Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Chris Ventura, Co-Founder & Director at Harness Projects

Chris Ventura is the co-founder & director at Harness Projects, an online, project-based learning platform providing courses in UX, product management and digital marketing.

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

I began my career working as a producer in ad agency land, at the dawn of the online era.  I cut my digital teeth in this high-paced work environment, experimenting with digital strategies that had never been implemented before – it was the wild west.

New territory being discovered and a lot of highly creative campaigns led by art directors familiar with above-the-line advertising and trying to make the same principles work online. In hindsight, the campaigns were wonderfully experiential but perhaps not the most commercially effective.

The maturity of the space has grown considerably since then. Data-driven decision making moved to the forefront of my working style and as I moved out of the producing world and became a product manager.

I was very fortunate to work with, what I consider, some of Australia’s leading product managers while at Fairfax Digital. At the time (approximately 10 years ago) Fairfax had one of the first product disciplines in Australia.

I went through a fast-paced learning process, getting my head around the commercial aspects of digital products and establishing my data-driven approach to product management. After a couple of years, I moved into the education industry, working to bring a product discipline to a very traditional industry that had a long way to go in the digital space. 

It was during my time working in education where a lot of my own personal experiences from my university days would come back to inspire a motivation to address a burning issue that no one seemed to be able / or willing to address.

That is, providing students an education experience that prepares them for real-world working environments so they feel confident in the practical application of the skills they are learning.  For me that meant, learning by working on projects and developing the resilience to navigate the unanticipated circumstances that arise during projects.

Sharing a similar vision and desire was a colleague of mine who would go on to be my co-founder in starting Harness Projects, Mike O’Brien. Our mission is to deliver students real world project experiences, within the context of education – applying their learning as they go.

Through this model we’ve also been able to address social aspects that are important to us. By ensuring the projects that students work on are contributing to meaningful social outcomes in a range of areas including; environmental & sustainability, mental health, disabilities, social justice and more.

It’s been an incredible ride watching the growth of Harness Projects and the wide range of incredible projects our students have worked on and many of whom have used that experience to go on and land jobs in the field. That win/win is the ultimate outcome for us. 

My role today as co-founder has a bit of everything. From product and business development to marketing and sales, coaching calls with students and 100 other responsibilities that come with leading a startup. It’s incredibly fulfilling and demanding at the same time. 

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

I’m up at 6 am and start my day with some breathing techniques (see Wim Hof) and a surf (waves permitting!). Nothing prepares me better for the day than being in the ocean. I work remotely from home so I’m usually in the home office by 830am to start my work day.

I have a bit of a getting ready ritual for work  (some might call it OCD) which includes getting all my tabs ready in my browser as the first step of the day; Gmail – Slack – Hubspot – Xero – Google Drive which just allows me to start cycling through the important early morning tasks.

We run multiple education classes in tandem where a lot of the communications occur on Slack so we might have 60-80 students active at any one time and there’s usually something to respond to or follow-up on with the team. It’s also a way for me to get a pulse of the classroom status for all our active projects and courses. 

We’re a cyclical organisation so certain weeks we may be in the heights of an enrolment campaign for the next batch of students or in a down period between enrolment intakes so my daily tasks can vary.

Generally though I am regularly speaking to new organisations and partners and learning about what business challenges they are facing to see how we might turn one of them into a project for our students.

One of the perks of this job is the exposure I get to a variety of social impact initiatives from organisations across the spectrum. We focus on delivering project-based learning experiences that not only supports the career development of our students but also gets them working on meaningful project outcomes.

It’s incredibly fulfilling to see students land jobs from their project experience and also seeing their work contribute to meaningful outcomes in the wider community.

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

Our entire company has worked remotely since inception, so you could say flexibility is at the forefront of our culture. For me personally, coming out of a traditional corporate role prior, it was a bit of an adjustment to find the same level of energy and productivity working in a home office.

It took about 6 months before I really found a rhythm with my work day and without a doubt I now am more productive than I’ve ever been previously in my career. However with that said, I have had to implement some conscious techniques to allow myself to “end the work day” so to speak.

For example going for a run on the beach and a cold shower to set a marker for the transition to non-work life. When your living space is down the hall from your office, it can be very easy to be always in work mode.

Not just in a practical sense but a mental headspace as well. My partner would probably be the first to notice if I was still in work mode, well before I had noticed I hadn’t switched off yet!

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

To me, work-life balance means feeling secure in myself that all my responsibilities in life are given the attention needed, from watering my plants to spending time with family and friends.

It’s very easy for work to be a primary focus when you’re the founder of a company, with staff you are responsible for and a vision you want to realise. What I’ve learnt thus far is that all of that counts for nought if it’s at the expense of the other parts of your life that round out who you are as a human being.

I may be the co-founder of Harness Projects but I’m also a loving partner, an uncle, a son and a brother. The truth is, this is a lifelong journey for me. Some months are better than others and I’ve learnt to be compassionate with myself when the balance gets out of whack and I know I need to redirect my focus to balancing out where I spend my energy. 

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

About 12 months ago I quit caffeine which was perhaps the single hardest and most important habitual change in that time period. And this wasn’t some chronic dependency of multiple coffees a day, I only ever had one in the morning!

Unfortunately, I had developed a sensitivity to caffeine as I entered my mid 30’s and realised that it had started to have a negative affect on my moods and outlook on life. This affected my decision making at work and also the energy I had available for things outside of work.

It’s the most bizarre realisation to come to when the whole world around you is merrily drinking their coffees without issue. For whatever reason, it was clear my adrenals were not enjoying the daily ritual anymore and I had to let go of one life’s greatest joys (this may be my Italian, romanticising background over-dramatising things but maybe someone reading can relate to this haha). 

The outcome of this change for me was profound. I found more energy and focus during my work day and my sleep patterns improved and so did my ability to handle stressful situations without reacting prematurely. 

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

I really enjoyed Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederick Laloux. It was a catalyst in helping me make my decision to leave my previous corporate role and start my own business.

A great read for anyone who feels squeezed by traditional corporate structures and wants to explore new ways of relating to people and organising teams. 

More recently, I’ve enjoyed the podcast Startups for the Rest of Us which covers lesser known stories in the entrepreneurial space although a bit heavily weighted in the SAAS world.

Avinash Kaushik’s blog Occam’s Razor has an amazing depth of content in the digital marketing space. Specifically in how data & analytics should be used to pull real, actionable insights. The posts are long and well thought out with a lot of tangible outcomes you can take back into your business.

Wait But Why is another great, extremely long-form blog, that is well worth a read – just allow yourself plenty of time!

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

I may have a bit of an obsession with Excel and Google Sheets, and have a spreadsheet for most things that normal humans don’t. Then there are the myriad of SAAS products that keep our business running; Hubspot CRM, Slack, Stripe, Xero, Zoom, Google Drive and Zapier. Slack perhaps get’s the highest workout. 

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

So I have two answers to this question, from two very different walks of life.

Firstly, the entrepreneur in me would be curious to read more about how Elon Musk is able to juggle all the demands that he has on his life. Running multiple global organisations at scale and a large family, is a feat!

Whereas the historian in me would love to read more about the day to day experiences of First Nation Peoples before settlers arrived, their daily goals and how they maintained their own sense of self and balance throughout the rigours of life in that time.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle of those two experiences is where my natural self leans; one rooted in a fast-paced modern world and one connected to land & nature.

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

Never underestimate the natural progression of life to teach you what you need to learn, at just the right time. In my experience there is a deep wisdom in nature and how circumstances emerge to teach you something about yourself.

We may not always get to choose the situations that land in our laps but we all have a choice in how we respond to them. It’s something I see in my own life experiences and in the journey of individual students who attend our courses.

Each is different and unique, so my advice to others would be reflecting  what works for me. When I’m in balance, this natural rhythm plays out strongly in my life. Instead of suffering from challenging experiences or burn out, I’ll find growth on the other side of it. That’s when I know I’m balancing the grind. 

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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.