Friday 17th July 2009 was the last day of my corporate life. 3 years ago today I walked out of the revolving doors at More London Place for the very final time.
I had spent my notice period working on various short-term projects for people (no one wants a consultant who is on their way out to join their project). On the Wednesday night I had worked until 3 am finishing some PowerPoint slides that no doubt never saw the light of day (just in case I was tempted to turn back!).
I resigned with some savings and two plans:
To go to Australia and do a wine-making masters (which I couldn’t afford and wasn’t qualified for).
To see if my friend (and colleague) Dom and I could turn an idea called Escape the City (a community of corporate escapees) into a business.
Later that summer (you’ve got to have some time off don’t you?!) we started this very blog that you’re reading. And three years later, here we are: +75,000 members, a book deal, a base in New York, £600,000 crowdfunded from 385 Escape members, a team of 8 people in a pimp office, and big plans for the future.
Three years ago I would have laughed at you if you’d have told me where we’d be today. I’m writing this post to 1) show you that it is possible and 2) to share what I’ve learnt in this 3-year journey from corporate fugitive to entrepreneur.
What have I learnt over the past 1095 days?
A few of these lessons are applicable for anyone looking to leave their corporate job no matter what their Escape Route (new job, starting a business, big adventure) but most are specifically about building a business.
1. You spend what you have.
When I was on a corporate salary I spent what I had each month. When I was existing on savings and part-time tutoring I spent just that. As my salary from Escape the City has (gradually!) increased my spending has more or less kept track. Some people are better with money than me but I’ve found that you spend what you can afford to spend.
2. Fulfilment is stronger than money.
I was going to write that “money does not equal happiness” but I don’t think that’s completely true. However, what I have realised from my experience of working in the corporate world (and having more money than ever before) and working as a bootstrapping entrepreneur (and having less money than I did when I was 20) is that working on something that really matters to you can outweigh not having as much money as you did previously.
3. You’ll never switch off.
One of the few mercies of working in a big company is that (by-and-large) you can switch off at the end of the day / week. Yes you might have significant responsibilities, but usually the buck stops with someone else. You just don’t care about a corporate job like you do about your business idea. If you’re mad enough to start a business you’re probably in love with the idea. Be prepared to NEVER stop thinking about it.
4. Be prepared to be bored by your own elevator pitch.
The elevator pitch… those three lines that you’re meant to spin off the tongue every time someone asks you the question ‘what do you do?’ You’ll repeat these few words so many times that they’ll cease to have real meaning for you. You’ll get good at it regardless. Sometimes some wanker will trip you up on it. But by and large you’ll become a pro at answering everyone’s questions. It comes with the territory. The alternative is to just say “I’m an accountant” – that usually shuts them up.
5. You’ll have genuine high-five moments.
In the early days of starting a business every little victory is worth celebrating. The moment you register with Companies house. The first time someone pays you for something. The first time a stranger emails you out of the blue. Your first bit of press. I personally never had moments like these in corporate land. There is nothing quite like those genuine punch-the-air moments. It feels like anything is possible. It’s nice to have someone to share the joy with too!
6. PR will not make your business.
When we started Escape the City we naively thought that if we could ‘just get on page 3 of the Metro’ then we’d be made. 50,000 people would sign up overnight and the business would take off. Over the past three years we’ve been in Forbes, Evening Standard, Time, Business Week, Bloomberg, Reuters, The Times, The Sunday Times, Wired, Fast Company… etc. Yes you sometimes get a good spike in traffic (from online press) but by and large this exposure doesn’t change anything much. It does help credentialise your business and you can add the logos to your home page. That’s about it.
7. There’s no such thing as overnight success.
Often people who have recently discovered Escape say to me ‘wow you guys have shot out of nowhere – you must be really pleased’. The reality is that three years of hard graft have got us to where we are today (and there’s still a very long way to go). Many businesses that you know and love today trundled along in relative obscurity for a long time before ‘making it’. I find this reassuring.
8. Saying ‘no’ is really hard.
In the early days you’ll be so thrilled to receive emails that you’ll reply to junk-mail. At that stage you’ll follow up every lead and have time to speak to anyone – no matter how tenuous the link to your business. I spent a lot of time fielding phone calls from people trying to buy farms in Wales through Escape the City (it’s still not a bad idea!). However, as you get to a stage where you have clear priorities and more work than you can do in any given day you need to start saying no. Saying no politely but firmly is so much better than saying yes, over-committing and then under-delivering.
9. Look after yourself.
This is true for anyone – whether they work in a corporate company or are out there starting their own thing. The bottom line is that our bodies are capable of a lot of hard work if we look after them well. This means getting enough sleep, not handicapping ourselves with hangovers, exercising, eating well, and taking time out. I’ve learnt this the hard way over the past few years with a few moments of exhaustion and burnout. The irony of working harder building Escape the City than we ever did in the corporate world hasn’t escaped us!
10. It’s a very personal journey.
I had wrongly assumed that starting a business is a professional / work-related challenge. You have an idea, you work your butt off, you try and turn it into a reality. The truth is that starting any business is a really personal experience. Try as you might, you’ll identify very closely with your business. It’s your baby, your idea. So when someone criticises it or something goes wrong – you’ll feel like you’re being criticised or something is wrong with you. There’s not much you can do here other than be aware that you’ll learn as much about yourself as you will about business. And to try not to take it personally.
11. Hustle, blag, charm (but keep your integrity).
Starting a business is really fun. You feel like it’s you against the world. Few resources, small team, big idea that you’re passionate about. It’s the classic underdog scenario. It’s also the ideal time to practice all those hustling skills that you never had to learn through your education and career. The ability to ‘Act As If’. Can you sell something you don’t have and then peddle damn hard to deliver it? Use your size as an advantage. You can change direction much faster than your competitors. See it as a game. But never overstep the mark and always tell the truth.
12. Get going with what you’ve got.
This is linked to the previous idea but is a really important point so I’ve put it separately. The temptation is always to say ‘oh let’s just wait until we’ve got that bit built’ or ‘we’ll be ready when x, y, or z happens’. The tech version of this advice is ‘Launch Fast Then Iterate’. I think the really important thing is to accept that nothing is going to be perfect and you can usually always change things. Escape the City will probably not ‘be ready’ for the next 10 years. There’s always another improvement. Fight your natural perfectionism and get stuff out there. You’ll fix things quicker if they’re already in public.
13. Get someone to pay you for something.
The sooner you can get someone to pay you the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s not in your world-beating business plan. As long as you have enough revenues to cover your base costs (and keep your costs really low) your business won’t die. Isn’t that an exciting thought? Escape the City has enough revenue that we could carry on doing what we’re doing forever (admittedly we probably wouldn’t grow very fast but we’re now potentially infinitely sustainable). So get working towards that first invoice and feel the satisfaction of not needing anyone’s permission to keep going.
14. Absorb as much information as you can.
When we were planning our escapes (and after we had made them) we read everything start-up related we could get our hands on. Blogs, books, twitter, movies, events. We immersed ourselves in our subject matter. This did two things: 1) it gave us lots of knowledge to make the many decisions we would have to make and 2) far more importantly, it gave us the confidence that we could actually turn this idea into a success.
15. Go on an information diet if necessary.
Having said that, there is a delicate turning point – and you have to really watch out for it – where all the external information can become too much. All the noise and advice can get demoralising. You’ve read everything there is to read and all you want to do is execute on your plans but you’re feeling stuck in a whirlpool of success stories and gurus offering their two cents worth. When this happens just unplug from everything and carry on with your plans.
16. Protect yourself.
Linked to the previous point… the world is full of all different types of people. It’s one of the reasons why life is so exciting. Optimists and pessimists, cynics and enthusiasts. I’m sure you know where I’m heading with this one. When you’re starting a business (or making any big life change for that matter) you really need to surround yourself with glass-half-full people. You need all the buoyancy you can get. The tricky thing is that often those closest to you will be the ones telling you that your plans are a bad idea. There’s very little you can do other than tell them that you’re really excited about your plans and that you’d appreciate their support.
