When you look back on your career trajectory, what do you notice?
Do you see an even trajectory in your career path? Or has your career taken some hard curves outside of the expected norms?
What can seem like a setback in our planned career path can sometimes lead us to experiences that we would never have pursued - opening us up to ideas and possibilities that we would never have imagined.
It is moments like these that can often help us break free from the machine of proving, striving, and grinding and actually reconnect to who we truly are and what we really want to contribute with our lives.
Of course it’s true that setbacks in our professional plans can be costly, painful, and downright scary. Some of the pain of setbacks can take a toll on our confidence and well-being and finances.
But the time between paths, as we hop off the hamster wheels of shoulds to figure out who we are and what we want to do, isn’t wasted.
Today’s guest has moved through deep disappointment when the job she had been working towards suddenly fell through. And she has also co-founded a female-led tech business with a commitment to mental well-being with her staff by cultivating an environment where everyone feels valued, heard, and motivated to contribute their unique skills and perspectives.
Martha Bitar is the CEO of Flodesk, a visually stunning and user-friendly platform that helps creators sell online and design emails people love to get. Martha is known for her passion for people, design, and helping small business owners succeed.
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Martha Bitar: I assigned my value to this perception of accomplishment, this idea that I’m graduating with a job and I’m doing what I intended to do. I remember even changing the narrative at some point and saying, “Oh, yes, I always was curious about sales.” No I wasn't, right? It turned out to be something that I really enjoyed. I felt this need to quickly patch my failure so that my -- I don't even know who, maybe parents, maybe family friends weren't seeing me as this failed person because I didn't have a job anymore.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: When you look back on your career trajectory, what do you notice? Do you see an even trajectory in your career path or has your career taken some hard curves outside of the expected norms? I’m curious what fueled your drive towards your education, your training and job choices. I know so many, myself included, who started out their professional journey by checking the boxes of the next steps, mainly because that is what we all thought we were “supposed to do.” Our sense of identity and worthiness can easily get unmoored when we fail to check on a box on this burdened checklist. But it’s moments like these that can often help us break free from the machine of proving, striving, and grinding, and actually connect to who we truly are and what we really want to contribute with our lives.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
What seems like a setback in our planned career path can sometimes lead us to experiences that we would never have pursued, opening us up to ideas and possibilities that we never would have imagined.
Now, I’ll not offer the worn and the bypass-y platitude of when God closes a door, he opens a window. Yeah, nope. Setbacks in our professional plans can be costly, painful, and downright scary. And some of the pain of the setbacks can take a toll on our confidence and wellbeing and our finances.
I know so many of you have at least one story, if not more, about a setback or a closed door that moved you in a different direction, personally and/or professionally. I went through those times too, and the hardest part about those setbacks came from sitting within the space of uncertainty and grief while taking time to reflect, recalibrate, and convalesce. I often hear from folks who this in-between time after a big fall feels like wasted time and figuring out the next steps for work and life and plans change, but that time feels indulgent. But I see it as precious, almost sacred. As we hop off the hamster wheels of shoulds to figure out who we are and what we really want to do. Sometimes this season involves doing what we need to do to pay the bills and take care of our basic needs while we figure out the next steps or work on building towards something new. This can be hard to do when our worth and identity is too enmeshed with our work.
Now, I reached out to today’s guest to talk about the female-led tech business she cofounded and bootstrapped along with her commitment to mental wellbeing with her staff by cultivating an environment where everyone feels valued and heard and motivated to contribute their unique skills and perspectives, but her experiences prior to her founding her business really stood out to me, and I suspect many of you will appreciate her career journey and how she moved though deep disappointment and disenchantment when a job she’d been working towards suddenly fell through.
Martha Bitar is the CEO of Flodesk, a visually stunning and user-friendly platform that helps creators sell online and design emails people love to get. Martha’s known for her passions for people, design, and helping small business owners succeed.
Now, in our conversation today, pay attention to what Martha realized about the value she assigned to the perception of having a job. And notice when she took some time to figure out, for the first time in her life, what she actually wanted for her life. And listen for her lens on emails and how she sees them as the great equalizer. Now, please welcome Martha Bitar to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Martha Bitar: Thank you! I love your voice. [Laughs] I have this thing with voices, and it’s just so soothing. I feel like this will be a meditation.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Martha Bitar: So I’m so excited to be here, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I was like maybe I need to do my podcast voice with my children more because I'm not sure if my podcast voice translates to my mom voice all the time. [Laughs]
Martha Bitar: Oh, I love it. I love it.
Rebecca Ching: So we’ll see!
Martha Bitar: It is a grounding voice.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, especially if they haven't done their chores. So, well, I am thrilled. I was just mentioning to you before we started our conversation that you were one of the folks in the back of my mind when I laughed this podcast three years ago that I was so excited to have on this show.
I want to start off backtracking. Before you started Flodesk, you were preparing for a job as an analyst in a government agency, and I want you to detail what you were doing to prepare for that job and then share how you were feeling in the moment that you found out you didn't get the job.
Martha Bitar: Oh, that was hard. I was (and I would say still am) a nerd. I’ve always been very into academics, so there was a lot of academic prep. There was a lot of language prep. So I learned French, Italian (which is not hyper relevant at this point), Arabic (I never really mastered Arabic, but even just a little bit of understanding what’s going on), and then following certain courses, prepping and doing research, flying to places to have interviews, and then waiting to see that yellow envelope in the mail. I did get the job. The problem is I did not get the security clearance.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Martha Bitar: And they won't tell you why. But I did grow up in Mexico, and even though I have a US citizenship and a Mexican citizenship, at that point in time, the resident advisor told me that what he believed went wrong was that I had more connections in Mexico and in the Middle East, and maybe it was a loyalty question. I’m not sure, but I did fail that. I never in my life got drunk. I never did drugs or anything. So I know it must have been something that was out of my control.
