Dr. Ivan Zak of VIS: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

by Christina Gvaliant
Dr. Ivan Zak of VIS: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur  we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ivan Zak.

Dr. Ivan Zak is a veterinarian and an entrepreneur committed to creating products that empower the healthcare team to live their passion. It was Ivan’s own personal journey from practicing veterinary medicine for 12 years and experiencing severe burnout that led him to explore the psychological triggers of burnout and search for business methodologies that can eliminate them. Today Ivan is leading VIS, an operating platform for veterinary organizations designed to prevent employee burnout while accelerating business performance.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Dr. Ivan Zak: I was originally set to graduate from vet school in Ukraine before moving to Canada in the last year of my studies. There, I had to once again pass through vet school to receive my qualifications. I always wanted to practice veterinary medicine with a focus on diagnostic imaging, making use of MRI and X-ray technology.

I eventually traveled to Russia to practice surgery, where I discovered they didn’t have diagnostic labs. Instead of going west for an established job, I decided to establish the first modern diagnostic lab there for animals. After that, I ventured back to North America where I worked as a vet for 12 years, noticing inefficiencies in the workflow and devising ways to improve the practice. I then reconnected with a high school classmate before embarking upon a classic startup launch in my Toronto apartment.

Together, we developed SmartFlow, a software product for workflow optimization that eventually landed in 600 veterinary hospitals globally. We sold it to IDEXX, a Fortune 500 company, where I became general manager of the software division. But I soon discovered I couldn’t live in the corporate world and decided to start my own company.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Dr. Ivan Zak: It wasn’t so much of an “Aha moment” as it was an “oh no!” moment. As a veterinarian, I quickly grew exhausted and witnessed how prominent the problem of burnout was in our profession. I discovered that veterinarians were about four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, and realized I was close to that myself.

I had to leave the profession for half a year to seek professional help, which encouraged me to return to the vet community and commit my further work to combat the issue of burnout in the profession. I began to pursue an MBA degree with a dissertation focused on management approaches that can improve employee experience, which became the thesis for our current company. Now we’re building software and developing methodologies to run veterinary organizations with a focus on preventing employee burnout.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Dr. Ivan Zak: That’s an interesting question! I think being an entrepreneur accelerates as you go. Once you solve a problem for the first time and see others relying on a solution you developed, you develop this addiction and want to keep solving problems for others. I think it begins with building a company, starting a movement, and leading people behind the idea so that you develop the entrepreneurial skill as you practice more and more.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Dr. Ivan Zak: I don’t think that entrepreneurship is following in someone else’s footsteps. I do think that you seek out others who you can look up to and learn from once you become an entrepreneur, however. For me, it was Steve Jobs, who I learned so much from by studying his journey and his failures. I can relate to the fact that he was fired as the CEO, as I was actually fired from the lab in Russia when I was the CEO myself. His story inspired me to rethink my attitude, develop a new business strategy, and move forward into a new chapter.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Dr. Ivan Zak: Our company is unique because we’re solving a problem that hasn’t been solved by anyone else in the industry. There’s no real book for corporations in animal healthcare services to follow. So we thought, why not write the first book for consolidators ourselves and lead the way?

We approached the issue of veterinary consolidation from a unique angle, asking how we can improve the experience and enhance value creation. The problem of employee burnout wasn’t being addressed, and we realized we could ensure that value creation could be taken care of without sacrificing the wellbeing of the frontline staff. We began convincing the leaders at the HQ level and their investors to take care of the professionals who do the actual work and began generating great results.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Dr. Ivan Zak: The further I advance, the more I understand that you have to hire and work with people smarter than yourself. Once, I was interviewing a candidate for a designer position but ended up hiring him as a Chief Product Owner after I realized that he was also developing his own product that was similar to ours despite being in a completely different industry. I realized that he was a great product manager, has a strong vision, and that he could contribute to our team in unique ways.

The second thing I learned is that you need to lead rather than manage. It may seem like an overused phrase, but it’s important that you can direct people toward their goals without micromanaging their every step.

Finally, you’ve got to fire fast and keep moving. You can’t keep working with people who don’t fit into your organization. Instead, you’ve got to build organizations with people who understand your core values and neatly fit them into place.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Dr. Ivan Zak: There’s this dilemma about whether you want to take someone with domain expertise and turn them into a salesperson, or if you should take a salesperson and train them in the domain expertise. Someone suggested that I should take domain expertise nurses, who were highly trained technicians in veterinary medicine, and turn them into salespeople. That was a mistake.

I soon learned that you should hire salespeople and train them in your domain. It’s better advice and will ensure that you encounter fewer mistakes when running the business.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Dr. Ivan Zak: Number one: provide people with autonomy. This is the most important thing. Next, ensure that you’re paying them adequately. Never celebrate hiring someone and paying them less than what they’re worth, as you’ve actually made a huge mistake doing that. If you pay people what they’re worth, they won’t be looking to jump ship to a new job and can focus on their goals.

