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Balancing the Grind with Mark Nichols, General Manager at MetaLab Sprint

Mark Nichols is the General Manager at MetaLab Sprint. MetaLab is one of the top design agencies in the world that has worked with companies such as Slack, Coinbase, TED, Apple, Disney, and Google.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

My career in tech started in 2006, when I founded a very small copywriting agency. I never took it particularly seriously, but I enjoyed it enough that I decided to quit my part-time job and see how far I could take it.

I ended up having one terrific, very lucky summer working with a couple of film production companies and a startup. But when all that wrapped up, I couldn’t find any new clients. I’d exhausted my personal network getting those first few clients, and had no clue how to build a bigger reach or even ask for referrals. So I was suddenly back at square one, with no money and no job.

Luckily, around this time, I reconnected with my old university friend Andrew Wilkinson, who sent some work my way, and helped me get set up with a nice website. I rode that for a little while, and at the same time, he happened to be starting up MetaLab and getting some traction.

I was doing ok with my business, but I wasn’t crazy about the unpredictability of it, or the anxiety that came along with finding new work. So I took a job as a project manager at MetaLab. I was the third employee. By 2011, I was running the consulting team.

I did this job until 2014. I loved being at MetaLab, but I felt I had a big knowledge gap—I was selling design to startups and SaaS businesses, but I didn’t understand the business model at all.

So I moved to Flow, a project management product that spun out of MetaLab. First I was on the marketing team, then moved to customer experience, and finally served as the VP Growth, where I spent a few years learning the ins and outs of life at a growth stage startup.

In 2019, I returned to MetaLab to be the General Manager of a new team called MetaLab Sprint. We work with early-stage startups who aren’t quite ready for a MetaLab-level engagement (MetaLab has since grown to around 150 people, working with mature startups and Fortune 500 companies).

My role is a little bit of everything: account management, business development, people ops.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Like everyone else in the world right now, my workdays are suddenly very different, and I’m doing my best to adapt.

I have two small kids at home, so my workdays used to include going into the office, and having my day punctuated by lots of surprise meetings and encounters in the hallway, with a few planned meetings. Now, my days are very much oriented around my schedule.

I had a day last week where I had a 1:1 with a design lead, a contract review with a new client, a post-mortem with an old client, a new business call, and a 1:1 with our CEO.

It’s a very wide-ranging role, which requires wearing a lot of different hats. But luckily, all those meetings were with good people that I’m happy to talk to.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes. MetaLab was ahead of the curve with remote work. In fact, when I started in 2008, I worked from Toronto, on Canada’s east coast, while the other 2 employees were on the west coast of Canada, in Victoria.

They’ve made it a part of their DNA as they’ve grown, and even before the pandemic, almost half the company worked remotely.

As nice as it is to have that option—having two kids at home makes working from home a challenge, so I almost never did it before COVID-19. But now, I’m appreciating getting a lot more time with my children, and not having to commute.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

It’s a hard thing to define—but I consider work-life balance the ongoing process of being both personally and professionally fulfilled, and finding a way to achieve both. That’s not a very complicated definition, but it’s what it means to me.

In my life, I’ve found personal fulfillment immensely easier to come by than professional fulfillment, because it’s always on my own terms. I get to decide what happiness is at home.

Professional fulfillment is so often shaped by others, and easily controlled by others. So I try to give preference to personal fulfillment whenever I can.

Particularly since having children, this has meant making lots of what might be called career sacrifices. It’s unquestionable that I work a little less hard today than I did before I had kids, but I think I work a little smarter. I don’t travel for work anymore, and I rarely work outside the bounds of 9-5.

These are all choices I’ve made in the pursuit of personal happiness. I don’t mean to say that work doesn’t make me happy. It does. But I find I have much more agency and reward in my personal life. And I have a pretty good sense of where my happiness comes from, and I try to soak up as much of it as I can.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Nothing too complicated. Exercise. Drink less alcohol as you get older. Get as much sleep as you can. Read a lot—and not just business books. Try to explore a lot of different worlds and perspectives, but remember to work hard on defining your own perspective and opinions.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore is my favourite book on product marketing. I refer to it constantly. It so perfectly describes the critical point at which so many businesses I’ve worked with find themselves.

Another favourite is Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute, which is the ultimate empathy handbook. It taught me so much about every relationship in my life, and how I get in my own way. I wish I’d read it years earlier.

I highly recommend balancing business books with fiction. I find reading fiction so important to my mental well-being for reasons I can’t really explain, but I think it has something to do with entering a different world and being able to look at your own life from the outside. It’s like therapy, or a kind of meditation.

I’ll be honest, I don’t listen to any business podcasts or read any newsletters, but I’m sure there are lots of good ones.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Get a good night’s sleep.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I have two children, and I would love to hear from anyone with 3+ kids on how they manage to get anything done.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

This is going to sound incredibly self-helpy, but an important skill is learning to write your own narrative. In the past, I have been someone—and I’ve known many people like this—whose happiness is very much dictated by how their day was at work.

What’s important to understand is that work—and I mean professional work, going to a job every day—is interpreted radically differently by every single person who does it. Some people play politically, some value relationships.

Some want to succeed more than anything, some are content to just do the normal amount and collect a paycheque. Some work incredibly hard because it’s the way that they were raised; some work hard as an escape from their life.

It took me years to realize that despite what we’ve been taught, there is actually no shared, communal idea of what success looks like on a personal level.

You have to decide what succeeding actually means to you, and how competitive you actually want to be. What I said earlier about working to define your own perspectives and opinions—it’s one of the most important life lessons I can think of.

And remember that nobody on their deathbed ever says, “I wish I’d spent more time at work.”

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.