May 28, 2021

Q&A on Avoiding Burnout as a SaaS Founder, with Headnote CEO Sarah Schaaf

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There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to growing your business. Founders can find themselves working 14+ hour days building their company, growing the number of customers, raising capital and all with the added stress of personal responsibilities adding up.

Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, this blog has a different focus than some of our previous founder stories. I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah Schaaf, co-founder and CEO of Headnote, (which was acquired by Paradigm) to get her perspective on avoiding burnout, what’s worked for her when it comes to best practices, and prioritizing time to overcome struggles as a SaaS founder.

You mentioned that one of the most challenging moments as a founder was between 2016 and 2020 where Thornton Schaaf and you had left your "safe" careers, founded Headnote together after getting married, raised funding rounds, had two children and moved. How did you manage to do it all?

Man, that was such a hard time! I don’t think either of us slept very much for an entire year after our second child was born. Honestly, I’m not sure I would recommend it! One way we got through it was drinking a lot of coffee - just kidding (but not really?). Here are three things that helped:

  1. Find perspective - It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle. Remember to nurture the things outside of work - your family, your friends, your professional relationships and network.
  2. Find your tribe - There are other founders or leaders that are going through hard things or dealing with their own issues. Find them and lean on each other. You need the support to get through the hard times, and surround yourself with people that understand your journey to celebrate the wins.
  3. Prioritize - You’re probably juggling a lot of balls, and you’ll need to figure out which balls are glass and can’t be dropped, and which ones you can. You can’t possibly juggle them all unless you get help (I’ll get into this a little bit later).

What are some best practices that have helped you with prioritizing tasks & time management?

In my opinion, prioritization is one of the most difficult things to do well and something I am constantly working on improving. As a startup founder, you get used to wearing many hats and relying on a small team of swiss army knives to get things done quickly and well. Over time, I’ve learned that one of the most important things you can do as a leader is find great people, invest in them with training and mentorship and then trust them and delegate.

Eventually you’ll find yourself with free time! That means you’ve done your job as a leader and manager, and you find new areas to improve and innovate. When I get time, it means that I make myself stop working around 5 or 6 every day so I can spend time with my kids and my family. 

Work will be there tomorrow and the to-do list can wait. Take time for yourself and strive to be a “whole person” not just an ambitious founder or leader.

There are a lot of SaaS founders who are going through a similar transition or journey as yours, what are some things they should keep in mind?

Keep things in perspective. Surround yourself with people that “get it” and that you can lean on for supportive, honest and objective advice. Don’t forget to have a life and have fun. Isn’t fun one of the reasons you got into this business in the first place? To do something you love? It’s not always fun, but at least some of the time, it should be.

Did you have a mentor or group that had helped you during this?

I think mentorship and network support are two of the reasons I’ve been so successful to date. During my time as a founder my favorite mentors have been the partners and team at NFX. I’ve been lucky to be mentored by some of the smartest and most successful people in Silicon Valley. 

But one of the best ways I’ve learned from each of them is through their failures and mistakes - everyone fails and falls sometimes but hopefully you can fall forward. Besides my network of mentors, advisors and investors, I also leaned heavily on my founder network. 

I would call people often to get advice, commiserate and ask how they dealt with a particular situation and get introduced to others that may be able to help. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and you need to be able to ask for what you need while letting others know when you need help.

Did you ever hire additional people to manage some of the workload during this challenging moment?

Absolutely! Delegation is key. I had a remote Executive Assistant that ended up being my right hand woman. She helped do everything from calendar management to marketing tasks and graphic design. If you find good people that can wear a lot of hats, you don’t need a big team to get a lot done.

Treat people right and with respect and you’ll be surprised how far that will go. With remote work and the ability to find people online on sites like Upwork, this kind of help can be surprisingly affordable. Or even better, ask your network for a referral to someone great.

Some Additional Resources For We understand selling your business can be challenging too, do you have any tips for SaaS founders during the M&A process?You

I probably sound like a broken record! Go into your network and find others that have gone through it before. Learn what worked for them and what didn’t. Avoid their mistakes and realize you may make your own, but it will get figured out!

Additionally, please please - hire a lawyer! As a reformed attorney myself who always hires lawyers, it is money well spent. You wouldn’t try to do your own electrical work or fix your car’s engine yourself. Legal work isn’t any different. It’s highly technical and nuanced. Better to pay a lawyer now than do the legal work yourself and really pay for it later.

A quick note to current and future SaaS founders

Stay true to yourself and your instincts but be coachable and learn from others. You need to be confident as a founder and leader but not arrogant. Try not to make assumptions about others or underestimate people. I think the biggest power you can give others is to underestimate them. I always loved when competitors did that with Headnote - it meant they would never see us coming.


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