Welcome to the stage: our series where we interview founders and CEOs, discussing leadership, culture, and wellbeing at work.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Dan Murray-Serter, Co-founder of Heights, Angel Investor in 50+ startups, and serial entrepreneur.
Together, with Juno Founder and CEO, Ally Fekaiki, Dan discusses being an entrepreneur, mental health, his thoughts on employee wellbeing, remote working, and being an honest leader.
So, buckle up and let’s dive in.
An Intro To Dan Murray-Serter
Dan has been a real voice in the space in not only startups, but also in wellbeing and culture. He has been a strong advocate for mental health and wellbeing at work, for employees especially.
I guess I’m an entrepreneur - I've been doing this for 10 years, trying to successfully run businesses.
Most have failed, some are still going, and, and a couple are doing well. I think God loves a trier and God knows that I try.
I've had lots of experiences with culture, it's worth saying, and I'm currently the co founder of three active businesses that are live and running.
One is a nonprofit community called Foundrs, one is a bootstrapped business called Kindling Media, and one is a venture and crowdfunded company called Heights.
I take pride in the fact that I understand and have experience building a nonprofit, for-profit bootstrapped, and a venture-backed crowdfunded company all at the same time. Also, they provide different cultural challenges and I run them in completely different ways as well.
When I realised that I wanted to go all in on Heights, I made a very clear decision to step back from in my other companies and how to find successes and what that would look like with culture.
Why do you prioritse wellbeing?
I'd love to understand where did this emphasis come from to prioritse wellbeing? What was the sort of history that made you want to do that? Where did that come from?
In my personal experience, I've suffered a lot of poor mental health, some of my own doing, and some not.
Burnout was my own doing, depression wasn’t anxiety, meh, kind of comes with the reality of entrepreneurship, I think, as does stress. The insomnia I dealt with was down to my habits and lifestyles and behaviour, and ultimately, nutrition.
All of that stuff led to me starting heights, where I learned the impact of nutrition on mental health, which was something that no one talks about and no one understands.
If you'd have told me five years ago that I'd be running supplement business, I'd tell you to get out of town, because I'd never even taken supplements five years ago.
But, that was ultimately what my medical professional, the dietitian that I went to see after six months trying everything else, ended up suggesting to me and it's the thing that worked.
I went on this deep dive around supplements and nutrition and mental health, and there's just endless science around it, but not very much awareness.
So, I became so passionate in that surprising fact.
There's not many things in the world that you will find that are so rich and scientific evidence to actually work but not that many people aware of it at all, including in the medical profession.
The idea is, everything sort of starts and ends in your brain. So, if you take care of your brain, the rest of your body and the rest of your wellbeing will flow.
That concept, and that way of thinking, was almost like a personal wellbeing mantra that got me back to really great health and actually performing at a high level.
Why do you prioritse wellbeing in your company culture?
We launched in January 6 2020 and by March, we had employed our first person and the world locked down. So you know, we weren't planning to build a remote team, but very quickly, we were forced into that decision.
It's been almost three years of running a fully remote company.
I think very quickly, you know, you pack on a pandemic, the uncertainty, and also understanding how to do remote work well, wellbeing comes to the front immediately, because you notice your own patterns very quickly.
Boundaries don't really exist unless you put them up in remote work. So these things, converged into our thinking very early on in the company about being deliberate about how we build wellbeing practices, habits, and culture at Heights.
How do you help your team balance getting things done with work life balance and wellbeing?
Not only are people reaching new heights in their brain care, thanks to your supplements, but also the business is doing fantastically well.
So I'd like to understand how not only how that wellbeing focus has translated into business success, but also how you balance hustling and getting things done with work life balance and wellbeing?
It's a great question. It's not something that I think we've nailed still. The self care thing is really interesting. I don't know if it's a male-female thing as well, but we tend to see a more slight higher skew towards men not prioritising their wellbeing and self-care.
In the company, although we're actually a predominantly female team, the men spend less on their Juno accounts, for example, than the women typically do.
