. When I first entered Wharton, I thought I’d end up in banking and consulting like most of my peers. But something about the ability to create something new and the immense possibility of new technology keeps me hooked to computer science. And as such, I graduated with a Meta offer in hand, heading my way to California to become a software engineer.

Being a software engineer in big tech is like a dream come true for me. I get to meet brilliant engineers in the company and get to work on exciting technical projects. And not to mention, perks are amazing and hours are great. I thought I’ll be here for a long time, at least 5 to 8 years.

All things changed when I came across my cofounder’s Facebook post, describing his mentoring journey and how the mentoring relationship has flourished. We reconnected and decided to build Counselab, a platform for career advice on demand, where we connect individuals for a 15-minute advising call on various topics. One year into the startup, we had a fully-functioning product and more than a thousand users, but we realised growth is stagnating and we really struggled as first-time founders. Hence we decided to pivot.

Initially, CoffeeSpace was a zoomed-in version of Counselab, focusing on 1:1 advice in the startup space. But soon enough, we realised founders needed more than a piece of advice, they needed tools, services, and resources to help them build. More than that, we learn to really bring together the startup community, involving the investors and advisors.

Building a startup really isn’t easy, especially in tough times now, but it is still a meaningful and rewarding journey and it’s definitely worth it.

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

Given the startup is still pretty small, being a founder really means being both a manager and a hands-on executive. Most days, I’d split my time into blocks, 1) engineering / coding block, 2) meeting block, 3) thinking block. For me, context switching is expensive and counter-productive. My engineering experience has taught me that in order to solve hard and complex problems, I’d need full concentration and zero distraction.

Most of the time I work in-person with my cofounder. But on the occasion we need to work remotely due to one of us being abroad, we’d communicate on a daily basis, ensuring that his team (growth) and my team (product & engineering) are working in-sync. In a startup, communication is key as there are so many things happening within a single day. I’d err on over-communicating with my cofounder and employees than under-communicating.

We also run weekly sprints in the company, where Mondays are planning and goal-setting days, Tuesday – Thursday being execution days, and Friday being shipping, reviewing and mini-celebration day!

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

As a co-founder and CTO, I understand the demands and pressures of startup life, but I also recognize the importance of taking breaks, setting boundaries, and pursuing hobbies and interests outside of work.

  1. Prioritisation. Sometimes almost everything seems important and urgent. But building a startup is a marathon not a sprint, so I learn to prioritise and only focus my energy on the highest impact tasks.
  2. Delegation. At the beginning, I would try to do everything myself, making sure all the minor details are done right. But this is not only slow and counterproductive, it also takes away a learning opportunity from my employees and erodes their confidence in taking on major projects. So I learned to let go, and I learned to trust them.  
  3. Take breaks. As I mentioned earlier, I like setting blocks of time for work. And between those blocks, I’d allocate buffer time to stretch and relax.
  4. Set boundaries. Time is one of the most important resources a founder can have, and a lot of people will try to take some of it from you, so I am learning to say no, and I try to be very careful with my time allocation.
  5. Pursuing my hobbies. I am definitely more of a work-life integration person than a work-life balance person. While I don’t set specific time to get off work, I do make an effort in planning for climbing sessions, yoga classes and weekend activities to make sure I disconnect from work once in a while to reset and recharge. Also, I use those sessions as a time to catch up with friends or make new ones, killing two birds with one stone.

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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?

  1. Reducing coffee intake. I still need a cup of coffee to start my day, but no more caffeine after 6pm to ensure a full 8 hours of quality sleep.
  2. Making my bed. Feels like a mental energizer that makes me feel like I start my day right, usually it also means I’ll have a very productive day.
  3. Picking up new hobbies. I got hooked into climbing and since I’m a pretty competitive person, I’d go to the gym religiously so that I don’t fall behind my climbing buddies.
  4. Allocating time for myself. No matter how busy I am, I try to find a few hours in a week to reflect deeply on my life goals, making sure that I’m not just going with the motions.
  5. Catching up with old friends. Especially those that are in very different circles, it’s refreshing to step out of the bubble and listen to some new stories.

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?

  • Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (Highly recommend!)
  • When by Daniel Pink
  • Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty
  • The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen

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?

To fully embrace life, both the pretty and the ugly sides. My lowest points have made me stronger and wiser, my highest points have given me beautiful memories and great stories to tell my grandkids when I’m old. And while it’s easy to remember life by its big moments, it’s really the small moments and tiny things that add up, so remember to appreciate the little things in life because those are the ones we’re going to miss most. 

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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.