When the spark goes out

The next leg of our Making Business Personal Relay is covered by Anthony Baxter, who shares his experience of burnout as a young entrepreneur and his strategies for avoiding it as an individual and part of a team.

When I was a kid, I used to go to my dad’s during the school holidays. He’s been an entrepreneur and owned businesses all his life, so from a very young age I saw what he was up to and would sometimes help out at his companies.

This exposure is what planted the seed of entrepreneurship in me. The seed grew into money-making ventures, like selling Game Boys at primary school and buying and selling dinghies so I could earn more money to buy the things I wanted, namely trading cards and toys. 

During high school, I set up a scrap metal pick-up service, organising a truck to pick up excess scrap metal from car yards. But I quickly moved on from that. I dabbled in multi-level marketing when I was 17, before getting into sales full-time and then falling into digital marketing.

All that is to say that before I started Firefly, I already had a few failed attempts behind me and a hunger for business. I just needed to find the right vehicle for jumping in at the deep end and getting stuck in. I was prepared to work extremely hard, and I did, but I was completely unprepared for burnout, which struck a few years ago when I was trying to launch Firefly in Australia.

Humble beginnings

I started Firefly in my spare bedroom in 2014. I was 23. I resigned from my agency job and opted to go it alone immediately, with no investment or savings. It was do or die. From the beginning, I imagined my newly started agency to have international appeal, helping high-growth businesses scale. I wanted to be a thought leader in this space, not just another agency working for a retainer. There are enough of those around.

One of my biggest challenges when starting Firefly was hiring to fill the gaps in my skill set and getting the right people on the right seat on the bus in the early stages. As a new brand with no office, a small customer base and limited knowledge, I was selling a vision.

I can’t stress how important the first hires are in establishing a business in those early stages. If I could do it again, I’d fast-track our learning by hiring people who had already been there and done that.

The spark goes out

I moved across the ditch to launch there and started burning the candle at both ends. Soon enough, I burnt out. It felt like I was driving with the hand brake on, but I was held back by my own body and mind.

Even the simplest problems felt impossible to solve. I had no motivation – it felt like I’d hit a brick wall. Typically, entrepreneurs quite like smashing through brick walls, but this one was different. 

Burnout is a combination of stress, poor health and mental exhaustion. It’s a sign that you need to stop. There are a lot of entrepreneurs and high-profile people these days who talk about success and the hustle, and they tend to say things like “Sleep less”. In my opinion, that’s the worst possible advice in the world – it’s verging on irresponsible! 

I believe growth happens in moments of stillness and silence. What I learnt during that period is that your health is directly connected to your success – and nothing is more important. You can work hard and strive for success, but your health doesn’t need to take a back seat. Responsible leaders look after themselves, so they can help more people. 

You owe it to yourself and those you care about to look after yourself, so you can show up as the best version of yourself. If you have hit burnout, and are struggling, it’s important to make the changes necessary. This is easier said than done, but vital for your longevity and success.

It’s so important that people don’t “push through it” or believe the silly advice out there to “harden up”. There’s a difference between work ethic and sacrificing your health. Take some time to recharge and rest, then ask yourself the hard questions about what needs to change, before making small steps forward and adjusting.

After the burn

I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner. You wouldn’t get Usain Bolt to run an ultra-marathon – he isn’t built for that. When you start to build a healthy lifestyle around your particular working style, you’re optimising yourself. It’s so important to listen to your body – burnout was my body and mind telling me to take a break, to evaluate what was stressing me out so I could make a change.

For me, I make sure I take strategic breaks, “moments of stillness” every three months, so I can avoid burnout. This allows me to recharge my batteries, reflect and then sprint again.

I’ve also tried to eliminate things in my life that cause friction, like areas of my work that I’m not good and just do not enjoy. That way, I can focus on what I do enjoy and where I can add the most value. This is very important, because I think burnout is a combination of stress, ill health and unhappiness. If you can isolate these three areas and improve them, you can avoid burnout.

I’m really big on protecting my team from burnout too. Firefly is a people business. Our people are our biggest asset and their health, wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment in their work is critical to our success and our clients’ success. Being flexible in terms of working conditions, having the option to work from home and being supportive of staff who need help or a break is vital. It’s about having an open dialogue and trust with your people, striving for performance, of course, but balancing that with sustainability.

When I reflect on what I could have done differently to avoid hitting burnout, there are a few things I come up with. Hiring people around me earlier on who could have supported my weaknesses is a big one – for example, I wish I’d brought a general manager in earlier. You either pay in time or money, but great people can take your business far. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I can now acknowledge the power of simplicity, of the idea that less is more. I could have focused more on a certain area of the business and become the best in the world at it.

But, actually, there’s a big caveat to the above points. In truth, I wouldn’t change a thing, because if I didn’t make these mistakes, I wouldn’t have learnt the crucial lessons I needed to in order to grow. I’m happy that I made these mistakes early on, so I can apply their lessons today.

Thinking ahead

My advice to anyone thinking about starting their own business is to focus on creating a business that does good and that you’re passionate about. If your goal doesn’t make you feel excited to jump out of bed, it’s probably not big enough. Reach for the stars and have big dreams and goals to work towards. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. It’s much more enjoyable working on something you love than something engineered purely for money.

Also, learn from others who’ve made mistakes in the past, so you don’t have to. 

For me, business is about controlling my own destiny – and the sky’s the limit. I love creating things, so having something that started as an idea become a reality is a really special thing. You can reach the highest of highs and lowest of lows, but it’s an exciting journey – challenging and very rewarding. 

My motivation to start a business is at my core, it’s who I am as a person. I’m essentially unemployable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’m just getting started.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About Anthony Baxter

Anthony Baxter is the founder and CEO of Firefly, an award-winning digital marketing agency.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *