This isn’t an overnight success story, this is a real story.
It was a mid-September afternoon in 2016. There I was, on the top floor of some swanky office, peering through floor to ceiling windows over the autumn skyline. I’d gotten a promotion a few weeks before, my second in just four years; someone up there must’ve liked me. I did like my job and, on the face of it, everything was going swimmingly.
The problem was, I couldn’t shake off a deep sense of longing — like I was destined for more.
I’d always been someone who likes to build useful stuff. I guess it’s why I always figured I’d start my own business and follow in the footsteps of many great entrepreneurs.
But standing there, glassy eyed, I knew that I’d lost my way. I’d fallen off the path that my younger self, my true self, had started on many years ago. Enough was enough. So, I left my job, with enough savings to sustain me for about 12 months. My plan was to launch a startup, make a load of cash, become famous, get featured in Forbes, etc. Or so I’d hoped.
Here’s how the past 12 months unfolded, along with five big lessons I learned along the way.
- Before the first sale, nothing else really matters
For my first venture, I decided to try to revolutionize the U.K. grocery sector (rather ambitious), inspired by my personal experience of outsourcing my diet planning and grocery shopping with a virtual assistant.
I spent ages writing pitch decks for seed funding and a place in one of many startup accelerator programs, because that’s how you start a startup, right? The lukewarm responses I received kept me going for nearly three months, but I got nothing concrete — no funding and no accelerator program. I’d done a load of work but still hadn’t made a single sale or even tested whether people wanted my idea, which was crazy.
Like many well-meaning founders, I’d gotten caught up in the startup bubble and forgotten what was important: making the first sale. I was done with pitch decks, chasing funding and accelerator programs. My first lesson: before the first sale, nothing else really matters.
- You can start a business with no money
Around the time I was becoming disillusioned with the whole startup thing, I stumbled across a forum of online entrepreneurs who operate in the complete opposite way. People who self-fund their businesses, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars a year. They systematically identify what people want using data and build small-scale businesses to fulfill their demand, scaling once it’s profitable. Very little guesswork involved and no talk of venture capital.
I loved the sound of this, so put it to the test. I found a popular niche with relatively low competition using Google’s Keyword Planner, then set up a basic website and Google ad campaign. The product was a custom meal plan for bodybuilders selling for £19 (approximately $26.50), made using a nifty meal planning tool called That Clean Life. I hit “start” on the ad campaign and crossed my fingers.
Unbelievably, it worked. I made my first sale within a day and several more before my advertising budget ran out. That’s lesson number two: you can start a business with almost no money, if you apply the right strategy.
- Know when to get out (set a stop-loss)
The concept of a stop-loss is well-known in financial trading. Essentially, it means “how much can you afford to lose before you get out?”
I’d never considered using the concept in daily life until I read the book, “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars.” The authors shared that without a stop-loss, we’re at risk of turning projects into indefinite events. That smacked me in the face. I’d been working on my grocery shopping venture for nearly nine months. I’d even given up my nearly profitable bodybuilding meal planning venture to focus on it. I knew what success would look like (to the tune of more than 1,000 users a month), but didn’t know when I would stop trying, and this was incredibly stressful. Especially as I wasn’t getting any closer to my goal.
So, I set a stop-loss — if I did not have a customer within one more month, then I would stop. The end of the month rolled around, and I still had zero customers. I stopped, breathed a heavy sigh of relief and haven’t looked back since. Lesson number three: know when to get out by setting a stop-loss.
- Don’t quit your job
When I left my day job, I freed up time to focus on my entrepreneurial pursuits. But I also unwittingly put myself under immense pressure to make it a success. I didn’t want to disappoint my friends or family, who were used to seeing me succeed, and I really didn’t want to go back to an office job.
This pressure left me paralyzed with fear and my productivity crashed. I could spend days agonizing over a website headline or some other insignificant feature like my life depended on it. It was impossible to be creative when I was stressing so much. I would have been better off staying in my day job, thus removing the pressure, while side hustling, until it made sense to do it full-time. This is an approach advocated by Susan Cain, the renowned author and Quiet Revolutionary. That’s lesson number four: don’t quit your day job (just yet).
- You’ll discover who your real friends are
Leaving my job was perceived as a significant risk by some people. As was starting a business with my own money and giving up my flat to live in Thailand for several months. As I started walking my own path, my actions seemed to alienate some people — they just couldn’t relate. But I also developed stronger bonds with new and existing acquaintances who could relate to my new direction. This left me with a smaller group of friends, but the time I spent with them felt 10 times more valuable. Lesson number five: you’ll discover who your real friends are.
Back to the present day. I have indeed launched a startup. Two, to be precise. I have not, however, made a load of cash, become famous or been featured in Forbes. Instead, it cost me nearly my life savings, plus the 12-months’ salary I missed out on.
Now, here’s the craziest part — I’d do it all again. Why?
Because sometimes we must step into the unknown to expand what we do know. Yes, I made some dumb financial decisions, but money comes and goes. I had the courage to walk my own path and in the process, gained new skills, closer friendships and a fresh outlook on life that are infinitely more valuable. So, from that perspective, the entrepreneurial journey was a riveting success, whatever comes next.
Now, over to you. Are you ready to get up and walk your own path, too?