My Startup Journey- Finding the Idea, the Founding Team and Always Learning
Here’s a bit about my story — from finding the right idea, to team dynamics and the constant learning that building a startup requires. I’ll provide more practical advice in future blogs, this one lays the seeds.
A bit about me
Weirdly, since I was in my teens, I always knew I would set up my own business around an idea that I helped shape (rather than jumped in on). I felt it would take a while and would be an idea that properly helped people or the planet— not some app that makes filing tax returns easier (but I will use said app). My Dad set up a computer hardware business in the 1970s in Ireland, which definitely inspired me. I liked the thought of the pressure and challenges he faced, the satisfaction he must have felt of getting through a tough month and making sure everyone was paid, the joy of employing people who really liked him and what they did, along with the flexibility he had to pursue various hobbies — he had a really good work life balance between sport, genealogy, spending time with family and visiting friends. At that time, without knowing what I was good at and what idea I might like, I decided to dabble in lots of jobs, so I could learn a variety of skills and meet a bunch of people - whilst hoping I found the idea and people I wanted to do it with along the way, so I could then apply the knowledge.
Belief in an outcome will help you get closer to achieving it — as long as you couple that with putting the time into it
What did the journey look like?
- Business studies in uni in Dublin (not the cool thing anymore!)
- Accounting exams whilst working in the Restructuring & Recovery sections of KPMG and Smith & Williamson during the recession — becoming a jack of all trades, whilst dealing with tonnes of businesses in a variety of industries that had gone bad! I learned loads about how SMEs should and shouldn’t work, but, it was a bit sad :(
- Quit that and decided to join an organisation with a social impact I believed in, so went to an Irish social enterprise called Camara — who provide digital literacy skills to children across Africa. I volunteered there for 9 months full-time, learning new things and helping out where I could, before becoming Project Manager / CEO of Camara in London, where I set up their UK operations for 10 months. A wild and wonderful experience building something from scratch :). I loved it!
- Then, my Dad and part of my inspiration, became very ill with cancer, so I decided to leave Camara and move back home to Dublin. Sadly, he passed away shortly after I got back. I was grateful and lucky to be there at that time
- I stayed at home with my mum in Dublin for a few months and picked up a job as a treasury accountant in Betdaq, a gambling company— bit of a change from Camara for sure! It gave me some good insights into the financial side of an SME. London came calling again, partly as I had met a lovely lady (my now girlfriend and M.Y.O co-founder, Diana) before I went back to London
- With startups still burning in me, I ended up joining Virgin StartUp as a business advisor initially — the not-for-profit entrepreneurial arm of the Virgin Group that helps aspiring founders with support, funding and mentoring. Perfecto. It was a good mix of learning and giving back to the startup world. I progressed and had a variety of roles in the company — Head of Partnerships and part of Investment Team — and loved it
Always along the way, though, I was keeping an eye out for the right startup opportunity. For me, it took a long time to find ‘the idea’ and the team, but I always kept learning. Read on…
Dun dun, dun dun
Mid-2016 rolled around and the realisation. I’ve enough experience to give it a shot full-time (FFS Sam!), what the hell am I waiting for? A lot of people thought I was stupid, but I had to get out there full-time and properly explore startup opportunities and see what happens. Meet people, continue learning, come on Sam. Ok so. That’s what I did — after checking with my Mam that she was cool with it, of course.
The Idea Part 1
You never know if it’s gonna flow, you just know when it flows
As a back drop to the variety of roles, over the last 8 years (it’s really 10, but that makes me sound very old!) I’ve tried to get startups going with family, friends, work colleagues and loose contacts. None got to the actual company formation stage (FAIL?). Most never got past the idea / research stage with me involved and with others we got initial stock and packaging. I bought and never used domains for some (lots of GoDaddy “re-confirm subscription?” e-mails, they owe me!) and some went on to prosper (through the hard work of the brave brilliant people that stuck at it). The ideas ranged from:
- How about a MOOC (this was 2009ish) — did hours on that
- Something to help people with IBS — no name and just an idea at time I left. I was kinda too busy setting up Camara in UK at the time and felt I wasn’t adding enough value as it turned more into a hardware product. Is an actual thing now -> Foodmarble. Aonghus doing a superb job — check them out.
- Subscription boxes of food and drinks from startups — Gobble Box. Researched heavily, had a website, some stock, not launched. Cool name eh?
- A social enterprise that supports charities through crowdfunding campaigns around buying art — We Are Volar. Had the branding done, not launched (Karo may launch it one day!)
