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 Sarah Davidson, author of Seize the Yay and founder of Matcha Maiden.
The Founder of Matcha Maiden and host of the Seize the Yay Podcast, Sarah Davidson is passionate about supporting others to help them find what makes them feel ‘yay’. A self-dubbed mergers and acquisitions lawyer turned ‘funtrepreneur’, her message is about fighting typical A-type tendencies towards success and perfection, and learning to enjoy the ride.
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?
Sarah Davidson: To take you all the way back to the very beginning, I was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea but had the most happy, privileged upbringing in Australia. I was only five months old at the time so fortunately the experience didn’t leave me with any traumatic memories, but it did give me a very strong fascination with sliding doors moments and a thirst to make the most of every opportunity that came my way. That translated into a very active and curious childhood where I dipped my toe into everything from academics and music to drama and sport. I’ve always referred to myself as equal parts “nerdburger” and “arty farty” pursuing as many different things as I possibly could lest I leave any stone unturned or any chance unappreciated. The problem with being multi-passionate, though, is how confusing it can be when it comes time to choose a career path and I had no idea what I wanted to do when I eventually graduated from high school. I did quite well academically and didn’t want to “waste” my final year score, so I settled on law school because it was broad and transferable (aka allowed me to delay the decision longer as to what I’d be when I grew up).
By the time I actually started working full time, I still hadn’t quite figured myself out, so I continued on the legal career trajectory as a mergers and acquisition lawyer in a big international law firm. Unlike many corporates who ultimately quit their jobs, I didn’t actually dislike my time there and learnt so much – in fact, I still believe it was the best possible start to my career and launchpad for everything that came next. However, I often say that you won’t make a change unless you’re actively unhappy in your life, whereas if you’re comfortable or just “okay”, you can coast in that familiarity for years. I was very much a lawyer by default because I didn’t know what else to be and quickly got swept away in the stability, prestige and gratification of being “successful”. It was immediately post GFC too, so I was grateful to have a job at all and wasn’t going to take that for granted by looking elsewhere for the next thing… until the next thing found me anyway!!! The great happy accident of 2014…
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Sarah Davidson: I know refer to it as the infamous “happy accident” – I was lucky enough to accompany my husband to Rwanda on a charitable field trip to visit a school that his creative agency had helped support. Our month there was absolutely transformative and eye-opening, as you’d expect, but I brought two things home unexpectedly that changed our world forever. The first was a new perspective on happiness – I expected to feel overwhelmed with gratitude for what we have back home, but I ended up seeing a purer joy in the children there playing with a leaf for hours at a time than in the children back home who had so much “stuff” and were constantly anxious about amassing more. I’d never considered happiness as being separate to success, so that was the first time I started to see that having “more” didn’t necessarily equal happiness. And secondly, I brought home a gut parasite that wreaked havoc on my digestion system until I lost 15kg and my body threw a tantrum, collapsing into adrenal fatigue at work. In the recovery process, I had to give up coffee (among other things) and went on a desperate hunt for a healthier form of caffeination to replace it.
That’s when we discovered matcha powder (or rediscovered it – it’s been around for centuries being used by Zen Buddhist monks for their lengthy meditations). It has half the caffeine of coffee for a great boost of energy but also contains a unique amino acid called L theanine so the caffeine slow-releases into your blood stream – it gives you the buzz of coffee but without the crash and jitters it can cause. Its traditional use is in Japanese tea ceremonies, but no-one had really “re-launched” it and made it accessible to the masses or emphasized its health benefits. It has 137 x the antioxidants of regular green tea, but nobody really knew about it. So we bought some for our own selfish purposes and it turned out to be far too much for two people to consume. In our quest to recoup some costs and sell some to one or two people, we started our first business!
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Sarah Davidson: I definitely think some people are born with an entrepreneurial flair or state of mind, but I don’t think that’s the only way you can develop that kind of thinking. In fact, for a decade of my life – seven years at university and three years in a law firm – I was trained to think in the exact opposite way. As a lawyer, your purpose is to find every single possible risk or worst-case scenario and avoid it at all costs. As an entrepreneur, you can’t survive unless you EMBRACE those risks and do the thing anyway. I was the most certainty-loving, comfort-zone-hugging, narrow-thinking person, but slowly learnt to rewire my neural pathways to embrace risk, uncertainty and possibility. There’s actual scientific proof now that you can change the way you think and redirect negative thought patterns to replace them with positive ones. So, I believe you can grow into an entrepreneurial mindset if you wanted to. It takes a lot of effort and practice to unlearn a way of thinking, but it’s absolutely possible.
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?
