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‘Entrepreneurs need to have a clear vision – then prioritise and focus’

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OpenOcean’s Patrik Backman outlines opportunities that have been opened up by data and what he sees as the critical ingredients to start-up success.

Patrik Backman is CEO, co-founder and general partner at OpenOcean – an early-stage venture capital firm investing across Europe with offices in London, Helsinki and Amsterdam. Since launching its first fund a decade ago, it has backed start-ups including Booksy and Sunlight.

Backman comes from a background in the tech sector. Before starting OpenOcean, he co-founded open-source database company MariaDB, and spent a number of years managing product and business development at MySQL.

‘People used to say that software is eating the world – but, in my opinion, it’s only just beginning’
– PATRIK BACKMAN

What is your experience working with start-ups?

As general partner at OpenOcean, my main priority is to drive new investments into promising early-stage data-intensive software companies throughout Europe while helping those companies to scale and reach positive exits that drive return on investment.

At OpenOcean, our philosophy is to provide more than just funding. General partners actively support founders and start-up teams in scaling successfully, drawing upon their decades of experience as founders and operators themselves. This can involve a great number of things, from product development and business modelling all the way through to go-to-market strategy.

In essence, we use our experience as former founders – in my case at MariaDB/MySQL – to help new founders prioritise and answer the right questions at the right time during the early stages of building a business. Typically, we work with founders on many of these areas prior to first investment.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

People used to say that software is eating the world – but, in my opinion, it’s only just beginning. There are still a huge number of industries and business operations where software development has yet to take hold.

Digital disruption has paved the way for some major developments in STEM that will continue to provide a range of opportunities in the future.

For example, solutions in the new world of cloud data infrastructure enable businesses to meet user needs at a faster and cheaper rate than ever before. These trends are also redefining big markets of consumer-facing SMEs by providing modern apps that connect SMEs to millions of users in a way that was not possible without these digital advances.

The ability to gather and process data while developing new insights using AI and machine learning has also allowed for an enormous leap to take place in the healthcare industry. Finally, enterprise automation and the next generation of manufacturing automation have both been enabled by innovative data gathering and the use of smart learning and predictive algorithms.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

What typically is ‘born’ in a good entrepreneur – or more likely developed during their early life – is their passion and hunger to create something significant, the willingness to take risks and seek impact, and a desire to build a successful solution supported by a growing team and company.

The latter part of this can be made and taught, eg building a company. But the right passion, drive and mentality needs to come from within.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

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As I’ve said above, the ambition must be there.

Dreaming big from day one quickly becomes the thought process behind every decision made – in selecting your co-founders, in early technology and product choices, in choosing your go-to-market model and pricing, in all recruitment of talent, in strategy and in the choices you make when seeking investors to support you.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Have a clear vision, and then prioritise and focus – and it’s important to do this while making sure that each move is the right one for the company and its long-term success. Without focus, it can be easy to get dragged into the details or try and solve too much at once.

How do you assemble a good team?

The key thing here is that founders need to lead by example and drive passion, ambition and culture. My advice is to focus a lot on the early hires. The first 10 people you hire will form the basis of your organisation for the road ahead through the culture they form, the work processes they adopt, the ambition they set for themselves and others and the recruiting that they go on to do in the future.

In summary, make sure that you get the culture, passion and ambition right, even if that involves making tough decisions when it comes to your team.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?
  • Founder ambition, passion and drive
  • Choosing the right market and the right problem to solve
  • Building the right team
  • Understanding the needs of your customers and continuously revalidating these assumptions to learn about shifts in the market
  • Identifying and tracking your competitors and learning from them – copy the things that make sense, don’t try to reinvent the wheel
  • Trying proactively and failing fast – being okay with failure but learn from your pitfalls
  • Choosing a go-to-market model that is scalable
  • When seeking VC funding, aim for sooner rather than later – be bold and ambitious in your pitch and aim high
What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Very often, founders don’t think big enough early on. This can lead to compromises or decisions that do not favour success. For example, when choosing the product to build, the market to tackle, the strategy to use, the people to recruit, the money to take in, the parties you give decision-making power to etc.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Make sure that you pick the right investor for you as they will stick with you for a long time. Ensure that they can help you and are people you’d like to work with.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Don’t underestimate the value you can get from asking questions to others, listening to what they say and learning from what they do – but make your own decisions.

For example, naturally good founders have their own strong vision and drive. But while executing that vision, it is smart to actively talk to stakeholders about the opportunities and problems you face and listen and learn from those conversations.

Finally, it’s essential to detect the signal from the noise. Not all advice is advice that you should buy, so be sensible with who you listen to.

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

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This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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If you have any questions or comments about Hear Here or any of our newsletters please email newsletters@theguardian.com

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India, US, agree to transitional digital tax scheme • The Register

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India has agreed to wind back the two per cent Equalisation Levy it charges foreign e-commerce companies, and the USA has withdrawn sanctions it imposed to protest the levy.

The levy was introduced in 2016 as a means of ensuring India could collect more tax. The nation’s government introduced it because big e-commerce players had employed legal-but-cynical tax minimisation schemes that saw them conduct purchases made in India with offshore entities – even though goods were sold in India, to residents of India.

The measure was aimed squarely at US-based companies such as Amazon.com, but also at India-based companies like FlipKart (which is owned by US-based Walmart).

The USA opposed India’s levy and similar taxes imposed by Vietnam, The Philippines, and Indonesia, arguing they discriminate against its businesses.

In July 2021, the Biden Administration fought back by imposing tariffs on nations that implement digital services taxes, but immediately suspended that sanction.

The timing of that US action was not random. October meetings of the G20 and OECD saw broad international agreement reached on new global tax rules that will see multinational corporations pay at least 15 per cent of their revenue as tax in each nation where they do business. In theory, that arrangement should mean the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft must pay tax wherever they operate, instead of being able to shop around for jurisdictions with low tax rates.

Once those deals were inked, the USA dropped its tariff threat.

But India didn’t drop its levy, because the new global tax deal is yet to be implemented.

While India and the USA wait for those formalities to be addressed, they’ll count the Equalisation Levy as a credit against future taxes, once the new global arrangements kick in. Those credits will accrue from April 1, 2022, until either March 31, 2024, or whenever the tax deals are sorted.

The US Department of Treasury hailed the deal with India as “a pragmatic solution that helps ensure that countries can focus their collective efforts on the successful implementation of the OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework’s historic agreement on a new multilateral tax regime”. America has also dispensed with its suspended tariffs on India.

India’s government noted the agreement but expressed no opinion about its merits.

Austria, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have already reached similar agreements with the USA.

Tax-avoiding tech giants have been mostly silent on the new arrangements – perhaps because most announced their quarterly results mere days or weeks after the new rules were agreed. The Register expects that investors will soon press for information on how the new tax regime will impact the bottom line. ®

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