Yesterday morning I was at the King's School, Winchester - a specialist Business school down the road from where I went to university to give a talk on my life experiences, how decisions I have made and how my outlook on work experience and entrepreneurship have guided my life and my career to date.
I wanted it to be an open and honest discussion, a warts-n-all account. I wasn't there to tell these 15/16 year old students that it was easy, that you'd get rich quick. This was all about the realities of being an entrepreneur - having an unquenchable thirst to do something you believe in, take risks, invest your time & energy working alone, making huge sacrifices in the pursuit of your goal.
In Winchester, as is the case in other particularly affluent areas, there is a feeling that a certain arrogance towards work, a complacency towards the realities of post education working life and a certain entitlement on completion of (formal) education that means they don't have to worry about it. That getting a great job is owed to them. Now not all think like this, but the symptoms are there and they need addressing.
When I arrived to what I thought was going to be a small, intimate conversation with a group of a dozen or so students, I was somewhat surprised to be greeted with the entire assembly hall of the WHOLE YEAR!
Not one to shy away from the challenge, I feel the talk went well. There was no heckling, no walking out, no falling asleep. A few laughs (in the right places) and a round of applause at the end. So, not bad.
The presentation deck itself was a very simple Prezi I put together in about 10 minutes the day before, mainly to remind me what I was talking about.
The loose transcript (it was more of a guide than a script and I improvised a bit) of the talk is below, if you're interested...
I learned to love to learn in June 2001.
I remember it clearly like it was yesterday.
It was a turning point for me, but at the time it was a pretty difficult lesson to take.
I had completed my 2nd year at University, having blagged and skived my way through the course for 2 years - a solid 3rd looking likely. In Yr 2 you had to pass all of your core modules and that was something I was aiming for, except I failed. I flunked one of my assignments, something I really didn't expect and I had to RETAKE! I wasn't so worried about failing, it just seemed pointless that I had to do the essay twice! Instead of enjoying the start of my summer.
I spent time working more closely with my lecturers and found that in doing so, I discovered that I enjoyed the collaborative process of learning, I learned how to structure my opinion in the way that the lecturers required and I aced the retake. I learned that I couldn't avoid research, as I had done throughout my school life.
And then I aced the next essay. And the next one. My dissertation got the highest grade in the whole of my year, across all subjects and was put forward for publishing in the Journal of Sports Sciences. I'd cracked it. What was most important, was that I had learned to fail, to analyse the results. It was my first enlightened taste of validated learning.
I found a way to learn that wasn't in any text book I was given at the time, and wasn't taught.
Fast forward a number of years and I'm still applying those lessons every single day and it's what I want to talk to you about today.
Who Was I?
In my last year at University, I decided that my goal was to run my own business. My dad had run his printing business successfully for 13 years and I was inspired by him, he worked extremely hard, people respected him. I didn't know what my business would be, but I knew I'd have one. So - I resolved to learn all I would need to in order to be successful, when the time came.
During university, I paid my way by doing various bar jobs and as a security guard - in each case I tried to be the best barman (fastest pint or stacking the most chairs at close down, tackling the most hippies on stonehenge or doing my patrols at Calshot activity centre faster than anyone else).
When I left, I went to help my Dad out, but little did I know how bad it had become, in the Printing industry and for him. My first job as a graduate was to work for no money, for 20hrs a day to save the ailing business and eventually, tell 14 people who'd worked for my Dad for 10 years that they were out of a job. Talk about a baptism of fire.
From there, I set about trying to balance earning a wage and collecting the skills I needed for my goal of running my business. I did customer service, I did account management, I did sales, I did finance. I worked my way up the ladder.
In 2007 I lost my Dad. I was sat in a factory in China watching these guys churning out MDF furniture to make it look like antiques and I thought, "what the hell am I doing?". My way of coping with the loss of my father was to throw myself in to action sports. Anything with adrenalin. But it was expensive, so I hatched a plan to do it for free. I created a website, and would approach activity providers about joining their activities and I wouldn't CHARGE THEM! I would write up a review, take some photos, interview the business owner... and people were reading it online.
