How to start your own business
Are you an aspiring entrepreneur desperate to escape corporate life? Maybe you dream of starting your own business but don't yet have the courage. The FT's Emma Jacobs wants to know what its like to give up a steady career to go it alone.
Written, directed, edited and produced by Daniel Garrahan. Co-produced and presented by Emma Jacobs. Additional editing by Richard Topping. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis, Richard Topping, James Sandy and Daniel Garrahan.
Are you an aspiring entrepreneur desperate to escape corporate life? Maybe you dream of starting your own business but haven't yet built up the courage to take the plunge. I want to know what it's like to give up a steady career to go it alone.
I'm Meenesh. I was an accountant. So I used to work in financial services.
As a teenager, Meenesh had ambitions to start his own business. But he fell into accounting after finishing his degree in management.
People often say that they start off in a job, and then I'll just get enough money, and then I'll leave and start something else up, or do something that I really want to do. And then one year turns into two, five, ten.
Yeah. My dad retired. I went to his retirement drinks. He worked in the same job for 35 years, 40 years as an accountant. He was also an accountant. And it just got me thinking that I'm 10 years down the line, and I don't fancy doing this for another 20 to 30 years.
Meenesh considered various business ideas. And after more than a decade in his job, he decided to swap number crunching for something completely different.
If you work in any kind of office in the afternoon, especially around the 3pm when everybody gets a coffee or tea, it's always greeted with things like cakes and donuts, cookies. And I don't mind having something sweet as long as it's got some sort of nutritional value to it. So we started making our own nut and honey bars which were higher in protein, but still taste quite nice with a tea or coffee.
We started taking it into our office. People started liking it. And then from there, we turned it into a flapjack. And then from there, we turned it into a cookie. And then it was just a little bit of a light bulb moment that actually, we've had this issue. We looked in the market. We've got this idea, and people in our offices like it.
So Meenesh and his wife Parul launched Wholey Moly. Starting a healthy cookie company was a complete departure from Meenesh's old corporate life, but some budding entrepreneurs choose to start a business in a world they already know better about.
I'm Thomas Davis. I'm the founder and CEO of Temporall. We help companies measure their organisational health and their high-performance culture.
I spent 10 years at Google, so I had three separate leadership roles there. I'd call myself a business technologist. I've been doing that for the majority of my lifetime now.
Business psychologist Lucy Standing reckons entrepreneurs who try to exploit a market they already know well are more likely to be successful.
It does takes years to build relationships, knowledge, knowing who the influencers are. For someone who is already understanding the issues with the market and is addressing a problem to solve, that is a better place to make a success than someone who is coming into a market that's entirely brand new to them. It's not to say that they can't do it. It's just harder.
After a successful career at Google, Thomas hankered for a break from corporate life.
I've always wanted to become a CEO, but I didn't have the skills to be one. And I just really remember becoming quite agitated by that. And actually, my first big switch to think about this was to get an executive coach. And they made me stop.
Two years later, Thomas's recruited staff, is paying himself a salary and has just moved into a new office in south London. He says that his business proposition was refined by talking to lots and lots of people. For Meenesh too, testing the product and learning from mistakes was key.
We got some spaces at some markets. We opened up the cookies, and they were all broken to pieces. Because we were using natural ingredients, it didn't really hold well. People still bought them because they were like - they were just kind, and they like the taste of it. But they just - they were like -
Did they feel sorry for you?
Yeah, a little bit.
We changed one of the ingredients, and that was kind of a game changer, turning it into what it is today, really.
Herminia Ibarra is an organisational behaviour professor at London Business School. She says the stress testing that Meenesh did before he fully committed to his new venture was crucial.
Many people stay stuck in the wrong career because they don't know what they'd like to do instead.
And the way you find that out is by trying things out and by experimenting. These mid-career transitions take at least three years in developing the idea and getting yourself to a point where it is actually feasible for you to go and do that. It's only by stress testing it, and trying it, and piloting, and prototyping, and networking that the idea actually takes shape. And it's often in a form that is different from what you imagined in the first place.
He's calming down, isn't he? That's him calming down.
Meenesh and Parul started the business together in their spare time while they were both working. But then Meenesh was made redundant, which was the catalyst he needed to go full time on the business. It was not the most obvious time to plunge into the unknown. After all, he had a new baby boy. But he invested his redundancy money into the business, and Parul returned to her job in management consultancy after maternity leave to support them.
That's when I went full time. If I had an ongoing job, I would have probably stayed on for maybe another five or six months longer. I could have gone into another role in terms of what I was doing. I was getting offers for interviews, and they all looked quite nice and rosy. But I just didn't see myself climbing ladder any more.
You were able to do this when your partner is staying on a steady job. And so there is usually a kind of, what's the family unit, and where's the stability going to come from? And it's really critically important that you have conversations with your other half about what you're doing, and what it's going to take, and what the sacrifices are going to be.
Executive coach Geraldine Gallacher says if you're going to make a success of starting your own business, you need to be honest about what you're good at and what you're not.
First of all, you need a product. So you need someone who can design the product, who is a developer. Secondly, you have to be able to sell it. You have to go and talk to people. And the third thing is someone needs to be able to do the processes behind that, which is essentially the finance and the IT.
I've never found anyone who's actually able to do all three of those things. What you really need to know is what is it you're good at. Which of those three can you do? And then you need to find people around you in your network that can help support you on the ones that you're not so good at.
Branding is one area in which we went out to the market to get some help. And you have to be realistic. Is it going to be a lifestyle business, or do you want it to grow and scale into a larger business? And what do you need to get there?
There are just certain things that you just, you can't escape from needing to know to a reasonably high degree, so things like finances and tax. As a founder, I need to know operationally, commercially exactly what's going on. I don't get energy from doing those things. So I think that is definitely one of the learnings that I've had, is I would describe myself in the last two years as having to play the role of a decathlete. And I'm - maybe I'm good at the 100 metres, but I'm lousy at throwing a javelin. And actually, I've been having to do that again and again and again.
I've felt out of depth all the time. But I think only recently, I started to feel more comfortable in what I'm doing.
Would you like to try a healthy cookie? They've only got 5 grammes of sugar.
Are you being serious?
No additives, no preservatives.
It's you and your wife, isn't it?
It is, yeah.
Yeah. I've seen the newsletter a little while ago.
I think a newsletter or Instagram or something like that, isn't it?
Probably Instagram, yeah.
Breaking into retail at a time when food and beverages are increasingly dominated by start-ups isn't easy. Competition is fierce, and you have to stand out.
Would you like to try a healthy cookie?
Meenesh eventually got his cookies in Selfridges. Getting there took persistence and a personal touch.
I was emailing on a weekly basis, not hearing anything back. So I went and dropped off some more products. And I left a hand-written note. I know you get 100 guys like me emailing you every day, so here's some cookies to get you through the emails. And give me a shout when you get to my email.
She replied within 24 hours. You need to realise that you don't have the power or the leverage to expect things immediately, so you have to be persistent. It's a fine balance of being persistent but not being annoying, because we're all human. And if you had somebody emailing you every week with exactly the same thing, you're just going to ignore them.
Networking is key. You'll be surprised at how many people give you advice if you ask them.
A lot of especially in the food industry, are very helpful with each other. And there's a lot of communities out there which you can join.
Make sure you talk to people that you don't know. They'll just tell you the truth. If I ask someone very close to you, they'll say that's a great idea. It may be a lousy idea. Asking people that don't know you, don't know your background, can give you this different sense of perspective and that would be my key advice, is don't be afraid to go and ask people. Because most people are very generous.
Meenesh hopes to turn a profit and start paying himself a salary in the next 12 months. But other than the financial stability, the only thing he really misses about his old job is the social side.
I'm working on my own constantly, so...
You don't have Christmas parties?
Christmas party for one man. There will be days where I don't interact with anybody. There will be days where I'm out sampling, and I'll speak to 1,000 different strangers. But social size and pay packet...
There is nothing that replaces just really knuckling down. If you don't have an intrinsic, desire, motivation, ethic to work through these moments of, like, oh, my god, what am I doing, you may not want to do that. Maybe a lot of you think, well, I haven't got that one idea. I don't have the courage to go and follow this one idea. And I'd encourage people to keep thinking through. Because if they are creating ideas, there's probably one in there.
When it's your own thing, you're a lot more passionate about it, and you find a solution to problems. And it is hard to switch off, but it doesn't feel a burden to be constantly thinking about how to be switched on.
So if you're thinking about leaving a steady job to start your own business, consider the following. Take your time. Your first idea might not be the one you run with, so don't give up your day job until you're sure your business plan is viable. Test your idea. It may take several iterations before you have a product or service you can take to the market.
Ask experts for advice. Seek guidance from people outside your friendship group. They're likely to be more honest with you about your idea. And knuckle down and get your finances in order. It's hard work, and you have to be prepared to survive without a salary for a while.