Founder feature: Alice Williams, Ovira.
"The first year I launched the business, I worked myself until burnout. I thought I was invincible, and I certainly did not have a sustainable approach to meeting everybody’s requirements."
Alice Williams, founder of Ovira.
On being a founder.
How did you come to be a founder of Ovira?
Unlike many startup founders, I don't have a background in business or marketing. When I came up with the idea of building Ovira, I was actually working in the film production industry. Funnily enough, I’ve never had a proper, full-time job as a company’s employee, working 9-to-5. But what I did have was horrendous chronic period pain. As a part of that, I was getting tired of taking heavy pharmaceuticals, painkillers or the pill, which were the only widely available options to treat period pain.
I studied Health Sciences at university, and health has always been a passion of mine. I loved researching different ways to treat my pain, to avoid having to take pharmaceuticals. One of the things that I came across while researching was pulse therapy. It offered instant relief, it didn’t harm the body in the process, and I thought ‘huh… it sounds too good to be true.' Yet I tried it - and it worked.
I immediately started to wonder ‘why doesn’t every person that suffers from period pain know about this?’ and I actually remember typing into Google ‘How to manufacture a product?’.
Luckily, a friend of mine with experience in manufacturing hardware decided to help me, which was certainly better than learning how to manufacture a product from zero myself.
I never wanted to have my own business. I wanted to go live off the land somewhere remote or move to a coastal location. I even lived off the grid in the High Country for a bit after high school! I never dreamt about building a global empire, having a massive team or even raising capital.
Instant, drug-free period pain relief with Ovira’s first product, Noha.
Becoming a founder and business owner happened gradually. Although there was one crucial moment that changed my mindset, that was when 80 women tested our Noha prototypes. The feedback we received after that initial testing was overwhelming. Women were sending us videos of themselves crying with joy, telling us how their lives changed after years of pain.
At that moment, I realised that if we could do this for 80 women, we could do it for 80 million women, or even 800 million women. Ovira hasn’t stopped growing from that moment onwards.
Tell me about a time when you’ve been really challenged as a founder?
Two things come to mind. First of all, I launched Ovira at the same time as the pandemic had its first outbreak. Building a global supply chain for the first time in your life, while the whole world is going through the level of uncertainty we faced in early 2020 was hard - to say the least.
Second, building a team was definitely a major learning curve for me. I'd never hired someone before. I didn't even know what marketing was or what a finance team does.
It's interesting that when it came to hiring people, I had to re-learn a lot of unconscious prejudices that I believe are still quite common in the startup scene. The most important one of them is thinking that the key to success is looking for people with the ‘flashiest’ LinkedIn profile. I found out that some of the most incredible employees are not even on LinkedIn.
So yes, the first year was extremely challenging. It was definitely signed by constant failing and fixing problems. Yet, I have to admit that another part of me looks back and thinks it wasn’t as hard as the world makes you think it’s going to be.
I’m probably a bit naive, but I think that if you offer something that can potentially change someone’s life, like Noha, building a successful company is achievable.
Alice (right) talking with Debra Taylor, co-founder of OpenSparkz, at Upside 2021.
Share one of the key differences between being a very early stage founder and the role of the founder on the Series A to Series B growth journey?
At a very early stage, naturally, you are doing everything yourself. Then you go through the transition of having to be comfortable with delegating work to people that are better than you in multiple areas. That would be the first main practical difference.
But then I also noticed a big difference in my attitude. I find myself much more resilient now, after having closed our seed round. I know there’s always going to be obstacles to overcome, but after the year that we’ve been through, I don't think there's much that could shake or rattle me anymore.
Now, compared to when I was at a very early stage of the founder’s journey, I feel unwavering confidence and drive. I am 100 percent certain we're going to build what we set out to do. It's pretty powerful.
Many people in my team, especially the early hires, feel the same every day, and this creates good energy in the workplace. None of us had any experience in marketing when we started, despite that, we've built one of the fastest-growing consumer startups in Australia.
The real startup life.
What is the best thing about being a founder at this point in the Ovira story?
It's not often in life you get to be around a group of people that you absolutely love. I think that every single person in my team is amazing, and I actually look forward to going to work every day and spending time with them.
And another great thing about Ovira at this point, is that we as a team and our systems and processes were forged during a very tough period. And not only did we survive the crisis generated by the pandemic, but we also managed to get to a great place. We feel stronger and more resilient than ever.
Tell me about a time when you had to let go of in order to grow as a founder and a leader?
I'm a very trusting person, so I don’t have any issues with letting go. I love empowering my team and delegating work. But, because I am so trusting, I made many mistakes initially.
Coming from the film production industry, where everybody is a contractor and it’s a hyper-competitive environment, if someone says they're going to do something, you can fully trust that they will. When I first started Ovira, I learned pretty fast that it’s not always like that, and had to make a few adjustments in this sense.
Alice in the midst of Upside, Day 2, 2021.
What is your approach to satisfying the requirements of the business, your own needs, and those of your friends and family?
