start-up snakes and ladders

Confession time.

I’ve been working on one of my projects since Autumn last year and it still isn’t ready.

I started it with enthusiasm.  I was free from the shackles of employment.  This was my chance to create something for myself.  Put it out there.  Show what I’m made of.

I attended lots of start-up events, went to pitch evenings, watched live-streams that educated me on “how to work with developers”, “UX journeys for the uninitiated”, “AWS and the Elastic Beanstalk”.  Yes, really.

I followed the rules of first business projects (keep it small; base it on something you know about; don’t spend too much money).  I designed the layout of my website whilst I was away in India before Christmas.  Every evening after sunset, I’d work on it a little more, figuring out the work-flow, the right colour combinations, how many pages my site would need, what features were essential.  My mock-ups were beautifully simple.  I was ready to take on the world.

And then it turned 2013 and my enthusiasm fell off a cliff.

can’t I just go back to bed?

There’s a reason why so many successful entrepreneurs all seem to have boundless energy and the sort of pep that repels me at twenty paces.

It’s because keeping up any degree on motivation on a project is really, really hard.  And it becomes a vicious circle.

circle of despair

spiral of despair

Helpfully, the Mack has taken away all of my shoelaces, belts, etc.  And I’m no longer allowed out on the balcony unsupervised.

a real product development cycle

You see all these articles about product development with fancy graphics and jargon about the key stages of the development cycle.  They make out that there’s a sign-posted, well-lit cycle path, shielded from oncoming traffic, leading you to your dream destination.  Not in my experience.  It’s closer to a cruel game of snakes and ladders…

game of life

game of life

tantalisingly close

My project, which is a website where creatives (designers, photographers, film-makers, copy writers), can buy customised contracts for their businesses – so they don’t have to waste time and money on lawyers – is so very close to being ready.

But it feels like my bastard child.  I’m struggling to give it any love and attention.  I’m favouring other projects.  And, as a result, it keeps throwing tantrums and breaking things.

Every time I go to test that it works, the entire site crashes and comes up with a MySQL error message that sends shivers down my spine.  I have developers on standby to complete the last tidying up bits, but I can’t tell them what needs doing because I can’t get past a certain point before it boots me out.

I try to purchase a contract through the site and my Paypal account is blocked.  They need to verify my home address by calling my land line.  What is this, 1992?  Who the hell still has a land line?  I try to call customer services (from my mobile, not my non-existent land line).  The number they give doesn’t connect.  I’ve emailed them, but who knows if they’ll ever get back to me.  I’m stuck in a Paypal freeze-out.

I can’t help but have that feeling that the closer I get to completion, the further away it recedes.  Taunting me from just out of reach.  Probably sipping on pina coladas in some tropical oasis.

If I’ve learned one thing from this process it’s that you have to do some work on your project every single day to stay on top of it and keep momentum going.  Even if it’s only a small thing.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  No excuses.  No let up.  No quitting.  Projects fail because people give up on them.  I don’t care if my projects fail because people (ungrateful morons) don’t want my product.  I do care if they fail because I couldn’t be bothered to see them through.

Woo Hoo.  Feeling pumped.  Dear Paypal….. I’m not sure you noticed, but it’s not 1992….

eliminating obstacles to success…one at a time

I realised today, whilst strolling along deserted beaches to a beautiful lagoon in Tibau do Sul, Brazil, that I’ve written a lot recently about my travels and not quite so much about my business. Which probably leads most of you to think that all this “business” stuff is just my way of saying that I couldn’t hack it in the rat race and have decided to give myself the rest of my life off.

Nearly, but not quite.

If you remember, the idea wasn’t so much to drop off the grid entirely, it was more to set the grid to roaming. Seeing if it were possible to have a work/travel/bank balance.  Not spending more than 4 months at a time in the UK unless there was a very good reason (either I was incarcerated, or in traction, or my mum simply forbade me from flitting off again).  But getting some sort of business up and running to pay for the travels, so that I wasn’t burning through my cash.

Again.  Nearly, but not quite.  (Getting there.)

At the time I started all this, I hadn’t factored on The Mack getting in on the act.  With hindsight, it’s probably one of the reasons that we got together.  But I was so busy thinking that he’d Derren Brown-ed me into being his girlfriend that I wasn’t paying attention.  All that tappety-tap-tapping my shoulder and repeating seemingly innocuous words.  And leaving a trail of gingerbread men on my route to our first date.  I mean.  The Mack is ginger.  And he’s a man.  The fact that I didn’t see them because they’d been squashed by passing commuters didn’t stop their subliminal power.

Anyway, much as I would love to lay the blame for my lack of results squarely at The Mack’s door by saying that he’s diverted my focus, jumped on the start-up bandwagon, addled my brain with wantrepreneurial jargon… that would be (1) wrong, (2) wrong and (3) wrong.  Because, if the truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have got as far as I have if it weren’t for him.

Thanks to The Mack, I’ve identified the top 3 things that have been stopping me making progress on the business side of things and I’ve figured out a solution to each of them.

Issue #1:  Never Seeing Anything Through to the End

I am excellent at starting things.  And doing a nice design.  I am less successful when it comes to completing anything.  Or caring at all after about 2 weeks.  Or when someone distracts me with something shiny.

Apparently, this lack of motivation for really pushing through on my projects is down to my inherent pessimism.

You say pessimist, I say realist.  Let’s call the whole thing off…

Solution #1:  Learned Optimism

The Mack bought me a great book by a guy who made up the idea that you can learn to be more optimistic and that it will transform your life.  I was a little sceptical.  Oh wait…

I started reading it and my productivity levels went right up.

Unfortunately, I **accidentally** left it in the seat back of the plane to Buenos Aires.

What a downer.

Issue #2:  Contrasting Working Styles

I have discovered through this process that I’m quite difficult to work with.  I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why that is, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that I need to get my own way on everything because my way is the right way and everybody else is stupid and wrong.

I don’t know.  It might be that.  It probably isn’t though.  Probably it’s The Mack’s fault.  For being stupid and wrong.

Solution #2:  Working Space

I think that space is very important when you’re a couple working together.  Right now it’s about 4,500 miles and things seems to be going well.

Issue #3:  Hating the Game

I have a slight problem with the whole start up scene.  I think it’s the combination of self-congratulation and jaw-dropping naivety that sticks in my craw.  And when I say slight problem: what I mean is utter contempt.

I’m not even sure how I ended up working on start ups.  I think my plan was just to have my own business.  I don’t remember ever talking about wanting to build a start up.  Tappety-tap-tap….

Solution #3:  Hate the Player

Hell, this one’s easy.  Every time I catch The Mack reading one of Paul Graham’s essays or signing up to a General Assembly workshop, I openly despise him.

I think now that I’ve eliminated these issues, progress will come in leaps and bounds.  Stay tuned, people.

girl on girl action… networking for fierce women

Look away now if you are of a sensitive disposition, but I consider myself a feminist.  Brought up in an all-female, intelligent, self-sufficient household, this was only going one way.  It’s something I’m proud of.

But here’s the rub.  I have always instinctively shied away from any women-for-women type groups.  I think that it’s because I’ve never personally encountered any barriers to career progression or missed out on opportunities just because I’m a woman.  Or it’s because I can’t stand Loose Women.  One of the two.

That’s not to say that I can’t score a full house in City-boy chauvinist bingo.  Been eyed up when I’ve walked into a meeting room full of guys?  Yep.  Been bought champagne and inappropriate presents by clients when my male colleagues got diddly squat?  Yep.  Been complimented on my outfit/shoes, whilst they have a good gawp at my arse/legs.  Yep.  Been the only girl in meetings with male investment bankers taking turns to peacock (deliberate emphasis) and talking about strippers?  Bingo.

In spite of all that nonsense, I’ve always preferred to work with men.  I’ve found the dynamic more straight-forward, less loaded, less-mercurial.  I’ve felt freer to say what I think and to challenge decisions.  And my own experience has been that I’ve been encouraged, my abilities trusted and my contribution hugely recognised.

In contrast, I (and many of my friends) have had difficult working relationships with other women.  I’ve encountered pettiness, barbed put-downs and being undermined in front of colleagues and clients.  Friends have been held back from long-overdue promotions, been wickedly out-manoeuvred by colleagues they thought of as friends, and been given career-stunting appraisals from female bosses threatened by their talent.  It’s pure, childish playground ganging-up and the few rare times that I have cried at work have been because one of the other girls has been mean to me.

So every time I read something that says that we need more women on boards of companies or that it’s a disgrace that the pay gap still hasn’t shrunk, I whole-heartedly agree.  But I also know that we cannot lay the blame any more on the old boys’ network.  Because at least the boys, in the main, are promoting one another.

mean girls

What makes me sad (and it really does upset me), is that women are still holding other women back.  All the bloody time.  And it’s got to stop, ladies.  Because if we’re not helping one another, encouraging one another to succeed and supporting one another, then we sure as hell can’t whinge when the guys don’t do it for us.

I don’t get it.  It’s hard enough as it is, with the potent nature and nurture cocktail that women get of self-doubt, perfectionism, self-sacrifice and that feeling that we’re doing a terrible job of even pretending that we’re holding it together.  Why do we make it harder for one another?  Why do we make it so competitive, so unpleasant, so destructive?