But to answer your question of how I felt, I think up until that point, everything that I had wanted to accomplish, I was able to accomplish, I just knew that if I prepped really well and I gave it my all, I could get it. And that was always very encouraged by my friends and my parents, and this was the first time that, in my mind, there was never an option that this plan would not work. I just thought this is for sure what is going to happen, and I had received such good feedback until then.
So when that happened, to me, it really felt like the end of the world. It just had gotten dark, right? I was thinking, “What is my value now to the world? What am I going to do?” Because in my mind, all I wanted to do was just create value and make an impact, right? So then I was thinking, “Well, what am I good at if not this,” right? Because I had set my eyes on that job for so long, even before college. So the immediate, I think, urgent action was I need a job, right? Because that was going to be my job, and now I don't have it.
So I remember looking at available interviews, and I got one interview on the day of my graduation (so I skipped graduation) for a sales role in tech. And I remember sitting in that interview and saying, “I have no idea of anything related to sales. I just wanted to tell you that. But I can learn it.” They said, “Okay, I like that answer, and you're hired,” literally in that moment. So it was just a very odd experience. In retrospect, that specific job was my entryway into tech and possibly the reason why we’re here today with building Flodesk.
But yeah, in that moment, it really felt like every door was shut, and I had no idea what I was going to do to be a valuable human being, which is obviously not the right way to think about it, and it’s super dark. But I think you're young, and you’re used to measuring success by these types of accomplishments, so it’s easy to feel like it’s the end of the world.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so many good points here I want to follow up on. You kind of mentioned you’d been working towards this job and this role and this area of work for several years.
Martha Bitar: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: Everything that you were -- classes you were taking, probably internships, mentors, people that you were seeking out, everything was siloed to, “This is the path.”
And you even got the job, but you couldn't take the job because of unknown reasons, so you didn't even have all the reasons why you didn't get the security clearance. You had some hypothesis, and all of a sudden this thing that you had been telling -- you're like, “This is where I’m going,” and you've accomplished it. Check the box, check the box. I’m just emphasizing this because I personally relate to this. I think a lot of us do. We morph our worthiness and identity with what we do.
I think it’s almost inevitable the way the system is with our education process and just the way work is. Then when we have a curveball, it can shake us because at that moment there wasn't any skill to get for you, right? There was nothing you could do. It was you didn't get the security clearance, and you had no control. And that moment where we feel out of control, that’s where we really get to know ourselves and get in touch with those parts of who am I without this. Your immediate response was to look for another job.
I’m curious if you were like, “I’m gonna go interview at whatever job will take me”? Was that the process? Yeah, you're shaking your head. Okay, so you just were interview-going, and you took that first job, and what I love is the answer you got was the opposite of what you had done as mastery is, “I don't know this, but I can learn it,” got you hired. The opposite of what you’d spent several years doing.
Martha Bitar: It’s true. It’s true. Yes, exactly. And you’re right. I assigned my value to not even having a job, but this perception of accomplishment, right? This idea that I’m graduating with a job and I’m doing what I intended to do. I remember even changing the narrative at some point and saying, “Oh, yes, I always was curious about sales.”
No, I wasn't, right? It turned out to be something that I really enjoyed. But I just felt like this need to quickly patch my failure so that my -- I don't even know who, maybe my parents, maybe my family friends weren't seeing me as this failed person because I didn't have a job anymore, right? So all I wanted to do was show that I was still on track to do something meaningful in life, which, thankfully, I don't think about it that way.
Now, as a mother, this is a conversation that I am planning to have very openly with my daughter so that she’s hopefully never assigning her worth to any accomplishment, truly.
Rebecca Ching: It is a tricky vortex. I know my kids are now 13 and 15, and those are conversations we’re having sometimes multiple times a day, Martha (I just want to let you know), whether it’s about grades or sports accomplishments or whatever their activity, music and writing, you name it. It’s not about being perfect or finishing, it’s about also the process. But it’s like the world does give that mixed message of celebrating folks that have these certain kinds of achievements. There isn't a word for, “You showed up every day and gave your best.”
Martha Bitar: Truly! It is so true.
Rebecca Ching: Right? Part of me is curious. I mean, there’s been a little bit of space for you since that moment when you didn't get the security clearance, and I also really appreciate, too, your motivation to find a job was really an outward facing “I didn’t want my family to see me as a failure,” and even then you still got up though, you still took action, even though the why was kind of external and vulnerable, right? When our worth and safety is externally put, then we really are vulnerable to the waves of people’s opinions changing. But that was enough to get you to take that step and then, wow, the huge shift.
So sometimes even our motivations can still be transferred. We’re growing and learning, but I’m curious what you would say today if you kind of could have a conversation with the Martha who just found out you didn't get the security clearance and you’re in that moment of, “Who am I? What are people gonna say about me? What do I do?” What would you say to her right now?
