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Balancing the Grind with Carl Olivier, Co-Founder & CEO at Sustained

Carl Olivier is the co-founder & CEO at Sustained, a tech startup in the sustainability space focused on helping people make more sustainable choices.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Sure. My career started in Cape Town, South Africa, during the “.com” era, as part of a small startup building out some of the earliest content management systems around for FTSE companies.

I started in marketing, but decided I liked the look of software engineering and ended up running the engineering team. I went through “.bomb”, which the company did not survive, and ended up starting my own business with 2 partners to build our own product for web developers to build dynamic sites with. 

This took me to London in 2005 and for various reasons my partners and I decided to wind that company up, and I went on to join Skype just after the EBay acquisition. I joined as a Technical Project Manager, although in reality the role was essentially what is known today as product management.

8 years later, various products with Silverlake and Microsoft included, having learned a lifetime’s lessons, I left Skype/MSFT along with 4 amazing colleagues to join Twilio late in 2014 where we established Twilio Estonia, set up a product engineering office in Tallinn, incepted a net new set of capabilities, built and took 3 products to market. I took part on the Twilio IPO journey, and the Tallinn and London teams grew over the 4 short years to be well over 40 by the time I left in 2018.

After a brief sojourn I joined Zoopla in London to head up product for the agent facing software business within the ZPG group. 18 months later after having learned a huge amount about legacy software and the real estate business, I realised I should stop working for other people and took the plunge to, once again, co-found a venture – this time with a little more experience on my side.

My co-founder, Michael, and I founded Sustained about a year ago, where I serve as the CEO and product manager for the team. Mike and I have now been working together for about 14 years, starting at Skype, through the MSFT times, and partnering at Twilio. Only the Zoopla part of my story is not shared with Michael. 

Sustained is a tech startup, in the sustainability space, focused on helping people make more sustainable choices, by giving them actionable information when they need it. We use data, defensible, science-based and transparent methodologies to base this information on.

The initial focus is on the UK food sector, specifically the environmental impact of the production of the foods we buy from our supermarkets and retailers. The Sustained team is 12, soon 13 people with offices in London and Tallinn with 2 remote team members. 

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

As a startup co-founder and CEO of an early stage tech startup you are responsible for almost every aspect of the day to day running of business – which includes working with investors, managing the accounts as well as hiring and policies.

A myriad of smaller administrative tasks exist for you to solve in addition to my other responsibility for the product strategy, direction and translation into usable requirements, specifications and clarity for the various teams and people in the business, ranging from engineering and data to design and go to market.

A very important element of my role is to ensure that all the stakeholders of the business which includes the team, our investors, our users and our advisors are aligned and have clarity on what we are trying to achieve, how we are planning to do that and how we are in fact doing in the pursuit of those ambitions. Each of these groups need a translation of the same content, but applicable and relevant to them.

Days can seem quite different, but they often consist of some combination of the following: talking to the team, both in 1:1s and in some of the regular team interactions such as weekly planning, daily standups or weekly demos; discovery and research, which leads to writing scoping documents, requirements and tickets for the team to use; talking to our investors on a number of topics and seeking their advice; hiring and interviewing across the roles we are hiring for; doing one of the many administrative tasks that comes with the running of a small business.

A recent workday – let’s look at Monday this week. It started on Sunday morning, when I used some quiet time to sit and prepare the specifications and tickets needed for planning with the team on Monday. I find doing this on a Sunday helps a great deal as there are less time pressures and interruptions which allows me to really focus – I’ve heard this referred to as “deep work” and I guess I can relate to that. 

Monday morning was spent speaking to potential candidates for a role we are hiring for, mainly as an intro and forming an initial opinion on whether they would be a good fit for us.

Then it’s planning with the team, which I love. I am super fortunate to work with an amazingly mature team, which means that planning is usually highly efficient, really good questions, and a very clear set of things we will aim to achieve by the end of the week.

After planning, I try to remember to eat, get the dog out, and get back for a 1:1 with one of the engineering folks on the team. After that, I spend some time writing up a product feature specification doc which I need to get to some of the team to review. At this point, I go fetch my girls from school, and get them home to sit and chat through their day and kick start the homework. 