Finally, you want to avoid linking performance to how you pay your workers. Pay is something that is essential to the relationship between employer and employee. Personal goal setting needs to be separate from payment, as people are more motivated by goals than they are by money. Once they’re adequately compensated, they can invest everything in reaching for their goals.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Dr. Ivan Zak: First, dedicate your personal education to the domain that you’re trying to become a thought leader in. Next, always do more than you’re being paid for if you want to establish real authority and credibility in the industry.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Dr. Ivan Zak: It’s the only way to develop real authenticity around your reputation. You can’t pretend to be a great business leader on social media while behaving completely different in real life. People won’t trust you if that happens. You can’t wear masks depending on which situation you’re in, but should strive for a consistency that only comes with being educated and having experience related to what you’re talking about.

Now, doing more than you’re charging for allows you to develop many more important relationships. You’re not just creating transactional relationships with people, but are reaching out to many others who will see the extra work you’re putting in. Reciprocity is a huge driver in human relationships; if you do more for other people, that will eventually spread and come back to benefit you. I’m a big believer in karma.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Dr. Ivan Zak: The most common mistake I see is when founders underestimate the costs of establishing a new business. They should start by understanding how they’re going to fund their company to ensure their operations can be completed. I also think new founders are waiting far too long to take their products to market.

Shipping early is important, as too much perfection kills the startup because it prevents you from establishing a connection to the majority of customers in your industry. The biggest pain point is going to be crossing the chasm from your initial target customers to the mainstream market. Using your target customers to move to the majority of customers can’t happen unless you’re shipping early.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Dr. Ivan Zak: Oscillating between dramatic highs and lows is the nature of the beast. First, you get excited because you have a great idea — that’s a high. Then you have to deal with the frustration of finding funding — that’s low. Then you experience the high of locking in your customer, before sinking into the low of trying to secure a majority of customers in a market. It’s just the nature of business.

Entrepreneurs have to understand that dealing with highs and lows is a continuous process. Being an entrepreneur is radically different than a “regular job.” I actually think entrepreneurs can be compared to athletes in extreme sports. The amount of dopamine and epinephrine that you get through the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur is similar to what athletes experience when they’re extreme skiing or surfing.

You see, entrepreneurs are risking everything. They’re putting their families, their homes, their careers on the line to reach the goals they have. With a regular job, you might get an upgrade in your salary every year or go through a rough patch with your boss, but that’s not going to make or break your life. As an entrepreneur, you could make decisions that end up being incredibly detrimental to your life. It’s why managing those neurochemicals, those hormones that make you happy or sad, is so important to entrepreneurs. I think both extreme athletes and entrepreneurs get into this chemical state in order to perform at their peak.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Dr. Ivan Zak: Many people might think that selling a company is something that helps you feel unusually high, but I disagree. I think the highest point you can feel as an entrepreneur is when you lock in an idea from multiple sources and everything suddenly clicks all at once. You come across an innovation that comes from your background, your career, maybe something that you just heard somewhere. You get excited, feel that dopamine rush, and get ready to document it and put it into a product.

It’s not just about selling a business for a million dollars. It’s not necessarily about being recognized in the industry. For me, the highest point of entrepreneurship is locking in that great idea.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Dr. Ivan Zak: For me, the most frustrating low is discovering that you have a new competitor. I think it’s the lowest feeling I ever had when I found out I had a competitor I didn’t know about. They were developing a similar idea and I felt low because I had previously thought I had this great innovation that came solely from my mind. I was putting all of my effort into that idea, leading others toward it, and all of the sudden there’s either a copycat or a genuine competitor who came up with the same idea in parallel.

Competing with someone else is a different feeling than if you’re just building something yourself. Some people say that competition builds a competitive edge, but I think your focus as an entrepreneur should be on whatever it is you’re doing. It’s hard to keep that focus on your idea when there’s someone else doing the same thing.

For example, Simon Sinek talked about how he spoke at separate leadership summits for both Microsoft and Apple. At the Microsoft summit, most of the executives were talking about how to compete with and beat Apple. At the Apple summit, though, all of the executives spent the entirety of their presentations talking about their own products and where they were going. They were fighting different battles! I think you need to stay focused on satisfying the customer rather than beating the competition.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Dr. Ivan Zak: I find that all successful entrepreneurs went through some terrible, life-changing event at some point. What I learned about overcoming this life-changing event is that you cannot be afraid to take further risks after experiencing a defeat or an emotional low. In my experience, I was fired as the CEO at a Russian lab, and I was at this angry low point in my life. I was unceremoniously fired without warning in front of my own leadership team. But I didn’t let it keep me down or sap away my motivation.

I bounced back, moving to North America and starting several successful companies. I learned not to be afraid, not to shy away from risks, just because I had experienced one major failure. You have to recognize that one failure doesn’t define you.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Dr. Ivan Zak: First, you need positive psychology in your life. You should be constantly seeking positive emotions in your life. This can happen through meditation, wellness training, or gratitude practices. Focus on maintaining that positive emotional state. Every morning, I drive my son to school and we say five things that we’re grateful for. You’ll be surprised at what an eight-year-old is grateful for!

Second, seek continuous engagement. Make sure that you’re working on something you’re passionate about. Try to establish a goal that’s bigger than yourself so that it keeps drawing you in. Remaining engaged is essential if you want to achieve entrepreneurial success. I think about how passionate I am to engage with the issue of burnout, and it keeps me motivated and engaged with my business goals.

Third, have a great purpose that motivates you. I’m not talking about buying a fast car or a big boat — I’m talking about having a real meaning in life that keeps your drive alive. Without meaning and purpose, you’re not going to be able to ride the emotional highs and lows of being an entrepreneur.

Fourth, have personal relationships and invest time in your family and friends. Understand that riding the emotional highs and lows of an entrepreneur isn’t something you should be doing alone. This means forging new relationships as you progress in your career and keeping a firm hold on your old relationships with your family members and friends. At my first big startup, I missed the first few years of my son’s life. I was there — I was just busy and spent so much time working that I can barely remember it. I’ve learned from that.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to have a little girl who’s about to turn one. I know I’m going to be around for her birthday, and that I can strike a balance between family and work that I wasn’t meeting before. That kind of personal relationship is going to be an essential part of maintaining positive psychology in your life.

Finally, you have to set goals, achieve them, and recognize your accomplishments. You can’t just run in a random direction and hope for the best. You establish a goal, slice it into smaller chunks, and get into a very detailed level of tracking your progress to ensure you’re hitting your targets. There’s a lot of science reinforcing the idea that you should be tracking and hitting daily, monthly, and annual goals, both in work and in your personal life. Every day, I use an excel spreadsheet to ensure I’m meeting my goals as a father, a husband, and a leader.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Dr. Ivan Zak: You know, I think a resilient person would say that we’re not living in challenging times — instead, we’re living in a time of opportunity. A resilient person looks at things that are changing rapidly and understands that some old things may disappear, but that new things will arrive to replace them. You have to remain flexible so that you can pivot and meet any new environment as it arises.

Whether it’s the resilience of your personality or the resilience of a company you’re building, you just have to remain flexible and ready to engage with the new. You’re not just going to withstand any environment, but you’ll be able to flourish there. You have to understand that a failure doesn’t permanently set you back, but instead provides an opportunity to learn new lessons so that you can achieve new goals. Adaptability is the key to success.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Dr. Ivan Zak: If you look at the hard times at any point in your life, you have to think about how they made you stronger. I think if you live through a challenging period, you come out more risk-prone and unafraid of things because you’ve already endured difficulties.

So, when I was growing up, it was during a time when the Soviet Union was breaking up and Ukraine was becoming independent. I was living without a father, and my family was very poor. It was rough. I think that living in that environment made me come out stronger in the end. Once, when I was fifteen, I won an English language competition and was rewarded with a student exchange program that would send me to America. It was a huge accomplishment, I was very proud of it. But then disaster struck and it turned out I couldn’t go, I was devastated. Its downfalls like these help develop resilience. That situation helped me appreciate the importance of remaining resilient in the face of external factors which you can’t control. I think that people who come from tougher places and keep a hold of a dream end up becoming more resilient.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Dr. Ivan Zak: I keep a positive attitude during difficult situations by harnessing my anxiety and turning it into excitement. Anxiety actually produces the same neurochemicals as excitement in your body, so you can convert your anxiety or frustration into excitement during a tense situation. When facing a problem, think to myself “this is exciting! I can’t wait to see what positive thing this will do for my life!”

You know, when I was fired, I took my anxiety and frustration and I turned it into excitement for a new position on a new continent. It helped me bounce back, and here I am.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Dr. Ivan Zak: As a leader, you must remember that whatever emotion you have is going to rub off on your team. Many leaders don’t appreciate or understand how much of an emotional impact they have on the team. So you can have a positive impact on your workers, but you can also have a negative one if you’re not careful.

For example, I once determined that my team didn’t have the same level of passion for what we were doing as I did. I wanted them to be more engaged with their work, so I spoke to my executive coach, and he suggested that I talk about the purpose of our organization. I realized I had never shared my personal experiences with burnout with the team I was assembling.

So right at the end of last year, I shared my personal story with my team. I talked about burnout and my own experience with suicide. I discovered that you can instill positive emotions in the team if you relay an authentic experience to them, and today, everybody is on board with our mission. If you let your team know how passionate you are about solving an issue, they’ll get motivated and engaged with that issue.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Dr. Ivan Zak: “Change is possible when staying in the status quo feels more dangerous than going into the unknown.” I can’t remember who said that but I’m incredibly passionate about change, so this quote resonated with me. I’m motivated to seek out continuous improvement in the company’s organization and in my own life.

I think some people are resistant to change, but you have to remember that without change there’s no progress. I think it’s worthwhile to jump into the unknown, to change something instead of sitting wherever you’re at with the same tired mindset.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Dr. Ivan Zak: Connect with me on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-ivan-zak/ and subscribe to Consolidate That!, our weekly podcast for veterinary leaders: https://vetintegrations.com/consolidate-that-podcast/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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