‘What man actually needs is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.’- Viktor Frankl
As always another fascinating Esc event last night (if you didn’t take a detour via the Eton boys entrepreneurs club) led by serial entrepreneur Penny Wing and her recent escapee partner in her new venture, brojure.com; Ollie Codrington. If you are looking for a simple 10 step program explaining ‘how to start up and sell and $15m business’, you may be slightly disappointed. Granted, Penny Wing has built and sold 3 successful group travel businesses from scratch and sold each of them in turn, the most recent having sold for $15m. However, that was through her own personal circumstances that led her to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities when they came knocking, which are difficult to distil down to a formula for others to follow and replicate.
Instead, I personally learnt about more practical insights about the nature of successful entrepreneurs and the wealth of wisdom that both Penny and Ollie had to offer based on their own journeys.
- Do something different. Be creative, be brave, think outside the box.
- Failure is inevitable. The secret is to fail fast, fail often and fail as many time as it takes to succeed
- There is no harm in having the intention to aim high
- Do not underestimate yourself- ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are usually right’- Henry Ford
- Micro test your ideas
- You can’t be good at everything. Surround yourself with people who are good at what you are not
- Do your research
- Don’t sell; solve problems
As a brief summary, Penny started out as an engineer with an educational background in math but through pure chance, was sat on a plane next to someone who owned a travel company and who happened to think that Penny’s frequent travel (she had lived in 36 different places before the age of 21) meant she was suited to a job in a travel company. By the end of the flight she’d been convinced to join his company and never look back. She spent 8 years in the industry working for someone else, honing her skills and understanding of the industry and then started her first company in 1988, in her living room, with $30,000 in savings. Three businesses later, each more successful than the last, she is on to her next venture brojure.com with Ollie, who coincidentally, she met on the Start-up MBA course run by Esc.
What struck me as the root of so many of her successes in her many roles was the bold and courageous actions based on Penny’s belief in herself and the willingness to do things differently. From the get go she approached things innovatively, refusing to follow her competitors by creating lengthy proposal documents when pitching for business. Instead, trying something new, she created simple visual one pagers, which appealed far more, stood out from the crowd and secured her loyal multinational customers.
One creative new idea led to another. From a need to be able to create these visual pitch documents wherever and whenever she wanted to, she hired a software developer to create a program for her. She then realised that these ‘brochures’ could be used by a multitude of different businesses; wedding planners, photographers, event planners, yacht brokers even, so decided to set up a software company, brojure.com to sell the program, despite no previous technical background.
You don’t always need to have the exact relevant skills to create something successful. For one, don’t underestimate yourself. Whatever your background, you will most likely have transferable skills that are highly sought after in any new venture. Whether that’s the ability communicate professionally, be organised, manage a team, build great relationships you are more skilled than you think you are!
On this note, an interesting point was raised about the benefits/disadvantages of MBA programs. Adele shared some of her thoughts having spoken to numerous escapees over the years. The choice to complete an MBA is personal and down to the individual, but question your motivation first. Do you want to do an MBA because you don’t know what you want to do yet and in effect is another form of procrastination? Do you have that nagging fear that you don’t have the skills to do what you want to do? Is it worth the time and money if you aren’t sure what specifically you are going to get out of it? Are there alternative ways to get the same information but from a less costly/time consuming resource? I like to think so personally. I feel that I learn in a far more constructive and efficient way by simply speaking to people, reading great books and experimenting in small ways with my ideas. One other thing, I think, is that to be truly entrepreneurial you need to do something different, be creative, be brave and there are so many people doing MBAs, perhaps it’s no longer a differentiator.
If you really don’t have the required skills for your idea, no bother! Surround yourself with people that do. Penny’s strengths are in starting a business, growing them big, growing them fast and then selling them. She has no long term desire to run one company; she prefers to focus of winning big, high value sales contracts. Recognising this she started looking for a partner to run the business. Cue Esc the city and their brilliant start up MBA program. Interestingly both Penny and Ollie may not have been there. Penny was initially discouraged as she seemed on paper to be over-qualified, and Ollie was reluctant to come along as he didn’t have a business idea. Well, Penny convinced Adele and Adele convinced Ollie and as fate would have it they were on the same course and have been working together on brojure.com ever since. If ever there was a case study for there being no rules in life and for doing something different, this would be it.
Ollie- ‘I Can’t remember wanting to be anything but be a lawyer since I was 15, until I was one.’
