“My startup tested me in ways life rarely does.”

She and her friend had a great idea and executed it well. Their unicorn business, however, might have looked glamorous on the outside meeting musicians from Cheryl Cole to Will.I.am but their relationships, health and sense of identity went out the window. How did Emma Obanye navigate a career transition to a place where she enjoys her work life design as tech executive, building ‘lifestyle business’ and living in Barcelona, Spain? 

Emma Joy Obanye is an entrepreneur working on We Are One Tech.org, Mindful.team & TheretrospectiveGame.com. Originally from Hackney, London, she now lives between Barcelona and The City, claiming her balance has been restored. She consciously chooses to pursue what she calls a lifestyle business: a way to build sustainable work experience while enjoying life. 

What was your last transition about? 

It was a major one. It stemmed from me and my friend Giulia Piu going to a startup weekend which resulted in winning ‘start up most likely to make £1m’ award. We then co-founded BuddyBounce, a startup that became wildly successful. We were a loyalty platform for more than 70K music fans, getting interest from major brands and artists like Cheryl Cole or Union J. We met Will.I.am, we went to LA and pitched to the CEO of Universal Music. Six years and so many highs.

But you also have to have this positive persona on display 24/7 even though you might not be feeling that way. That’s what you think investors want to see: That you are capable, able to withstand pressures, successful. And everyone else wants to see that as well, because you are selling this idea to everybody. I think that was partly when the health issues started to come in. There’s only so far you can go along with that. Me and my co-founder Giulia became really out of balance with everything else – hobbies, friendships, family, everything went out of the window. That just led to depression, relationships and health failing, those types of lows. 

“It brought not just the startup lows but also life lows.”

Do you remember distinct steps you took at that time? 

I literally did seek out anything else. I remember I was just going to leave for ayahuasca ritual when our non-executive director resigned just before our second investor round, which would have been a major hiccup. We managed to pull off a bridging fund as a solution but this whole experience made me realize one thing: I can’t put my business first like that. I left for the retreat.   

Did you seek more long term solutions when you came back? 

I went to see my doctor and was offered either therapy or antidepressants. It was interesting, they didn’t test me in any shape or form. I went for therapy which went amazingly for me. 

Weekly sessions helped me understand where I was quantitatively and I was given the tools to explore things like balance which showed me how out of sync I really was. Exhausted, I didn’t want to attend a family weekend or go see friends. Going through that, realizing that spending time with them talking about X Factor or really anything else but work, really helped me. There were other practices. Yoga and mediation with Headspace. Giving up things like smoking. Realizing my thoughts were not me. That helped me unlock a whole load of negative parts of myself that were holding me back in certain areas. It has been a massive transformation. 

As a child, she recalls being very sporty, active and curious. “I remember being 8 years old at a school contest. Me and my mates were challenged to build these motorized boats that were able to take a small weight over a pond. I was so into it. Tech back then wasn’t computers, it was the problem solving nature that absolutely excited me.”

Walk us through what was going on the inside.

I went deep into realizing it wasn’t about the startup, to some degree, it was learning a lot about life and learning a lot about yourself. It is a part of the initiation. Especially these days in the West, life is easy – meaning a lot easier than for our ancestors and parents. We don’t learn much about ourselves along the way, we have a limited amount of tests, we worry about superficial things. Running a business exposes you in so many ways: How do you actually stand up when stressed, when rejected, or when the product is not right? Most people don’t know. 

“We haven’t tested parts of ourselves our ancestors explored during their lifetime. And that is the journey of a startup, becoming aware of spirit, of self.”

What was happening with your business as you went through transition? 

We got bought by Crowdmix and soon after they went under which was a very painful experience.We had an earn out, lost part of the money but luckily Giulia and I were out of what has become toxic environment for us. Recovering from that, I went to see my good friend Luke in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, it was like my eyes opened! I knew the startup ecosystem was great, you could find a lot of support. But here I was, in the digital nomad scene with all these amazing people who were not raising money but building highly profitable businesses that didn’t require huge teams, while travelling the world. I knew I wanted more of that.

Around 11, Emma started exploring computer science whenever she stayed at her aunt’s who was studying computer engineering. “I’ve got that curious spirit from my family. My mum would travel to different parts of Europe and buy African cloth, make outfits and sell them. I played with computers and even came with some sort of VR game idea when I was 17. I continued being quite entrepreneurial even in my first jobs. For me, all stems from my primary school experience where they got us thinking out of the box.” 

How did it all shape how you go about work and life design now? 

The Crowdmix experience with its dysfunctional environment made me ask myself how can we make people more open and collaborative so they communicate, give and receive feedback in a safe space? That’s what I am creating and the way I am doing it is different, too: I work as an Entrepreneur in Residence at One Tech, which I love, and create Mindful Team sustainably on the side. 

Having gone through the last experience, there are a set of tools at my disposal that keep me sane. I make sure I have balance now, with everything I do. Friends, family, two projects, free weekends. I decided to move to Barcelona to start in a place with lower living expenses and also to give myself more space. When I’m in London, everything is go-go-go. Me time is fundamental. I pursue other passions: nutrition, psychology, psychedelics, science, tech and philosophy. That’s my sweet spot. I listen to podcasts, sleep a lot, do resistance training, practice intermittent fasting. It is much more purposeful and it is working at the moment.

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