Martha Bitar: Oh, I would say that it’s truly not the end of the world. I mean, life goes on, and it’s such a small part of your entire life, in perspective, if you look back. I would say I continued on that path for a long time. But then there was a point where things changed, and after that first sales job in tech, I moved onto Oracle. It was in sales for Oracle as well. I was still on the what is going to be the shiniest next accomplishment and what is going to look the best, still external-focused. And I remember I got a dream job at Salesforce. It was the outside sales job based in San Francisco for the San Francisco territory, and everyone wanted that job, and I got it. I think it was the day before I was supposed to start that I realized exactly what you said, back to the why. My why was external. My why was everyone wanted this job, and I’m proving something by being the person that got the job, but I don't really want to do this. There’s something in me that feels like this is not the right path for me, and it was so strong, I think for the longest time, and maybe it’s something that happens when you take a sales job. You get so many rejections from potential customers that you learn to almost mute your body, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Martha Bitar: So for the longest time I muted my body, but then I had such a strong physical reaction to starting this new job that I just kept feeling dizzy and sick and unwell.
And every time I thought about starting, instead of being really excited, I felt like my stomach would drop. It’s almost like my body was saying, “Okay, you're done ignoring me. I‘m going to scream.”
Rebecca Ching: Right!
Martha Bitar: I called the recruiter, and I said, “I’m so sorry to do this, but I am not going to start,” and then her first question was, “Well, did you take another job? What’s happening? Can we solve this somehow?” And I just was very honest like, “This is not what I want to do right now, and I don't know what I want to do.”
So I booked a trip to Hawaii by myself. I stayed on a boat. It was definitely on a budget since I didn't have a job lined up. And it was the first time in my life, truly in my entire life, that I started thinking and feeling, “What do I actually want?”
Rebecca Ching: And that is a shift, right? It’s amazing how we don't realize how much we’re doing what we are told we’re supposed to do or think we’re supposed to do. I think some of that’s just part of the developmental life cycle of growing up, honestly.
So when you were in Hawaii on the boat, which sounds pretty awesome right now, but you're also figuring out, “Who am I? What do I want to do?” When you look back on that time, what were some of the takeaways from that time?
Martha Bitar: Honestly, I don't remember. I think you always fix history in a way that the narrative makes sense.
Rebecca Ching: So true.
Martha Bitar: I don't remember what I was thinking in that moment, but I remember my actions afterwards. I was living in San Francisco, so when I got back to San Francisco, and I started looking for jobs again, I was only talking to people that made me feel excited.
I was just a lot more connected to my body and jobs that made me feel excited, that felt really aligned with my values, which was something that I grew up really strong into my values, and there have always been two: making an impact (making the world a better place) and justice.
So when I was a child in kindergarten I had this hard lunch box, and I would go after people who bullied other people, and they yelled at me, [Singing] “Martha, the justice maker! Martha, the justice maker,” because I would not let anyone bully anyone else. Whether they were my friends or not, I just hated the idea of someone picking on somebody else. So I am super short. I’m five-foot tall, so I was, imagine, this tiny, tiny baby, essentially, and just going after the mean people.
So I think that’s when a lot of these things that were always true to me just started kind of surfacing again, right? After so many years of kind of wanting to climb the corporate ladder, which just mutes a lot of that, maybe I would say feminine energy. I don't know how to explain it. But that feeling kind of part of the body.
Rebecca Ching: Well, climbing a corporate ladder, figuratively and literally, means we have to mute parts of us to be who we’re supposed to be to fit the mold of this collective expectation, and that’s been killing us slowly and quickly for decades now. This is what you’re supposed to do, and your body just shut that down. I love that you started looking for jobs that you felt excited about, that you were in touch with that early on. That’s huge because that’s such an essential skill. Is that a body yes, or is it an ambivalence, or is it a heck no!
I actually was talking to a client. I said, “I want you to go sit with this person.” He was thinking about merging his business. I said, “I want you to go sit in a room, and your body’s gonna know. You’ve taught me that about you, and so, you're gonna know.”
He’s like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s worth the plane ticket. Go sit in a room and see what your body feels like.” Obviously, there are other metrics you're gonna take into account, but I want to know what comes up there because I’ve done a lot of prep work already. And so, I love that that was informing it.
And so, what excited you during that time? What were some of the body yesses and curiosities, and where was the energy flowing during that interview time?
Martha Bitar: So I love that method. I’m super, super behind that, definitely. And I remember it was all no’s. Everything just felt like more of the same until I talked to Oz, the CEO of HoneyBook. All the other interviews were very much like a by-the-book, “Tell me about your resume,” focus on the job. And my conversation with Oz was all about growing up, and he grew up in Israel, and I grew up in Mexico, and my father is Lebanese, and all these amazing geopolitical conversations, and I saw this tolerance and love for people and how committed he really was to building something for small business owners because he cared.
And then, obviously, like you said, the metrics have to be there, right? So I looked at the business. I looked at the solution of the software. The design was gorgeous. The team was super strong. So that was, to me, a hell yes. It is truly either a hell yes or it’s a no, right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Martha Bitar: So every part of me was so excited, and then they asked me to do a demo of the software, just pretend you're selling it to someone, and as I wrapped the demo while we were on the call with the whole company, because it was just ten people, they offered me the job. I was just so excited.
It just felt like such a real win, a body-alignment win, and even that experience marked how we make offers now at Flodesk.
I loved being surprised with, “Hey! You did great! We’d love to offer you the job!” So we try to replicate that experience as well. I don't know if they're still doing it. I don't think they are.
Rebecca Ching: I have this vision of them pinging each other while you're doing it like, “We have to have her! Should we do the offer now?” You know, I can see them pinging. I just want to say, too, there’s a part of me that wants to note that sometimes in life we can’t do those full-body hell-yesses, and we have to kind of do what Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her book Big Magic, sometimes we just have to eat a shit sandwich. Sometimes we have to do life, and there’s reality, and there are tough choices. And so, there are parts of me that want to make sure not to minimize or devalue those moments, too, because life in a world that’s broken and struggling, and if we’ve been muting who we are and not listening to that, then we’re missing so much of what you experience in that moment.
Because listen, when you're around someone who’s genuinely excited about what they're doing, I mean, our nervous systems are contagious. There are some people I’m like, “I’ll buy air from you! Where do I Venmo you? Sure!” Not in a grifty kind of way, but just because I bought in, and I’m so excited to support you. And so, that also, from a mental-wellbeing perspective, is balm right now in a community, and that helps build resilience, and that can have a healing component, too, when we’re showing up in that kind of energy and in that space. So thank you for sharing that! I’m really excited, I appreciate you, and I’m grateful that you identified that connection so early on.
I want to spend a moment, though, to talk about Flodesk a bit because what struck me when you all came on the market -- and I know I wasn't the only one because when I started hearing about Flodesk from a lot of folks that I like and respect, I’m like, “Another email marketing platform? Really?” I read about you and your co-founder Rebecca, and I’m like, “Huh.”
So I would love for you to walk me through what led you and your co-founders to start another email marketing platform in an already crowded and competitive space?
Martha Bitar: The truth is you just said it, right? So I was in a position where I had savings, and I could wait for that hell yes, for that whole-body alignment, “I’m going to take this job.” The reality is that most of the time we can't do that. Why? Because we live in this very flawed society where we need the job to make money because that’s how we survive, right? What really happens, more often than not, is that we don't have the privilege to wait to work on something that we’re really excited about. We just have to get whatever job we can get to get the money.
I think the problem or part of the problem is that it’s really hard for someone still -- it’s easier than before, but it’s still very hard for someone to start a business doing something that they love and make profit out of it. There are so many obstacles, right? Some of them are emotional. Some of them are spiritual. Some of them are mental. Some of them are relationship with money, not feeling like you're enough. Some of them are knowledge, right? “I don't know where to start. I don't know how to make a website. I don't feel confident enough to sell, to talk to clients, to charge my worth.” It’s just like you're climbing this mountain, and you're always against the world, and it’s so hard. On top of it, you're alone, right?
Typically, you're alone, and you don't want to tell others how you're really feeling because back to we’re wired to not have those conversations and not show up vulnerably.
So we can't fix the world, right? Truly, it’s impossible. But we saw an opportunity to level the playing field with email marketing. Why? Because if you think about social media, there’s an algorithm. You can pay for a better placement, right? If you think of on radio, TV, any of the typical growth channels, it’s pay to play, right? If you are a big business, you're going to have the upper hand because you can pay for it, right?
Email is still the one channel where you don't pay to play, right? Where it doesn't matter if you're Amazon or you're a mom-and-pop shop, you send an email to a subscriber, and it takes the same hierarchy in the inbox, right? They can't beat you just because they have more money. So, if you're a small business owner, not only does this channel convert 40x better, it really does level the playing field.
So we saw that, we knew that our creative friends who are really crushing email marketing were more successful in building a profitable business. And Rebecca, Trong, and I were very passionate about seeing a world where we’re not walking into a Starbucks and a McDonald’s at every corner, right? But the way we saw the world when we grew up where there’s a Taqueria and the bakery and everything’s different and creative and craft. We’re, first of all, very passionate. There was a big why.
On top of that, even though it was a very and it still is a very saturated space, all of our friends in the industry or most of our friends in the industry, even the ones that had been really successful in growing an Instagram audience or Twitter, they were still trying to figure out email marketing.
I remember having some conversations with a few creatives and saying, “Hey, come over. Let’s have some coffee, and I’ll make some emails for you.” I remember creating some designs in HTML and then setting them up in Mailchimp and saying, “Okay, every time that you want to send a new newsletter, just command F, find the subject, replace it, find the headline, replace it, and it’s super easy!”
I’d send them home, and they would come back time and time again saying, “Hey, this is so complicated. Why can't I figure this out?” These are very smart people, right? Rebecca, she's the best designer that I know, so I started talking to her, and I said, “Hey, I’m gonna send you some people that need help with design. Can you help them, please, just as a personal favor,” and she said, “I can't help them. I’ve tried to create templates for Mailchimp --,” because Mailchimp’s really, truly the winner in the space, right? She said, “This is my biggest support ticket. Every time that they try to implement it, something breaks. It just doesn't work like that. They're not well-designed.” And I said, “Well, why don't you build it?” And she said, “I’ve been thinking about that for three years.”
But she’s a creative genius, right? I think that’s where life put us together. I’m really good at executing, so I thought, “Okay, well, if we work together, I can help you execute that vision, and we can give it a try and see if it works.” Obviously, we were not sure that we could add real value to an already-competitive market. We just realized there was a gap, right? We had sort of an idea of how to solve it. We’re not sure if this is a good idea or not. Let’s talk to people. That’s where we put in a lot of research and a lot of customer calls and conversations to even find out if this is something that the world needed, right?
You're right. Every single person at the beginning said, “Why are you trying to saturate the market even more? This is a terrible idea.”
But then every now and then we would talk to people who would almost cry and say, “Oh, my gosh! This has been my biggest struggle for, like, ever! And here’s everything that I have problems with. Here are all my pains. How can you solve it?” We didn't know how to solve them, but we realized, “Okay, there is still a gap, and the pains are real, and that means there is an opportunity to add some value.”
