One year ago I quit my job.
I was so frustrated at seeing all of the problems the world was facing. I felt that we — as a society — and I — myself — were not doing enough to help solve them.
Until then, I had been working as a strategy consultant for not-for-profits. I had worked with organisations of all sizes helping to improve people’s lives across the world. But I saw that all of these organisations faced the same problem — they found it hard to find volunteers with the skills they needed to grow their impact.
That is why, while I had been working, I co-founded a startup called We Make Change. Along with my co-founder, Felix, we had the belief that the only way the world’s problems could be solved was if anyone, anywhere could use whatever skills they have with whatever time they could give to support the causes they care about. We set out to create an online platform that would do just that.
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At the time, we had been working on the platform for about six months. We were making progress, but I really thought that we could only start to make change happen if I went full time.
So I gave up my consultancy work and did just that!
In the year since then, there have been so many lessons that I have learned. I thought I would write them down — partly to personally reflect on the last 12 months, but also because I thought some of them might be useful for anyone looking to found a startup, or who has already started their founder journey.
This is not an exhaustive list and some have been said so many times that they may not warrant repeating, but here are the key lessons that I’ve learned so far.
People are amazing
I realised this from the start of my journey.
I met my co-founder when we both tried to buy the same domain name and discovered we had the same idea. He was a web developer from Romania and I worked in the not-for-profit sector in the UK. It seemed crazy that two people from completely different countries, but with entirely complementary skills, could have the same idea and were looking to buy the exact same domain name! But it was true, and that is how we got started.
At that point it was just the two of us. We realised that we would need people with a lot more skills and time than we had between us if we were going to make We Make Change a reality. We would need people with all the skills necessary to build a platform and run an organisation — from lawyers to researchers, web developers to designers, and everything in between.
So we posted a bunch of volunteer vacancies on a few different websites. In just 4 weeks we had almost 200 applicants. This amazed us, as nobody knew who we were. We had only just started the company, and we weren’t offering any money at all, just opportunities for people to use their skills to make the platform a reality.
After many, many Skype interviews, we formed a global online volunteering team of 40 people. We are now a team of over 75 volunteers from almost 20 countries, with over 150 people who have contributed along the way. But what’s even more amazing is the dedication members of the team have shown. Some have been with us for over a year, I get messages from team members working on stuff at 1am (and even later) on some mornings, and a few even did 24 hours of continuous volunteering for one of our campaigns!
It was their hard work that enabled us to launch our platform in February 2018. Without their dedication, We Make Change truly would not have been possible.
Even beyond our volunteer team, the level of support we have received has been incredible. We now have an Advisory Board that includes somebody who works at one of the biggest companies in the world and a group of Patrons that includes a member of the House of Lords!
People really are amazing. As long as they believe in you, all you need to do is ask, and they will support you where they can.
You are selling belief
When we asked the first few volunteers why they had applied to join the team, they almost all said the same thing, ‘I don’t know how I can use my skills to support my causes and I believe We Make Change could be the solution for everyone.’
In the early days all we had was a holding website with our vision — to create a platform that would enable anyone, anywhere to use the skills they have to support the causes they care about. We didn’t have a product and people didn’t know who we were. But it was the belief in the idea that made so many people want to be a part of making it happen.
That is why, whether you are right at the beginning of your startup journey or looking to scale, you are selling belief.
It is the belief that your idea will help to address the problem you aim to solve that will get people interested. It is the belief in your plan to deliver that solution that will get people to support you.
It’s not for everyone
Founding a startup is not for everyone. But for some, there is nothing better.
It is time-consuming, occasionally emotionally destabilising, and as frustrating as it is rewarding.
Having said that, there is nothing else that I would rather be doing.
I started We Make Change because I believed it was the way that I could fulfil my purpose — to have the biggest positive impact that I can on the world.
That purpose came from my realisation that I have been afforded so many advantages that many are not fortunate enough to have. I now have the privilege of using those advantages to support others who may not have the same opportunities I once had.
If you truly believe in why you are founding a startup, it becomes an expression of the values you believe in. There is nothing more meaningful than knowing that everyday you are living your values. It means that your work is no longer something that prevents you from doing what you really want to — it is what you want to do.
So rather than struggling to find work-life balance, you can achieve work-life harmony¹. It doesn’t mean that you work all the time, but it means that your ‘work’ becomes all the more fulfilling.
When trying to decide whether to found a startup, or to continue with it, you should start by defining your purpose. Because I believe that you should never start a company to start a company². If founding a startup seems like the best way to fulfil your purpose, then go for it. But if that’s not the case (or if you have an acute sensitivity to stress), then choose a different path.
Always remember why
Once you decide the path you want to take, the most important thing is to remember why you chose it.
Because once you have started the founder’s journey, there will likely be late nights, moments where you think, ‘What am I doing?’, and others where you consider, ‘Is this all worth it?’.
No matter how hard it gets, if you remember why you started, it can be the source of strength you need to pull yourself through the toughest of times.
We started We Make Change to give you the power to change the world. We now connect people who care about the same causes to form communities that collaborate online to develop projects with NGOs that help address the biggest challenges the world faces today.
Having decided your path, do not question the destination, only the decisions that you make to get there.
Because it is true that self-doubt destroys more dreams than failure ever has³.
Celebrate the small wins
Whether you are already a founder or thinking of creating a startup, you probably have big ambitions. But it will likely take a lot more time, effort and energy to make those ambitions a reality than you can even imagine.
Although you should always have your vision in mind, if you are going to push through the early days and tough times, you also need to focus on the small wins.