I think women have more of a reminder about the importance of self care because I think that's just more ingrained in feminine culture than it is in male culture.
So we end up having to tell the men in the team, “these are some of the things that you can do this month if you want to” or “you could get a massage”.
And this is inside a wellbeing company, right?
The genuine honest truth is aftertwo and a half to three years of consistently talking about wellness being a wellbeing company, banging the drum talking about it myself, you know, I take naps occasionally during the day and tell the team that I'm doing it you know, I don't make any shame of this stuff.
You know, I'd really try to lead from the front, like, “Hey, this is how I'm trying to manage my wellbeing.
We don't micromanage anyone, sometimes people want to work weekends, and we don't penalise that. Sometimes people want to get up at 5am and do stuff, and sometimes people want to work at 3am.
As a new parent, I've got a different working schedule now. I now finish work at six every day and do her bath time and bedtime routine, I have dinner with my wife, I do a whole bunch of things.
But I might start to do emails and start working again at like nine or 10 if I haven't got my work done at that point. And so some people might say that's not very brain care, in that it's fair, but actually, to us brain care is kind of about like you do you and find the right balance.
Balance is an individual thing.
I think the problem that we've had at the past with office based environment is forcing everyone into the same balance and rhythm.
You know, we tell people, like make sure you exercise and go for a walk every day, you know, because we're remote, put a walking emoji on your slack and let people know that you're free for a meeting, but you'll be on a walk.
Why is it so important that you have an international, remote work culture at Heights?
The job to be done is finding the best people to work at your company. So, in the past that needs to be “find the best people to work at my company that live inside M25”, now it's “find the best people to work at my company, full stop”.
We try culturally to make sure that we're encouraging a mixture of behaviours and efforts together to understand and unpack what's gone well, what's gone badly, how we're doing things well, how we're not, etc. So, the plus sides are, it forces you to do remote well.
It’s an ongoing process. But you know, honestly, because we have these ridiculous time zones and where people are, we've just been forced early on into learning how to get remote done well, and then how to do culture well and wellbeing better.
How do you make sure you put culture-first as a remote, international company?
One of the big things that we did early, at 10 people, was that we basically hired someone that who focuses pretty much all of his time on people and wellbeing - Rob.
He does check ins, drives all of us to think about stuff, and it's actually mental, because we pretty much pay a full time salary for someone just basically to force everyone else not get burnout, but culturally, it's a good decision. It does drive better performance and wellbeing from people.
It isn't something that I would have previously chosen to do, because it's not necessarily the most logical use of budget. But if you can get better performance and health and wellbeing over the long term out of every employee, and you figure that out at employee 10, then when you're about 20, which is where we are now, it starts to feel more like you've got the output of 30 people, if that makes sense.
Exponentially it’s a good decision.
Why is vulnerability so important to you as a leader?
I've been an avid follower of yours on LinkedIn and Twitter, and you've not had an issue being vulnerable, honest and candid about your personal experiences. Why is that so important for you? And why do you think that these are qualities that a leader should have?
I think it's in two parts, this answer. I think it's because the first time around, I was trying to build a business and everything was going really well, which was Gravel, my last company.
It really took off and caught a Zeitgeist and became a very buzzy, exciting startup. Everyone was asking me for my advice and I started to talk about how well things were going on social channels all the time, because it was, but also because it felt very much like I was playing into the narrative that made sense.
Underneath, it all, the stuff that was really happening was very stressful, and very humiliating. I was basically copying what I was seeing [everyone talking about how well everything was going], and so I followed suit.
I actually realised that what I would have found much more valuable at that time was to find some kind of leader that just talked about what it was really like in a startup, going well or badly.
I never did. And ultimately, the business failed. And when the business failed, I did a post that essentially said, “Ok, we failed. It's embarrassing, this is what I learned from failing and this what I'm going to do differently”.
The post blew up, and it blew up because people hadn't really seen someone talk about what it's like to fail and how it feels.
So, this time around in the journey, I'm going to just share the journey as I go along, from nothing into something.