Working for a large corporation comes with many benefits. There’s the consistent pay packet, gym discounts, expenses. There’s maternity leave, sick leave, and a certain level of safety in your employment status. There’s also coaching around managing challenges, with mental health being top of the agenda. For all the benefits which come with being self-employed, you sacrifice many of these support structures.
In his brilliant book, ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ Founder and CEO Ben Horowitz acknowledges: “By far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology”. From isolation, to negotiation, to rest, 14years of being self-employed had made Laurel Anne Stark only too familiar with the emotional challenges that come with this career path.
Laurel, the first thing I always want to understand about people is their background and who they were growing up?
So I grew up, just outside of Toronto in Canada and I have been an anarchist pretty much from day one. I always hated rules. I didn’t understand a lot of why things were the way that they were and I spent a lot of time in protests and petitioning. I ended up in a significant amount of trouble… and was relocated to the Gulf Islands to finish my last year of high school. I worked at this deli for a while and realised after I got my first raise (which was like a quarter!)… I could see that fast forward 20 years from now, I’d be making, maybe, five more dollars and be stuck on this little island and everyone would know the colour of my toilet paper. I was so not interested in that. So at 18 I moved to an oil and gas town in the middle of Canada, ended up working with a million different sales jobs and that’s where I learned the real principles of sales.
The principle of sales and also how to relocate I imagine! How did your career journey evolve from the door-to-door sales work?
I went on to do commissioned sales for a website company, a very small digital marketing firm, made partner within a year and then that was my first sort of jump into self employment. I was 23. I then started my own firm at 26. At that time, as a self-employed person, I just worked all the time and the culture that I started my business in was very much work hard, play hard. To cope with stress I drank, everybody did but by the time I hit my 30s, I was having medical and mental health problems, realised I couldn’t keep drinking and so I moved back to the coast, started working on getting sober and trying to figure out how to live and cope with stress in a different way.
Yeah that culture can surround tough work. Almost like trying to shift the energy of stress into a fun thing. As you were recovering from the drinking culture and exploring a lifestyle rejig, was there a turning point when you started to become more interested in mental health?
Mmm it was more of an evolution actually. I’d established myself as a consultant but I felt there was something more important that I should be doing. At this point, I’m married, I’ve got three step-kids, I’m running my own consulting gig. I’m trying to meal plan, and do my hair, and hit my financial projections and it’s really stressful! Then in 2015 a study by Dr. Michael Freeman comes out and it says that entrepreneurs are directly affected by mental illness at 72%, which is almost three times the global average.
Reading that was a relief as I knew I’d been suffering. I emailed Dr. Michael Freeman and I asked him what we need, and he’s like ‘we’re working on this, come back to me in four years’. For me that was a really long time! I personally was suffering and I knew that my female clients were suffering as well. I tried to find out where the mental health support was for self-employed women, but nothing.
Yes, I’ve never really thought about it but if you’re in a company you have a whole HR department and they have this support framework around you. So what was your next step?
I started writing a book where I wanted to bring in the statistics and share my own experience. While writing my book, I had the thought, what if it doesn’t have to be a book, what if it could just be a technology and people can benefit from it right away. That was when I started working on it as a technology and after that things happened really, really fast. I had the idea in December and by January 12th 2020, I’m standing on the beach in Mexico pitching in front of VCs and investors.
Sounds like you’ve learned a lot in a short space of time! I know that you’ve recently been crowd-funding to progress the app. What learnings can you share from your experience doing this?
The best thing I can say about crowdfunding is, it’s learning how to ask and then how to receive, which can be tremendously uncomfortable.
I’ve never grown so much since I got sober essentially. Crowdfunding is insane in terms of, just making sure that you are uncomfortable all the time! I also think that it’s about 80% more work than I had anticipated. It’s at least a full-time job. At least. It’s very much an exercise in not taking things personally because there’s some people that just completely ignore you. The upside is it’s a great marketing tool because you have an excuse to tell everyone you speak to what you’re working on.
“The best thing I can say about crowdfunding is it’s learning how to ask and then how to receive”
In terms of what you wanted the product to deliver, I think mental well-being is quite a personal thing – different things work for different people – so how did you work out exactly what felt like the right components of the app and what were the critical things that you wanted in there?
Oh my gosh, that’s such a great question. So, I definitely have assumptions as to what is going to be effective. And I am under no illusion that those are accurate. What I’ve learned through this process is, you’ve got to take the solution to the people and see what they tell you. The seven core features are based specifically on the research report we did, looking at over 200 independent studies. From that report, we were able to identify the specific obstacles that self-employed women face.
“What I’ve learned through this process is, you’ve got to take the solution to the people and see what they tell you.”
Ultimately it’s a mix between what the data shows, what the responses of our survey indicated was not going well, and also from my own experience, and the experience working with thousands of self-employed women.
I wanted it to be excellent and I think that needs to be a collaborative process.
Who are some entrepreneurs that inspire you?
Mita Carriman is my number 1. Her story is insane – she is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met in my whole life and resilient like you wouldn’t believe.
I’m also a huge fan girl of Cindy gallop. I love how ballsy she is.
Kelly Diels, she’s one of my coaches and has been instrumental in helping me dismantle my internalised patriarchy.
A really short one, and books that you might recommend?
A Woman’s Book of Life by Joan Borysenko, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Belonging by Toko-pa Turner, Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward, Shrill by Lindy West (links to all here, category: Laurel Anne Stark).
Amazing – all will be added to our Book Club. And final question: one thing you’ve brought into your life this year which has made it better?
Hula hooping! Because of gyms closing and social distancing etc, a couple girlfriends and I started hooping together out in this park. I seriously have never laughed so hard. We call it hoop church because you do on Sundays. You get a workout you laugh, your ass off. You get social connection and it’s like the most fun you can have with $20. I even got a collapsible one so I can travel with it.
Everyone should hula-hoop.