Ollie was a lawyer as of 4 years ago, but knew someday he wanted to run his own company. The problem was that didn’t have an idea. His quote above stuck with me as often we have an idea of what we want to and hold on to it so tightly. When we eventually get there it may not be what it first promised or what you were actually looking for in the first place. This, to me, highlights the value of micro testing your ideas. If you want to be a lawyer, go speak to a lawyer first or shadow one for a week. Figure out what you’d be doing every hour of everyday and the realities of the job before you commit to a degree or training focused on Law. Similarly with any other venture, if you think you want to be a chef, cook, write recipes, go volunteer in a kitchen, start a food blog. All low risk, low commitment, but will allow you to explore an idea before fully commit to it in an expensive, ‘can’t go back now’ way.
What do Penny and Ollie attribute to their success? One of the things that came through strongly is to focus on your strengths and what excites you. Ultimately you can’t be good at everything nor can you be passionate about every type of task involved in your business. Penny is excited by aiming high, going after the big million $ contracts and is great at it. So why should she also invest time running part of the business and targeting the ‘low hanging fruit’, the small business owner, tasks she has no interest in. She recognises the value in it, but acknowledges it just isn’t what she wanted to focus on so brought on a partner, Ollie, who was excited, and good at doing just that instead.
There is also no harm in aiming high. You have nothing to lose by having the intention to aim big. By leaving yourself open to all possibilities you are more likely to spot opportunities that you may have otherwise shut out. Case and point, brojure.com’s focus is service industries looking to pull together great visual material to show clients/customers. However, Ollie had a friend who had a friend who worked at British Gas, Centrica, and thought there was no harm in an introduction and a chat. As it happens, British Gas regularly pitch for work using presentations (who knew?!), but there is a lack of consistency across the various different pitching teams. Brojure.com may well be just the solution to their problem. The power of speaking to people and a ‘what’s the worst that could happen? attitude’ can’t be underestimated and clearly paid dividends for Penny & Ollie.
Another thing to note is that failure is inevitable. Both Penny and Ollie have failed as has pretty much every entrepreneur I have ever heard from. The lesson here is to fail fast, fail often and fail as many times as it takes to succeed. Also, consider your risk appetite and personal circumstances. Everyone’s different; one person’s shaking hands with a stranger may be another person’s skydive. Just honestly assess occasionally if you feel you are being too risky or too risk adverse.
When asked what they would change looking back on their journey so far, both agreed that they needed to have far more software industry knowledge than they first anticipated. They wished they could have ‘seen the road ahead more clearly’. They recommended spending time with people who know what you want to know and learning from them and getting experience in you desired field or industry in any way you can. Penny remarked that today there is a lot of pressure to grow businesses fast and to make as much money as possible as quick as possible, but maybe there is some value in slowing down and doing a little more research.
As an aside, Ollie brought up a really interesting point around status. As a lawyer he enjoyed being able to walk in to a room and others valuing his opinion and presence. There are a lot of added benefits to do with security, ego, and self-confidence that come from having what is defined as a traditionally successful profession. Even those closest to us find it difficult to accept when you do something less well defined/non-traditional sometimes; Ollie quoting his mum; ‘But what do you do? What are you going to be?’. ‘I’ll be your son?’ He suggested. Sometimes people just won’t get it and that can take a toll on your confidence, particularly if it’s someone you care about. Ultimately though, Ollie realised ‘we all want to be able to look back and have fantastic stories to tell our grandchildren’, to inspire and excite, no matter if we fail or succeed, we’d just like to be able to say we tried and had a great time in the process.
What becomes clearer to me every time I go along to an Esc event or any else new for that matter is that difference between success and failure boils down to people who do and people who don’t. If you never stop learning, experimenting, challenging yourself, finding out what excited you and that you’re passionate about, you will always eventually find things that make you happy and fulfill you.
Hey, look, no-one said it would be easy or without some tough decisions, but it’s dawning on me at least, that it really is as simple as getting out there and doing.
Penny and Ollie
Start up MBA:
The lean startup- Eric Ries (how to start a business in the leanest way possible)
Creativity Inc.- Ed Catmull (how to create a truly creative and collaborative working environment, based on the incredible story of Pixar. I want to work for Pixar!)
4 Hour Work Week- Tim Ferriss– (A must read for all escapees. Whether you want to start a new business, become more productive in your current job, do something different, challenge you assumptions about how you work, there is something in here for everyone)
Post also featured on Esc the City blog: