2017 was a year of highs and lows for co-working space provider Bizdojo. It rapidly expanded, ran into growing pains in the process (like the liquidation of subsidiary company Bizdojo Auckland) and in December, was sold to one of the world’s leading workspace providers, IWG.
But with that growth came a lot of stress behind the scenes – fellow co-founder Jonah Merchant referred to in an interview earlier this year it as ‘interesting’. Shewring describes it as a matter of going into survival mode to get the IWG deal across the line.
“Bizdojo has been one hell of a rollercoaster,” he says. “It’s been the most rewarding, satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life, but on the flipside it’s also been emotionally and financially taxing. It’s safe to say getting close towards the end was one of those good character building years, it provides the meat in the book, the adversity piece: ‘how did I get through this and get out of bed?’”
He says once the ink was dry on the deal at the end of last year, the full emotional and mental toll that the past year had taken on him became apparent.
“You sign a deal on the 21 December, you slump back in the couch and go ‘holy shit, wow, we got through that.’ I hit rock bottom super hard, without question. From a business sense, it was the hardest time of my life. Nothing that even came close to it. To move on, for me, was about new beginnings and invest the energy in my own health.”
And after a stint on garden leave in January, it was clear to him that it was time to say goodbye to Bizdojo for a new venture.
“It’s safe to say I felt like my work was done with Bizdojo. I got it as far as I could feel that I could do it, so it was time to step away and move on.”
While looking for new opportunities, Shewring was offered a job at a university in Sydney. However, at the last minute it fell through, leaving him to ponder his next move.
While he had this time to think, he decided to help himself by trying to help others. He organised a series of coffee meetings with people in the business sector he knew through LinkedIn, but had never met in real life to gain some insights into what was troubling people. He reckons the meetings numbered in the forties.
“I went into these meetings and said ‘Where are you at in your journey as a founder/entrepreneur/investor?’ The consistent thing was most had no work/life balance, were working insane hours for no money, and most of them – even if they exited and made cash – didn’t feel satisfied, as they didn’t feel as though they’d made a positive impact on the world, they’d just made money and sold it.”
It was around this time that Sherwring also came across the Ikigai concept that originates from Japan. It has no direct English translation, but the idea behind it means happiness in living, or the reason you get up in the morning.
In a work context, it delves into how people find meaning in the work that they do on the daily – or discovering what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.
“The thing for me is most of us fit into one of the quadrants – we might be working for a not-for-profit, which feels like our mission and purpose for being, but on the flipside, we don’t make any money, we feel frustrated and burnt out,” Shewring says.
“What was interesting for me in my meetings with people was no matter who I met, they felt lonely, disconnected, lacked focus, didn’t know how to make themselves sustainable and were missing their community.”
Shewring decided two things: he wanted to push on with his move to Sydney to have a fresh start, and he wanted his next job to have a positive impact on people in the business community like he did with Bizdojo, but without needing to physically open a space.
The idea of the ikiFounder network was born, which acts as both life and business coaching provider and explores how to find the balance between the two.
Run by Shewring and co-founder Nick Marsh, the subscription service offers online livestreams, workshops, programmes and tools for founders related to business related stresses, such as lack of meaning in work, money problems and mental health issues.
The launch of ikiFounder is timely, given the conversations that have been happening around founder mental health. Shewring has been a passionate advocate for more discussion around this and spoke candidly about his own close brush with suicide to Idealog last year, while Flossie founder Jenene Crossan recently wrote a raw and confronting piece about how raising $5.5 million in 12 rounds of funding nearly killed her.
“Too many of us get pretty close to taking our lives over stupid shit like money because we feel like we’ve failed as founders,” Shewring says. “My goal is to provide the support structure so people don’t do that, they know they’re not alone.”
Bizdojo research last year revealed some of the stresses effecting New Zealand founders
“One of the things that stood out is we have a lot of potential and opportunity around improving our suicide rates and support systems, and we’re getting the conversation out a hell of a lot more. Australian founders have all the exact same problems and challenges, and it isn’t being talked about as much within the founder community as it should.”
After Shewring posted a LinkedIn video a few weeks ago talking about a particularly bad day where he had suicidal ideation, he says he got an incredible mix of messages from people all over the world, from Indonesia to Switzerland to back home in New Zealand. He says it showed the potential for a service like ikiFounder globally.
“They were all saying, ‘I’m struggling with this myself, I never would have had the confidence of talking about it publicly because of the stigma of being judged.’ It brings that message home to people that it’s okay to not be okay.’
Shewring says he’s built ikiFounder around a customer strategy rather than an investment strategy, and has kicked off with a Patreon page where people can sign up for the services.
He’s also looking to workspace operators in Australia and further abroad, and how ikiFounder could support those communities. He says despite his background, he’s “operator agnostic”.
The goal is ambitious: Shewring wants to help one million founders, while the Patreon count is currently sitting at five. But it’s early days, and he says his expectations for Bizdojo starting out were never for it to grow to the size that it did.
“Who would’ve thought when we leased the Bizdojo space for six people in 2009, 7000 would’ve worked out of it in 2018? Five is an interesting starting point, but the week before that I had zero, and movements take time. I’m not talking about how I build a venture to make money and exit in the next three to five years, I want to have a generational impact.”
And while he might miss the New Zealand business community, Shewring says he hopes his presence in Australia will make it easier for Kiwi businesses to connect and bridge the gap.
He’s been in talks with the local start-up community and co-working providers, and says there’s more of an opportunity in the Australian market – financially and community-wise – than perhaps Kiwi businesses realise. But for now, his personal focus is on helping founders.
“Every founder – once you’ve cleared away the hype and bravado – they all tell you the same stuff that’s worrying them. That’s universal around the world, so I’m trying to get in front of those people and say, ‘I’m here to help.’”
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