The entrepreneur is betting on self-care
In his 32 years, Sean Burke has made three big career moves. The first two were unmitigated successes. After graduating from SFU with both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and the basketball team’s all-time record for assists, the North Vancouver native was scooped up by global accounting and advisory giant PwC.
It wasn’t long before Burke became a chartered accountant and moved to the firm’s New York office. While there, he added some non-sports accolades to his trophy case, including PwC’s Most Exemplary Young Professional in 2013.
But he soon decided it wasn’t the path he wanted. “I realized I was missing this element of entrepreneurship,” Burke admits. “One of the things that was really pushing on me was about creating something that’s going to make a significant impact.”
So Burke returned to Vancouver in 2015 to co-found and serve as COO of FrontFundr, a fintech startup that makes it easier for people to invest in budding businesses. Three years later, the online outfit had 15 employees in Vancouver and Toronto and had emerged as a major disruptor in private equity.
Differences between Burke and the other founder led to his departure, though he’s still FrontFundr’s second-largest shareholder and plans to fundraise through it when his new business is ready for that step.
Which brings us to CheckingIn. Officially launched in March of last year, Burke’s latest undertaking is a self-care and mindfulness app that asks users to give a word (how they’re feeling) and a number (how much energy they have) at the start of each day. The app just hit its 25,000th check-in, but Burke knows there’s still a long way to go.
Mornings start early for Burke, who was recently recommended The 5 A.M. Club by Nova Scotia writer Robin Sharma. “That’s my time, and I can do whatever I want with it,” says Burke, who usually does some form of exercise with his free hour and a half.
Burke and his wife recently welcomed their second daughter into the world, and he starts to make breakfast as everyone else wakes up. “I know a lot of entrepreneurs wait to have kids, but for us it was important,” Burke says. He also maintains that being a father has made him better at his job. “I’ve become more patient, but at the same time I’ve worked to build on empathy and understand that as much as I’m trying to teach my kids some things, they’re teaching me so many.”
Before the pandemic, Burke would walk from his Coal Harbour home to CheckingIn’s office on Pender Street, dropping off his two-year-old at daycare on the way. The app is housed in the office of its first (and currently only) investor, Teligence Capital. Although Burke doesn’t have any full-time employees dedicated to CheckingIn, he gets help from several of his co-workers. He estimates that seven or eight people spend at least some of their time on CheckingIn, doing things like coding and graphic design.
“One of the challenges I see when it comes to Vancouver tech is attracting top talent,” Burke says. “All these great companies, how do you attract great talent to your team where maybe you don’t have the capital to pay them? Those are the challenges the industry and ecosystem will face. But at the end of the day, great people and teams are going to attract people to come to them.”
Burke’s co-workers often assist him on developing new ideas for the app (before in one of the office’s boardrooms, where there’s a giant whiteboard for all of their schemes, now mostly through conference calls). He acknowledges that his favourite thing about being an entrepreneur is working with a product to understand how people use it and how he can optimize that experience.
“We probably come up with thousands of ideas, but tons will never make it to the app. It’s funny: you run through my phone, and it’s just whiteboard pics,” Burke says, chuckling.
“My wife is just kind of sitting there saying, Hey, my phone’s full of pictures of our family.”
During his break–“leftovers” are usually on the menu–Burke tries to decompress, avoiding his phone if possible. “If I am going out, I try to go with someone on the team where we can talk strategy, talk about what’s going on,” he explains in a soft tone that belies his stature. “And I try to connect on a personal level outside of work with people who are supporting CheckingIn.”
These are still very early days for CheckingIn. At FrontFundr, he was going to networking events or doing fundraising pitches every weekday night. He’s not there yet with the new business, but he spends many afternoons connecting with old colleagues and leveraging networks.
“A lot of that is done online and then following up in person, with coffees, different pitch events,” he says. “I’m only just starting to get into that phase now–I’ve been fortunate to have just the one investor.”
Since the pandemic, CheckingIn has thrived. "We have seen a significant increase in our user base which has largely been driven by companies looking to provide tools and resources for help their employees. The app helps employees monitor and improve their individual well-being through a safe, private and confidential space, whether they are at home or in the office," he says, adding that he's since launched an Android app due to the increased demand.
As Burke sits in the calm before the storm, we have a pretty good idea of how he’s filling out his daily check-ins.