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Endless Tea and Musical Chairs

Escape member Emilie Holmes describes her leap into creating her own small business and on “maintaining your sanity when setting up alone.” Check out her Kickstarter campaign here.

Having left my job in Advertising in August, I have spent the last few months planning and prepping for the launch of my new takeaway tea business. When I had a job, working from home (or WFH as it was fondly referred to) was a real treat for which you had a convenient tube strike or an out-of-office meeting to thank. But when ‘home’ becomes your office full time, it can get claustrophobic and the ‘I could work in my pyjamas if I wanted’ novelty soon wears off. As when I was revising for my finals, I find myself gravitating to the kettle and/or fridge every couple of hours (lucky for me I can call tea-making research) and have to move my work station on a daily basis. From the kitchen table to the study to the sofa, a new wall to look at helps minimise the cabin fever.

When I say to people I’m setting up a business, their next question is almost always ‘and who are you doing it with?’. When I tell them that it is, in fact, just me their faces fill with an expression somewhere between horror and pity. She must be mad, I can see them thinking. Many even start suggesting sisters/cousins/colleagues as possible candidates for partnering with me. After all ‘they hate their job and I’m pretty sure they drink tea…’ they tell me. But while I have no doubt that many who have set something up on their own would agree that sharing the journey with another would have been preferable, it has to come about organically. And when this isn’t the case, you forge ahead and learn to survive as a sole trader.

Although I have yet to make it even to my first day trading, I can say hand-on-heart I have never learned so much, so fast, in my life. And it is of course this endlessly stimulating journey that makes escaping so exciting. I had always known the business side was going to be tough, but what I didn’t know until I started was that the hardest bit in fact wouldn’t be the numbers or the frustrations or the set backs, but rather self-preservation on a personal level. That is, keeping yourself alive and kicking, switched on, motivated, healthy and as bubbling over with excitement as you were when you started. I have therefore had to set myself a few very simple rules. For me at least, these have made all the difference.

Get out there

Although many escapees likely did so in order to get away from a desk, the truth is that whatever business it is you are setting up, there is always a lot to be done at your laptop. Whether number-crunching, business plan tweaking or googling that competitor you’re keeping a close eye on, there is no end to the tasks you can and will do at your desk. But although this can’t be avoided, it is equally important to ensure that planning your start up doesn’t become an academic exercise. The energy, enthusiasm and momentum of a start-up, all those things that give it an advantage over bigger companies, do not come from looking at a screen. They come from getting out there, talking to people, watching and learning from others and even getting hands-on experience. I recently spent days cycling around London on my bike talking to shopkeepers and sitting in cafes, getting a feel for an area for a pitch or seeing what kind of customers a particular place attracts. It is old-school market research, but with all the tools now available online it is very easy to forget about the importance of just getting out and seeing the lay of the land first hand. Talking to people about your idea and imagining it in real life, rather than on a powerpoint, is particularly important when you’re starting up alone and will help keep the excitement and enthusiasm alive.

Explore every avenue

Everyone you know and everyone you meet from now on will, on hearing your plans, offer up advice of some kind. Whether it be a book you must read (if I had a penny for every person that told me to read the Starbucks book….), a company you should look at or a friend you should talk to, it is ALWAYS a good thing.

You can never know too much, and though some of it may go nowhere, that friend of a friend who once did something that you were advised to have coffee (or tea : ) ) with might just lead to a new idea or collaboration. And that one alone is worth all those other less helpful avenues pursued. I have never had a meeting with anyone where I haven’t learned something. Even when I came away from one very unpleasant meeting wanting to give up and hide under my duvet, something the guy had said about volume of sales had stuck in my mind and later helped me better understand my figures.

Get some company

The thing I miss most about being at Ogilvy is having friends and buzz around me. I may not have appreciated it at the time, but Friday team lunches and Whitney Wednesdays on the sound system (!) were not just a fun distraction from work. They also played an important role in creating a productive working environment. Sitting on my own at the kitchen table, even with Lauren Laverne on 6 Music keeping me company from 10 until 1, just doesn’t quite cut it. And aside from the unfortunate side effect of severe verbal diarrhoea every time you meet a poor, unsuspecting friend for a drink, the lack of others around you can also slow you down. Without someone to bounce ideas off and think out loud to, it is all too easy for relatively minor decisions, such as the size of your webfont or a line on the label copy, to whirr around inside your head, leaving you paralysed with indecision! In my case, this is of course only a short term problem as pretty soon I will be up and out at the crack of dawn, freezing my butt off in a cold van somewhere. But if I was to continue desk-based work, I would definitely have looked to move into a shared workspace as soon as possible. It would be money well spent, and if nothing else, you never know who you might end up sitting next to – they may well be your future business partner.

Look after yourself

This is such an obvious one, but eating, sleeping and exercise are absolutely essential. When I first started doing tea full time I was guilty of failing on all counts – I was eating badly (toast is cheap), rarely moving faster than a stride to the tube and working until way past midnight. I thought that just another hour would let me get everything done…Eventually I realised that I felt horrible and most importantly was going around in circles rather than moving forward. I had to-do lists written on the back of every train ticket, cereal packet and scrap of paper I could find. Nothing was being crossed off, just added to.

You would think that managing your own time would make exercising a breeze (no blaming the boss for keeping you late) but it is somehow no easier to drag yourself out for a run. Saying to yourself you’ll just finish that email or just tick one more thing off the list just means you never get out there. But when your head is swirling with worries about a million different things, a jog first thing, or at least some fresh air, will clear your thoughts of all the clutter and set you up for a much more productive day. I now don’t let myself keep working past nine-ish unless I absolutely have to, I write a (single) to-do list and leave it downstairs so it doesn’t come to bed with me (!) and I try to do regular yoga in the park with a friend. I was and continue to be completely amazed by the difference it makes – suddenly things are starting to progress!

Despite these tough lessons, I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from ‘escaping’, be it with or without a wingman. Far from it, I can’t recommend it enough. I haven’t even got going proper yet, but I already I know that the rush of adrenaline is far more powerful than any kind of fear and the high of the smallest of victories will far outweigh any lows before or after it. Most importantly, you are always learning, and that is the most exciting part of it all…

  • maria pons

    Congratulations and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • http://www.lasignorina.co.uk Maria {La Signorina Chocolates}

    Love! Love! Loved reading your post! Sounds like you were writing about me. I run a chocolate business, so I totally resonate with your story! X