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Balancing the Grind with Mike Smith, Founder of Zero Co

Mike Smith is the founder of Zero Co, a company on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic packaging from every Aussie kitchen, laundry and bathroom.

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

I started my career working in an advertising agency. I worked there for a couple of years, but quickly realised I didn’t want to spend my life selling sugary drinks to kids, so I left there and tried my hand in the start-up space. I was in my mid-twenties at the time.

Launched a surfing technology business called Hot Chip, which ended up getting acquired by Billabong. Then I built a wine brand called Cake Wines, which I grew and sold about six years later. After that, I went on a big trip around the world with my wife, took two years off, came back to Australia and started Zero Co. So I’ve been in the start-up trenches for about 15 or 16 years now.

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

Get to work early. Do some deep thinking before everyone else gets in. Then have meetings back-to-back, until the end of the day. 

I guess, as the founder and CEO, the role is to try and make sure that everyone understands what the strategy is and that everyone’s aligned and pulling in the same direction, so you don’t have people running off and doing things that aren’t on the road map.

Deep thinking for me is articulating what the medium-to-long term strategy is and then working out what are the key jobs that need to get done along the way to achieve the big vision and then delegating them to the leaders in the business and helping them execute. It’s about making sure all the pieces of the pie fit and everything is humming and understanding what parts of the business need extra focus. 

Today I came in and wrote a hit list of all the things we need to get better at in marketing, customer experience, product and international expansion. All the things that aren’t as tight as I think they need to be. Then had meetings with each of the heads of the teams to talk about that.

Then went into a marketing meeting, a leadership meeting and a product meeting. Had lunch. Had an operations meeting, a pouch cleaning meeting, and now sitting down to answer some questions.

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

Yes it does. Although I don’t like working remotely to be honest. I like to come to work, be focused, work hard, go home and not be working at home. So, yes, it is flexible and allows me to, but I prefer to be at work when I’m at work. Try and keep some space outside of office hours to have a life.  

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

That’s a really good question. Up until very recently, there was no work life balance. It didn’t mean anything to me. It was just work, work, work, work. But I’m trying to get better at that this year, trying to make sure I find time to do stuff just for me.

Whether that means going surfing a couple of mornings a week. Doing exercise. Doing stuff with my wife. Hanging out with my mates. Reading books. I think if you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t really feel like work.

This business for me is more than just a job, it’s almost like my calling. It’s what I want to do with my life. And so of course you want to do what your calling is all the time, but sometimes that gets unhealthy. 

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

Not that I can think of. I try to do things like meditate and exercise each day. I have them in my diary, which gives them a better chance of being done, but they often end up being things that I aspire to do. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that.

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

So many. I don’t really listen to podcasts, but I read so many books. Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing is a super powerful business book. The Promise of a Pencil was a really great book about purpose-built companies. The book Blake from Toms wrote, Start Something That Matters. Good to Great by Jim Collins. I also just read Dave Grohl’s autobiography too, which I have to say is pretty good.

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

I’m not really much of a tech person. I guess the basics like laptop and phone, but I could live without my phone to be honest. I try to use it less and less. I’m thinking about deleting all apps from my phone and just having a month of no apps, just phone calls. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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

Not Jeff Bezos. I’m reading a book about the second phase of Amazon right now and he’s a psychopath. I actually got a bit depressed reading it, thinking about what it takes to build a company of that scale and I just realised I’m never ever going to do that. So not him! Maybe a pro surfer; so someone that’s made their life their work and their work their life. Mick Fanning.    

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

The thing that I’ve learnt as I’ve got older is that you need work life balance. You can work all the time, but it’s actually not productive. You need time off. You need proper blocks of time off. I just took three weeks off, which is the first time I’ve done that in two and a half years, since I started this business. It just gives you clarity.

When you stop and get out of the day-to-day, it allows you to think more holistically about the vision and strategy and things that are important. You only get that when you get distance, so I think it’s super imperative. That’s not to say you shouldn’t work heaps, because to build an awesome company you have to work heaps. But you also need some balance. 

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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.