A happy exit

Laurence McCahill
Aug 21, 2015 · 6 min read

By Laurence McCahill
Co-founder The Happy Startup School

It started with:

“Of course!”

We’d been in discussion for a while about branching out into workshops, teaching others the startup guide ropes.

But we couldn’t settle on a name.

It was 2012 and both myself and Carlos had recently read and been inspired by The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. But whilst we loved the principles behind the methodology–and had in fact already been practising many of these within our projects before they had a fancy new glossary – it felt like there was something missing.

We’d been friends since school and had built our business on friendship, with a strong set of values and a clear purpose that were the backbone of our company.

We created Spook Studio to fulfil our need for autonomy in work and life.

It allowed us to love coming to work each day, with a great team supporting us. We got to see our kids grow up at close quarters, regularly heading home at lunchtime or taking time out from the working week to enjoy those special moments that you don’t get back later.

You can call it a lifestyle business if you want.

We’d just call it life as it should be.

Family comes first. Always.

“Your kids are only passing through. It will seem like forever but it will be gone in a blink of an eye.” Steve Blank

For those years we weren’t growing or highly profitable, but we were doing OK. And anyway, we were rich in so many other ways. That was success to us.

From lean to happy

And then we discovered the book Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. We read about how it’s possible to build a $1bn company based on happiness.

I’d long been interested in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, having read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness shortly after we’d set up the studio in 2004. I was fascinated by the idea that we could influence our own happiness through our actions and that it wasn’t prescribed.

When thinking of a name for our training idea there was Spook School, appiness (geddit?) and many others, but nothing had quite struck a chord. But once we’d realised our passion for entrepreneurship and happiness could be combined it took a life force of its own.

“The Happy Startup School?” muted Carlos

“Of course!” I replied

(All the best design is ‘of course’ design.)

And off I went, spending the next hour furiously putting ideas to pixels.

And there it was, the first incarnation of our new venture.

The 4 pillars of a happy startup?

  • Passion
  • Purpose
  • People
  • Profits

We quickly registered the domain name, Twitter handle (amazed that @happystartups hadn’t been taken) and got this page up online.

Then created this slide deck as the only way I knew to get these ideas out of my head and into the world.

142,000 views & counting

We then spend the next few months using any spare moment to see if anyone cared. Thankfully they did but it wasn’t all plain sailing.

We put on meetups, started a blog, developed our business design canvas, wrote an e-book (in a weekend), did talks and workshops and our first conference. But most importantly we reached out to anyone involved in this new field of purpose-driven business, who were equally passionate about making a difference — folks at Action for Happiness, Delivering Happiness, Do Lectures, Purposemakers in Denmark and many many more.

Me sharing our challenge at our first Alptitude retreat in 2015. We closed the agency soon after.

Back to today

We’d been toying with the idea of shutting down the studio and moving away from agency work. But we needed advice from people who’s opinions we valued. Out of all these discussions, one soundbite stuck in my head, from our friend and mentor Charles Davies:

“You’re not happy and you’re not a startup”

And that was it. He was right. We’d become a zombie company – alive but with no soul. The only way we could make The Happy Startup School work was by giving it our full attention.

It was time to f-o-c-u-s.

It was time to eat our own dog food.

It was time to become a startup again.

It was time.

“Treat that dream in your head with respect. And understand the urgency of it.” David Hieatt, Do Lectures

Showing the way

We tell others to be bold, take a risk, do the thing you love.

It was time to take heed from our own advice and do what we had to do. This meant closing the studio— our lifeline — which painfully meant letting two of our close-knit team go. Loyal staff that have been with us for more than three years, doing great work on some challenging projects.

This wasn’t a decision we took lightly, and we’d been through every possible way around this. We could have taken on bigger clients with bigger budgets and hired a Design Director and Product Manager to fill mine and Carlos’ roles, but helping big companies get bigger wasn’t what we were about.

Working with startups was never a strategic — and certainly not a commercial — decision. It is our calling. Some may say obsession.

I firmly believe that if we maintained the status quo, we’d have killed both businesses so really the decision was easier than I’d feared. Thankfully the stars aligned and our biggest client — who we were worried about leaving in the lurch– took on both of them as part of their growing startup team.

Problem solved. Thank you universe.

Moving on

We had to give our full focus to The Happy Startup School and unleash our vision the world. It’s now been more than 2 years since we launched and it feels the time is right to go all-in.

“The world doesn’t need another design agency (even if you’re a very good one), but it definitely needs a crack team of superheroes fighting for better business.” James, Cook Foods

Now, more than ever there is a need for people to be happy, and to use business as a way to achieve this through doing meaningful work. We want to be at the forefront of this movement — helping people to fulfil their role on this planet before it’s too late.

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life” Steve Jobs

For us, the realisation that life is short is a motivator in itself. We want to leave a legacy and make a positive dent in the world and enable others to do the same.

We have big plans over the next couple of years:

  • Launch a global online community for heart-shaped founders
  • Put on game-changing programs
  • Write and publish books
  • Put on transformational events across the globe
  • Create a vibrant collaboration space in Brighton
  • Continue to connect with inspiring people, projects and places

The future looks bright but we can’t do it alone. With your help we can make this into an epic worldwide movement. Check out our website for ways to get involved.

The Happy Entrepreneur

Happy is the new rich

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