Sarah Davidson: So many people! The main influence was, of course, my business partner and now-husband Nic. He likes to say he’s never had a job and has always run his own show, so having someone around who could normalise risk and “winging it” was incredibly reassuring and helpful. I think you truly are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with and his way of thinking definitely rubbed off on me allowing me to slowly leave my fear and self-doubt behind. If I’d only consulted my corporate or legal friends, they already thought the same way as I did and business was as unfamiliar to them as it was to me. So I think you have to be careful who you ask or mix with in those early days. The other crucial tipping point was a conversation with Jess Hatzis from Frank Body – but you’ll have to read the book to hear about that one!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Sarah Davidson: In the beginning, we stood out literally by being the only one in the market. Matcha wasn’t a new concept, it just hadn’t been pitched to a modern, online wellness audience and in that space, we were basically the first to revive it. That made it quite a shock to the system a few years in when suddenly competitors started popping up all around the place and the landscape became significantly more crowded. We had to really think long and hard about how to continue to lead the pack and stand out from the rest and I think it was a combination of things. The barriers to entry to source matcha are pretty low, so while it was incredibly important to have a good product, that alone wasn’t a differentiator. For us, I think it was in everything we did that wasn’t the product – storytelling, community building, collaborating ALL the time and embracing the idea that success doesn’t halve when you share it, it doubles. Getting out and doing lots of activations and free events that didn’t make financial sense but grew trust and connection was a huge priority in those early years and paid off tenfold. And also, just being really agile – we’d watch our audience so closely and change and tweak as regularly as we could.
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?
Sarah Davidson: Ooh that’s such a tough one! I still don’t think I’m a great leader but perhaps that’s one of the traits – self-doubt can be destructive if it goes too far, but humility means you’re constantly learning. Coming into business without any qualifications or experience has meant I’ve kept a beginner’s mindset and never think I’ve “learnt it all” so I’ve been very open to changing and pivoting along the way.
Secondly, I love people. I love the product, but I love people more and so I spoke to people rather than speaking about the product all the time. I really steered the business towards so many things that weren’t really directly relevant to matcha but to a healthy lifestyle overall and I think that built some lasting relationships and loyalty that helped us many times along the way.
And finally, probably related to the last one, I love people so I’m good at networking. I love meeting new people, especially forming relationships before you need them. You never know how many years down the track a conversation becomes worth it and I think sometimes we’re so impatient about getting “output” from our time. But I’ve always invested in conversations and new friendships even if there was nothing obvious we could get from each other and inevitably there will come a time where one of you can help the other and vice versa even if it’s decades later.
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?
Sarah Davidson: Scaling up. It’s so important to benefit from economies of scale as you grow, but I really got sidetracked into the view that bigger is better and put a lot of pressure on us to grow year on year. But actually, sometimes you make more money, bigger margins and have a better lifestyle staying smaller. As we got bigger, I started to lose the ability to spend time in the areas of the business I love, and my work started to look more and more like the corporate world I had tried to leave behind. We spent a few years going down the mass-scale, supermarket pathway assuming that logically we should because that’s the next jump in volume. But when we actually worked it out, we’d be working more hours for far less money in our pockets and sacrifice the lifestyle we started the business for. You can grow in other ways that aren’t pure increases in numbers or volume just for the sake. I don’t wish we didn’t go down that pathway because you need to learn from experience and we would have always wondered, but I’m glad we decided not to go down that path because we would have lost our agility, grassroots team and quality of life.
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?
Sarah Davidson: Burn out is probably the biggest risk in the start-up world, particularly if you love your job. If it doesn’t feel like work, you never feel like you need a break from it, so I think the most important thing is to incentivise and normalise down time. Have open conversations about the fact that burning out is not a badge of honour and the pace you all work at has to be sustainable. You might not be big enough to implement fancy workplace wellbeing programs, but you can always simply communicate that nobody expects “hard work” to mean “sacrifice yourself at all costs”..
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Sarah Davidson: I know a lot of business owners really prefer to stay behind the scenes and never show their face, but in a very saturated landscape, I think people really do look to a human being for trust and reassurance. They like connection and warmth, so getting out to do some speaking or even just jumping on socials every now and then can be so important to your customers to give your business a face. I think people really come back to the experience and how they feel when they shop with you, more than they come back to what they buy from you. It’s so worth pushing through the discomfort of getting in the spotlight to give a real voice to your business.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Sarah Davidson: The overwhelming difference for business owners today as opposed to a few years or decades ago is how many of us there are! The business landscape has been so democratised, which is AMAZING, but that also makes it harder and harder to stand out. I think there is a big swing away from the mass market and towards niche, boutique, experiential consumerism so showing your face and the real people behind your business is so crucial.
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?
