Jumping Ship: The Truth About Leaving Corporates for Startups

November 17, 2014  |   Blog   |     |   8 Comments

So just over 3 years ago I took the leap from a secure, well-paying corporate job into the dark void of starting a business and have learnt more than I could have ever imagined!

Going into business has been, and continues to be, one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. However it is also one of the best and I love it to pieces as I finally answered the question that plagued me for years – “do I have what it takes?”

When people share their experience of going into business we usually focus on the things they did to achieve success. “How did you do it?” we ask, yet that question only points to the things that worked and neglects those that didn’t – so heres my take, “warts and all”:

I had considered the move for a number of years but didn’t really know how to go about it. I’d read every book on entrepreneurialism, attended uni courses, paid off all debt, saved up a float of 12 months of personal expenses, but still couldn’t make the leap.

The impetus finally came from two friends who had been made redundant, started a business of their own and asked me to join. I knocked around the idea for a couple of weeks then decided it was time to either put-up, or shut-up… so I finally jumped.

Initially it was thrilling… I’d finally taken action, yet none of us could verbalise what we did.

We argued at first, which was initially a concern, until we realised that our disagreements were the fuel that led us to consensus and consensus was good. Arguing constructively was a painful and slow process but with each disagreement our value proposition became clearer, our identity sharpened and our products became less vague.

Twelve weeks later, as the honeymoon period faded and the enormity of what we were attempting became apparent, we reassessed. One founder with 6 children decided that his family needed more security than a start-up could offer and left. Two weeks after that the other business partner was offered a massive job with his old company, which he accepted and moved his family up NSWs north coast.

Bugger.

With the other guys moving on, I decided to start from scratch.

Going alone was daunting but parts of me were also pleased… those friends had helped me make the all-important first step, and now I could model the organisation in whatever form I wanted. After weeks of bouncing concepts off family and friends I decided to make an innovation and social media research project I did the central foundation of the company. From here I built a vision whose inspiration was designed to keep me on track and to offer a reason to keep going despite setbacks. It was/is:

“To elevate human potential through the infusions of digital tools and technology”

Once the vision was set it became pretty straightforward to start building aligning products, so I used the Christmas slow-down to lock myself away and come up with an all encompassing training program to teach people everything I knew.

In retrospect social media was an ambitious starting point. It was a new industry, which meant it had to be built from scratch, so there was no defined path or model to follow in terms of product-sets or billing. Training was my best guess on decent starting point.

So by now I had a single product but no idea who to tell or how to market it so I started organising coffees with anyone and everyone that showed an interest. Fortunately for me social was the flavour of the month and thanks to my experience and research I had a rare expertise that was highly sought.

Now I’d never sold anything before and only had an academic idea what a business model was, which didn’t bode well in terms of making money. I had heaps of awesome conversations, but struggled to convey a value proposition, so no money followed – I knew I had something of worth but just didn’t know how to price that knowledge or structure its delivery.

In all the entrepreneurial literature they talk about the need to be comfortable with risk but what they fail to mention is the anxiety that comes with it, especially early on. At first it felt like heart trouble, but it was anxiety… Four or five nights per week, I’d wake up short of breath, thinking, “What the f*ck are you doing!?!?” “What are you going to do when there’s no money in the bank?”… I couldn’t sleep, I was scared to spend money and life felt like it was out of control.

Looking back I now view these anxiety attacks as growing pains. Shifting from the world of a paid employee to one of your own making requires growth, and growth requires letting go, and letting go means getting comfortable with uncertainty. I still get anxious from time to time, but its rare and thinking of them as a growing pains means I can acknowledge them, then roll over and go back to sleep.

Eventually I did run out of money and was faced with the prospect of giving-up or keeping-on… I took on debt (thanks Mum), killed off my social life and ate far too many noodles.

It was probably around this time that relationships with my friendship shifted also. Some people embraced my efforts, while others edged away. Those that embraced it were not the ones I could have predicted previously, but their words and deeds of support meant the world and I remain eternally grateful even to this day – I still have their notes of encouragement.

Some friends offered to pay for dinners and drinks etc, but that didn’t feel right so I compromised by turning up for that bit where people sit around and chat before or after they eat and joined them then. At the time it was tough but looking back the anticipation of going broke was far worse than the reality.

My first customers came through an old martial arts friend who pulled some strings. They were a lean organisation that needed some consulting and a strategy. I was so desperate to win the business and get that first testimonial I gave them a quote that was less than the cost of delivery. They haggled on the price, which I conceded to straight away and we got to work.

The second came through a contact of Dads who wanted some training up in Armidale. She was a godsend, personally and professionally, and organised a class of people for me to deliver a condensed one-day version of my course – this time I made a profit, just.

