Lessons learned from taking the leap and starting a company
I felt privileged to be asked back to my old company — The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) — last week to talk about taking the leap from consulting and my journey since starting a company. I shared the stage with two other super-entrepreneurs — the UK MD of Oviva, Dr Mark Jenkins, and the Chief Credit Officer at Lendable, Jakob Schwarz. What follows is a summary of my talk.
I’ve learned an enormous amount since leaving BCG. I thought the learning curve was steep there, but since starting Pearlshare the curve has almost been vertical. What I wanted to share are some of the biggest lessons learned, both from things that have worked and mistakes I’ve made. Make of them what you will…
The three lessons are:
- Choose your co-founders wisely
- We’re not a “tech startup”
- Orientate yourself then just give it a go
The first lessons is perhaps the most important — it is critical to choose your co-founders wisely. Unless you are a truly extraordinary polymath that doesn’t need sleep and has no emotions, it’s really helpful to have a co-founder. In addition to being a great source of expertise, they can often serve as your sounding board and save your sanity.
The important point to note, however, is that you will go through very tough times and you need to know how people react in those situations. As they do about you. In my opinion, it’s virtually impossible to know how people will deal with situations unless you have experienced it. So, how do you work this out? Think of it like getting married — you wouldn’t get married to someone without dating. So my suggestion is find any excuse to work with someone for a period before committing to co-founding with them. Oli, one of my co-founders, and I worked together for 1–2 days per week over the course of 3 months. In fact, we had worked out that we wanted to work together, and had a couple of areas to focus, before actually committing to an idea. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
The second lesson is that, in the vast majority of cases, almost no matter how much technology is involved, you’re not a “tech startup”. I find that I’m often asked the question, “what’s it like running a tech company?” My immediate response is, “I’m not”. We are at a very interesting point — technology is infusing every industry, affecting them in different and varied ways. In some respects, I think that the TMT practice needs to drop technology from it’s name and should be working with all practice areas.
So when you think about what you want to work on, or what type of company you want to work with, make sure you think about the real industry. Pearlshare, for example, is a media business focused on travel. Work out what it is that really interests you and take the time to learn — and continue to learn — about your industry, whether it is healthcare, insurance or retail.
The final lesson is just to give it a go. Nothing fully prepares you for starting a company, so get out there and try. Looking back on my experience, there is an awful lot that I have learned that I didn’t anticipate — about the industry, myself, about working with others. BCG gave me a great foundation in so many aspects, but what you are doing now can only teach you so much. If you have a very strong desire to get out and give something a go, the best thing you can do is start.
This applies at many levels: on the macro level, this could be deciding to join a team or start a company; on the micro level, in whatever you are doing, there is no substitute for picking up the phone or getting out in front of a customer or potential user of your product. Do as much analysis as required to orientate yourself in roughly the right direction, but then start!
There are two additional thoughts to help you as you get out there. The first is that it’s incredibly important to create a network of advisers that you can call on, and who are going to really challenge you and what you are doing. You will need to call on people for all kinds of different things and advice, so cultivate a broad set of acquaintances. The second is, be prepared for it to take a lot longer than you think — you have to be able to “stay in the game” for long enough. When we first started, we had thought we would be at a certain point at the end of year one. For a variety of reasons, even with what I thought was conservative planning, it has probably taken twice as long. You have to be able to sustain it for much longer than you think — mentally, financially and with your friendships.
There is so much more I could say, but to summarise thus far:
- Give it a go;
- Really understand the industry you’re choosing to chart your course in; and
- Make sure you invest enough time to pick the right people for the journey
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