My sister blames the Daily Mail.  It spews a constant stream of sanctimonious bile and judgment against women – at least any woman over a size 6. Denouncing single mothers as the root of all evil, working mothers as the cause of society’s demise, and voluntarily childless women as selfish freaks of nature.  And it has Liz Jones as its female figurehead.  A woman who has single-handedly done more to erode the advancement of womankind than any other person in my lifetime.  Thank you Daily Hell.  For nothing.

I don’t want it to be like this.  I don’t want to feel that in order to succeed I need to show that I have bigger balls than the guys.  I don’t want to perpetuate the sort of macho bullshit posturing that so many people (men and women) seem to think is ok in business.

I want to run a business surrounded by people I respect and who (hopefully) respect me.  I want to work with people who are smarter than me, because a wise man once told me that the only way your business gets better is if you hire people who are more talented than you.  I want to stay a normal human being and be nice and kind to people.  Because that’s how I am in the rest of my life, so why should I be any different at work?

bizzie birds

So… because I get that the only way to bring about change is to stop mithering and do something about it, I have decided, against my instincts, to join some women-focused business groups.  And I’ll admit to finding it difficult.  The Mack calls it my “bizzie birds” stuff.  It makes me want to punch him in the face.

I have contributed an article to a website called Women Unlimited which provides advice and support to female small business owners.  I had to check myself when I noticed that I was dumbing it down, in case the little women couldn’t understand the message.  Please take a look at their website, it is really accessible and encouraging

I went to a networking event hosted by The Next Women magazine.  It was a pitch evening for female co-founders to present their businesses to a panel of angel investors.  The keynote speakers were brilliant.  The investors were the real deal.  The ideas pitched were pretty much the same as at every other event I’ve been to recently, which made me quietly despair.  But the biggest revelation for me was that I realised I felt much more uncomfortable networking in a roomful of women than if it had been a mixed group or mostly guys.  I couldn’t help myself comparing shoes…

Shame on me.

Clearly, I still have some way to go.  I met a couple of great people and we have agreed to be cheerleaders for one another.  I’m going to stick with it, because I find it hilarious that even though women have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to making connections and being supportive, we are hideously bad at networking in business.

I think part of it is a feeling that we shouldn’t be asking for anyone’s help if we can’t offer something in return.  Men don’t have this insecurity.  I’ll give you an example.  The Mack went to a work thing recently where Chris Boardman (Olympic cyclist) was giving a speech.  The Mack thought nothing of collaring Chris afterwards and chewing his ear off.  The result, they’ve swapped contact details and I know that The Mack won’t hesitate to contact Chris in the future if he needs advice on the best bicycle clips.

I think we girls just need more practice.  Because the more that we all share our expertise and contacts and experience and wealth, the easier it will become for all of us.  And if it means that we have to be fierce (in a nice, Beyonce sort of way) and fearless about it, then fine – just give me a minute to get my best shoes on, and I’ll be right with you, sisters.

Just don’t make me watch Loose Women.

business planning 101

Business plans have a bad rep these days.  I’m not sure what happened.  Maybe they let themselves go, piled on a few pounds and stopped returning calls…

I suspect that the issue lies with the idea of what a business plan should be (dense and serious) and what it should contain (lots of dry facts and figures, a liberal sprinkling of pie charts).

Whatever the reason, whenever I talk to someone about their fledgling business, nothing gets me stonewalled quicker than asking them how they put their business plan together.  Particularly in the tech or creative sectors.  Business plans are seen as old-school, flabby and a waste of time that could be spent creating an amazing viral campaign.

Well, call me old-fashioned and pour me a sherry, but I’m pretty certain that they still have their place.  I’ve yet to be in an investor meeting where the money guys have said “we’re not interested in your business plan, just show us that cool remote-controlled egg timer app again”.  (If you do know money guys like that, please send them my way.  Especially if they want to invest in egg timer apps.  I sense a real opportunity in emerging markets).

I actually think that if you were to ask most people running a business what’s the one thing they wished they’d done better at the beginning – the response would be: planning how to manage their business and make money from it.

So in the immortal words of Tag Team – Whoomp There It Is… I’m takin’ it back to the old school…’Cause I’m an old fool who’s so cool (they said it, not me)… and below are some suggested questions to help you generate your very first business plan.

BUSINESS PLAN QUESTIONNAIRE *

1.  PRODUCTS / SERVICES:

  • What products / services are you planning to offer to customers?  Describe in detail.
  • What differentiates your products / services from similar products / services in the market?
  • Who are your competitors? List categories and specific businesses.
  • What does your business stand for (e.g. value-for-money, quality, craftsmanship, innovation, philanthropy)?
  • What testing have you done to ensure that there is a market for your product / services?

2.  CUSTOMERS:

  • Who are your target customers? Describe demographic and customer characteristics.
  • What are your customers’ needs and expectations and how will you service these?
  • How will you attract new customers? (e.g. word of mouth, advertising, discount marketing – groupon, wowcher etc.)
  • How will you encourage customer retention / repeat custom? (e.g. loyalty programmes, refer-a-friend discounts, package deals)

3.  MARKETING:

  • What existing marketing tools/materials do you have? (e.g. current customers who can give testimonials)
  • What are the best marketing tools to reach your target customer audience? (e.g. website, flyers, word of mouth, social media)
  • What experience do you have in marketing and / or what budget have you allocated for marketing?

4.  CAPACITY/LOGISTICS:

  • How many hours per week can you devote to your business? If part-time, draw up a realistic schedule of available hours.
  • How / where will you provide the services/products (e.g. online, via a shop, at home, mail-order) and what type of costs are associated with your delivery method (e.g. travel, heating, lighting, electricity etc)?
  • Do you foresee any problems with your delivery method:
    • for you?
    • for your customers?
  • Do you have everything in place to begin providing the services or products?  If not, what preparation, money and time is required on your part to get you to this point?
  • What is your capacity (the maximum number of customers you can service)?  What would enable you to increase that capacity?
  • Do you need anyone else to help you deliver your product / service to your customers?  If so, how do you intend to work with that person / service provider (e.g. employee, contractor etc.)?
  • Do you have all the necessary licenses and business permits you need to operate your business?

5.  FINANCIAL:

  • What is your current monthly income?
  • How many hours do you currently work to generate that income?
  • How much of that income are you looking to replace with the income from your new business?
  • Is there any deadline for replacing some / all of that income (e.g. because your job is being made redundant, your company has cut back on your hours etc.)?
  • What is your proposed pricing schedule for your product / service? Make sure you list out any one-off fees, discounts, bulk-pricing etc.  How does this compare against your competitors’ prices?
  • What are your monthly costs of providing the services? For each cost on your list above, try to get as accurate an estimate of amounts as possible.
  • What capital expenditure (if any) will you need to spend in order to provide the services (e.g. on equipment, premises etc.) and when will you need to spend this?
  • How long will it be before you start to break even?  How long before you generate enough money to pay yourself a salary?
  • Who will manage your accounts for you?

6.  GENERAL:

  • Why do you want to start this business?  What are your drivers and goals?
  • What obstacles do you see to making this business a success?  How might you overcome these obstacles?
  • What help is available to your type of business (e.g. government grants, local enterprise schemes, mentor assistance, crowd funding)?
  • What are your current plans / timetable for expanding the business?  What capital would you need in order to achieve this?  Where will you obtain this investment?
  • If you had unlimited capital investment, what would you do with it to expand the business?

 

*DISCLAIMER: the above is not intended for you if you are pitching for capital investment.  You’re gonna need some pie charts for that…

the rise of the wantrepreneur

Most of you won’t know this, but I have a visceral hatred of joining in.  I’m not sure what it stems from psychologically, but it’s a feeling shared by my sisters.   Maybe because there are four of us siblings and my mum’s one of eight, so between our extended family, friends etc., we’ve got a capacity rent-a-crowd going on without any effort at all.  No joining required.

It’s not that I can’t be sociable.  It’s just that I hate forced fun.  Or the sort of verging-on-hysterical collective enthusiasm that seems to spawn from spending the weekend with a bunch of strangers on any sort of “teamwork” exercise.

All told, it’s a miracle I made it to Launch48.  I suspect that The Mack may have slipped something into a glass of milk to get me there, B.A. Baracus style.  I pity this fool…

But make it I did (I may have turned up a little late… Ha! Take that, organisers, you’re not the boss of me…).  I spent a total of 28 hours over a weekend in the company of strangers, in a room with no windows.  And I paid for the privilege.

Launch48: the concept 

Here’s their schtick:  willing punters pitch ideas for tech/online businesses on the Friday night; you pick a team to join and spend all day Saturday and Sunday developing your idea, building your prototype and launching it to critical acclaim.

It’s run by a team of facilitators and mentors with different business backgrounds and skill sets to give you guidance (for which read idea-shredding) over the course of the weekend.  It’s part of Oxygen Accelerator, a scheme that takes nascent start-ups and provides a framework and seed funding to grow their business to the next level.  The idea being that Launch48 funnels great talent or great ideas into a ready-made incubator system.

There’s no specific methodology taught here – it’s not like Lean Startup Machine which is all about the process – it’s more about learning as you go and relying on the skills of your team members and input from the mentors.

the rise of the wantrepreneur 

The thing that struck me the most over the weekend was that it confirmed this growing feeling I’ve had since deciding to go into business for myself.  That entrepreneurialism is now a mainstream aspiration.  And every man, woman and dog is trying their hand at it.  There’s even a term for them (me): wantrepreneur.  Catchy.

And the fact is, the barriers to becoming an entrepreneur (particularly an online entrepreneur) have never been lower.  I’ve added links at the end of this post to various projects that were launched over the Launch48 weekend. This shows what can be created in a really short period of time, with limited resource and pretty much zero capital.  Pretty impressive.

Now some of you will be reading this thinking – great, the internet has democratised what was once the preserve of the rich, or the well-connected, or the MBA graduate.  And I agree that there is something cool in entrepreneurship being more accessible.

But I can’t help but feel that maybe Elvis has left the building.  Or is at least on his way to the loo….

My concerns are threefold:

  • It’s too easy to ignore the doubts:  because it’s so relatively simple and cheap to translate an idea into an online presence, people forget that just because you can create an app for something or create an online service or product, it doesn’t mean that you have a business.

My Launch48 team was as guilty of this as anyone.  We created a web-based app to help people be more organised.  We identified a niche market for that product and it had some useful functionality.  But when we looked closer, the problem that our product was designed to solve really wasn’t that big a problem for our target market.  And for our affiliate revenue model to work, we needed a lot of customers to use our product. Bottom line: if customers don’t really care about the problem you’re trying to solve, then that’s a hobby project, not a business.  I’m out.

  • It’s a crowded marketplace: nowadays, you do any kind of competitor analysis on your idea and chances are Google is going to spit out a gazillion hits of people all doing something similar in your target space.  Some of the mentors I spoke to about this said they weren’t worried.  That the best ideas, if well-executed, will always rise to the top.

I’m not so sure.  I don’t think it’s enough to do something well.  I think that from the customer perspective, all that competitor noise in the market is a huge distraction.  It diverts attention away from your idea.  It turns customers off.  Unless you’ve got a truly unique angle or you’re in another league to your competition, to them you’re just another [insert your product or service here].

  • It seduces you into thinking building a business is easy:  I worked for a company that grew to four times its size over the four years I was there.  I’ve seen first-hand just how difficult it is to build a sustainable, dynamic business from scratch.  Getting your idea to some tangible form is barely step one.  Turning that into a real business is the rest of the story.  I like that there are programmes like Oxygen Accelerator that try to help fledgling startups find their feet, because it’s pretty brutal out there if you’re trying to do this alone.

I like to think that I’ve picked up a bit of experience over the past 10 years.  And I still don’t feel equipped to run a real business.  I know that it will be a continuous learning curve and I’m fully prepared to fall flat on my face.  I’m all in favour of enthusiasm and having a go.  But I think there’s wisdom in knowing when to get help from more experienced people and learning to identify when it’s time to pull the plug, rather than pivot.

wanna join in?

If you’re thinking of attending a Launch48, Lean Startup Machine, Startup Weekend or any of the other workshops that are springing up all over town, here’s my guide to help you decide if it’s for you:

It’s for you:

– if you just want to see what this start-up lark’s all about;

– if you want to meet enthusiastic fellow wantrepreneurs and share ideas in an open, encouraging and facilitated environment;

– if you’ve got a burning idea and want to test it without spending much money and by using resources (designers, developers, mentors) that you might not otherwise have access to.  One of the Launch48 teams had a fairly well-developed idea and they used the weekend primarily to get developers to help them with A/B testing of various websites.

– if you’re not quite ready to work on your own idea, but want to try out some of the methods for validating business ideas – essentially a trial run before you go and do it for yourself.  You’ll pick up tips (using launchrock for a free landing page instead of paying for unbounce; using Amazon Web Services for pretty much everything your baby web app might need) that’ll save you time and money.

– if you want to talk to people who are already living the tech start-up dream.  The mentors are encouraging but realistic.  They’re not there to humour you, they’re there to challenge your hypotheses, test your assumptions and make you think like an entrepreneur.  They don’t hold back and they don’t sugar coat their feedback.  But they do know their onions and they’re more than happy to share their knowledge and experience.

– if you want to get discounts on useful products and services.  All of the weekend bootcamps provide participants with a great range of discounts, worth £thousands, on useful services – google adwords, free hosting, design services etc.

What it’s not:

– it’s not the place to come if you’re determined to work only on your idea.  We lost around 1/3 of participants after the Friday night.  They came, they pitched, their ideas weren’t chosen and they didn’t bother coming back.  If that were me, I  would be taking that feedback seriously.  If you can’t sell it to a bunch of eager wantrepreneurs, you might want to take another look at your idea, buddy…

– it’s not the place to find developers (although apparently Launch48 in Croatia is that place).  Developers were outnumbered by business peeps by about 8 to 1.  We didn’t have a developer in our team, so don’t come to one of these events expecting it to be a hackathon.  It’s not.

– it’s not the place to come to learn all the steps in creating and launching a tech start-up.  There are no teaching sessions – you get on with it as best you know how.  If skills are what you need, Launch48 has just set up some one day practical workshops for specific skills (e.g. customer discovery; methods for validating ideas etc.) or look at General Assembly‘s programme of workshops and webinars.

– if you already have great business experience, then it’s not the environment to pick up any radical new business skills.  The same principles as apply to any business apply to tech startups.  I think that the participants who got the most out of the weekend were those who had great ideas but perhaps lacked some of the business-planning and execution experience that the mentors could provide.

If anyone has any questions on Launch48 or Lean Startup Machine, then please post in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank the Launch48 organisers for putting up with my world-weary cynicism, general bolshiness and unsolicited “feedback”.

A few of the Launch48 London Teams:

mo’ money, mo’ problems

The dreadful thing about having a steady job and a decent monthly salary is that you become conditioned to believe that you need it.  And if you don’t particularly enjoy your job, then that salary becomes the justification for sticking it out and the means of paying for all those treats you buy yourself to make up for it.  Sound familiar??

Allegedly, there’s a button on Word Press that allows you to insert a poll.  I am nowhere near that level of technical wizardry, but if I were to do a poll of top reasons for not starting something new, I’d guess that lack of cash/fear of financial meltdown would come up pretty high.  Understandable, perhaps, but (whispers), I think you might be using this as an excuse…

what’s it worth?

I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to walk away from a salary.  It’s not.  I thought long and hard about when to do it.  I gave 3 months’ extra notice on my job, just to get that bit more cash in the bank and to give myself time to adjust to thinking about my finances differently.

But ultimately, I decided that I valued my time more than I valued the money I was earning.  Ask me again in 12 months’ time, but right now I wouldn’t go back to employment for all the tea in China.

easy for you to say

I hear you.  It’s easy for me to enthuse about lifestyle changes when I’m childless, mortgage-less, debt-free and have no dependents relying on me.  That’s all true.  But I still have financial obligations.  I pay a staggering amount of monthly rent and council tax on my flat (London, I love you dearly, but you’re killing me).  I don’t have a pension, stocks or shares or any other security, except the cash in my bank and my earning potential.

I’m not here to tell you that my way is the best way.  That everyone should quit their jobs, eschew material things and live like financial nomads in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

It’s just that I’ve realised that this is the best way for me, right now.  And maybe it’s something you’ve wondered about.  In which case, use what I’ve learned so far to see what your options are.

you do the math*

I’m a little scared of money.  I didn’t have a lot growing up, so I’m probably more fearful than most about not having enough.  In my last job, I did a lot of forecasting and financial modelling for investment raising and I learned to read a balance sheet, P&L and cash-flow statement.  So when I was trying to decide if I could afford to leave my job, I applied that learning to my own finances.

Personal balance sheet

Crucial first step: you need to work out what you’ve got in terms of assets and liabilities.

If you’re a whizz on excel, then start using a spreadsheet for your personal finances.  It does all the number crunching for you, so you’re less likely to make mistakes.  Otherwise, just write it out old-school in a notebook.

You need two columns: Assets and Liabilities.

Under the “Assets” column, list out all your assets (the value of your house/flat/car, cash in the bank, stocks and shares, pension, ISAs, premium bonds, etc.).

Under the “Liabilities” column, list out all your liabilities (your current total mortgage owing, credit card debts, car repayments, etc.).

Deducting the total amount of Liabilities from the total amount of Assets, gives you your basic net worth in money terms.  It will either be a positive number (i.e. what you own is greater than what you owe) or negative (i.e. what you owe is greater than what you own).

Remember, it’s a snapshot of this moment in time and will change, but it gives you a good indication as to whether you have assets you can free up to finance your lifestyle change.  Don’t panic if the picture looks bleak.  A negative personal balance sheet doesn’t mean you’re stuck as a wage slave forever.  It’s only part of the equation.

Cash-flow

Next, you need to work out your average monthly cash-flow, so you know what you need to earn to meet your commitments.  For this you need 3 columns: a blank first column, then “Monthly Income” and “Monthly Expenditure”.

