Founder feature: Michael Johnson, Zoomo.
With a $60m Series B raise in the bank led by Grok Ventures supported by Skip Capital, ArcTern and Airtree, Michael talks about productivity, sleep, meditation and how to be present in meetings.
Zoomo co-founders, Michael Johnson and Mina Nada
On being a founder.
How did you come to be a founder of Zoomo?
I always knew I wanted to start a business, and the most important thing was that I gave myself the space and time to think about a promising startup.
The idea itself came while talking to my co-founder, Mina Nada. We met working together at Bain & Company, and later, while working at Deliveroo, he noticed there was a need for electric bikes in his riders’ fleet.
I think that when starting a business, there are three aspects that need to converge for the business to have a fair chance at succeeding: Is there a genuine need for this product or service? Is there a ready-made customer? And is it a future-proof idea?
In our case, the need was already there. In terms of the target market, we could Beta test our product right away with the Deliveroo riders. And last, the LEVs (light electric vehicles) and micromobility was - still is- a worldwide growing industry. So for me, it just made sense that someone should be grasping that opportunity.
At the start, I was lucky enough that I was a contractor, which gave me the flexibility to work three or four days a week as a consultant for other businesses, and the rest of the days work on our initial foundations.
Tell me about a time when you’ve been really challenged as a founder?
I believe being a founder is a constant challenge. Especially considering that you are building a product without expertise in the field from scratch and no roadmap to follow. You don’t know the right way to do things in advance, and you can’t outsource your problems. The only way to solve them is by owning them, trial and error.
Moreover, as a founder you want things done yesterday. In reality, processes in startups can take weeks, months or even years. Mostly, because you are running the company's day-to-day and you need to carve out the time to focus on what you need to build.
A good example is when we decided to create a marketing team. Given I'm not a marketer, I had to zigzag my way into the right approach, which took me months. I started by talking to different agencies, then asked for advice from my network, until I landed on the decision of hiring our Marketing Director.
Now, I can say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. He already had the answers that had taken me very long to figure out . But the time I spent figuring them out was necessary for me to have a good understanding of Marketing, and for me to recognise what I needed from an expert.
Share one of the key differences between being a very early stage founder and the role of founder on the Series A to Series B growth journey?
Being able to afford specialists is definitely one of the 'luxuries' of moving along the growth journey. But I'd say that the key difference for me is that early on, you spend most of your time trying to prove that there is a business and a product-market fit.
You spend every ounce of your energy, either convincing people there's a fit or trying to achieve top-line growth, which is basically getting the evidence of such fit.
When you actually prove that, then your energy as a founder starts pivoting towards scaling up. Your job starts revolving around scaling problems, such as hiring the right specialists or growing the team without threatening the organisation’s culture.
For example, as an early stage founder, you might be struggling to hire a handful of people. As a Series B founder, the challenge remains around hiring people, but this time it's not a handful, it's hundreds.
Funding wise, I personally find this part of the journey less stressful. Now, I get to enjoy my role as a founder, because we are not dealing with the levels of uncertainty we had at the start.
The real startup life.
What is the best thing about being a founder at this point in the Zoomo story?
I still face challenges every day, but now there’s more certainty regarding what we need to solve and how to do it, versus the uncertainty of the early days. As I mentioned, the challenges we face nowadays are related to scaling and fortunately, many people have solved these kinds of problems before.
The best thing about being a founder at this point is that by knowing the way, we can grow. And when you see your company growing, you feel successful. But, at the same time, we are still small enough to personally know each other, which makes it a fun environment to work in.
Tell me about a time when you had to let go of in order to grow as a founder and a leader?
A common observation among founders is that as you grow, you have to let go of control over the day-to-day activities.
In our case, there’s been two ways that we've done that. First of all, given that we have a footprint in different time zones, we hired people that we truly trust to lead those markets. It’s the best decision we could have made, and I feel comfortable relying on our Regional Directors.
Second, we landed on a set of six virtues that guide our behaviours at Zoomo. Whenever we need direction to make a decision, we go back to these six virtues, and in some way they show the right path to follow. Seeing people in our organisation acting and working according to them, helps me gain confidence in letting go of control.
What is your approach to satisfying the requirements of the business, your own needs, and those of your friends and family?
In my case, I know my limits, and I am very much aware that if I work seven days a week, my productivity decreases. If the only thing I do is work, other aspects of my life start to slip, which makes me even less productive. So there are certain constraints that I limit myself to.
Michael in the midst of the Upside 2021 cohort
In terms of sleeping, the Upside Program focuses a lot on its benefits, which has been very interesting. On average, I've increased my average sleep by 20 minutes this year.
Other non-negotiable constraints include one date night and one date day with my fiancé - at least - and a call to my mum on Sundays. They are sacred.
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.
Before we raised our first cheque, we got scammed into transferring $’000s to a fraudulent bank account - that wasn’t fun...
At that time, it felt like a disaster. But luckily, it happened before we started dealing with bigger amounts of money.
We’re not the first and we won’t be the last. It’s a very real problem that I don’t think people talk about enough. And there are very simple steps that you can take as a company to prevent these scams from happening. Needless to say, all are now implemented at Zoomo.
In retrospective, we are actually thankful this happened to us at the start, and to have learned the lesson early on.
Paying it forward.
What practical advice would you give your pre-founder self about what lies ahead?
I would say two things. The first piece of advice would be ‘there is more time in the day than you think there is.’
It came from improving life structures and habits. Changing simple things that now seem obvious, such as getting up at the same time every day and prepping for the day.
The second piece of advice I’d give myself would be ‘you will never spend enough time planning and thinking.’
I still don't do it enough, yet I'm much better than I used to. And it's necessary to make and schedule the time to think, because it's easy to get caught up in the weeds.
If you could recommend one thing to do in preparation for the founder journey what would it be, and why?
I'd say: 'nothing prepares you for it. But what you can do is set realistic expectations with yourself and with the people around you.'
The founder's journey is not a couple of years. It's a 10+ years journey, and you need to make it work from day one.
(Re)sources of inspiration.
Tell me about a time when the going got tough - what are the things that kept you going?
The main thing that has always kept me going is being surrounded by good people. My business partner and my life partner are the two smartest people I know. I can openly discuss any problem with both of them, and this has allowed me to overcome every challenge thrown my way.
Another one of the things I’m grateful for is having met through the Upside Program people that faced the same problems as myself. It’s surprisingly helpful to get advice from someone who’s been in the exact same position as you.
We really leverage the importance of advisors and often ask experts in the industry to come on board as advisors at Zoomo. This model works great for us, because in exchange for a portion of equity or a fee, we have access to their expertise in solving problems that they’ve faced before, freeing us from having to work full time on solving them.
What are your go-to tools and resources that help you be a better founder?
In all honesty, I don't have a lot of time to listen to as many podcasts and read as many books as I'd like. But I do have a couple of favourites:
- The Micromobility Podcast is super relevant for us and our industry. It's a great source of inspiration for myself and I get plenty of strategy ideas from it.
- Upside recommended Ben Horowitz's book ‘What You Do Is Who You Are’. This book was the inspiration for Zoomo’s ''Six Virtues'' which have been really successful in driving the behaviours we want to see in our employees at Zoomo.
Think about the statement, “I am my own work in progress.” In what ways have you made progress in the last year?
I’m definitely a work in progress. The Upside Founder Program, which I did this year, reminds you of the benefits of the habits you know you should be practising, yet you probably aren’t. An interesting part is that the Program brings in experts that provide a better understanding of these habits and give you practical tools and tips to implement them.
I continue to work on improving my Sleep, Meditation and Meeting Presence. And yes, I should sleep more, meditate more and be more present in more meetings, but there's been a positive steep change over the last 12 months.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from the Upside Founder Program that you are bringing into your founder and leadership role at Zoomo?
How to be more present in meetings is probably the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from the Program. A great example of the tools we learn would be a mindfulness tip to enter meetings. A few seconds of holding the handle and looking at everyone in silence is enough to ‘check-in’, be present in the room and have everyone’s attention.
When important and expensive brains gather round to debate a problem or decide next steps, it’s crucial to pay attention to them. I know it's difficult, but working on being present- really present- is a game changer.
In a few words, what would you say to other founders about Upside?
It creates the space to work on yourself and teaches you how to build the small habits that end up making an important difference in your founder journey.
We’re all a work in progress.
Upside Founder Programs help founders become the very best leaders for their businesses as they grow from Series A to Series B, and beyond. Applications for the 2022 program close December 3rd.
Upside Founder Programs are generously supported by KPMG High Growth Ventures.