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

It does indeed! I believe passionately that the only way to really work is to trust the people in the team, to know they have lives and ensure you give them the space toi live that life, while delivering the value they bring. I find that if you do that, the team responds and you find the right balance for everyone. 

At Sustained we have an office in both London and Tallinn, however each person decides often they want to be in. Working from home is perfectly fine, the only task is to ensure you do the work, treat your team with respect, and ensure open communication with your team. It is my experience that people and teams self optimise and will find the right patterns of behaviour.

I treasure being able to be flexible in terms of working patterns, although this must never come at the cost of delivering what I am accountable for, must never cause me to let my team and those that depend on me down. 

Being able to be a husband to an amazing wife and a father to two wonderful daughters is a huge part of my life, and I am fortunate to be very involved and present for them. I do the school run for the girls almost every day, and fetch them at least twice a week and we spend time working through the increasingly challenging homework load they have.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

The meaning of the work-life balance concept evolves for me, as I am sure it does for everyone. I think the most succinct way I can articulate it is “the ability to not be working if I need to not be”, or if I need to fetch my kids, I can arrange my day to do so.

This does not mean I don’t work, but rather that I don’t need to work in a predefined set of hours per day, I can do the work when it fits my life. Of course, I need to ensure I get the work done when it needs to be done by, but not in an artificially enforced routine.

Achieving this is not a solo effort. It needs a team, and people that understand and can work in this way, who also have lives of their own, different in nature and patterns to mine. Finding the overlaps, the shared time with these people, with the team is what makes this possible, given that it is not always the same for everyone, nor the same every day.

Having this maturity in the organisation, understanding the nature and cycles of work and delivery is a fundamental and foundational element to enabling and achieving this balance, for the whole team.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I have, with the most recent being cutting down my coffee intake to 1 per day. This is down from 5-6 per day from a few months ago. I never realised the effect coffee had, as it became almost unnoticed, however cutting it down to 1 first thing seems to have allowed me to slow down a little, find a better sleep pattern.

In addition to that I have started walking my dog, often alone, which is amazing in terms of mental space and time to just think. I know other people meditate, or run, but I suspect the outcome and value to them is similar to what I get from these times: the ability to let your mind wander where it will with almost no intrusion.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I have been enjoying the Riding Unicorns podcast, which interviews founders and investors of early stage, high growth startups. Interesting perspectives which are highly relevant to me given my context, and some really interesting people and conversations!

Books, I am a fiction reader, and love sci-fi and cyberpunk. Authors I would recommend are Neal Asher and Richard Morgan, although there are a host of others I have thoroughly enjoyed over the years. I also enjoy political history from a factual writing perspective as there is a lot to be learned from these accounts in my view.

I spend a fair amount of time reading editorials from various news outlets, ranging from The Guardian to The Economist. I also quite enjoy listening to a number of talk show hosts on LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation), a radio station with a highly eclectic set of hosts with wildly different political and other perspectives. It makes for fascinating listening, especially the callers and guests they have on.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

Sadly, my phone. I use it for a great many things, including working when on the go, keeping abreast of news and current affairs as well as listening to music and podcasts. Oh, and that communication thing! I also use Spotify and Sonos a great deal, and cannot remember the last time I purchased a music album, the thought feels decidedly alien to me.

Other than that, Slack is a very important product as is WhatsApp. I think LinkedIn has also become a rather valuable tool for me on a number of fronts, mainly on the professional front.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

This was a tough one, although after some reflection I think Satya Nadella. I heard him speak a few times, and his views on work life harmony are interesting. He has also done some amazing things with Microsoft, all of them since I left, and I have a fair amount of respect for him.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

While I don’t pretend to be the authority on the topic, I do believe that finding a team and organisation that provides a framework which respects that everyone has a different context and gives people the space they need to live their life in a way that does not demand unreasonable sacrifice is life changing.

I believe that conversely, organisations that recognise this, and try to provide this type of environment will reap the rewards, to the betterment of almost everyone involved.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.