5 Years On: The Truth About Leaving Corporates For Startups

July 23, 2016  |   Blog   |     |   0 Comment

startupTwo years back, I wrote a “warts and all” exposé on what it was like to jump ship from a big corporate and launch my own start-up. At the time I wrote it to counter the deluge of noise that surrounded the start-up phenomenon which focused exclusively on success at the expense of the other stuff that I thought had more value.

Two years later and I have officially been doing this for five years now…

Five years has always been a personal milestone; Dad would often tell me how 95% of businesses go belly-up in their first year, and of the small remainder left, 95% never live to see their fifth birthday; so for me, getting to the five-year mark represented some sort of finish line and the point in which true knowledge would be obtained.

So what have I learnt?

#1. You can’t do it alone

The reason most businesses fall before their first birthday, is that the road is harder than you think. Shifting from being someone who provides a specialist function within the context of a broader value-chain, to someone who performs every specialist function across the entire value-chain, is pretty much impossible.

In this world, the things you know become the business’s single most important asset, from which all business growth is derived. However, the things you know also become the business’s single biggest limitation, especially when determining a path forward. To counter this, the only real option I’ve found is to seek ways to ferociously expand the knowledge you have access too – such as:

  1. Drink lots of coffee: in my first piece I wrote about the 2,000+ client coffees I had in order to build my business… well I’m still having lots of coffee and lots of conversations… bouncing ideas and getting input across a diversity of perspectives is perpetually critical.
  2. Partner where possible: partnering has been the single most effective strategy in taking the business forward. Having said that, over the last 5 years I’ve explored numerous potential partnerships but only 2 or 3 have actually yielded significant, mutual value (actually the process of partnering is worth its own post). Partners not only increase the amount of knowledge you have available, they open doors to new audiences and provide unique feedback that gives fresh context to what you do.
  3. Conduct an array of experiments: when you are forced to deliver a myriad of functions whilst still meeting the ever changing needs of your customer, you can never stop experimenting. I run two types of experiments:

Iterative experiments: While we now have a proven user journey I still alter between 10 to 20% of what we do with every customer. This approach enables me to deliver something that is robust and has a history of success whilst still testing new ways in which we can be even more effective for our clients – the objective of these experiments is to take our customers deeper, faster.

Radical experiments: Whenever I get the chance I’ll design and run an approach that has been created from scratch, just to explore its potential. Generally, I’ll do these sorts of activities with partners or clients with whom we have a very close relationship, and who are willing to co-create our solution. This sort of experimentation is risky, but fun and is (was) our single biggest secret in maintaining a market advantage.

#2 Products scale, services don’t.

We currently have some industry leading methodologies, however they are delivered through service-based activities and this is a weakness. Last year we ran the biggest race of our lives, servicing a range of clients around the globe, averaging over 100 flights each, and accomplishing things that we thought were impossible.

The adrenalin that came with operating at 110% was exhilarating and at year’s end we collapsed in a highly satisfied heap of exhaustion – we’d succeeded.

Then, very quietly, the old year ended, and a new race emerged from the shadows. In this new race word had spread and more competitors lined up to test their mettle – some were inspired by us, others were extending the domains of an existing interest. All were capable.

This is the eternal challenge of service based businesses; each year, whether you are ready or not, the scoreboard resets itself and the race begins afresh. Each race is progressively more hard fought, and all the previous flights, conversations and victories, mean nothing – In the world of services the real value of your business will only ever be 30% of today’s pipeline, total value of outstanding invoices and what’s in the bank… that’s it.

And it never ends.

I believe this realisation, is the single biggest reason why businesses close within the five-year time frame; working for someone else is soooo much easier. It is also the reason why I am in awe of people like my father-in-law, who ran his own business for over 30 years – that’s like running a 30 year Olympic marathon… amazing.

This is also the reason why I think it’s important to have a product that can stand alone and is scalable.

The market will always change, and will always become increasingly competitive; but having a product that can be consumed in your absence, anchors you in the mindshare of your customers and opens the opportunity to generate recurring revenue streams.

This might sound obvious, but it turns out that shifting from a service business to product business is really tough, and it’s the point in which I find myself now (will post an update sometime in the future) – from what I’ve learnt, going from a start-up to a mature, standalone business is a 10-year process.

#3 Do what you love

I love what I do… I love it with such a passion, that I literally wake every day and can’t wait to get stuck into it.

This whole concept seems pretty obvious now but 5 years ago, dedicating my life to something I loved felt like a fool’s indulgence. Up until then I had spent most of my working life in the corporate world, doing some great jobs but never really exercising the full range of my abilities or interests.

When you work for yourself you HAVE to do the things that you love… this is the only way you can front-up to that race day after day without getting exhausted.

When you do the things you love, your mindset shifts from one of being a competitor (the energy of which is finite) to one of being a creator (the inspiration of which is infinite).

That’s not to say you don’t get tired; you do. There are times when you feel lost in terms of motivation or direction, or stressed at the amount of things that need your attention.

However, when you’re experiencing these lows, invariably the way “out” is “through”; and comes by reconnecting with the thing you love most, then structuring little actions that when added together, compound to bring more of that love into your life… the idea is to finish your day closer to realising your ideal than when you woke up.


So there is it… the sum total of five years in doing it for myself – there are other insights but those are the big ones. Just like the 3-year mark, the road is rocky; but I still love it to pieces and am so grateful for the opportunities and lessons that continue to unfold – I will follow it for as long as I can.

Hitting the five-year milestone, seemed like such a big deal when first starting; and it is, but it’s not. It actually reminds me of a comment a friend made when achieving his 6th-dan black-belt in Karate:

“Most people think that getting a black-belt in Karate is the finish line, but in all honestly it’s not. A black-belt is just an official beginner”

And on reflection that’s what I think the five-year mark actually is… it’s the point in which you become an official beginner.

by @wardsco

Read Part 1 here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141117081831-10531963-jumping-ship-the-truth-about-leaving-corporates-for-startups?trk=mp-reader-card

Note: Thanks to everyone for all the likes, comments and shares… am truly grateful for all the support people have shown in response to this post

Scott (31 Posts)

CEO Digital Infusions

%d bloggers like this: