CEOs / Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Jelte Liebrand, CEO & Founder of savvy navvy

Jelte Liebrand is the CEO & Founder of savvy navvy, referred to as ‘Google Maps for boats’, offers an all-in-one navigation solution, enabling more people to confidently and safely enjoy the water.

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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?

Although I’m Dutch, I started my career in Sweden, working for a subsidiary of Symbian, a UK mobile phone operating system company. After a few years, I moved to Symbian’s headquarters in London, which I called home for over a decade. During that time, I left Symbian to join an American startup called ‘Quickoffice’, for whom I set up their London office. That startup ultimately got acquired by Google, which is how I ended up in San Francisco.

While there, I took a two-month sabbatical to take part in the Clipper Round the World yacht race – an amazing experience. It was during this race, while trying to find the best route from SF to Panama, that I came up with the idea for savvy navvy.

But after the race, as I returned to Google, it took quite some time to ‘jump ship’ (pun intended). As an engineer, Google is probably one of the best places to work, and it’s a hard place to leave. But once I became a dad, I realised that if I didn’t take that ‘leap’, I would have a hard time explaining to my son why I didn’t follow my dreams.

So I stepped out of my comfort zone and founded savvy navvy.

What started with me and my clipboard going around countless marinas to gather boaters’ pain points, quickly developed. I drew in a lot of support from my network, but I think our crowdfunding campaigns over the last few years have really put savvy navvy on the map. Our first campaign went viral and within six days we had to close it down so as not to lose too much equity. It was an amazing validation of what we set out to achieve. Suddenly it wasn’t just “Jelte thinks this is a good idea”, but rather hundreds of boaters agreeing with me by investing in the business.

We are currently nearing the end of our latest crowdfunding round, which overfunded quicker than any of the others. While our core product is targeted at boaters, last year we expanded that to paddleboarders, kayakers and jet-skiers as well. Next, we will be looking at launching our enhanced version of the app to get even more people safely out on the water. We are also working more closely with marine agencies and other stakeholders, building one of the most insight-rich platforms on boating behaviour. 

While Kevin and I started this in 2017 as a bootstrapped startup, we’ve now grown to a fully remote, 17-strong team of highly skilled guys and girls and I’m extremely proud that, as a team, we won the Great British Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for Best Scale-up in 2022.

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

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “typical day” in a startup! 

But my day usually starts early, taking my dog for a walk along the water before getting my son ready for school. I ride him to school on my electric bike, which I then take along the beach to head to my co-working office space in Bournemouth. But that’s probably the only “typical” part of any day. Each day is different, and some are more unusual than others.

One day last week I went from an 8 am Skype interview with Australia’s largest TV channel to speaking to a handful of our more than 1,800 investors about our up-and-coming features. I then headed up to Birmingham to a consumer boat show, for which savvy navvy had produced its digital floor plan, and I was invited on stage to talk about innovating the marine industry. From my hotel room, I had a virtual pitch with Seedrs to more prospective investors before FaceTiming my son goodnight. 

Not all days are as busy as that, but they are all diverse and exciting – which is one of the reasons I love what I do!

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

It’s odd. Most people, when they found a startup, don’t get to see their families for some time as so much work goes into those first weeks, months and years. But in my case, getting rid of my daily two-hour door-to-door commute meant I actually got to see my family more. Replacing four hours a day on a train with being able to put my (then one-year-old) boy to bed, was one of the best things I’ve done. 

As for maintaining that balance, that’s hard but super important. The benefit of being your own boss is that you can be flexible with your time. This Friday, for example, I’m taking the afternoon off to go to my boy’s school and participate in his ‘maths challenge’ – something I would not have been able to do before. 

I’m also lucky in the way that my fully remote team is based in different time zones across the world, which actually allows that flexibility. Sometimes I’ll take a break at the gym over late lunch before speaking to someone in the USA, or I have a call early in the morning before the school run.

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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?

We recently got our first family boat, which has actually really changed our family’s pastime activities. As soon as the sun is out, even for just a couple of hours, you’ll find us on the water. Again, being flexible with your time helps a lot here, and in my case, it’s even useful for work because we product test savvy navvy as a family. Research on the go while relaxing and spending time with loved ones – a win-win for sure!  

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?

Honestly, I don’t have any recommendations for books or podcasts etc that helped wrt work-life balance. I’m not sure you could write a book about it because it’s so personal. What works for me might not (or likely won’t) work for you.

What does help is getting a network of people around you that understand what you are going through – because it *is* tough. I’m lucky to have met some brilliant people over the years in both the marine and tech industries. My ex-Google (or ‘Xoogler’ as we call it) community has been a great source of inspiration, especially in those early start-up years.

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?

Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” So I guess my advice would be: “Get ready to be punched in the face… repeatedly…”.

Founding a startup business is not for everyone. There are days when I wake up and wonder what on earth I’ve started. But luckily, there are more days when I wake up amazed at what we’ve achieved.

Doing something you’re passionate about, means the gratification of achieving something is far greater than when you’re just a cog in a bigger machine.

We recently had an app review, where the boater’s entire onboard electronics had failed in the middle of the ocean, but they had their savvy navvy in their pocket and we got them home safe and sound. It’s reviews like that, that make all those late nights of hard work suddenly worth it.

You never get tired of hearing these sorts of stories – it’s exactly why I set out to do what we do.

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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.