My approach is quite simple. I basically ignore anything that makes me think that I’m not a good leader or that I’ve failed if I don’t wake up every morning at 5:00 AM, exercise, only have a healthy diet and work all day, every day in my business.
I think that caving under the pressure of being the ‘perfect founder’ or even the ‘perfect human being’ can do more harm than good. I listen to myself, and if I’m tired, I sleep in. Some days I want to see my friends, so I finish early, or if I don’t feel like looking at spreadsheets all day, I team up with the creatives that day.
But this hasn’t always been my approach. The first year I launched the business, I worked myself until burnout. I thought I was invincible, and I certainly did not have a sustainable approach to meeting everybody’s requirements.
So I came to the realisation that if I was going to do this for the long term, I wanted to rock up every day, have a positive attitude and love it. And as a founder, if you are miserable, it’s very likely your team will feel it too. So I changed my approach and found what works for me.
I believe the key is to find out what lifestyle works for you and what makes you happy. Independently of what other people say a founder is supposed to do.
Yeah, that was a f#@% up.
They say that failure is the best teacher. Tell me about an experience of failure that you are thankful for.
I don’t care so much about failing anymore. But I do have one experience of failure that taught me a big lesson: I didn't insure our stock whilst shipping it, and we lost $3 million worth of stock.
Ouch! $3m of Ovira stock lost at sea and uninsured.
I was responsible for supply chain at that moment, and our sales were growing so fast that we could barely keep up. At that time, we were air freighting the stock from the manufacturer to our warehouses. But when our manufacturer built up a decent amount of stock, I decided to ship it, and did not even consider the possibility of insuring it. After all, I thought the chances of a container falling off a ship into the ocean are one in a million… Long story short, it was basically the biggest container loss in recent history, and Ovira was part of it.
Paying it forward.
What practical advice would you give your pre-founder self about what lies ahead?
I would say ‘back yourself’, especially being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated space.
As women, we are generally taught not to have strong opinions or not to be super ambitious. It’s even frowned upon if women say things like, ‘I want to make millions and millions of dollars.' It’s not by chance that there’s only a small percentage of women who raise capital or build successful companies.
At the start, I felt uncomfortable verbalising my ambitions and terrified while talking to investors. I felt constantly blocked. So I would advise myself to get through that, back myself more and push forward without fear.
If you could recommend one thing to do in preparation for the founder journey what would it be, and why?
To ignore the noise. Startup books, motivational business podcasts and entrepreneur events are great in small doses. But it’s important to understand that everything we are looking for as founders is already within us.
It’s very easy to get caught up in a damaging loop of trying to find the perfect piece of advice and the perfect answer to our problems in these types of resources. We’ve all been there. But we only have to look inside ourselves to find the answers we need.
(Re)sources of inspiration.
Tell me about a time when the going got tough - what are the things that kept you going?
I like to focus on our purpose and positive impact. But I’m also a pretty stubborn person. The more I seem to struggle to get something, the more I work towards it, which is probably why after the first year in business I became so driven.
In the Upside Program, we did a F4S motivational assessment, and one of the indicators of Drive depends on whether a person is energised by moving towards a goal or by moving away from pressure. Funnily enough, I scored a zero on the ‘moving towards a goal’!
But then, as I said, there’s our purpose and impact. We have an incredible group of customers, a community of 12.5k people on Facebook, and a Tiktok following of over 620k. They genuinely love Ovira, and their loyalty is probably the main reason my team and I kept going when things got tough. They're just amazing.
Alice chatting with co-founders of Seer Medical, George Kenley (left) and Dean Freestone, at Upside 2021.
What are your go-to tools and resources that help you be a better founder?
I really enjoy listening to founders that have a high skill level in a particular area, and getting their advice. Talking to other founders has certainly made me a better founder.
Apart from that, I think there’s no better resource than figuring things out by yourself through trial and error.
Think about the statement, “I am my own work in progress.” In what ways have you made progress in the last year?
The most important progress I made in the last year as a founder was learning and accepting who I am as a leader. I realised that I’m definitely more of a motivational leader than an organised manager.
I also understood the importance of investing in your team. For example, at Ovira, we don't like the concept of ‘work-life balance’ because it implies that people don't enjoy work, so they need to find a balance outside work. Instead, we encourage the idea of ‘work-life harmony’ and so I motivate my team to find what works for each one of them.
I learned that when you find people who truly believe in your company and give their best, it’s not only important to look after them, make sure they love their roles and find them mentors, but also recognise their efforts from a salary, equity, and working conditions standpoint.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from the Upside Founder Program that you are bringing into your founder and leadership role at Ovira?
Sleep fixes everything.
In a short phrase, what would you say to other founders about Upside?
Vulnerability, Connection and Self Awareness.
We’re all a work in progress.
Upside Founder Programs help founders become the very best leaders for their businesses as they grow from late Seed stage and Series A to Series B, and beyond. Applications for the 2022 program have closed. Join the waitlist for 2023 now and you’ll be the first to know when applications open.
Upside Founder Programs are generously supported by KPMG High Growth Ventures.