We have managed to build a community of 1,000s of people from over 50 countries across the world who want to make change happen. But it is when I remember speaking to some of the first people that signed up as volunteers that I get the greatest sense of satisfaction.
Our vision is to give anyone, anywhere the power to change the world. But it is the individual stories you remember that provide the motivation to get there.
Change is hard
I knew this from my time working as a consultant with not-for-profits, but it is even harder when you are trying to make change happen on a global scale.
Whether it is helping disadvantaged young people achieve their professional dreams, addressing climate change, or ending homelessness, change is a slow, meandering process. There are no easy wins, and good intentions and passion are not enough.
After launching the platform, we had a few projects that worked well and a few others less so. We realised that if we were going to scale the change we could make, we would need to provide a lot more guidance to users about how to successfully build online volunteering teams and manage projects.
After several weeks of working in almost complete isolation, we managed to improve our processes and put the necessary resources together. We are now in a much better position to scale the number of NGOs and social ventures we can support, but it is always an iterative process.
Change is hard, but together we will make it happen!
Everything takes longer than you expect
This is something that every founder knows. But even when you know it’s true, you still fail to take it into account appropriately.
You set deadlines that you are rarely able to meet, even when they seem like they are so possible to reach when you set them. It is generally because so many unforeseen things happen that you always feel time is slipping away.
I once heard it said that for founders the days are long and the years are short⁴. In the world of startups that feels so frustratingly true.
People do not part with their money easily
Whether you are trying to raise grant funding, attract investment, or generate revenue, people do not part with their money easily.
We have been entirely self-funded to date. We initially tried crowdfunding, but that didn’t work out. As a not-for-profit, we have since applied for grants from a range of different funders and have been rejected on many occasions because we were considered ‘too early’.
We have been told the same thing when selling our services enabling NGOs to build their own online volunteering communities. Admittedly, they were mostly likely right at the time. But now we have further developed our platform and grown our community, we are getting further along with conversations now, but still no funding yet (we’ll get there!).
Again, it is only the support of our amazing team of volunteers that has enabled us to do so much with so little!
When you found a startup to make social impact, funding is the last thing that you want on your mind. It becomes a nagging feeling at the back of your mind that can become overwhelming, if you let it. Ultimately it is the means to the end that you want to pursue. But I do believe that if you focus on fulfilling your purpose as an organisation (and individual) the means to your end will ensue, rather than having to be pursued directly.
If we make change happen, the money will follow (we hope!).
Focus is key
Our most limited resource is time.
There are so many things that you could be doing as a founder, but it is what you choose to do that matters.
People often say that you have to learn to say no, which is certainly true. But it is learning what to say no to that is most important.
Do you go to that event, because you never know who you are going to meet? Do you take on that project that will take a long time for not much money, because you are not sure where it could lead?
There are always things that you can do to boost your own vanity — getting more Twitter followers, going to glitzy events, or writing a blog to see how many people read what you write ;)
They generally feel good to do, but if they are not helping to fulfil the purpose you set out with, then they are wasting your precious time.
I was honoured to be invited to tour northern Nigeria to see the challenges that are being faced on the ground and explore how we could use our platform to bring the community together to help solve them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one that I felt I could not refuse. It might be unconventional to consider growing internationally in such a way, but it is a place where we could make significant change happen.
Ultimately, it is only you who can make the judgements about what to do with the time you have. I generally find that prioritising tasks based on the amount of learning they will enable you and the organisation to make is the most effective approach. But sometimes you will get opportunities that you just can’t afford to miss. Then you have to remember that we only have one life to live!
Only founders know what you go through
Your friends, family and former colleagues will be so supportive. But it is only those people who have been founders who really understand what you go through on the journey.
Whether it is the stresses that come from trying to earn enough money to survive, getting another rejection from a potential customer, or the uncertainty that pervades your entire endeavour, it is only those people who have felt the same that can relate to what you go through.
That is why I love talking with founders of the NGOs and social ventures we support, because they get it! Without realising it, we have formed our own little support groups where we can vent our frustrations and celebrate our (all too occasional) victories.
It is important to have those people around you who know how you feel and who can support you when you need it.
There are some things that are more important
I have left my most important lesson for those who have read all the way until here!
When you found a startup, it can seem like there is nothing more important to you. You might spend your days, evenings and weekends working to make all the progress you can. It can become the centre of your life.
But when it seems like your startup is the most important thing to you, you fail to see what really makes your life worthwhile — your family and your friends. As you work hard, they can take a back seat and you may even lose some of the closest relationships that you’ve ever had.
It is because you become too focused on what seems so urgent at the time. But if we aren’t there for our friends and family, what are we really here for? If you haven’t already, you will come to realise this. You will then see that you can only be fulfilled (and productive) when you have close relationships with those that you care the most about.
Your relationships and your startup are not mutually exclusive, they are mutually dependent.
So, my most important lesson is this — remember what is most important in your life, because there is always more work to be done, but there is only so much time that we have with our special ones.
When I look back at what has happened over the last year, despite the occasional emotional turmoil, and somewhat aged appearance, I can think of nothing I would rather have done and nothing I would rather be doing, then trying to give you the power to change the world.
It is a privilege to have this opportunity. Thank you to everyone who has helped along the way. None of this would have been possible without you.
Here’s to another year of making change happen!
Two years on
Discover the lessons I learned in year two after quitting my job to try to change the world.
¹ Jeff Bezos
² Mark Zuckerberg
³ Suzy Kassem
⁴ Gretchen Rubin