Blazing Our Own Trail — A Year One Retrospective
A little over a year ago, we embarked on a new adventure which would put our professional and personal lives to the test: co-founding our own company as spouses!! Okay, sure, it’s not necessarily that unique anymore…however it does still tend to elicit an “are you both fecking mad?” response when people first discover it. This reaction is also generally accompanied by a host of questions including but not limited to “who’s the boss”, “no really”, “okay, he’s left to get our coffees, now once again who really?”, and so on. So as we reflect upon the first year that’s just wrapped up for Caselden Consulting, we felt it would be fun (and hopefully interesting) to share more about that story, talk about what makes us tick and what we sought for our company to embody, and what our journey through year one has been like. While that latter part of the journey has been a shared experience, how we took the leap from the corporate world to “budding entrepreneurs” was much different.
Leaving the corporate world wasn’t a hard decision for me really. I’d been working for myself for years as a contract employee and was used to working from home with only our cats to annoy and amuse me. I thoroughly enjoyed that flexibility and independent work, but my contract ended and it was time to find another job. My husband, coincidentally, was also at a turning point in his career, which offered a new choice: go into business together.
This was the really hard decision for me: could we pool our talents to become partners in a different world — the business world? Initially, I thought — are we the couple that could work together? And are we really that crazy? But now, could we put it all to the test and become successful and happy business partners?
My husband has a much better network than I do in Ireland, he could add a lot to my offerings. He is amazing at what he does, so as long as we put the effort in, I knew we’d be successful helping others achieve their goals, which is where both our passions lie.
Our talents are quite different though. My background is in education, so teaching others and developing curricula that resonate across learning styles are in my wheelhouse. I like to simplify the extraneous, even duplicate, processes that occur in many work environments, so people can do the work they love to do or are actually paid to do; I manage programs to spotlight individuals’ strengths to achieve happy, positive workers and work environments; I coach people through their doubts, re-focus them on their strengths, and encourage and empower them to tackle and overcome the obstacles in their path; I use logic and reason to step back and be objective when things get heated, intense, or personal (communication is so often the key)… I could go on and on, but my cheeks are burning from boasting so much. :) My business partner-to-be excels at leading and coaching others, influencing and gaining support for his projects, prioritising and determining the appropriate course of action, and because he’s awesome, having the evidence to prove his point of view (this is more awesome in the professional world than our personal world).
I’ve been a leader for years — first as a teacher of both children and adults, then as the manager of all post-sales client projects, training, and support for a software company, and most recently as program manager in a medical research organisation. Certainly I could lead myself, and anyone else, in a small consulting business! I know I could do it if it was for some other company, so why not for myself?!
Jeff’s part of the tale…
My part of the story goes back a couple years while I was on sabbatical from my long-time role at Amazon. I’d been fortunate enough to join the company long before most people ever heard of it, let alone knew Amazon as the household name it’s become today. I’d built an amazing career for myself over the span of nearly 18 years ranging from an entry-level customer service role, through a couple engineering roles, and culminating as the General Manager for the Dublin Development Centre. I’d seen Amazon grow from a few thousand employees selling only books, music, and videos online to several hundred thousand employees across a multitude of businesses generating over $125 billion in annual revenue. I was also hugely proud of my own role in helping to grow its Dublin operation from around 70 heads to over 1,250 employees in 8 years. I’d gotten the chance to not only live and work abroad but had gained dual citizenship in Ireland and had been fortunate enough to build an outstanding network outside of the company. The itch for bigger change was starting to really creep in though.
After such a long period of time in the same organisation, I was very eager to see other perspectives on working and company culture. I knew I could succeed in Amazon and likely continue to do great work there. It had become home despite not always feeling like a perfect fit. There were certainly moments where I found a real sense of fulfillment, usually in the context of mentoring, coaching, and developing new leaders within the company. Sadly those moments were limited (maybe 10–20% of my time) given the other demands of my role (which consumed the other 80–90%), and overall I knew that I needed to make a much bigger change to gain that perspective beyond Amazon that I had begun to feel was missing and even more important to my future happiness and fulfillment.
Getting a job in a new company likely wouldn’t have been tough, though it would have only temporarily and partially solved my “perspective problem”. I was also ready to take my career down a totally new path. The challenge then became changing the mix, following my passion, and getting paid to do something I’d never done as my primary profession before. Bit of a tall order in some ways, yet I felt certainty in the belief that I could add value for others based on my experience and learnings through my career. Now I had to believe the narrative in my own head, face the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of stepping out on my own, and not let myself be trapped once more by the “golden handcuffs” of financial security. Life is short, and there’s more to it than awaiting the cleverly doled out stock awards for the hard work of prior years (though I must admit it’s an incredibly effective mechanism — well played Amazon). Despite being a creature of risk avoidance, I’ve my moments for sure where I throw caution to the wind or do “crazy” things (see related stories “The time I lost my snowboard on a glacier” and “Oh the fun you’ll have moving to Ireland in 2008 a few weeks before the global financial crisis!”) — so this was to be the next one.
Fast forward to New Years Eve 2017, throw in a couple glasses of wine, and an amazing spouse who’s encouraged me every step of my Amazon career and also into the throw-caution-to-the-wind phase I found myself facing. We’d made yet another jump in what had been a series of large jumps — moving to Seattle from Indiana, then to San Francisco, and later to Dublin — so why not make one more really big one and co-found a company! We really complemented each others’ skill sets, so we could make a formidable team. We also had experience of real value to offer, and doing so in a consulting capacity would give me the variety I sought. Plus, we could also work from home and spend more time together. Or we might kill one another. :) But hey, you never know unless you try.