Rebecca Ching: So what were you afraid of as you started this venture more formally, and what helped you manage those fears?
Martha Bitar: Ah, everything! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Martha Bitar: So, first of all, we wanted to bootstrap. I think living in San Francisco, there’s always the investor route, but we knew we were building this for small business owners who were not going to have fundraising, right? We also didn't want to build this for investor shareholders. Again, the why was very strong. We wanted to build these for the small business owner. We were willing to fail at it, so we invested our savings. I think we each put in $19,000. So it’s not a lot, but, I mean, at that stage in our lives, that was a lot. That was everything I had. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: For sure!
Martha Bitar: So we were afraid of losing it all. I remember when I quit my job at HoneyBook, Oz said, “We’re probably going to enter a recession very soon. Are you sure you want to start something now and not have a reliable salary?” And that was scary, and I know that his intention was the best. He truly was, as a friend, trying to protect me. So there’s always that fear of if this fails, there is going to be, potentially, a money problem, right, sometime in the near future.
I think the biggest fear, though, was the value and the impact. It was a there are a lot of tools out there. Can we really build something that is better, that people really like, that solves the problems that we’re hearing?
We have never done this before, so are we even the right people to do this? But, in that moment, we were so convinced that there was nothing else in the world that we’d rather be doing. We couldn't not do it, even if we failed, even if we lost it all, even if we had to go back to the beginning, right, and restart our careers, we just needed to do it.
Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also often controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.
Now, leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is playful, actionable, and aligned.
When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict and change, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you want to deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than how you were told.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
I know you touched on this a little bit, and I want to hear how Flodesk is different from conventional email marketing platforms, but not as much just in the technology. I’m sure you can geek out. But I’m also interested in your staff and the backend of how you run your business and run your team.
Martha Bitar: The way that we run it differently, and I assume how some companies are run by just seeing Twitter comments and reviews, but I don't want to assume anything about how others run it, how we build our team. The first, I would say, controversial or unpopular decision was let’s go remote first.
So, even before COVID, we decided let’s build a team of the best people. No matter where they are in the world, no matter what language they speak, let’s just find a way to get the best people for the specific roles that we have and make it work. And that was super exciting. So right now, I’m in Lisbon. Trong, our co-founder and CTO, is in Vietnam. Rebecca is still in San Francisco. We have team members all over the world, from Chile to Hungary to Spain to Dandenong. It’s really exciting.
I think maybe this is something that happens when you have a very diverse founding team, but from day one, we also said, “Okay, so let’s get all sorts of people in here and learn from each other and bring in these ego-free attitudes of we don't know what we’re building. We’ve never done it before. I don't want to be right, I just want to do something that adds real value.” So that was the first piece, I would say, that was maybe unpopular. We really got a lot of eyebrows raised when we said we were remote and hiring people all over.
And then the other one that still comes up a lot is we really encourage everyone in the team to take initiative wherever they want and to lead and to say exactly what they think and how they feel. This is from [Indiscernible] is like this initiative to adding some context of things that you’ve experienced to talking to your other team members about your salary, in whatever channel you want to. Obviously, we don't encourage -- there are ways to do it. There’s a framework, right?
So, for example, if you disagree with someone and you criticize them publicly, they're going to feel very sad about it, right? So there’s the right way to approach these conversations very respectfully and in a way that’s very constructive, but if we encourage these conversations to happen, then we also have the opportunity to create frameworks around them so that we also keep them very respectful and very constructive.
So I’d say those are probably the two big ones that come up a lot or that when people start at Flodesk they say, “Okay, this is something that’s really surprising to me.”
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so I have some follow ups. So I want to make sure I language this well. I’m not sure I believe that we can be necessarily ego-free in the sense of when you care about something, when you believe in what you do, there’s a confidence in a healthy way, even.
And so, you're bringing in a lot of talent, so there’s gonna be a lot of confidence and a lot of belief in what they can do, maybe how they think things are run. But what is it that you and your founders did that cultivated this space, that you didn't need to compete and power-over other people, and that it really was okay. Because it’s one thing to say, “Say whatever you want. It’s all welcome.” You could name it a safe space, but is it really a safe space? We talked about that on a previous episode recently, and so, what is it that you intentionally did so folks could see, wow, I could say, “No, I actually disagree, and I don’t think we should go down this path,” to, “Hey, how come they're making this much and I’m making this much, and we both have the same responsibilities,” and that that is welcome?
What are some of the practices that you put in place that actually help people build trust that that was something they could do?
Martha Bitar: So the first is to talk about it. So it’s one thing to say, “Hey, we do this, and all voices are welcome,” and another one is to actually bring up the conversation time and time again, create the right spaces and frameworks for people to say things, even anonymously, which is hard sometimes because they’ll give you really amazing gems of feedback that you may or may not be able to follow up with. But then also choose the right frameworks for objectivity. So you're right. Ego is part of the human experience, and we have to acknowledge that, right? And we have to acknowledge that we have that tendency.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Martha Bitar: So what are some of the frameworks that we can adopt that can help us stay objective so that if an idea is a good idea, it’s because it is truly going to be solving a problem for a customer and not something that we just feel excited about or that I came up with the idea, so it must be something fun. Talking about it and then exploring it a little bit deeper and checking in with your values, right? “Is this something that feels good to us? Is this a Flodesk way or is it not?” Yeah, it’s hard.
