Hey Liz, tell us about yourself!
Hallo! I'm Liz. I live in Vancouver BC. I moved here in mid-March (from Seattle) to join Canada's Startup Visa Program. I love the outdoors — being near water and mountains is what drew me to the Pacific Northwest. I'm a sailor and a cave diver, though for obvious reasons haven’t been able to do much of those or other activities lately. Maybe I’ll have better luck with skiing and snowshoeing this winter? One of my favorite things to do is travel. I’m very much looking forward to visiting friends and family (as well as new places) once the border opens and the pandemic ends. Thankfully, I also love reading and streaming tv shows. As a recent German advert said… Be a hero, become a couch potato.
Can you tell us what you do as the CEO at Smith Assembly?
Like all entrepreneurs and small business owners, I do whatever needs to be done. Thankfully, I have a co-founder so I’m not doing it alone. She and I have a wonderful and strong partnership. We’ve deliberately divided the work so we each have our own sphere of responsibilities, yet also seek out as many opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination as we can (since that’s where the magic happens). As CEO, I oversee the entire organization — from finance through human resources and operations to marketing and sales — and make high-level decisions that affect our team and clients in order to drive results. That sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. On a day-to-day basis it means I’m paying bills, writing documentation, setting up and supporting our collaboration tools, managing our website and blog, contributing to the creation of our service, and communicating with clients.
How did you decide to start your own business? What pivotal moments pushed you to where you are now?
As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut. That’s why I got my pilot’s license and majored in Aerospace Engineering. During my second internship at NASA, I had the opportunity to talk with a member of the astronaut selection committee. They told me that, due to my poor eyesight, I’d never be eligible to apply to their program let alone become an astronaut. I was absolutely devastated. So much so that in the middle of my senior year I dropped out of university, changed my major to Liberal Arts (Undecided), and left to study Spanish in Costa Rica. My planned 6-week trip turned into a year-long adventure constructing and running canopy tours. I intended to build a life for myself in Monteverde, but first I needed to deal with my credit card debt. My plan was to take a trip to the US, declare bankruptcy, then return to the cloud forest and people I loved. Ironically, I didn’t have enough money to declare bankruptcy. Or to support myself. So I moved back in with one of my parents, got a full-time job as a computer support specialist, slowly paid off my debt, then saved up to finish my degree. While I was gone, since I’d never taken any Liberal Arts courses, my major had reverted to Aerospace Engineering. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the fastest and cheapest path to a diploma was to finish what I started. So, that’s what I did. After I completed my remaining semester and graduated, I became a software developer. I thought it would be the right career for me because I’d loved computers since I was a kid and the courses I most enjoyed during university involved some sort of programming or hands-on technical work.
What inspired you to start your craft?
I’ve had a somewhat eclectic career, but my journey to this point has a cohesive narrative (at least to me). Early in my career, I was exposed to user experience design. As my interest morphed into a passion, I sought roles at firms that saw the value of synthesizing technology, design, and business expertise. I honed my craft — what’s now called product management — at frog, Starbucks, a couple startups, and Google. Over the past several years, I expanded my product design and development skills to include appropriate technology and economic empowerment by volunteering as a teacher, coach, and mentor in creative capacity building workshops like International Development Design Summits (IDDS). In these workshops, participants learn the design process along with a variety of woodworking, metalworking, and maker skills so they can co-create and iteratively prototype solutions to problems associated with poverty.
My Costa Rican co-founder and I met while helping to organize a summit in Botswana. Time and time again, we’d experienced and observed how quickly people were able to overcome enormous differences to develop strong friendships and how innovative solutions were when everyone contributed their unique perspectives and skills. A year and a half later, after collaborating on another couple of projects, she and I decided we wanted to work together and soon thereafter came up with the idea for Smith Assembly. Our hands-on team building and professional development workshops are co-created with innovators from around the world and feature inclusive cross-cultural techniques. We’re both incredibly passionate about social impact, so our company participates in 1% for the Planet and donates an additional 5% of our revenue to nonprofits selected by our global innovators in order to amplify the positive impact they have in their communities.
Any advice on how to get started for those who want to start their own business?
I strongly recommend honing your intuition (spidey-sense, gut instinct, or whatever you prefer to call it). So many aspects of our careers and lives cannot be navigated on facts and data alone. Pay attention to whatever form(s) your inner guidance takes. Learn to trust yourself wholeheartedly. If this sounds daunting, start using it for little choices like what food to order or which direction to go to find parking. Then work your way up to leveraging it in bigger and more complex decisions. Your intuition is an invaluable tool in your toolbox. When there aren’t enough data or facts, like at the beginning of almost all our entrepreneurial journeys, following your instinct is often the best way to make a decision and keep moving forward.
3 Character traits that would make someone excel in your field
Curiosity, Creativity, and Persistence
Most difficult thing about your owning your own business?
Sales. In past jobs, I’ve often supported business development efforts but I’ve only rarely had to lead them. As the CEO of an early-stage startup, sales is one of my most important responsibilities and frequently something I need to do on my own since my co-founder is rightfully focused on creating our service. It’s the aspect of my job that makes me the most nervous (shhh... don’t tell anyone). I have a lot to learn about sales, and so many other things, but that’s exactly what makes entrepreneurship so much fun.
What would you like to say to your younger self?
Don’t be such a workaholic. During the first half of my career, I spent way way way too many hours at the office or traveling for work. Yes, it takes a lot of (worthwhile) time and effort to hone one’s craft. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary and beneficial to work overtime for weeks or maybe even months on end to accomplish a major milestone. That said, the most important things in life are experiences and relationships. Please find better ways to balance everything so you don’t inadvertently sacrifice your health, hobbies, and/or loved ones.
Best advice you've received/heard?
I can’t remember who said it first or most memorably, but you can learn as much (if not more) from failures as from successes.
Any last thoughts, advice, or recommendations for someone who wants to learn your be their own CEO?
The best products, services, and organizations are inclusive. Be curious and keep an open mind. Seek out, embrace, and empower a wide variety of perspectives (along with the people they originate from).