CrossGen Founders Podcast Series
CrossGen Founders are entrepreneurs from different generations with complementary strengths and interests that can propel a new business toward success or prepare an existing business for succession.
Hello, and welcome to the CrossGen founders podcast. The show where I talk to businesses with founders of different age groups on how they can work together to start and run successful businesses. I’m your host, Wendy Mayhew. In today’s episode I talk with Mindful Garden, founder, Catherine Winckler, and co-founders, Mike Ross and Nicholas Schuster.
Thank you for joining me. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this podcast with me.
I’d like to start with you, Catherine, please. Tell me why you came up with the idea for Mindful Garden.
Catherine: I was running a big digital design firm for a couple of decades, and worked in the area of interactive digital technologies.
My mother had gone into hospital for elective, hip replacement surgery. And during the hospitalization, after she’d had her surgery, they hadn’t diagnosed the delirium and treated her with psychotropic drugs and a lot of restraints. She died after 15 days. After her death, it became quite a large case in Canada – continuity of care issue.
She was a chapter of a book called After The Error. The one good thing that came out of it was I met a lot of nurses who were really desperate to make a change. And one of them in particular, who was part of the investigation, said, Catherine, you’re doing all this amazing work with your company in digital tech. Why don’t you do something for our seniors and that was how Mindful Garden was born. We started to think, could interactive digital technologies influence outcomes and reduce the use of drugs and restraints? So that was how we started.
Wendy: When you say we started, did you immediately start the company with co-founders?
No. When I started, it was sort of an offshoot project of the company, which was called Switch United at the time. It was an award-winning big, huge digital company that was doing work for the Vancouver Olympics and CTV & CBC across Canada. Mark was one of my senior employees at the company and we took it on as a sort of project and started shopping it within the company.
It started with Mark and I. Mark and I both had a passion for it because we could really see that healthcare was a place where digital technologies potentially had a big place. Still, it was a project that we were doing inside the company and he and I were working together.
We knew we had a great rapport, but I was still the founder of both companies.
Wendy: What did you do with the other company then?
Catherine: It was perfect timing. Honestly, after that many years, I think we had done all the TV shows from ice pilots to Canada in a day. Lots of things where we had done digital companions.
There were a few others who kind of came along for the journey. We all wanted to do something meaningful, and it wasn’t hard to buy out my remaining partner in the company and take it in a complete pivot – a hundred percent pivot. And, Switch became full-time Mindful Garden and working in healthcare.
So that’s how it came about.
Wendy: Mark, why you are where you are, but tell me how you fit within the.
Mark: Well, it’s funny. It’s evolved. I would say because, as Catherine said, Mindful Garden was incubated within Switch. I took it on, along with Catherine as project lead, to see if there is something technically viable here.
Is there something that’s market and medically viable? And once we knew the answers to those, it was easy to transition and say, okay, big potential impact, something that’s personally rewarding, make a difference in people’s lives. And as the company and technology evolved, I’d say the partner roles, or the founder roles, developed, as well. In the early days, even today, you wear all the hats until you figure out who excels at what.
I already knew Catherine was a great thinker, strategist and writer. Areas where I couldn’t add anything. My strength was more technical and getting it out into the market.
And then, we realized there was also a significant gap between business and finance.
And that’s a great segue if you want to cut to Nick now.
Wendy: Over to you, Nicholas. I knew that mark and Catherine had worked together, but I don’t believe you were part of that.
Nicholas: That’s correct. I’ve known Catherine for my entire life. She was good friends with my mom, and that’s how I had known her and watched her as I grew up, being in the digital space. My parents were entrepreneurs, so the natural progression for me to do that was easy.
However, they were in a traditional business. They imported and distributed wine, and had sales staff. They didn’t leverage technology. And so, it was always very interesting to see these super new, creative, cool things that Catherine was doing.