Walking into the classroom that day was terrifying, as I had no idea what people would think. That night, after the course I grabbed a glass of wine and nervously read through the feedback forms:

“You have changed the way I thought about social media and how to use it”

“(Loved) honing in on articulating the value for our clients – changing our mindset away from being “I can do this…” “we are…” to a focus on customer value, benefits and solving their problems”

“Our social media strategy was non-existent when I came in today. I have received so many new ideas and ways of thinking that will be very beneficial to my companys journey in social media. I can’t wait to start!”

Whew!!!!

It was around this time that Yammer in the UK discovered my original piece of research and produced an article listing it as the number 1 piece of thought leadership in the area of social media and innovation.

Wow…

Once again all entrepreneurial literature talks about the need to fail fast and to fail forward… but what they don’t tell you is that in the early stages of your business, when all your leads come from personal networks, this can mean failing your friends, and it sucks big time.

Of all the things I’ve learnt over the last three years, learning to embrace failure has been extraordinarily valuable. No matter how hard or long you work to make your product or service the best it can be, and no matter how many successes you have, failure will happen… get used to it.

In terms of failure, over the last three years I have:

  • *Had over 2000 coffees with people that led nowhere
  • *Had critical presentations miss their mark
  • *Held training programs on which I made losses
  • *Run out of money
  • *Built products that weren’t needed
  • *Recommended a supplier to my customers who provided poor work
  • *Underestimated the work required to achieve success
  • *… and more…

Ok, so they don’t sound so tough reading them here, but understand that each one of these was gut wrenching. Each one of these felt like the world was crumbling, and all that had been undertaken was the product of a fool and his delusion. Yup, failure is tough.

However, failure tests the depth of our desire. Through failure we gain insight and inspiration to make things better and never repeat the same mistake again… but it still sucks.

In terms of successes over the same three years I have:

  • *Attracted and transformed a raft of national and international organisations as clients
  • *Worked with governments to change how they connect and collaborate using social media
  • *Presented to over 6,000+ people at a variety of leading industry and academic conferences
  • *Partnered with a major software vendor to consult to their clients
  • *Mentored heads of large organisations to connect with their employees and drive improved engagement and business outcomes
  • *Been appointed to a university research panel specialising in digital disruption
  • *Developed/iterated three generations of products and services
  • *Taught “that” course to around 200 people
  • *Helped a company crowdsource the creation of its corporate strategy across 38 countries
  • *Used gamification to help deliver over $23.4 million worth of operational savings
  • *Built and launched a heap of social campaigns, one of which resulted in over 900% growth in community size
  • *Found like-minded people to join the company help deliver our services
  • *The list goes on…

So after three years the ups and downs of the journey still continue. Selling and structuring are still challenges and probably always will be, however now I have a rare body of knowledge of extraordinary value that was forged from experience. This new insight has made me more confident, more determined and opened a world of possibility where the only limitations I need to be concerned about, are my own.

So if you are thinking about it for yourself, I can only advise that its been worth it for me. It’s a tough a trail that will test your mettle at every turn, mentally, emotionally and financially. However if you have a firm desire, a good support network and can get back onto your feet then move forward after each failure, success is pretty much guaranteed.

Scott (30 Posts)

CEO Digital Infusions

8 Comments for this entry

    Victoria Redman
    November 17th, 2014 on 10:00 PM

    Wow, Scott – what an amazing blog to write and an opportunity to reflect on everything’s you’ve been through.

    Sam
    November 17th, 2014 on 11:30 PM

    Scott,
    Awesome read, the trials and tribulations seem all worth it. Can’t wait to hear about the next stage!
    Sambo

    Graham
    November 19th, 2014 on 9:35 AM

    Not only strategic but articulate!

    Nick
    November 19th, 2014 on 8:21 PM

    That is an insightful and daunting thumbnail of your last three years, your calm exterior really does hide the feet paddling at a 1000 rpm!
    Really happy for you that you have found areas of peace through the change and it feels like you are on the brink of real growth, getting the return on those first 3 years. Great to hear your thoughts and we really believe in you buddy. Keep going

    Andrew
    November 26th, 2014 on 8:01 AM

    Scott, what an insightful piece reflecting on your first three years. I really enjoyed reading how the business started and how you describe your anxiety as ‘growing pains’. Thank you for sharing this journey. I look forward to hearing more as you go further on down the trail.

      Scott
      November 26th, 2014 on 10:49 AM

      Thanks Shamish, its a great life all round

    Michael
    January 19th, 2015 on 9:13 AM

    CONGRATULATIOINS. Hard to do and even more difficult to articulate – you have done both successfully.

      Scott
      January 19th, 2015 on 11:34 AM

      Thanks Michael, really appreciate you taking time to read it through and offer feedback, Scott

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