In your first column, list out each category of income and each category of expenditure, as this allows you to do a more detailed projection.  Then deduct the total expenditure from the total income, to get your balance.

It should look something like this:

Do this exercise for at least 3 months back (go through your bank statements to work out each month’s expenditure).  This will help you to then get an average of your monthly income and outgoings.  This is essential before you even begin to consider giving up your salary.

You need to know that your assets (from Step 1 above) and your non-salary income are sufficient to meet your expenditure requirements going forward.

Remember: not all assets are created equal.  Cash is king, because you can get at it readily.  Having a house that’s worth a lot of money does not help with cash-flow, because it will take time to remortgage it or sell it to get cash in your hand.

what’s the plan, Stan?  

It pains me to tell you, guys, but quitting your job and going solo does require a bit of planning.  There’s nothing that sours the satisfaction of giving the 2-fingered salute to full-time employment like having no way to pay your rent next month.

So don’t rush it.  It’s rarely so bad that you can’t stick it out a couple more months.

You’ve got your balance sheet and cash-flow data, so use it to forecast your new life.

1.     Improve your cash-flow (or stop spending so much goddam money on stuff you don’t need)

  • I’m not a massive consumer (unless you count booze, in which case I’m right up there with the best of them).  I’m also pretty thrifty.  I have spidey sense to spot the “reduced to clear” stickers in the supermarket.  I rarely shop for clothes and, when I do, I sell a load of my back-wardrobe on eBay (seller name raghi77 if you’re interested…).  Before you buy anything, ask yourself if it will help or hinder your new lifestyle.
  • I spend my money on experiences – travel, festivals, gigs, nights out with friends, spa sessions.  These don’t come cheaply, but they do tend to come less frequently, so it helps with cash-flow.  I also tend to pay for these on a cheap credit card (look for 0% balance transfers and purchase deals on moneysupermarket.com), so I have longer to pay them off.
  • If you can start up your business by working on it during weekends/evenings around your existing job, then for gawd’s sake do that.  Keep the money rolling in from your salary to finance it, so that the financial risk is lower.
  • Consider going part-time or freelance for your existing company.  You may feel like you couldn’t stand to work another day, but you’d be surprised how differently you feel once you’re in control of your time.
  • Before you quit, sign up with some temp agencies for your specialism.  Knowing that you can get a few weeks’/months’ work here and there as you need it helps to keep the fear gremlins at bay.
  • Separate your bank accounts.  Put the majority of your savings beyond easy reach somewhere where it’s earning a reasonable rate of interest.  Set up a standing order to feed your monthly cash requirement into your day-to-day account and have a second current account with a buffer amount in it, for contingencies.  Then learn to live within your means (easier said than done!!).

2.     Weave your safety net

Ask yourself what you could realistically do to get money in if you were in a tight spot or to finance your new business plans.  For most people, this will mean looking at your assets on your balance sheet and working out how to make some money out of them. For example, you could:

  • rent out / sell / remortgage your house
  • cash in stock options / ISAs / pensions
  • borrow money
  • sell other assets (car, clothes, furniture)

Clearly these are big decisions and should not be taken lightly unless you derive perverse pleasure from riding a financial rollercoaster.  But what I’m trying to get across is that most people have options when it comes to money.  These options may seem terrifying and some may be totally inappropriate for your circumstances, but they should all be factored in to your financial planning.

Knowing that you have a safety net (or starting to weave one) allows you to shift your focus away from simply surviving to creating your new life.

I am fortunate that I have a reasonable amount of money saved up to support me.  But I’ve also downsized my living arrangements, cashed in my Oyster card (getting around by bike also keeps me fit), stopped getting my hair cut so frequently and haven’t been into a clothes shop in 6 months.

I’m still working on cutting down on my £10-a-pop cocktail habit…..

 *sorry for the Americanism, but it scans better…

the art of esc-apology

3 signs that you’re ready to escape your city job:

  1. your anxiety dreams always involve a lot of corridors, large rodents and only being able to run backwards in slo-mo
  2. you quiz the servers in Starbucks or Waitrose on their hours, pay and general job satisfaction
  3. your pee is hazchem yellow, courtesy of Berocca, but you’re still ill every time you take holiday

I knew I wanted out pretty much from the in.  Sure, I was seduced by the free Monday night bar, the mid-week softball games and power dressing.  But that stuff wears off.

Maths was one of my strong subjects and it didn’t take me long to figure out that:

Then you realise:

Are they hiring us for our brains or gullibility?  But don’t worry, it all makes sense because of the career satisfaction and the quality work and the job security.  Oh wait……

my escape route  

Ok, so I’m still feeling my way through this business lark and I can’t claim any financial success yet (give me a break, it’s only been 2 months and I spent most of that time partying in Ibiza and watching the Olympics…).