I started a company, and it’s funny – I brought the company to Catherine and Mark in its early stages, got some advice from them, and looked at how we start a technology company. My parents are successful and have done great, but, to them, I’m just always on my computer, but that’s where our entire business lives.
It was a very different mindset and approach. It was always great to have her as someone to lean on it and look to see what are the new cool things that people are doing. I started my company in 2012, and we were acquired in 2017. I did some consulting and some freelance but didn’t have anything that was getting me overly excited.
I grew up with my grandparents in the house. It was an amazing experience. But at the end of their life, I got to experience the unfortunate side of aging, dealing with all the health issues and complications, and then in and out of a hospital. I was able to see what people go through at the end of their life.
Catherine and I met one morning for breakfast at White Spot, and she started talking about Mindful Garden. There were a couple of things for me that sealed the deal of wanting to do this. I had a personal connection to it, which I thought was to see someone go through that and not be able to help and see the adverse effect of drugs.
You really felt helpless. So it was nice to be on a positive mission. I kind of call it my soul-cleansing mission. I previously worked in entertainment and gaming and alcohol. So this was my way of cleansing my soul, if you will. But the one thing I appreciated was that I saw healthcare as somewhere that the future of technology was going, that there was going be so much money poured into it.
And you know, which meant there will be many players. And one of the big things that were important to me as we were trying to do everything supported by science. There was no pseudoscience. There was no, mental health. We weren’t looking for buzzwords. We wanted to do hardcore research that proved in a clinical environment that we were actually making a difference.
And that was the third factor that I thought was really important and crucial and why I wanted to be a part of this.
Wendy: Catherine, you have previous connections to both your co-founders, which, which is very fortunate and, is working well for you, but if you didn’t have the connections, what would you have done with your business?
How would you have found co-founders and was it important for you to have someone of a different age?
Catherine: Absolutely. It was because starting this business in my fifties and knowing that I was going to put a good decade into it, but I kind of knew that I had a shelf life as a founder.
It was really important to have Mark, who is from the generation below me. And I knew that Nicholas was the generation below Mark and that we all had different skills.
In our discussions, we knew that we had to have someone a little tougher than Mark and me, which is Nicholas. We needed that because Mark and I can be a little over-trusting. So, we were looking specifically for things. I knew that Mark was the right person to bring forward into the company and I could promise him no money and a lot of stress for the next few years.
I knew that Nicholas was single at the time and getting married. I was less guilty about promising him no money and stress. So I figured as long as I only have guilt about Mark, I will be okay.
Nicholas is married and expecting a baby. So now I do have that let’s hurry up and get this making good money for us all, but it was great incentive to know that, I always felt that we had Mark’s family in the mix and now we have Nicholas. So I looked at it as a generational thing that we’re creating something that has to serve all the families.
Wendy: What would you have done if you didn’t have them? Would you have looked elsewhere?
Catherine: No, I would’ve tried to find someone. To tell you the truth, I might have done it myself. I’d had been in two partnerships, one set of three and then a partnership with another woman before that.
I can’t say that partnerships didn’t work for me, but I understood what makes a great partnership and what doesn’t. And, you know, the last collaboration had been both great and a long-term partnership. It continued from 1994, and I think it ended about 2020.
So it had been a long partnership, three people, then it went down to two people.
If Mark hadn’t accompanied me, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to move forward into Mindful Garden. I think I probably would’ve played at the edges of healthcare still.
I was working as an advocate because of my mother’s case. I had set up a website, Esther’s voice, that was looking to make a change in the education of delirium and dementia. So I probably would’ve gone more into the advocate area, but with Mark on the product side, he was like, let’s go for this. Let’s do it.
And then we mired down the details. And then with Nicholas, it was, let’s face it, Nicholas was born with a computer, so he can take an idea that mark and I have, and it woosh, we’ve got a PowerPoint and a brochure. Like it just changed the way we thought of having Nicholas involved.
Wendy: You’re all in different locations. And so you’re always working virtually with each other. Would you think that that would be any different if you were all in the same office? Would the energy, the synergy and compatibility be the same?
Nicholas: In my previous company, we were a small start-up until we weren’t. We had very small office space. It was the size of the room I’m in right now, which is 12 by 12.
I think we were very fortunate in the sense that our team was remote when everyone had to deal with the same challenges. Everyone was adjusting to it and I felt it really gave us some time to iron things, some things out and hit our stride.
I think there are some times that it would be beneficial for us to be in person. And I think it might make for much longer evenings, but we’d be able to get things hashed out a little quicker. But at the end of the day, I see this being the path forward for many companies.
The amount of money we save in overhead in commuting time in gas allows us to run the leanest operation possible. And I think many people are always surprised at our burn rate and how we can stretch cash out, make things happen, and get things done.
And I think that goes back to looking at how we can focus the funding on the most important thing. And for us, with our relationship, we need that $5,000 overhead a month and tons of employees. I think it’s a testament to our team, but also the times.
Catherine: I would add to that, Wendy, I think, and Nick certainly touched on it. I think the team, the respect, the relationship we have, and how we all gel together overcome any of those challenges. Of being face to face regularly, would we like to do it more often?
Probably, but primarily for planning, not for day-to-day execution. The last time we were together was in the park on the waterfront where I live in Vancouver. Mark brought a generator, and we’re sitting in the park COVID distancing with the dog in the middle of us.
We haven’t been together in the same room since. That’s been well over a year, but, we have morning meetings at 9:15 every morning. We’re very responsible and accountable to each other. We’ve learned to use the technologies really well.
Even me, I think it’s, it’s more to do at the interest level than the age to tell you the truth. I haven’t had a real interest in learning the ins and outs of uploading files. I’m trying to make that a priority.
Wendy: Mark, I have a question for you. It sounds like you have an amazing team, and you work well together, but not everything is always perfect. How do you handle disagreements? Let’s talk about how you make sure all of you work through any challenges you may be facing that you aren’t all in agreement with.
Mark: Wendy, great question. I think that speaks to the strength of the team and the individuals. I’ll be the first to say; that I don’t always do this as well as I’d like. But what I have found is if I pause, listen, and actually hear what’s being said, things generally go the way they should. And there’s nothing wrong with healthy disagreements, and we have lots of them.
I can’t think of a single time when a healthy disagreement hasn’t led to a better outcome and understanding for all three of us. And sometimes that comes quick and, sometimes you have got to kick it around a couple of times. But at the end of the day, we always get there. And I think because we’re fond of each other and respectful that.
Sometimes, we all get heated, and actually, the other thing I would add to that is when it does get heated, one of us always pipes in and says, okay, let’s just take it back from the edge a little bit and refocus. If we can’t solve this right now, put a pin in it, and we’ll come back to it.
Catherine: Wendy, it was important for me. Mark and I have had this sort of thing that goes back and forth and we natter at each other. We know each other’s style, and Nicholas is just the perfect person I knew he would be; he sits back, listens, and has a standing influence.
There was no way I would’ve gone with, a third co-founder who had a personality. It had to be a calming personality. So it was with great, intent that I invited Nick into the company. So, yeah, so it’s knowing each other’s styles and how we work out problems, you know, and how I’ll just blurt out.
And after an hour, everybody finally understands what’s in my mind because I’m not always able to articulate a vision and they are so patient to take the time and see where I’m really going. And then all of a sudden Mark will go, okay, I get it. And then we always in the last half hour of a two-hour call kind of go, okay, isn’t it wild – how it all comes together?
Nicholas: I think the big thing about it is, we’re a small team, so we wear a lot of hats – a lot of hats that might not be the most comfortable sometimes ones we’ve never seen before, but I think that’s really, a lot of the enjoyment of a startup is doing something new every day.