Rebecca Ching: How do team members respond when they are really excited about a recommendation and y’all are like, “No.” After you go back and forth, have questions, you interrogate it and decide, “You know, we’re actually not gonna go in that direction, but thank you.” How do folks manage the disappointment or the rejection, and is there any process after that or is that part of the culture like, “Okay, all right,” and they're not as tethered to it? Yeah, I’m just curious a l little bit about how that works when someone gives their feedback, but their feedback doesn't necessarily lead to the change that they're hoping for.
Martha Bitar: Yeah, so the feedback, I would say, is very surface level of a very human need. So when someone says something, there is something underneath. So coming into the conversation with that awareness and trying to understand what they're really trying to say is important. Then making sure that when we say, “No, I don't like this,” it’s not a, “Hey, I don't personally like this,” but there’s a deeper conversation around it. We love debate, and we love what other people would call confrontation because it’s where we really pressure test ideas, right?
So, for example, coming up with an ecommerce solution, that created a lot of tension. Some people weren’t a fan of it. Some people were a fan of it. So we welcome that discussion. We’re like, “Okay, great! Let’s talk about all of this,” right? Let’s talk about all the reasons why this could not work. And sometimes we are in agreement that something might not work, and we still have to try it even to just get the no. But sometimes when we can't get to an agreement, to me, this is the juiciest conversation, right?
There’s something here, so let’s explore further. Let’s have more customer conversations. Let’s research. Let’s send a survey. Let’s get more data and find out what’s happening here because those are, to me, the moments where you’re about to find something, right?
Alignment is very important as well, but these kinds of knots tell you that there’s something there to uncover. And then when these knots happen, it also typically indicates that there’s some misalignment of some sort, and again, there’s the surface of a conversation, but then there’s also the what’s underneath. Where is that misalignment coming from? Sometimes it’s fear: “What’s gonna change?” Sometimes it’s fear: “This is not what I thought we were going to do.” Sometimes it’s people just feeling behind. Sometimes it’s: “We don't have the right resources.” There’s always, I would say, at least five layers of why and being aware of that core is important. I know this sounds like a lot of woo woo, but it’s just we’re human, right? We’re showing up to this job and spending so much time on it, and that’s just how we function. That’s just how we experience it, and we can choose to see it, or we can choose to pretend it’s not there.
Rebecca Ching: Being human isn't woo woo. No, I mean, you're speaking my language here. I mean, I feel like if we did a better job of being able to sit with and welcome, there are benefits of conflict and back and forth. So it’s almost like the culture. You're looking to bring people on your team that want to rumble with their ideas, and they come prepared for a back and forth that might take a while. And as leaders, you're like, “Who knows where this is -- some things might be like a pretty quick, ‘eh,’” you know? Because I know, for me, at least 90% of the things I think about, once I say them out loud, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, no. I need to just shut that down.” But you know, then when I do follow through, it’s some things we need to test and to try and to play around with, that’s normal, and I’m sensing that people’s worthiness and their job security isn’t on the line. In fact, it’s part of what you're wanting and inviting. Holy cow, if we could do this in more spaces around the globe, imagine. Imagine.
So that’s exciting! So this takes me back to hiring. What are the stakes for you as you develop the systems and the processes of creating these job descriptions and hiring for this global team, hiring or culture, right? That’s a buzzword, but I love it. Because the stakes seem high, how do you develop those systems and processes, and what are you looking for in the job descriptions when you contract saying, “Hey, here’s what we’re here for. Here’s what we need you for.” How do you put that together more tangibly?
Martha Bitar: Yeah, so the first thing is we don't just hire people who are comfortable with conflict because even though that is something that we want to do --
Rebecca Ching: Yeah. [Laughs]
Martha Bitar: -- if we did that, then we’d end up with a lot of the same people.
Rebecca Ching: For sure.
Martha Bitar: We also don't think of culture in the traditional company-culture way. Culture is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, right? I grew up in Mexico. Rebecca grew up in Silicon Valley. Culture is what the addition, I would say, of the traditions and background and experiences that each individual brings to the team. So we have a lot of cultures, right? Flodesk is not a human. Flodesk does not have culture. What we can align on is we have a lot of different cultures, and they're all welcome, and we have core values that we would hire and fire for. So that’s kind of the approach, maybe the undoing and then redoing again.
And then, yes, the stakes are high. The first thing that we think about when we’re hiring is the spectrum of types of personalities and people and experiences and cultures.
So the very first piece is zoom out, right? If someone doesn't have a college degree, but they're the best person for the job, we give them the job, right? We want different. We want the best person for the job, and they don't have to look like you and think like you and smell like you and everything, right?
I don't want to criticize the current system, but I do think that the problem is that you're not willing to take that risk and do the hard work in hiring, and that’s why you end up saying, “Okay, well, this list of colleges is approved because they probably did their job and teaching very good things, and this list of prior companies are okay to hire from.” That just feels lazy to me. So first, we break that, right? And then once we understand that we have bias, that will always be there because that’s just normal, right, then we start recognizing that bias and then when we feel like we really are in front of the right candidate, we have this agreement that if it’s not a hell yeah it’s a no.
So everyone needs to be really excited about it, and then bottom line is it depends on the hiring manager to make that decision. So if the hiring manager is very excited about someone, they can still beat out everyone else and make that call because, at the end of the day, that’s the person that they're going to be working with. It hasn't been very difficult because somehow every time that we have this really big gap and we need to hire XYZ, we end up finding the right person almost right away. They come to us, or someone reaches out or something happens, right?
So I don't know if it’s just being open to talking to everyone. I’m not sure. But we’re constantly having these conversations before we even open roles.
