Q&A with Jean Brownhill, Founder and CEO of Sweeten
Jean Brownhill is the CEO and Founder of Sweeten, which matches home renovation projects with thoroughly vetted general contractors, while offering expert advice, tools, and financial protection—at no cost to homeowners. In this Q&A with Launch With GS, Jean shares the leadership philosophy that she applies across her business and everyday life, how to avoid the “trap of perfection”, and her expert tip for home renovators.
What has been the most exciting moment of building your business? The most challenging?
The most challenging moment has definitely been COVID-19, for sure. Almost overnight we were dealing with a global pandemic that effectively halted our business, forced all of our employees to go remote, and required a significant amount of cost-cutting and readjustment.
Witnessing the business transition from survival mode into one that started to really thrive was the most exciting. We had anticipated a V-shape recovery in the home improvement sector, and now seeing that there's an even greater demand and need for our service is pretty exciting.
Who are the people in your life that have been critical in your success?
What comes to mind are all the teachers and mentors that I have had along the way. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to pay for higher education. I studied Architecture first at Cooper Union, when it offered every student a full tuition scholarship, and then Harvard, as a Loeb Fellow, also with no tuition. At both institutions I had access to the most incredible teachers. Some of them turned into mentors and I am so appreciative of their guidance and support. They were very influential to my success outside of my personal circles.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” It’s a quote from Howard Thurman that has really inspired me and definitely one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received.
What has the Launch with GS Entrepreneur Cohort experience been like for you?
On one level, we’ve been given access to the Goldman Sachs team - that has been incredible. It has been an immensely rewarding experience to receive insight from people with years of industry experience, from market research to investment banking.
Then there is the camaraderie built among the other companies in the Cohort, who are also sharing their notes, advice, and stories. We, too, are sharing what we've learned on what felt like a very isolated and lonely journey. Now we've gained colleagues and friends who are on this same path, learning and building a community. It’s been fortifying and motivating.
It takes a village - who are the people in your life who have helped you build your company into what it is today?
Building the company definitely has taken a village and it's our general contractors who helped us get to where we are. We’ve had long-term, engaged partnerships for 6+ years with the majority of our contractors. In that time, we’ve gained a true understanding of their business goals, the strengths in their services and, most importantly, what makes them tick as people.
Our general contractors aren’t just accounts or users”; they are real men and women who take great pride in their work and communities. We love being a meaningful part of the growth story of their businesses, as they have been in ours. They are absolutely our partners in building the village called Sweeten.
What's the advice you'd give to your younger self that you wish you knew then?
Early on, I was a perfectionist. I would get obsessed with the small details. At some point frustration would set in and I would say, "Whatever, just leave it as is. It's fine." The pendulum would then swing all the way in the other direction and I would end up creating something that was just “good” instead of “excellent.”
What I’ve learned is that before you begin something, there always appears to be a clear path from “start” to “perfect.” But that path inevitably forks and you have to make a choice - either "overall excellent" or continuing on to "perfect." In my experience, the road to “perfect” winds up as a trap - it eventually leads to “good enough.” My advice to my younger self would be to always aim for “overall excellent” and guard against the temptation of “perfect.” This allows for iteration, innovation, and getting sh*t done.
What's your leadership philosophy?
My leadership philosophy is to lead with integrity. I am one person. I try to consistently share my vision, values, and vulnerabilities with people I meet. So whether I'm talking to my friends, family, or the Sweeten team, I always try to lead with authenticity and integrity.
What is one problem that renovators have that they don't even know they have?
I think people don’t realize how comfortable they are living in discomfort. You get used to that awkward kitchen corner or that you don’t have the right storage solutions and you just deal with it. Before you know it, it’s been 10 years, but you’ve grown complacent. People’s lives can be much smoother and less stressful if their homes worked better.
At Sweeten, we want as many people as possible to have that feeling of “home sweet home”. Living in a house that doesn't function the way that you want, doesn't operate the way that it should, doesn't look the way that you want it to - all of those things undermine your feelings of how you belong in the world. If you discovered that you could shape your most immediate environment the way that you want, it’s the first step to saying to yourself, "Okay, wow, I was able to accomplish that. What other changes in the world can I make?" It’s empowering.