The big thing why I think that we’ve done a great job is, that you have to deal with the suck startups, which I think are glorified and people see the Ubers and the series D and the series F but they don’t see the million other companies that just failed that day.
And so I think people kind of have rose-coloured glasses on when they look at startups and don’t realize how much of a grind it really is because you’re doing something that, in our case, hasn’t been done before. And there are so many unknowns. You can’t lean on Company B did this and we’re gonna copy that path.
And so I think we’ve all been able to be to step back and understand that this is a very challenging task. And when one of us doesn’t know the answer, it’s not because we’re not intelligent or hardworking. It’s no one solved that answer. And so I think there’s just great respect for each other where there’s frustration, but we’re all working towards a common goal.
I think Catherine said it well too, that we kind of always come around in the end and understand where the person’s coming from. That is once again, back to a respect thing. We’ll work through problems together because I know that we’re a much better team when all of us are firing all cylinders and working together.
I really think it comes back to a respect thing and understanding that what we’re doing is very challenging.
Wendy: Just a couple of more questions. Do you have a succession plan in place?
Catherine: That’s an interesting question because we haven’t. I’m in the process of doing my own succession plan in my life.
So that involves the company too, as the majority shareholder of Mindful Garden. We’ve had a discussion with Nick and Mark as to who would make the best President, and where the shares go. We’re working out those things now so I think we all kind of agreed that if I wasn’t in the company, the boys would stay on in the company.
Would they bring on another, shareholder? It’s up to them. I’m not going to dictate from the grave or from retirement, so it’s really up to them. But, basically, we know each of their strengths and we talk about it openly. So yes, we’re in the beginning and it’s going to be really an important thing to have that.
We also have an exit plan. I would put an exit plan before succession. So going into the partnership and the shareholder partnership, we all agreed that we were building to sell, not building to create a long-term company.
And I think that’s really important when you bring in somebody as a partner. I would say to other founders like myself looking into bringing younger founders in; are you on the same wavelength about bringing in somebody? Some might want to actually just build a company with hundreds of employees – something like a Uber, a Lyft, an Airbnb, or something that might be their passion.
For us, we’re building something that we know someone like a Samsung or a Phillips or a Medtronic would be able to take over from us and build the scale globally. And all three of us completely agree with that.
We have kind of a timeline in mind. We all know every day we have a number in mind of this is our sales number for the day. So as we get deeper into the company, those millions go up like you might one day be ready to sell for a dollar. And the next day, the next week, something happens in the company that raises evaluation.
You go, we wouldn’t sell this unless we got this much. So having that idea of what you’re there for and what your exit plan is, is even more important than the succession of the ownership.
Wendy: Catherine, I’ll ask you this one. Did you receive some funding for the company?
Catherine: We’re great at receiving funding.
Wendy: Do you believe that having younger co-founders and the different levels of experience that they have for the company helped you get the funding.
Catherine: Most of the questions are on diversity that “D” has – frankly a woman-run company.
I will tell you that in every case I’m complimented. Granted almost always on the diversity of the partnership. And we’re always told that the team is strong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had even our lawyers, and our new lawyer from Boston – tell me you’ve got such a good team. And I know that that has to do with the perspective they bring.
Each one of them comes with the reality of their backgrounds in terms of the decade they were born.
Wendy: What suggestions would you, and I’m gonna ask each of you this. What suggestions would you give to anyone that is considering starting a cross-generational business? Nick, take it away.
Nicholas: I would say one of the biggest things that I didn’t think about when we were starting was the wealth of connections and experiences both of them had. And I think that is something that you, you gain over time and, you know, being successful and, you know, delivering a product or delivering on your word.
And I mean, in relation to the funding as well, if we need IRAP funding, if we need shred, I mean, both of them have a Rolodex of people. That I don’t. And it’s so easy to go into a conversation if Catherine’s like, hey, I need you to, take on IRAP for example. And our IRAP agent is an outstanding person.