Rebecca Ching: I love it because, especially in the spaces that you're in, the pipeline of who you could hire if you go with the standard metrics of needing a certain type of training at a certain type of place or school or both, all of a sudden the pool just narrows and then there’s an immense amount of privilege because not everyone has access to those things, and you're missing out on an incredible body of talent and skillset, thought leadership, you name it. And so, to me, this is pretty disruptive.
You mentioned earlier that folks kind of eye-rolled or raised their eyebrows or both at you when you decided to start a global remote team. How did you answer those objections, then, because I’m hearing everything you're saying, and I’m like this is actually meeting the world right where we’re at, and really, it is like Flodesk in itself, the tech, is leveling the playing field, but how you hire and lead your team is also doing the same thing, so I see it as a both/and.
I’m wondering what was some of the pushback when folks said, “Oh, you can't do it”? What are some of the common things you still hear from the naysayers, even amidst your success?
Martha Bitar: It doesn't happen anymore because of COVID, which is hilarious! So when we started making these choices --
Rebecca Ching: Ahh.
Martha Bitar: -- was when everything was run from the office and everything was face time and everything was meetings, and we were living in Silicon Valley, right? So everyone was trying to fundraise. So people were looking at us weird thinking, “Why aren't you trying to hire the best engineers from Google, and why aren't you trying to fundraise?”
And, for some reason, we always had clarity that that’s just not what we wanted to build. It’s not the way we wanted to build it.
So at the beginning, we got a lot of raised eyebrows, and every time we talked about hiring a remote team, people assumed it was outsourcing. And it’s not, right? Building a remote team is not having an outsourcing. It is entirely opposite. It’s not having a low-cost center, just because you don't want to hire the best talent. It is hiring the best talent regardless of their background, regardless of where they are, regardless of their native language, right? So that was the key.
And then COVID happened, and everyone had to shuffle and go remote for a good amount of time, and that’s when a lot of people who did raise their eyebrows started emailing and saying, “Hey, we’re having a lot of trouble building remote frameworks. Can you talk to me about how you did it?” Like, “I know this is working super well for you, and it has been working really well for you. Can you tell me how you did it?” And what’s really hard is because we never made the transition, it’s very difficult to say, “This is what makes the difference between being able to make it work and not.” I think what worked is just having that mindset from the beginning.
Rebecca Ching: As you do all these things to cultivate a global team. One of the things to have a sustained team that you retain your team is cultivating wellbeing and supporting agency and diverse needs. How do you do that? What are some of the other kind of key metrics that you put in place to support wellbeing and agency?
Martha Bitar: So we’ve tried to be very directive when it comes to wellbeing, even to the point of getting some meditation apps and benefits and telling people, “Hey, you should join this team meditation,” and none of that worked. I think what we found is that our team, at least, they don't want to be told what wellbeing means to them, and they don't want to be told how to do it.
So it’s hard. It takes a lot more effort, but what really has worked for us is a very individualized approach. So get to know your team members. Get to know your peers. Get to know your manager. Get to know your direct reports. And then have those individual conversations, right? If you’re seeing that someone’s showing up a little more tense, maybe don't ask what’s going on because it’s their right to share or not share it. I think there’s a really fine line between being nosy and pissing people off and being aware and being ready to open those conversations. I think even just saying, “Hey, if you ever need anything, this is a safe space. Come talk to me about it,” is okay.
But what I also notice is that it doesn't really always work because, for example, vacation time. We say, “Hey, we have unlimited vacation,” right? Ask me how many people actually take vacation?
Rebecca Ching: Exactly. Yeah.
Martha Bitar: So we have to get a little nosier and say, “Hey, you haven’t taken vacation in an entire year, and that’s probably not great for you, and you're crushing it. If you took a couple of weeks, nothing would break, and if it broke, it would be okay. So shouldn’t you be taking a vacation right now?” Maybe it’s uncomfortable, and maybe it’s awkward. But yeah, it’s worth it, right? It’s just like having those uncomfortable conversations too. Yeah, I don't know. It’s probably an unpopular approach, but we get nosy. Yeah, we don't ask. We just create space again.
Rebecca Ching: You notice certain key things of how people are showing up. You notice lack of vacation. Do you have company shutdowns? Do you ever do a global company shut down?
Martha Bitar: We do, and we don't say when they are because it is just like fraudsters and scammers, like they're waiting for these times when the company shuts down to do attacks. So we don't advertise them.
Rebecca Ching: Oh. Gotcha.
Martha Bitar: And that way our team can actually go and not have to think about these things. But yes, we do. We have mandatory shutdowns. Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh! The things that you have to think about in this world. That is wild.
Martha Bitar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: That is wild. So harkening, then, back to kind of where we started off talking about your original view of success, what you were driving for, how do you view success today, and how is it different from what you were taught?
Martha Bitar: Yeah, oh, I think the biggest difference is that I grew up in a world where success was accomplishment and financial gain, and as long as you were progressing in terms of accomplishment and financial gain, you were successful. Fame, money, power, right? That’s success, traditionally. Today, my personal definition of success is being in alignment with who I am, making decisions that feel good in my body, being present, and then the ultimate measure of success is adding real value. So whether that is as a parent at home, in business building a new feature, growing the company, creating a new company retreat, merging to get together, it’s value.
Rebecca Ching: You know, you just came off of your first in-person global retreat, and tell me what was the success for you in that, with all of the things that you’ve tried out?
You met people for the first time in real life since you started Flodesk.
Martha Bitar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me about that experience, and what were the successes around that for you that the things that you were trying that you were breaking the “rules.” What are some of the successes you took away after that in-person meeting?
Martha Bitar: Yeah, it was amazing. Ah, it just felt so good to have everyone in person and feeling that excitement and momentum, and the hugs and just having those water-cooler conversations that normally don't happen. Being able to really connect on a more personal level was just invaluable. The success, I would say, is we sent a post-retreat survey asking a few questions, and in the open feedback, what kept coming up is that people feel connected to each other now or more connected. And, to me, that’s the ultimate success, right, if you build that connection.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Martha Bitar: You can't orchestrate that. It either happens or it doesn't, right? And to know that whatever we built resulted in that feeling of being more connected with the people that I’m working with every day, it’s the ultimate success. There are a few things that we can and should improve, and there’s a lot of feedback on, “Hey, I loved this activity, but it went on for way too many hours,” or we have a mostly introverted team, and a lot of these activities are really exhausting.
Rebecca Ching: Sure.
Martha Bitar: So even building in more breaks, some meals. We really, really tried hard to be inclusive. We’re learning a lot about what even inclusivity means to us, and we’re really excited to plan the next retreat next year. I think we’re going to start doing them once a year and just gathering all of these learnings.
But that’s success, right? It’s knowing that people feel more connected and that they're speaking up about their experience in the most authentic, transparent way.
Rebecca Ching: That is a success that you actually got authentic, helpful feedback so you can, then, adjust accordingly. That’s wonderful. Martha, I’ve learned so much from you today, and it makes me love Flodesk even more. I’ll continue to be an Evangelist for it. And so, I really appreciate getting to know your leadership and a little bit more of your story.
I’d love to wrap up just briefly with some fun, quickfire questions! What are you reading right now?
Martha Bitar: The Baddies by Julia Donaldson.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Martha Bitar: So I have a six-month-old baby at home, and she loves this book. It’s these three monsters (a troll, a witch, and a ghost), and just all of these cute books, and she just gets really excited for this one. So I’m reading it time and time again, and I love it. I enjoy it too.
Rebecca Ching: What song are you playing on repeat?
Martha Bitar: The Shakira one, the new one. [Singing]. I love it. I could hear it all day long!
Rebecca Ching: Oh.
Martha Bitar: I don't know what it’s called.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely.
Martha Bitar: It’s got a weird name.
Rebecca Ching: Shakira never disappoints.
Martha Bitar: Ever!
Rebecca Ching: What is the best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Martha Bitar: Ah, okay, so I just watched Forrest Gump for the first time, and it is amazing.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my goodness.
Martha Bitar: It’s so good.
Rebecca Ching: I found out my son hasn't seen that yet, so there are a couple scenes in there I just want to check. I’m like, “I want to make sure he’s old enough,” but it is a classic. What is your mantra right now?
Martha Bitar: Oh, they change a lot, probably daily, but right in this moment is stay present because time flies, things change, and it’s just so hard to -- I mean, we have the phone and we have these noises and notifications, and it’s almost like a daily fight. So that’s something that I need to remind myself of everyday, all the time.
Rebecca Ching: What’s an unpopular opinion that you hold?
Martha Bitar: Sushi for breakfast.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, that’d be popular in my house. That’s awesome!
Martha Bitar: Okay, nice!
Rebecca Ching: Love it!
Martha Bitar: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Martha Bitar: My mom.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Martha Bitar: She somehow magically does it right every time.
Rebecca Ching: That’s awesome.
Martha Bitar: And when she doesn't she’s totally cool with it too.
Rebecca Ching: Where can people find you and connect with you and Flodesk?
Martha Bitar: Yeah! Our website is www.flodesk.com. We’re on Instagram @flodesk, and we’re on Twitter @flodeskinc.
Rebecca Ching: Awesome! Martha, thank you so much for your time today. It was a real honor, and I have a feeling I’m gonna be reaching out and having you come back on this show. I want to see how things are going. [Laughs] So thank you so much for your time today!
Martha Bitar: Of course! Why don't you come over to Portugal, and we can do our nest conversation over coffee?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, twist my arm. Uh, yeah, now I’m gonna be checking that out. Let’s do it! [Laughs]
Martha Bitar: All right! Let’s do it! It’s fun!
Rebecca Ching: Let’s do it, Martha!
Martha Bitar: Amazing! [Laughs] Thank you so much!
Rebecca Ching: Now, before you go, I want to make sure you note these key takeaways from this Unburdened Leader conversation with Martha Bitar. Now, Martha’s processes of discovering she assigned her value to not having a job and the power she gave the perception of accomplishment is something I suspect we can all relate to. I also think it’s important to note how much she put into taking time to figure out what she really wanted out of life and work when her first job out of college didn't work out. That time became a great foundation for how she leads her team at Flodesk today. And because she held a kind of curiosity and built the ability to sit with ambiguity and discomfort, Martha fostered relationships and asked questions that led her and her co-founder to fill in the gaps of a need in the email space by simplifying the process to create beautiful emails for all sizes of businesses and even individuals while pushing back on the norms and building a thriving, remote, global team.
So I’m curious, what have you learned from your career setbacks in your life? Did you take time to reflect and heal, or did you rush onto the next thing? What are you doing today that you may not be doing if it were not for some curveballs in your career path? We can do all the right things, check the dang boxes, cross the T’s, dot the I’s. Sometimes things happen that force us to face where we put our worth and what we truly value and desire, and this is the ongoing work on an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If you really appreciated this episode, I’d be honored if you would leave a review and rate this podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com!