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3 things I wish I’d known before escaping

Nick Lindsay is a director at Elemental CoSec, a professional provider of company secretarial services. Here, he shares his story about what he learned from leaving Olswang and the world of corporate law. 

Like all things in life, the first time is likely to be difficult. This is why we practice beforehand. When it comes to exams; it’s sensible to take a mock before hand. When it comes to sports; you should always train with your teammates. When it comes to love; we all have to have a couple of goes at it before we get it right. Yet when it comes to escaping, people often think things will be different.

Sites like Escape the City are amazing; they give you advice, guidance and, most importantly, inspiration. They can’t though, give you experience. Without experience, you will make mistakes. That’s just a fact of life.

Here are some of my mistakes and what I’ve learnt from them. Hopefully, it will stop you making the same mistakes but, most importantly, I hope it will stop you from thinking that there will not be any mistakes.

A little bit about me

I trained as a corporate lawyer and worked at Olswang in the City of London. I was doing well, but I could see the career progression stretching out before me and it filled me with dread.

I have a huge admiration for those people that go off and sail around the world, or climb Mount Everest but that just wasn’t for me. I wanted to have my own business and gain some flexibility over my life. I have now achieved that and hope to maintain this as my business grows, but I have definitely made some mistakes along the way.

Expect to change your plans (or even fail)

I now run Elemental CoSec, a company secretarial firm. We provide a wide range of services including statutory compliance, incorporations, registered office, corporate legal, accountancy, tax and share schemes. Yet, this wasn’t the plan when I left the City. Not even close.

I initially set up a furniture website called Where the Hat is. It seemed like a great idea at the time. I would find talented furniture designers that designed and produced their own furniture, but didn’t have a viable sales route. The website would act as a communal ecommerce outlet for them. The designers would fulfil the orders and I would take a commission.

It seemed perfect. The plan would get me out of the corporate City life and allow me to run my own business in a much more interesting area combined with spare time to indulge my passions. It was not to be though. In reality, I had no experience of ecommerce, retail sales or, indeed, furniture. Issues that I had just brushed aside when making my plans.

The cost of generating sales ended up being more than my commission and I was losing money on each sale. It may be that there was a simple solution to this problem, but I didn’t know what it was. Perhaps, a re-designed website would have increased conversions. Perhaps a broader or more focused marketing campaign would have increased visits at a lower cost. I didn’t know though and my lack of experience became a huge issue.

It’s difficult to admit that the plan that you’ve been working on for months, if not years, is flawed but I knew I had to make a change. So instead I set up Elemental CoSec. It was an area that I knew well and I had the skill set to succeed. It may not have been as alluring an area as furniture but it could deliver everything I wanted from my business.

Where the Hat is still exists, albeit in a slimmed down form, and my involvement is now close to zero. If you’re interested, you can see it at www.wherethehatis.com

Know your own strengths (and weaknesses)

Elemental CoSec is much closer to my strengths and my training. Company secretarial work is really a sub-set of corporate law and I’m a qualified corporate lawyer. However, when I first set it up, I managed to ignore my own strengths yet again.

I decided that by utilising technology and modern working practises I could produce a more efficient business model and undercut my competitors, thereby winning business. I was half right at least.

It seemed an obvious strategy to grow a new business and was, in essence, a ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ strategy. However, this was a business model I had never actually seen from the inside and it turns out to be harder than I thought. Part of the issue is that it requires an ability to not spend too much time on each client and send out less than perfect work. All my training and experience shouted against this, so I found myself still providing a top class service and spending a lot of time on each client, but at a bargain price. That just didn’t work.

Once again, I changed the plan and now Elemental CoSec is very much focused on premium service. By utilising the efficient systems and processes we put in place initially, we are still able to do this for the same price (often lower) than our competitors, but we charge considerably more than we did before. This means that the work is now profitable (always a better position to be in).

By focusing on my strengths, I was able to build a successful business that attracted clients that cared about the work being done properly, more than they cared about the price.

Don’t get distracted

This is, in some ways, the opposite of the first piece of advice. However, as well as knowing when to change the plan, it’s also important to know when to stick to it.

Fairly early in the life of Elemental CoSec, my business partner and I received a takeover offer from a much larger competitor. The proposed buyer was an international corporate services house that had no real presence in the UK. They liked us and they liked the business model we had built, so they made an offer to buy Elemental CoSec.

It was very exciting and not something that either of us had thought would happen so early on. In the end though, we said no. Selling would have meant working for someone else which is one of the main reasons I had left the City in the first place. It would have also meant changing the nature of the business more than we wanted to.

It took three months of discussions, meetings and negotiation to come to this decision. At the end of these three months we looked back at the figures and realised that those were the only three months when the business hadn’t been going in the right direction. Every other month, all the graphs were pointing upwards, but in those three months the graphs were flat, or even pointing downwards. We’d been distracted and lost focus. With hindsight, it was probably more the novelty and excitement of the offer that interested us rather than a real belief that it was the right thing to do.

There will be more mistakes

We now have a very nice business, with great staff and quality clients. The business is set up so that I can work from abroad as easily as I can work from the UK, so I can indulge one of my real passions; travel (I am actually writing this on the plane back from a trip).

I have learned from the above mistakes and more besides. Yet, the main thing that I have learnt is that there will be more mistakes. As time goes on, there will hopefully be less of them, but you can never eradicate the mistakes entirely. If you are in any doubt about this, then just look at the mess some of the brightest and best-paid people in the world have got themselves into at the banks.

Nick Lindsay is a director at Elemental CoSec, a professional provider of company secretarial services. If you would like to know more about Elemental CoSec you can find the details at www.elementalcosec.com