- An afro carribean hair and beauty salon / platform — Twist. Researched heavily (even went to an Afro Carribean hair and beauty awards…), not launched
There’s a pattern here — reading, chatting and not really doing anything….
- Property — that’s where the safe money is (right?) and loads more besides — Operation Eagle. Found it too boring
- Delivery driver recruitment platform — Driverhunt.com. Was live and was briefly involved in battle to be a co-founder. I FAILED in that battle and website now for sale — founder gone on to better things with another startup called Rota, though.
- A startup funding platform listing grants, loans, VC, crowdfunding options etc — Fundu. Domain bought (recently cancelled, another dream…) and idea really well fleshed out. Not launched as couldn’t find the techy I wanted to do it with :(
- ANY idea around blockchain — Bought a pile of books, lots of reading, got nowhere, but do now own some Ethereum and Bitcoin (a roller coaster ride and I have no real idea what is going on with the price of either, like most people…)
- A music incubator — The Rattle. Lots of progress and hopefully launching later this year without me (go Chris and Bobby!), as I took a step back to focus on my current project. If you’re involved in the music biz — what a crazy, crazy space — check them out, they’re gonna help save it and empower music makers!
- The list goes on…
Months and months, weeks and weeks, hours and hours were put into these ideas — and I don’t regret a minute of it.
It was all really interesting times with great people, there just wasn’t the right dynamic (team, time commitment) or idea at play for me or them. That’s cool. I just wasn’t drawn to stay involved or the potential co-founder wasn’t or I didn’t want to set up solo. I knew deep down that when the right idea and team came around, I would be all over it and it would go well! It just took time. A lot of perspiration and brain power is required to get a start up off the ground. Not to mention months of hard work with little pay before you may have to pass a ‘founder vesting cliff’. They say you gotta be in it to win it. But, I just wasn’t sure that these were the races for me and that I was willing to make the sacrifices required.
You have to want to win it in the first place — like REALLY WANT TO!
A bunch of the above ideas were explored after I decided to quit my full-time job in September 2016 to explore startup opportunities. I didn’t have much of a plan other than to explore ideas and meets lots of people. I’d also turned 30 and felt I had no excuse to not make something happen (nothing like a new decade rolling in eh?). Why did I really quit? I liked the job I was doing and it was making a bit of an impact, but I always found that I couldn’t get enough momentum on an idea to keep me satisfied as was too engrossed in my work. A cop out, again, perhaps. Some people are great at switching off after work and focusing on their side project, I struggle and my brain whizzes with ideas and collaboration prospects. Thankfully, my job were supportive after I asked could I go part-time and freelance, so I could find and set up the thing I yearned to set up.
If you ask for what you want, you are more likely to get it
Eventually after all this, I decided that I enjoyed hosting people in a physical space and felt that in an increasingly digital age, people needed a tech-free environment to relax — mainly for their own mental wellbeing, but also as a fresh alternative to the norms spending time in cafes and pubs. Being creative is a great way to relax, focus the mind and has loads of other benefits. Mash that all together and that’s what I’m working on now.
OK, enough about me. Was just for context. Promise.
The Team Part 1
In every startup, in my opinion, there needs to be one natural leader who can sway things (in the best interests of the company, not themselves), is decisive and has the respect of everyone. If there are 2 natural leaders that aren’t 100% on the same wavelength, I feel there will inevitably be problems further down the line. Facebook had 5 co-founders for example, Tesla had 2. Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are the only ones you really hear about. Most of the others got turfed out fairly early on or stayed behind the scenes and empowered the CEO. Back then, if you left, vesting schedules weren’t the norm and they got a nice slice of the pie, but times have changed.
Co-founder issues can be suppressed for a while, but when the grind starts on a full-time startup, when money gets tight and important decisions need to be made hard and fast, blood may boil and the startup will be negatively impacted.
How to find out if the co-founder is the right one?
If you’re doing a startup with other people on an ad hoc basis — a day here and there — it’s a good idea to spend a bunch of full, solid days together working on it early on — book a log cabin in Cornwall for a long weekend or go to a hackathon (my brother Bart actually met the co-founders of his startup Edgetier at a startup weekend. It just worked straight away for him — lucky fella!). Put yourself in the position where there is some pressure (a clear goal by the end of it), collaborative decisions have to be made and different kinds of work have to be done (e.g. research, marketing, finances, product development).