17. Don’t just create another job.
Enjoy yourself. Presumably you’re quitting your corporate job because you want to do work that matters to you, build something for yourself, and generally appreciate life more. It is very very easy (that easy yes) to fall into your old ways of working. Before you know it you’ve essentially created a job for yourself. Only difference is that your new job sees you sitting at your kitchen table in your pyjamas staring at a brand new Macbook Pro. Give yourself a break. Work from wherever you want. Take random days off just because you can. Work all night and then sleep till lunchtime. Don’t just act like another corporate drone!
18. Accept uncertainty.
Those who know me will laugh at the inclusion of this point because I’m not very good at dealing with uncertainty. The good side of this is that I’m always anticipating scenarios and planning. The bad side is that when you take the big leap into the unknown you just can’t know how things are going to turn out. Actually the title of this point shouldn’t be ‘accept uncertainty’ but ‘enjoy uncertainty. Presumably you want to escape a big company because you want excitement and dynamism… you’re fed up with bureaucracy and process? In that case, accept that you can’t control everything. Enjoy the ride.
19. Focus on the next task.
From where you’re sitting (or from where I’m sitting)… the thought of ever reaching the point that you’re aiming at (whatever you have defined ‘success’ as) can be very daunting. How many thousands of emails and millions of seconds will have to pass before you have achieved your goals? The best thing to do when you’re taken over by ‘Oh my god this is madness, we’ll never be able to pull this off’ is to focus on the next thing on your to-do list. Actually, before that, make sure you have the right to-do list (it’s so easy to waste time on the wrong things). Be strict with yourself. Then just bash through the tasks.
20. You’ll achieve less in a week than you expect. More in a year.
Someone said this to me a while ago. Can’t remember who so I’ll just have to claim it as my own. It’s very true. I never get through my weekly to-do list. I barely even achieve half of it. Urgent stuff always gets in the way (PS. It’s never usually urgent). However, when you look at where you were a year ago you can feel dizzy with how much things have moved on. The same is true in jobs and careers. Week-by-week you are slowly pushing the big boulder up the hill. Stop and have a think about how far you’ve come… I think you’ll be surprised.
21. Solve a problem.
(Stolen from 5 Made-Up ‘Rules’ For Starting A Business With Little Money & No Relevant Experience): You don’t have to invent the next Dyson hoover to come up with a good business idea. 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. 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.
22. Do it for ‘Love’ and do it for ‘Freedom’.
It’s all about loving what you do and having the freedom to do it on your own terms. When we escaped we had spent enough time jumping through hoops 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. Besides, 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.
23. Define Success.
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.
24. Make decisions quickly.
It’s really easy to agonise over decisions. Sometimes they are worth agonising over. Sometimes you need more information, advice or events need to take place in order for you to make a decision. A few things worth bearing in mind: there is rarely a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision… there are just different (often multiple) paths that you could take. I suppose this is true for life as well as in business. We’ve found that it’s far better to make a decision and get on with the plan (without looking over your shoulder) than to waste too much time trying to figure out what to do.
25. There is never a right time.
You’re either too young and haven’t got enough experience, contacts or money yet. Or you’re too old and you’ve got too many responsibilities, children, a mortgage, and it’s too late to change. Boring!! I’d rather make a bold move and it not work out than regret. OK, I’m paraphrasing Gilbert E. Kaplan: “How much better to know that we have dared to live our dreams than to live our lives in a lethargy of regret.” People will tell you it’s not the right time or you’re not the right person. Ignore them. Embrace the possibility of failure. If not now then when? If not you then who?
26. Building a life on your own terms is really really really hard.
What do you expect? If it was easy everyone would be doing it. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Wise man that Thomas Edison. Keep pushing. If I can do it you can do it.
Thanks for reading this far…
If you’ve read this far I hope you’ve enjoyed the post. Whether or not Escape the City succeeds or fails over the coming years (define success, define failure) it will have been worth it. Aside from all the obvious benefits and experiences… it will have been worth it just for the pure joy of temporarily calling the shots in my own life. We spend so much of our time doing what other people tell us to do. Have you spied an opportunity to live a life on your own terms? Take it.
“You know you have only one life. You know it is a precious, extraordinary, unrepeatable thing: the product of billions of years of serendipity and evolution. So why waste it by handing it over to the living dead?” – George Monbiot