Sarah Davidson: Going out too hard too fast! I think all the other small hiccups along the way logistically pale in comparison to the stories of burnout you hear about – you can recover from accidentally over ordering or running out of stock, but it’s so much harder to recover from wiping yourself off the grid and burning out for months when you’re the only staff member! It’s such a furiously fast paced and ever-changing environment that sometimes you feel like you’ll fall behind and become irrelevant if you even close your eyes for a moment. But, unless you’re a heart surgeon or paramedic, NOTHING is as urgent as you think it is. Going 80% all year wins over going 150% for a month then collapsing EVERY TIME.
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”?
Sarah Davidson: I guess the main difference with having a job or being employed is the certainty of income. In a position of employment, with the small and infrequent exception of being fired or made redundant, if you go to work every day and do what you’re there for, you get a paycheck in the bank. You are generally hired for a specific role and are paid to fulfil that role even if you are super productive one day and not very productive the next. As a business owner, you don’t have that financial stability – you could go to work, work harder than you’ve ever worked, and earn no money at the end. OR you could do no work, not try at all, and the market decides to flush you with customers meaning you make money anyway. The uncertainty and constant change in the market conditions is what leads to the ups and downs.
You’re also responsible for EVERY department, so while an employee will naturally have hiccups from time to time in their area, you have to deal with the hiccups in EVERYONE’S area. There is so much more outside of your control that could flare and interrupt the whole flow of your day. You’re also so much more invested in your work because it’s YOURS in the end – so the emotional response to the highs and lows is that much more intense. But having experienced both, I wouldn’t have it any other way!
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.
Sarah Davidson: I have so many moments along the way, but a few that really stand out are from really early on when it started to dawn on me that we actually had a real life, proper business. The first sale we made online to a stranger was just the most exhilarating pinch-me moment. Then the first few times that I saw it on a shelf in a store absolutely blew my mind, particularly those times when we were overseas in stores I adored like Urban Outfitters – I couldn’t believe my Mum hadn’t stuck it in there before I arrived just to make me feel better. Similarly, I’d go weak at the knees every time I’d meet someone knew who I really admired like a celebrity or a fellow business owner that I had followed for years and they already knew about the business without me having to explain – that was so surreal and exciting.
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.
Sarah Davidson: Every time I burnt out and overdid it, which was many times – I’d feel like such a fraud selling this message of wellness then barely being able to maintain my own behind the scenes.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Sarah Davidson: I think the most important thing you can ever do is know yourself and build your life around your own triggers – I know that being called a hypocrite is one of my worst nightmares so as soon as I framed burnout as being hypocritical, I actually took the challenge to pace myself and slow down seriously.
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.
Sarah Davidson: Surround yourself with people who lift you higher.
Distance yourself from people who only bring negativity or doubt to you.
Always make time for play outside of your work – you’ll always be more creative, fresh and productive if you take time away from what you do.
Be gentle on yourself on the shit days – they’re part of the journey and the beauty of working for yourself and on your own schedule is that if you have to slow down one day, you can speed up the next.
If it costs you your peace, it’s too expensive – not everything can be measured by money and financial success. If something looks good on the outside but feels awful on the inside, it’s not worth it.
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?
Sarah Davidson: I think resilience is often misinterpreted as meaning people who “cope” well in a tough situation. I used to pride myself on being resilient and masked a lot of negative emotions in the process. Because my work is so focused on “yay” and positivity, my identity gets so wrapped up in seeing the silver linings. But I actually think resilience is being able to let yourself feel and experience the depths of your darkest emotions when times are tough and sit with them. But then, when they finally pass, bring yourself back out again.
I think resilient people are generally incredible self-aware, unafraid to be vulnerable, have generally done a lot of introspective self-work and probably wouldn’t even think about calling themselves resilient!
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Sarah Davidson: Being adopted definitely pushed that process along – being fully South Korean with completely Caucasian dairy farmer parents forced me to get comfortable with being different much earlier than other children might have to. We spend so long trying to suppress what makes us unique, but ethnically, I could never do that so I think building a thick skin to nosy questions or teasing for not looking like my parents set me up really well for experiencing negative emotions and learning to be okay with them and find joy again.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Sarah Davidson: Yes and no. I think it’s so healthy and important to let yourself wallow in sadness or loss and process negativity, so you don’t bottle it up and let it fester only to come out later in unhelpful ways. So, I’ve become more comfortable sitting in pain or discomfort initially instead of trying to push it away straight away – there’s usually some lesson or growth to come afterwards, so I find a lot of reassurance remembering that lesson will ultimately become clear. But then I pull myself back into positivity usually with some kind of circuit breaker like exercise or a bath or something else that brings me joy. A good book or a funny movie or even just playing with our golden retriever! We all have a friend who can always remind you of why life is so beautiful, so calling one of them does wonders! You don’t have to do it alone.
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?
Sarah Davidson: I have SO MANY, quotes are my absolute favourite. I think the one that sticks out right now is “beautiful new beginnings are often disguised as painful endings”.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!