But here’s how I did it and some tips if you want to come join this brave new world.

  • Big firm pedigree:  I started my career at a big, prestigious firm.  That tells people that I must be incredibly smart, well trained in my specialism and know how to be professional.  Which helps my credibility nowadays when I turn up for client meetings in denim shorts and floral trainers.
  • Small firm experience: I never ultimately wanted to work for major banks or corporates.  My target client base was fashion designers and other creatives.  So I downsized after 3 years to a firm with these types of clients.  The benefits: massively increased client contact and autonomy and no real salary drop once you factor in tax.
  • Industry expertise: I wanted to be in business, but not in the business of providing legal services to lots of clients.  So I stepped sideways with a twist.  I went to work for a fashion comms agency in a hybrid legal/commercial role.
    • I set up a new company division doing licensing deals for fashion designers/celebs using the commercial experience (deal structure, royalty rates etc.) gained from doing exactly that whilst in my small firm; and
    • I was global legal counsel for the company, which meant that I was intimately involved with the running of the business and helped the founders with their decision-making.  That meant I got to practise business skills with someone else’s money and reputation.
  • Financial independence: I saved some money to cash-flow me for a set period of time without a salary whilst I’m starting up my business.  Let’s face it, when you’re working all hours, you don’t have time to spend it, so that bit should be relatively easy.  If it’s not, then you need to take a good, hard look at your ridiculously frivolous lifestyle and trim the fat.  Gents, ditch the gadget addiction.  Ladies, stop kidding yourselves that shopping is a legitimate hobby.
  • Safety in numbers: Before I quit, I spoke to loads of people who don’t have a conventional office-based working life, to find out how they cope.  Weirdly, practically all the new people I’ve met since I decided to escape the slog are part-timers, freelancers, semi-retired, remote-workers and business jugglers.  The fact that none of them are living on the bread line and all seem to be enjoying quite a nice lifestyle, thank you very much, encouraged me to join their ranks.

There are lots of resources/communities online for non-traditional working lifestyles.  Check out Escape the City for information and inspiration.

  • Tell everyone: There’s nothing like announcing your plan to quit to actually force you to do it.  So tell your friends, your family, your colleagues, your bosses (that last one kinda counts as no going back).  I gave my employers 6 months’ notice.  It gave them time to figure out how to replace me.  It gave me time to get used to the idea of not working and to plan for it.  It meant that I left on great terms with everyone and with a lot of people wanting me to succeed and who can possibly help me in my business down the line.

And that was it.  I left my job with nothing to move on to.  It felt like the right time for me to do my own thing and give freedom a whirl.

And in the words of Dumb and Dumber: “I like it. I like it a lot.”

hello hello

Hello and welcome to my blog all about quitting my job and starting up my own business.

First blog posts are a bit strange.  You know that no-one except your mum and a few of your mates are going to read them.  So you feel a bit silly and self-indulgent writing great swathes of advice and anecdotes.  But that doesn’t stop you putting in hours of effort, just in case anyone else stumbles across your posts. 

Then you have that anxious anticipation, wondering how many followers you’ll get (and persuading your mum and mates to sign up from various random email addresses to boost your numbers…. ahem).

so why am I making myself do this..?

Mainly, to give me something to do whilst everyone else out there is making an honest living.

But also because even though I’ve been quite successful in my career, I always admired people who started up their own thing.  And even though I’ve helped run and shape businesses, I’ve still always had the sense that “starting a business” is this mystical thing that only natural born entrepreneurs can do.

I don’t feel like an entrepreneur.  I definitely don’t look like an entrepreneur.  Hmmmm, maybe I’m not cut out to be an entrepreneur….

how hard can it be?

I think that a lot of us (me included) are scared off by this idea that in order to be successful in business, you have to be this dynamic, well-connected, wheeler-dealer with big, game-changing ideas and ready-made speech bubbles of marketing spiel coming out of your mouth.

But then you look around and realise just how many people are starting and running their own businesses.  Your hairdresser, the local shopkeepers, your friend who does freelance graphic design.  And none of them look like Richard Branson.

So I’ve decided to write this blog to give myself a focus for starting up my own thing.  To jot down tips and advice that I find along the way and share that with you, my 3 loyal readers (thanks guys!).

I’m not a natural entrepreneur, but I am a natural encourager and if I can encourage just a couple of people to have a go at doing something for themselves, then it’ll all be worthwhile.

I would love to get feedback on posts (please play nicely!).  Also, if there are topics you’d like to know about, then shout and I’ll do my best to cover them.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you again soon.

Caroline x