That blog turned into a social network for adventurous people with over 10,000 members.
So I decided to leave the security of the day job and take a HUGE risk in a new industry (technology) as a first-time entrepreneur.
It didn't work. 4 months in, at the back end of 2009 no-one was willing to invest in a first time entrepreneur working on a niche social network, just as the bottom had fallen out of the world's economy.
I had enough money to pay the bills for about a month. Do I get a job?
Before I talk about what happened next, I think it's interesting to reflect on what I learned through all of that.
1. That actually, it wasn't the be all and end all. It was part of the continued process of learning, trying, failing and trying again. What I learned was how to understand the process better, to think more scientifically about the process. I recommend you read, if you haven't, Eric Ries Lean Startups.
2. All Work Experience is GOOD. If you make it good. What I mean is, just doing any work is only useful if you have a bigger picture. Whether you're just learning how to work in a team more effectively, whether your learning a technical skill, if your learning how to compete, if you're learning how to talk to and listen to clients. There are so many skills to be learned from any work experience that can't fully be taught in school or learned in books. It's important to take work experience seriously and apply yourself, be professional, be critical and learn quickly.
3. So, logically, we should always be learning. And recognizing what we've learned and how it contributes to our goal. Make that part of your life.
4. Find Great Mentors (and run away from moaners). Finding other people who are excellent at what they do and tucking yourself under their wing will serve you greatly. I've done this throughout my career and learned from experts. Conversely, you will find certain people in the real world who are Eee-ores. Moaners. They bring everyone down and you must avoid them at all costs.
5. Fail Fast. This is something we struggle with in the UK. Or at least, we struggle to accept the first bit (sign of weakness) and we then compound it by battling through because of our fear of failure, and as a result, we take ages to fail and the cost is great. Instead, we must learn to test our hypothesis, try and prove it wrong, then move on.
Who Am I Now?
I'm still just a little person swimming in a huge ocean, trying to make a difference.
But, I hope I'm getting better at learning how to make a difference through the products I build, the people I work with.
So, in the words of my dear old mum - Steve, what do you actually do?
Well, I didn't go and get a job when I realised the Social network was not going to work out - I think you could say I had had a taste of freedom, and I liked it. Instead, the people I was talking to about investment liked me, liked how I did things and had companies they wanted help with. So I started consulting, and built a team of web designers and developers. I created an agency in a completely new industry, from scratch. And it was quick enough, that I didn't have to go back into the job market with my tail between my legs.
By doing work for clients, I have much more control over my time and with my team, can now focus on building internal projects that we believe have potential for the longer term.
I have developed a very simple process for deciding what these projects could be and whether we invest resources in working on them:
1. Is it a big enough problem?
2. Is the market aware of the problem?
3. Can I add Value (through technology)?
As a result, we are now working on some very exciting projects, including a piece of web software for managing information in a better way and freeing up your brain to focus on being creative and finding solutions to problems, a mobile music app platform for children and parents and a mobile gaming product.
So Where Will it All End?
Well, we all dream of selling our technology companies to Facebook for $1billion or a huge IPO. Chances are, statistically speaking, that's not going to happen. Chances are I'm going to fail again. And again. But so long as I don't quit when I fail, then one day I'll win.
No-one owes me anything. I'm not entitled to anything. I wasn't entitled to a job when I left university. I worked for my Dad's business because I had to. I won my next series of jobs by being better than I was at the previous job and proving myself constantly.
It's going to be tough because failing is tough. It's going to be a slog. The hard grind of hours spent on your own, working all hours for no money just for people to tell you your product needs to look more like iOS or someone who's watched too much dragon's den asks you what your 3 year profit forecasts are. All the while spending your own money, borrowing, risking. If I win, it'll be because I made it happen and I'll be richer and happier for it because the plan worked and I have my love of learning and the experiences of working to thank.
Or I'll be asking this guy if he's got a spare cardboard box and a carrier bag I can borrow.
Thank you very much.