You’ll see if decisions can be made together, what complementary skills there are and if any are missing (and are crucial, like marketing, operations or strategy). If missing, is there an appetite to learn it from the potential co-founding team or will someone else be needed or can it be outsourced? You’ll also see if you actually get along when there is some pressure and if you enjoy spending time with them — and you’d better, as you’ll be spending a lot of time with them in the future!
Fortunately for my current project, Diana (co-founder) and I have complementary skills. I like doing the operational, business development, strategy and partnering side, whilst she loves social media, marketing, finance and running the creative sessions. We’re confident in each others ability to take care of our own areas and it allows us to crack on with things. We get along too — I guess 3 years of dating are testament to that anyway. It’s certainly intense setting something up with your girlfriend especially when you are both still working (she’s full-time and I’m part-time), but doing something with your best friend is always very cool. Surprise date nights help :).
If it don’t fit, jump ship
So, back to the team and idea. Startups are hard, take a long time to be successful (if they ever ‘succeed’) and if relying on co-founders, you need to be able to overcome challenges together — whilst staying driven and passionate. It is also about right place, right people, right time. If…
- you’re not really into the idea from the early stages (1 month in); or
- co-founders don’t feel they can contribute in a meaningful way and don’t really want to learn but really should; or
- more than one person wants to lead and decision making becomes really slow and tiring; or
- you’re not feeling naturally driven to keep putting the hours into it (2–3 months in) — before work, during work, after work
…it’s not gonna happen — Jump ship.
The Learning Part 1
Eyes and Ears
Like most startup founders, I have a shelf full of business and startup books. Read bits of them all the time — ones like The Lean Startup for product development, The Startup Owner’s Manual, the story behind Amazon, Shoe Dog about Nike, Predatory Thinking about going outside the box a little. Also check out the 10 books every entrepreneur should read in 2017 — I need to buy a bunch of them! Things change quickly, knowledge helps you to adapt quicker than the next guy / girl.
Podcasts are great and there has been an explosion of startup ones recently. They’re great when exercising, commuting or taking care of admin.
- How I Built This — great startup stories from the very early stages
- Harvard Business Review Ideacast — 15–20 minute episodes distilling management / leadership techniques and lots more that is covered in HBR magazine
- Mixergy — the host and founder Andrew Warner really digs into the weeds on the latest startup techniques — is a bit tech startuppy but lots learned from it
- Tim Ferriss, the author of 4 hour work week, speaks with lots of inspirational people — listen to the episode with Arnold Schwarzenegger — if that doesn’t get you fired up, nothing will!
After a few failed attempts at getting startups off the ground I started to think ‘what’s the point?’ in reading / listening to all this stuff and subscribing to tonnes of startuppy e-mails like Techcrunch, Launch Ticker, Tech City News, CB Insights etc. They seemed a waste at times as I wasn’t applying the learnings to my own thing, but, I now often pick up a book to re-read a snippet I partly remembered or put on a bit of an old podcast and apply it now. You don’t know what you don’t know, so by constantly learning and reading at least more things can be on your radar when the time comes.
Always be learning
It’s also good for sharing with others — which everyone should love to do![Btw, let me know what books and podcasts you would recommend in the comments below]
Again — The idea and when it will feel right.
I’ll finish up here. Just make sure if you’ve been dabbling with a startup idea for a couple of months and you plan to continue with it, it’s an idea you want to spend a few years working on with the right people (or just you). It’s fine to go solo and pick employees up along the way too. Whatever works for you. If you’d like to dabble in entrepreneurship — meet different people, read books, listen to startup podcasts, go to events.
Try, try and try new things
You never know what idea will stick and who you’ll set a business up with, but you’ll know when it feels right. Escape the City have some good programmes that let you dabble in entrepreneurship whilst still working, might be worth checking that out. If you take the plunge to pursue ideas, let alone a business, like I did, make sure you have some savings (to survive at least 6 months) or a part-time job for income — otherwise you won’t be able to pay the bills while you chase your dreams!
Always protect the down side
Get in the mindset that it will happen and keep your eyes and ears open — then, when it feels right — GO FOR IT
I’m co-creater (with Diana) of M.Y.O, a creative space for adults, where you can make things, have fun and enjoy the mindfulness benefits of being creative through arts and crafts. We’ll be adapting as we go, watch this space! If you’re interested to find out more about M.Y.O and our journey, be sure to follow me on Linkedin / Medium, subscribe to the M.Y.O newsletter here and like us on Facebook.
Oh, and thanks a million to my Mam, Diana and Brian M for reviewing this.