Catherine: Mark, has done such a good job at managing that relationship that I walked into this breeze of this person who loves me and I’ve never met him and is so helpful and wants to help. And now anything that I do going forward, I have this amazing IRAP rep who is there to make sure that we can be successful.
Nicholas: I have a lot of connections, but they’re younger. They’re not as mature of a relationship and we haven’t worked together as long. So that was something I don’t think I ever really considered as a huge advantage but as Catherine said, too, there are things that I bring that we can prototype faster.
I can leverage more technologies but I really think it’s as much as it’s about the cross-generational and the age. I think in any relationship, you have to be able to communicate, but you really have to respect that person because you are in a marriage. Catherine, Mark, and I spend so much time together, albeit, virtually, but we are on every morning, at night we are up until 10, sometimes there are days where we’re on Zoom for eight, 10 hours, and you have to like the person.
You have to respect them and you have to like the mission you’re on because let me tell you if you don’t, those are going to be some long, long days.
Mark: Wow. Nick, such a good answer. I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add, except expand on some of the points and I think it’s really recognizing and playing to the strengths of each generation.
We’re all a product of when we’re born and our life experiences to this point. So we’re all going to bring a slightly different take to that. And I think one, at least in our case, there’s not a whole lot of overlap. There’s some, but it’s all complimentary. I think of a ven diagram, three spheres coming together, or pick your analogy of a band jam together where we play really well together.
Nick brings, as Catherine said, digital, native-born, never not knowing technology and he can pull out of our minds and execute something that would take us twice the time. And, and frankly, that’s just one example.
There are many. Catherine brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and context and life experience that combined Nick and I don’t have. She’s already a natural strategic thinker, adding to her life experience. And it just helps short circuit a lot of conversations because we don’t have to game it all out. She already knows the answer. And I think the other thing I would say is, that Nick grew up with his grandparents, I’m in a multi-generational home.
And I think having the experience of living multi-generational, helps bring a healthy perspective to how we operate in Mindful Garden. You don’t even think about it. If I’m talking to my wife’s, grandmother, who’s 97, I have to talk a little louder. I have to watch my language, and I have to meet her where she is – on a smaller scale.
It’s the same between the three of us, it just happens, automatically. You don’t even think about it.
Catherine: So I think for me, at this stage of my career, this is probably my last big startup – in your sixties, it’s kind of dumb, but it’s a great dumb. I see my friends and they’re kind of what they call retired.
And it’s not for me at all. If that’s what retired means, which is, visiting your doctors every day and then spending hours on the phone, telling your friends about the visits to your doctors, that’s just not me. I’m so blessed that my friends are all entrepreneurs and they’re all in their fifties and sixties.
I’ve surrounded myself with entrepreneurs, including Nick’s mom. She and his father are amazing entrepreneurs. The one thing about an entrepreneur is you feel this need to leave something. I don’t know any entrepreneurs who don’t feel this need to actually leave something behind and, every day I work as, and it sounds corny, but I think of Mark’s family and Nicholas’s upcoming family, and I can’t wait to deliver something for them.
I’m at that age, that’s a motivation for me. Our investors as well, but there’s motivation to leave something important behind that.
Maybe Nicholas hasn’t felt that yet at his age. I know he does. He cares, but at my age, it’s more immediate. Like you want a legacy at this last career stage. The Harrah, and you want it to really impact your employees and also your co-workers and your shareholders.
And it’s not just about making that big Silicon valley win. It’s about leaving something behind and making a difference And they get that. My co-founders are so supportive, understanding that sometimes, the drive is something more than just the money. Especially Nicholas who I work most on in terms of the pitches to investors.
He pushes me like crazy, so hard, out of my comfort zone – I mean, beyond hard.
A founder gets someone who will push you because, as the senior person in the partnership or the shareholder group, you do not want yes people, but you don’t also want people who are gonna argue with you all the time either.
If you find those rare people who will push you in the areas that you need, it’s just magic.