Interview with our CEO: Leadership, mental health and start-ups

A quick summary:

Em, Brand & Community Manager at Heka, sat down with our CEO, Alex, covering all things start-ups, leadership and employee mental health.

So, let's get into it. We asked Millie what she wanted to be when she grew up. Only seems fair we ask you the same?

I don’t think there was a specific job I wanted to do. I went through lots of usual ones, being a vet, my parents are doctors so something around that, playing different sports. I don’t think I ever had a set thing in mind. I did some work experience with a law firm and at a garage and learnt that wasn't for me. In the end I did Geography at university so I could go on to do, just about anything.

Did you ever think you’d start your own company?

I don’t think I ever thought, ‘this is exactly what I want to do’. When you grow up, you see business owners, shows like The Apprentice and incredibly influential individuals like Richard Branson. But I don't think I ever had an affinity where I wanted to replicate what they were doing. It was more just a case of the opportunity coming about and going for it - rather than thinking specifically ‘I am going to set up a business when I'm older’. 

Where were you when your lightbulb moment occurred?

Haha. There’s not really an answer, which sounds a bit boring! I don’t think that ‘lightbulb moments’ are quite a thing anymore. If you look at the most successful companies, it’s very rare that someone has a ‘lightbulb moment’. Especially when it comes to software and you’re not necessarily inventing something brand new. With inventions, there’s a thought process and a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

Whereas for us it was constant iteration, development, trial and trying to carve out some kind of niche within a specific area. We didn't sit down one day and think ‘we are going to do this because there’s a specific need’. It was more a case of ‘we have a passion about this specific area, we want to do something in this area, because we feel like there’s a big gap, so we’re going to go for it’. 

Everyone (especially start ups!) make mistakes. If you could go back in time, is there anything you would change?

I don’t really like the concept of looking back and thinking about mistakes specifically. I feel like as a leader you have to make so many decisions on a daily basis, that if you constantly evaluated or assessed the different options that you could have possibly taken, it’s very easy to think ‘this might have happened'. My typical thought process is to go with your gut and if you have a team around you that you trust, trust them to help or even delegate those decisions.

So I can't think of any specific examples, since we have started the company where I think ‘we really should have done that’. Because I feel like, you’re just going to end up romanticising something. I don’t think too much positivity can come looking back too far. 

There’s a lot of noise in the ‘entrepreneurship’ space. What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?

I think it means creating the opportunity to solve problems and to build a team of people to try and solve those problems. If I look around at what we’ve done so far, it’s very easy to concentrate on deals and contracts, but really, the success of any kind of company I view, as the rate at which people grow and succeed as part of it.

I mean our whole culture generally is that we hire slightly more junior and then promote internally to develop people. So I think being an entrepreneur is spotting an opportunity and then building a team, function or solution around that opportunity. 

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to take the leap?

I think it’s very difficult without knowing what people’s individual circumstances are. However, I also don’t think the leap is quite as much of a leap as it used to be. For example, when starting a business now, you can create a website, social media page and all the basics in a matter of probably… a couple of hours. It really is that simple.

So before you take the leap, it might actually be worth trying something, see if you enjoy having control and if you can see some sort of success, go for it. Because the cost of starting as an entrepreneur has never been lower.

How do you instil a workplace culture which prioritises employee mental health?

I think it’s a mix of having a structure and being reactive. So from a structure point of view, all the team get access to Heka, we’re fairly flexible on working hours and if people want to take last minute holiday, generally we are ok with it (provided there’s nothing major going on).

Then from a reactive point of view, it’s looking at what’s going on in the world. People have recently been struggling from a mental health perspective. One reason is because of the rising cost of living, so being reactive, coming up with solutions and doing your bit to help out.

It’s been sunny recently so on a Wednesday we've been saying to people ‘why don’t you finish early and go and enjoy the sun?’ The two have to go hand in hand. I think if you only ever have a core structural strategy,  you’re never going to be able to react accordingly. So having that ability and that culture whereby actually you can make those small changes can make a massive difference to people’s mental health. 

What is your proudest Heka moment to date?

There’s a lot of cliche moments coming to mind, but I don’t really feel like any of them mean that much. I think what makes me proud is seeing people develop. Seeing when you take someone into the company and in two or so years (that's not much from a work-life perspective), that person completely transform professionally, is pretty empowering.

Just knowing that you’ve had a pretty big impact on that, and the opportunity that you’ve created I guess, as an entrepreneur, has helped them to develop at that pace. Seeing that kind of progression is a massive, massive part of what makes me proud.

I think signing big deals is nice, and obviously it’s a key part of the business growing. But I don’t think in five years, or ten years, or fifteen years time I will look back and think about that stuff as much. I think looking seeing how people have developed during their time at and after Heka, knowing that you gave them a really good launch pad or starting point in their career. 

What do you love most about the Heka team?

The sense of doing things together without it feeling like a very rigid hierarchy. I feel like everyone can get to know everybody, there’s not a sense of ‘oh you’re in this department’ or ‘I can't ask a question’. I think, and hope, that people feel like they can ask me a question at any point. We’ve obviously got Millie, our COO, who has worked her way up from managing the Customer Success department, and she's probably one of the most receptive people you can have.

Myself and Millie have a fairly open door policy. We can trust employees with knowing what’s going on. I think that’s a really big part of what makes us successful. Again, seeing people develop is a huge part for me.

We’re desperate to know. What’s your favourite Heka experience?

Thinking about what I have done recently, I have a fridge full of Soulful Food. I also bought the roasted peas from Brave, which I really like. I know in November/December time I used Plumm, which was really good. Kind of fitness experience is probably still Digme, I love the Digme classes. Oh Lily, our daughter, loves the Mamamade pancakes. So she doesn’t like textured food yet, generally, but she loves the pancakes. As in, she will hold them and walk, well, not walk, be carried around with them.

[Em: Haha that’s living, if you’re being carried around with a pancake in each hand.]

Alex: Haha, exactly, she really likes those. Other things I have done recently… I use a Theragun a fair amount. At least once a week, and I use a yoga mat for stretching. So yeah, a pretty mixed bag of different things!

What’s next for Heka?

From a short term perspective, we have a goal for how many members we want to have by summer and we’ve incentivised the team with summer working hours on a Friday once we hit that target. So the sooner the better for everyone. Longer term we’re looking at how we develop Heka into a more rounder proposition. So we know the importance of personalisation and it’s a huge part of what makes us different - it’s why our engagement is so much higher than any other benefit in the industry.

We want to look at how we expand that out into slightly wider health and wellbeing. Our focus is always going to be health and wellbeing, but specifically ‘how many employees can we have a positive impact on and how wide we want that wellbeing to go’. So we are looking at ways that we can cater to absolutely everyone’s specific needs.

And most importantly, are there more wheels or doors in the world?

Definitely, more wheels. And the reason is, you get wheels on lots of different toys, you get them on lego for example. I reckon Lily, who is 9 months old, has at least 50 wheels from her car toys. Lots of people have wheels. Whereas doors are quite fixed as in most people, the average person, must only account for 5-10 doors. 

[Em: Haha, this is the most in-depth I have ever gone with this question].

With these types of questions, I really think from all angles. And Lego wheels are a big game changer in this for me. And there’s a lot of people who collect things with wheels. I’m not aware of many people who collect things with doors. I’m sure there are. 

[Em: I bet you if you look hard enough, there’s somebody who collects doors.]

Alex: You need a big house to have a door collection though.

Thank you so much Alex! 🙌

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