This is the 15-min talk that I gave last night at the Adam Street Club for Tomax’s ‘From Bathtub to Boardroom’ talk. It was a lot of fun (especially hearing Simon Woodroffe’s story) and I thought I would share my notes with you here. Apparently the guys filmed the evening so I’m sure there’ll be some embarrassing videos being shared in due course.

5 Made-Up ‘Rules’ For Starting A Business With Little Money & No Relevant Experience

Why made-up rules? Because this quote from Al Humphreys is spot on: “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men” – and we’ve learnt that there is no set way for building a business. Do it your own way.

One of the most rewarding things about starting Escape the City are the amazing messages we get from people who like what we’re doing. We got this one yesterday:

“I have been receiving the Monday morning email updates for a few weeks now and find them really helpful; the ever burgeoning resource of the internet can be so difficult to navigate at times that finding pertinent data can take an age. The top 10 email, apart from reminding me that I need to leave this office malarkey, gives that valuable insight from people who have made the leap and taken the risk. This delivers enough of a prod at the beginning of seemingly endless week ahead to ‘keep the faith’  and attempt to navigate away from being any sort of fish in any size of pond, to become a happy individual who doesn’t compare their life to a dank, dark, and murky volume of water. So in short…thanks!”

Sounds really worthy but actually Escape the City started as a much more selfish endeavour. We had had enough of working in the corporate world. That’s a separate – more ranty – talk than this one. But the bottom line was that when we looked at our manager’s job, our director’s job, and the partner’s job we realised that we didn’t want to continue our careers in the corporate mainstream.

So the starting point for Esc was wanting to solve our own problem by escaping our jobs.

It was only when we realised that this was a problem that lots of people shared that we realised were faced with an idea that could become a business… But by building a company aimed at solving a problem (and it being a problem that was shared by masses of people) we knew that if we got the platform and product right – people would like it.

So what is this all about? Esc & Our Story:

Escape the City is the business that I started a year and a half ago with Dom Jackman. Esc is designed as a community for corporate professionals who want to do something different with their careers. What is different? Find an exciting job. Start your own business. Go on a big adventure.

We started with a basic blog and began communicating our idea. No funding, no online experience, no entrepreneurial experience at all. Everyone thought we were mad. This isn’t a business… it won’t work… my dad even asked me if I was trying to start a cult… to which I said ‘that’s an interesting angle – we can use that!’.

18 months after launching, we have 42,000 members, have been in most of the main newspapers in the UK, live on Bloomberg, Reuters TV, and almost every week a German reporter rings up asking us when we’re going to launch in Germany… for some reason they love it out there! We now have a new partner – Mikey – out in New York starting the US community.

So what can I share with you in 15 mins?

If you are anything like me, or me from 2 years ago sitting in my corporate job & dreaming of escape – I figured most people are here this evening because they’ve started their own thing, are planning on starting their own thing, or are dreaming about leaving their jobs to do something else but don’t know where to start and are here to have a think about it.

#1. Solve a problem.

This is the problem we were solving for ourselves (above) – and is the reason we’re so clear on what we want Esc to be – we want it to solve a problem that we experienced so personally ourselves. Some people say any successful new business idea should seek make things easier, cheaper or more fun for people. We say – solve a problem.

You don’t have to invent the next Dyson hoover to come up with a good business idea. Innovate on your brand, your marketing and your message… but your core business model doesn’t have to be new. Escape the City is an exciting idea, but the business model that allows us to keep doing what we’re doing is a jobs board – hardly revolutionary.

Another interesting idea is that your business idea should sit at the intersection of 1. Stuff that you enjoy doing, 2. Stuff that you’re good at, and 3. Stuff that people are prepared to pay you for.

We started Esc on the hunch that people would like it. How did we hope / know people would like it? Because we were our own ideal clients.

Scratch your own itch.

#2. Do it for ‘Love’ and do it for ‘Freedom’.

If you’re sitting there thinking… ‘why should I start a business?’ or ‘should I start a business?’… at the risk of sounding like a hippy – here are our two main reasons for doing it.

The first… which I alluded to before… was freedom. We’re 27 and 28… We’ve spent enough time jumping through hoops through our education and our early careers to realise that we wanted our time to be our own. The only way we could work out how to do this whilst also paying the bills was by starting a business and controlling the means of our own income.

The second… ‘Love’ – you have to love what you do otherwise you would be able to grit your teeth and get through all the tough times involved with building a business, all of the doubt, all of the boring work and all of the ups and downs. What’s more… life is really really short and careers fills up a large part of them – don’t you want to be able to look back with pride on whatever you’ve spent your working life doing?

Yes do it for money (obviously). Yes do it for status and success and a feeling of massive satisfaction. But do it for freedom and do it for love. It’s what it’s all about: loving what you do and being able to do it on your own terms.

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.


#3. Define Success:

I stand up here speaking at the same event as Simon Woodroffe – Yo! founder – and my first impulise is ‘oh but we haven’t made it yet – good old Imposter Syndrome.

But then I had a good think about what ‘Making It’ means to us. Have we made it? Well, it depends on your definition of success. We have built a sustainable, profitable business in less than 2 years. We can support ourselves (meagrely) and we are reinvesting (massively!) in the business.

No we haven’t made millions and no we haven’t finished building our business (lots still to do). But why did we quit our jobs to do our own thing? What was our original objective or definition of success?  Well 1) we wanted to escape (freedom) and 2) we wanted to do work that matters to us (love).

Yes of course we wanted to earn money to afford a nice lifestyle – and we’re getting there – but based on those first two tests – Freedom and Love – we’re actually there!

When you’re building a business it’s easy to lose sight of the small victories and the progress that you’re making. The more you achieve / build / survive the more your aspirations accelerate away from you. Every now and then you have to remind yourself what your definition of success is and celebrate the small victories along the way.

#4. Have fun because it is going to be a slog:

Starting a business is a massive mission.

No one tells you what an emotional, personal and psychological challenge it is as well as a professional one. There are big ups and downs – often not really relating to the objective progress of your business but more to do with what’s going on inside your head.

We have both survived on very little cash for almost two years. We’ve done a huge amount of scrappy, adminy, boring work to get our business off the ground. A lot of unglamorous manual stuff. Bar programmers have only been two of us building Esc – so if we weren’t going to do it who was?!

But it has also been a massive amount of fun and it’s important to remind ourselves of this fact. For ages our office phone number was the same as the Red Cross’s office in Wimbledon. I often used to pick up the phone (“Escape the City – Rob speaking”) only to be faced with a granny asking the Red Cross for a wheelchair.

People joke that in the early days of starting a business you’ll be so excited to receive emails that you’ll respond to junk mail.

You have to laugh otherwise you might cry!

But here’s the thing – it has to be fun otherwise what is the point? You quit your job in order to enjoy life and work more. Don’t invent just another job when you start your business… do it on your own terms.

Don’t feel like there is any set way to start a business – all the received wisdom is just that: ‘received’ – like these ‘entrepreneurial rules’ – take em or leave em.

You have to have fun if you’re going to put up with all the hard work that is involved with starting a company – and do it in a way that works for you.

#5. Make Meaning – Ideas that spread win:

So you’ve identified the problem that your business is going to solve and you’re progressing with starting up. If you’re like us and have little or no money to spend on marketing and spreading the world – how on earth are you meant to make sure that the right people (your clients) hear about the business?

Make Meaning. “Ideas that spread, win” – Seth Godin. Be remarkable. Draw a line in the sand (37 SignalsRework). Pick a fight. Have a point of view.

People don’t care about your business. They care about stories – so tell a story with your business. As people will tell their friends your story if it is interesting and relevant to them.

Check out Tribes, Purple Cow and Tipping Point.

Here are some great examples of businesses that make meaning as well as just selling a product:

People talk about these businesses. It’s how I know about them and now how you know about them. Why do I talk about them? Because they’re about more than just shifting a product.

Everyone knows Innocent’s story about the two bins at the food fair where they asked the people drinking their smoothies to put the empties in ‘Yes start a business’ and ‘No don’t quit the day job’. Innocent are fantastic at sharing the story behind the company and it’s one of the reasons they’re so successful.

We always say to each other that Escape the City would succeed if we started featuring in the type of conversation where people complain about their jobs in the pub after work etc (the kinds of conversations that happen ALL THE TIME!).

What is going to make people talk about your business in the pub? That’s the kind of start-up you want to build.


Fulfilling work is driven off three main ingredients: Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

Check out Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Autonomy for me is the ‘freedom’ that I talked about earlier. Purpose is the ‘love’ – do you love what you do? Does it have meaning for you? And I would say that Mastery comes from working on stuff you care about (Purpose) on your own terms (Autonomy).

Reflecting on my corporate job I think I lacked all three. No wonder I was so demotivated and unfulfilled! The only thing I think I mastered was Powerpoint!

Our own story goes to show what you can achieve with an idea and lots of determination. We started 2 years ago and today have 40,000 subscribers and big ideas for where we can take it. It’s never easy and sometimes feels like you’re pushing a stone up a hill… but man is it worth it. And you progress – professionally and as a person – so much more than you do under the duvet of a corporate job and salary.

So my final thing to share is this… if inside you you have that niggling feeling that you want to do something different and you would like it to be on your own terms… start a business.

You win because – hopefully – you’ll be fulfilled – Freedom & Love.
And we win because we don’t have to hear you complain about how much you dislike your job anymore!

Thanks very much.

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