For many of you reading this month’s Founder Story, you will need no introduction to the ever-fabulous Anouk Agussol, but if you’re new here, Anouk is Unleashed’s Founder and CEO.
Anouk has mastered the ability to provide meaningful insight and high-impact advice to founders of fast-growth businesses — so much so that she’s quickly grown a team around her to do the very same!
So, as Unleashed turns 4 years old this month, People + Culture Partner Tom Jewell invited Anouk to reflect on the journey thus far. Read on to hear how Anouk came to found Unleashed, some surprising lessons that she’s learnt so far along the way and get a taste of what’s to come. Enjoy!
Unleashed has just turned 4 — which means you have been a founder now for 4 years. Tell us 5 words that sum up your journey so far / emotions looking back?
Serendipity, luck, team, happiness, excellence
I’m keen to understand a little more about your journey to becoming a founder…Looking back 5 or 10 years ago — did you ever see yourself founding your own business? What were you doing & what was on the horizon?
No. It never really crossed my mind. Although I’m not sure why. My dad had founded his own business and I started working to earn money from the age of 8 and haven’t stopped working since then. I’ve always been entrepreneurial in spirit. I’d had a super tough time about 12–13 years ago. I had a super job but I was fairly junior and as a single mum working full time, with a child in nursery full time (guilt), and studying to do my masters as well, I was just getting into more and more debt. Joshua and I lived in a one-bedroom flat. He had the bedroom and I had the sofa and it was tough — payday loans were getting me through! 🤦♀️ Eventually, through enough promotions and pay rises, I started to get out of that debt, completed my masters, got us a two-bed flat and vowed never to be in that position again.
What led you to found Unleashed?
When I founded Unleashed, a number of things came together (and it wasn’t an intense need to be a founder). I had a great role (in a company that I’d wished I’d started at when they were much smaller to really embed some strong people foundations) but my stress was very high; I’d built up a really strong network of People people who were all experiencing similar challenges in tech startups who had grown super quickly with lots of People debt; and on the personal / family front, my son had just been diagnosed with dyslexia and I wanted to be at home to help him with his learning (he was 11 at the time). I realised that I had the skills to perhaps help early-stage businesses (I only needed a couple of working days a week) which would be perfect as I could spend more time at home with my son.
As a first-time founder from a People background, how well prepared did you feel for life as a founder & CEO?
I felt prepared to have a little lifestyle business and do freelancing. Well — I say that — but I didn’t know if I’d get any clients. Where I did feel prepared was that I have a huge appetite for risk, change and the new, so it was an exciting moment that I saw as an experiment and if it didn’t work, I’d learn from it and try something else. As such, I wasn’t scared. One of my fave sayings is “you’ll miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take”.
Did I feel prepared to be a CEO? I shudder at the title, to be honest. No, I didn’t feel prepared (but it wasn’t an intention) and I still don’t feel prepared. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time — particularly from an external perspective. I’ve never grown an international business before, I’ve never had the responsibility of people’s livelihoods sitting square on my shoulders (and I don’t take that lightly — it is a privilege). Yes I’ve led teams, large ones and multidisciplinary ones, and on that side, I think I do relatively well, but otherwise, I simply do my very best every day. So far so good but it wouldn’t have been without the team that I have around me. I’m always wondering: “what don’t I know that I should know?” — and I’m sure there are lots but I feel a bit blind in these travels.
As one of our values at Unleashed is Continuous Learning, it only feels right that we now dive into the lessons you have taken from being a founder!
4 years in, what strikes you as some of the biggest surprises about life as a founder and business leader?
Having an actual real-life business with a team and clients and revenue and costs always surprises me. I do a lot of ‘how did we get here?’ thinking and being a bit 🤯 about it! I feel like I need to be a proper adult now?!
I think there have been a lot of surprises along the way but the top two that come to mind are:
- Organic growth can be really problematic. Although I’m happy we don’t have investors as we are 100% the rulers of our own destiny as a team, being bootstrapped means that injecting for growth in the business is really hard. And we have a lot of plans! (I’m not very patient). That is less of a surprise and more of a learning. Due to my lack of patience and my high levels of impulsiveness (as well as genuine bias to action) this is something that I really struggle with. I want to do it all now!
- This is more of a personal one… I like being liked. And as the CEO, I really struggle when I know that people don’t agree with a decision I’ve made. To be frank, this is rare as we typically decide things as a team together — design thinking is not just for our clients — but when it happens it hits me hard and I question my abilities as a leader. It’s an identity thing… If they disagree with me, then I’m not keeping them happy, if they’re not happy then it’s my fault, I’m a bad leader, they must hate me. Bit of a spiral on the occasions it happens! And I bet it happens a lot to many CEO’s.
You have grown a business built partly on giving amazing advice to founders of growing businesses — what is one clear piece of advice you would give yourself as a new founder, with the benefit of hindsight?
I think I’d advise people, if they were planning on building a business, to get a board of advisors. Get mentors and people who can share their experience and get a coach (which I did and I’m thankful for) to help you work out how you’re going to achieve your success. The more people around you in the early days that you can learn from the better. I wish I had more of that, especially now actually.
I think two things that I got right, which hindsight reaffirms, is:
- Being proud of what I stand for and being loud with it. I.e one of our mantras: “HR is Dead. Long live People” is arguably quite controversial, but it’s meaningful to us and to the businesses we work with.
- The team. The team. The team. Somehow (you’ll have to ask them how), I’ve managed to build the most incredible team. Genuinely, without them, Unleashed would not be who we are. They excel at what they do and how they do it! Hiring the right team as a CEO is probably THE most important thing.
As you well know, we have two key “pillows” (pillars that we rest our heads on) to guide us in our decisions at Unleashed. The first is Excellence. What have you learnt about how to deliver on excellence with clients?
Excellence is more about the team than it is the work itself.
- Hire people who have been there and done that, seen the good and seen the bad
- Hire people who care passionately about impact — work is always going to be to a better standard if people care about adding loads of value
- Hire people who love to learn — if you always want to grow and develop and do better and better then excellence will grow with you
- Have internal practices where collaboration and feedback are critical to delivering work.
- A team will always (ALWAYS) do better work than just one person. Get teams together to continuously improve the work and to learn from each other.
And how about our second pillow — Team Happiness — what have you learnt about how to create this internally?
Happiness is very subjective so what makes one person happy is often different for someone else. So the most important thing is to ensure that the team defines together what happiness means to them. Given our growth, we should do this again but currently, team happiness is about: feeling valued, having an impact, learning, great teammates, smiling + laughing, being able to be ourselves, being challenged.
If your team is able to thrive (and not every day is going to be great by the way) then they can perform really, really well. Delivering excellent work supports happiness and happiness can enable high performance. It is an infinity loop!
This is a birthday edition! We’ve looked at the years gone past, let’s now get excited about all those other birthdays that lie around the corner for Unleashed! So, 4 years down — what’s next for Unleashed?
Actually, big things. We’ve grown and done really well as a company without growth ambitions. For us, as long as we delivered excellent work and the team were happy then we were happy to grow or not grow depending on what came our way.
But we’ve thought… imagine all the good things we could do if we did have the ambition to grow.
We’ve started to reevaluate our vision and mission and to look at our strategy. It is still a work in progress but what we do know is that the future of work is human. By placing people at the heart of business strategy, we can help organisations succeed. By doing that, we don’t just help the big businesses of the future redefine and achieve success, but we help the people within those organisations to have fulfilling work lives and we can, over time, impact change at the society level. That is REALLY exciting!
Expect much more from Unleashed! Globally.
Compared to the 4 years you’ve told us about, how would you like the coming 4 years to be for YOU as a founder?
Great question! For me personally….
I want to know my blind spots as a CEO and lean into those and learn.
I want us to impact system change. I am becoming increasingly fervent with my need to do this. I have privilege and therefore a responsibility to do so!
Given our size, there is naturally a lot of work that I’m doing that as we grow I won’t continue to do, so deciding where I do my best work will be important.
If you enjoyed this founder story, why not sign up for our newsletter? We send out just one email a month, always chock full of useful insights and with plenty of practical tips + tools for founders, leaders + People people.