CEOs / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Philip Fierlinger, Co-CEO at Upstock

Philip Fierlinger is the Co-CEO at Upstock, a simple app used by top restaurants, cafes, bars and their suppliers to manage wholesale orders.

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

I’m Co-CEO of Upstock, which is a wholesale marketplace for foodservice used by top restaurants, bars, cafes, grocers and their suppliers. It’s a platform for buyers and suppliers to connect and do all their wholesale ordering, plus manage their logistics.

A big part of our mission is to reduce waste across the food & beverage supply chain, making it more efficient and economical for high quality, sustainable products to reach a wider market. We’re a rapidly growing startup operating in multiple countries and we’ve raised about $10m to date. 

I’ve been in tech since I was a kid. I started coding at 12 yo. I studied industrial design at university and in my senior year I got an internship at General Magic “the most important startup you’ve never heard of” (there’s a great documentary film about the company).

After that I started my own digital design agency and landed my first client, the Beastie Boys. In 2001 I moved from San Francisco to New Zealand, where I co-founded Xero and I was head of design for almost 10 years.

By the time I left Xero it was a $5b public company with millions of passionately happy customers around the world, it revolutionised an entire industry and has since grown to a market cap of $25b (before things simmered down this year).

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

I split my time between long term strategic planning and overseeing product and marketing, but I’m involved in all aspects of the business. We recently closed our Pre-series A funding, so that took up a huge portion of my time.

We’ve been hiring, so that’s been a major focus. And with the hiring I’m very hands on – from writing the job ad to finding people, to doing the interviews and reference checks, to onboarding the new hires.

We’re at a stage where we’re levelling up our GTM – so I’m deeply involved with the strategy planning with our newly hired head of marketing. I’m also deeply involved in our product roadmap, making sure we’re constantly innovating, delivering the best product in the world.

I try to regularly talk to customers to make sure we’re delivering on that promise. And of course, I’m always planning for the next round of funding – tracking our metrics, writing our investor updates, connecting with investors. I really love the combination of working on critical details across all aspects of the business, while formulating the long term strategy. 

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

Work life balance for me is mostly about having time to spend with family and time to be in nature. I love to surf, love to bike and love hiking – especially the epic mountains we have in New Zealand. I also love dining out and discovering exceptionally good food.

Travel is another thing I love, but obviously that’s not been possible for years. I just came back from a few weeks in Paris and that was a really incredible experience. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to do that with my family – which is completely thanks to my Co-CEO Duncan Ritchie and the structure we put in place. 

We very intentionally structured the business with a Co-CEO arrangement. Being CEO is a major burden for one person to carry, and it can get very lonely and isolating. By sharing that burden, we each get great support and better coverage across all areas of the business. Duncan and I worked very closely for years at Xero, so we had a really strong working relationship with lots of established trust and respect.

We also run the business 100% remote, so that eliminates all the wasted commute time and it makes it much easier to get life things done when you’re at home, like walking the dog and doing errands, which is also a good way to break up the day.

But work is still pretty much all consuming – it’s really hard to find time to take breaks, whether you’re in the zone working on something exciting, or bogged down with all the moving parts. I’ve been having to block out my calendar, to make sure my day doesn’t get overrun with meetings.

I also have a hard cut off at 6pm every night where my phone is on do not disturb and absolutely no work talk at dinner or after. I’ve experienced burnout in the past, so it’s something I have to constantly avoid. 

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

I’ve started exercising regularly every morning. Years ago, after I experienced burnout, I’d already cut out a lot of things like sugar, caffeine, dialed down the alcohol and got into a strict sleep regimen.

After I left Xero I took a few years off and one of the things I did was started surfing. But having years off makes you restless and feel pretty useless. I still had a lot of skills and ideas that I wanted to use, so I got back into the startup game.

I love to surf but unfortunately my wave count has dropped massively as work has ramped up. We recently got a camper van, so the plan is to be able to do more weekend trips hiking, biking and surfing – but even that’s tough because a weekend really isn’t enough since you spend all your time driving.

So one idea we plan to try out with Duncan my Co-CEO is taking off a full week every alternating month, so we each really get a chance to recharge on a regular basis while the other one covers. It seems much more feasible than doing something like a 4 day work week and something we might introduce company wide if it works out.

I’m also trying to make more time to catch up with friends. Like most people, the pandemic really made me more of a hermit, so I’m starting to make the effort to see friends more often. 

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

A book that really helped me through my burnout and various other challenges was Thousand Names for Joy by Byron Katie. My whole life I’ve found buddhist philosophy really inspiring and I worked with a life coach who turned me onto Byron Katie.

She has a lot of great books, but that one is my favourite. I’ve read it at least five times by now. In my view, it really has all the answers for understanding how life works and how to find inner peace. I recommend it all the time, but most people struggle reading it, so it’s not for everyone. But her podcast is also extremely good and very easy to listen to.

People come to her with every problem that’s ever existed, from the pettiest little thing to devastating horrors, and every time those people come away with some really profound revelations and clarity, just by using a few simple questions you can ask yourself. 

Other books I’ve found useful are Ryan Holiday’s books Ego is the Enemy, and The Obstacle is the Way. I also love reading biographies, mostly of musicians and comedians. It’s good fun, plus there’s usually a good dose of inspiration and wisdom. 

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

I’d be keen to read how Barack Obama dealt with work-life balance. I read Michelle’s book and really loved it. She wrote a lot about how they managed the work life balance and she was very open about how challenging it was. Some of their major strategies were to set boundaries and have family rituals.

But I’d be interested in hearing Barack share those moments where everything seems overwhelming and you feel like you’re out of your depths – how do you cope with that? How do you take a break? How do you get grounded? How do you avoid it becoming all consuming? How do you avoid burnout?

He seems to have managed it well. But I suspect he’s probably like most people, and it was a constant struggle – most of the time you won’t be able to get the balance right and you have to learn to be at peace with that while you keep working at it. 

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

I try to meditate regularly, usually when I go on a walk there’s a spot in the Botanic Gardens where I just sit for a few minutes, practice slow breathing, ground myself by listening to the wind and the birds, just getting deep into the moment. Sometimes I’m there for half an hour, sometimes just a few minutes. But I always feel restored, inspired by life, and balanced – my troubles fade and start to seem trivial. 

With Upstock, I made sure to make work life balance core to our guiding principles, particularly these two principles:

Seek joy and purpose. That is the true definition of success. Enjoy the journey, follow your instincts and dreams. Your ultimate job is to make your job the best, most inspiring, rewarding, enjoyable job of your life. When that happens, our entire customer experience is infused with joy and purpose.

‍We look after each other. We’re all humans with emotional needs, idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Be kind to everyone, including yourself. Pace yourself, it’s a long road with lots of twists and turns. We assist you with mentors, coaches and counselling.

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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.