What we set out to build
One of the interesting and somewhat scary moments in launching your own company is that it in many ways reflects who you are as individuals. You’ve the opportunity to make it what you want — and you also have the opportunity to end up being hugely misunderstood by the world. But as Simon Sinek says in Start With Why, it’s not about selling to everyone — just those who see the world the same way you do.
How we see the world then has guided us in how we’ve aimed to build Caselden Consulting.
Too often, profit comes before purpose, short term gains trump sustainability, and some seem to forget the fact that we’re all humans in this life together. People work longer hours, lead more disconnected and discontent lives, and only 15% of the global workforce are engaged at work — something at which most of us spend half our waking hours. That’s an abysmal statistic. Much of that is down to bosses who are only compounding the problem with ineffective management practices that simply don’t work with today’s workforce. As the adage says, people leave managers, not jobs or companies.
We’ve a vision where work is more about becoming the best versions of ourselves; to fulfil our individual senses of purpose and make a positive impact on the world; where stronger communication and collaboration allow us to work more effectively together to solve problems worth truly solving; where there is a healthy and prosperous future for all, not just some.
We see our purpose as helping others strive for excellence and realise their fullest potential, while recognising the humanity in all of us. It’s about fostering and developing the changes needed in leadership and management to bring about true productivity and engagement.
In striving for that vision, we’re guided by a fairly simple set of principles:
- People come first, full stop;
- Always add value;
- Everything is connected and we all do better together;
- Think long-term and never stop improving;
- Follow your passion, play to your strengths, and never settle.
It’s all still a big work in progress, but it’s what guides & inspires us and represents what we see as the foundations for any successful company. We hope it inspires you to imagine a better workplace, a better world, and a better you as well.
Some entrepreneurial learnings worth sharing
We’d not be true to our own mission if we didn’t share some of the big takeaways from our first 365 days. So if you’re thinking about making a jump into the entrepreneurial world or you’ve already taken that leap, hopefully the next few points will give you food for thought or provide affirmation that you’re not alone!
- Have a plan (but don’t be too wedded to it). Any new business clearly needs an idea of how they’ll add value for others and generate revenue. What you think you might do to add value however may shift or change as you begin to deal with actual customers. Be comfortable with the fact that you might have to approach customers from a slightly different angle. Ultimately, it’s customer need that tends to dictate what your product or service might look like — not just what you think it should be.
- Quickly figure out (and accept) what you’re not great at and find others who can help you close those gaps. Especially if you’re starting your own business after having worked in a larger organisation, be prepared for the obvious need for you to wear many hats. Some of those hats will fit better than others; some might feel like a skull-crushing vise of discomfort. But any truly successful and sustainable business needs to worry about more than just product. If you struggle with sales, marketing, finance, or whatever it may be, be sure to find others who can help you close those gaps or provide you with support.
- Be persistent — in selling your ideas, promoting your company, and in believing in yourself. Even the most confident entrepreneurs face moments where their confidence in their product, their skills, or themselves in general wanes and perhaps even falters. Great businesses are rarely born overnight and few customers buy your product or services on the first ask. Building mechanisms and narratives that can keep such discussions moving along here can be hugely helpful in ensuring that you maintain momentum which drives results.
- Be willing to listen to other’s feedback and opinions and learn from them. As a company founder, ego can sometimes get in the way. It can be tempting to believe your ideas are revolutionary and that those who don’t cop on just don’t get it. And while that can certainly be true, if you’re facing that challenge constantly then perhaps your own narrative or your product/service needs to change. Being too close to your own “thing” can sometimes skew your ability to remain objective. Find those you trust to give you the honest and sometimes harsh feedback that’s necessary to move you from your pedestal.
Simply put, this is a f@%king hard journey — you’ll need resilience, a support network, and some perspective to be successful. That said, it’s also a liberating experience to carve out your own path and destiny. If it sounds like a path you’d like to get onto yourself, we’d be happy to chat and see how we can help.
Looking back on year one
As overachievers it’s easy to reflect upon the past year and come away feeling only partially satisfied with our progress. We’re by no means “breaking the bank” yet, and we’ve not made as much progress on some of the plans which we set out for ourselves. Some things just take more time to develop; patience and resilience are also traits which entrepreneurs need to have in addition to persistence.
With a more objective eye however, we can look back on year one in a much more favourable light. Most importantly, we’ve made a positive impact on the leadership and management capabilities for a number of emerging leaders. While our client base mightn’t be massive yet, we’re working with two of the top indigenous software companies in the country, we did a piece of work with one of the highest offices in the country, and we’ve a couple of partnerships established to drive future client expansion and different revenue streams. And also quite importantly, we haven’t killed each other yet! For an early stage spousal partnership, you could certainly do a lot worse. :) Overall, we continue to build faith, confidence, and experience every day on this journey to do what we love on our own terms.
Looking ahead to what’s next
We’re now really looking forward to what year 2 brings, both in terms of impacts we can make for others and also in what we’ll continue learning through this journey. It’s clear that the evolution of management and leadership in many organisations still has a long way to go to improve engagement. The war for talent is being waged all around, which should come as no surprise given that people come first, full stop. That’s why it’s so critical to build a robust selection and interview process for bringing new talent into your organisation. In fact, that’s the topic of our next post, so watch this space, or sign up to our mailing list below, for some tips to help you in your own hiring.