The lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur
Over the past few months, I have shared more than 30 personal stories that helped shape my professional journey through my ‘Series of an Entrepreneur’. And as I’ve seen in the responses, these experiences, and accompanying lessons, transcend far beyond the consulting industry. We all experience failures, make missteps, endure bad days, weeks, months, even years. And we also, hopefully, experience success, see the reward of good decisions, and hit milestones far beyond the ones we set for ourselves.
Our careers (and life!) are made up of decisions and events; and only so many of them are in our control. We’re often forced to make decisions based on these events, unknowing whether they’re the correct ones.
At best, we’ve made the right choice using the knowledge we had. At worst, we learned a lesson.
My journey as an entrepreneur hasn’t been straightforward. It’s fascinating to look back and consider which events along the way had more of an impact on me than I expected, and which seemed catastrophic at the time, but ultimately meant very little.
For example, the old school values my single working mother and grandmother taught me growing up (which I did not appreciate at the time) are the origins of much of my personal and professional success. And on the contrary, when one of my partners left and took 80% of Elixirr’s revenue away in our first year, it ended up having very little impact – just served as a cautionary tale. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you realise you didn’t know.
So, which stories and lessons seemed to resonate most and may help others in their journeys?
The values instilled in me from my ‘atypical’ upbringing
I was raised by two incredible women – a single working mother and my grandmother who taught me old-school values that, at the time, I found nothing but burdensome. In hindsight, these values taught me to respect people and history, and it is through living by them that I have found both personal and professional success. Appreciate your roots – they’re likely a bigger contributor to your success than you realise.
Following through with an idea if you believe in it enough, even when others doubt it
I had more people than I can count telling me how oversaturated the consulting industry was and that Elixirr was not worth pursuing. But there were 5 of us who thought otherwise. The three individuals who invested alongside my co-founder @Graham and I have made over 100x returns since we founded the firm.
Intelligence and logic lead to critical thinking. Critical thinking is crucial in most academic disciplines but could be a key limiting factor for the entrepreneur. Follow through with an idea if you believe in it enough, even when others doubt it.
Failing with my first business venture and what I took away from it when pursuing my second one
I put everything I had into starting a business that failed within a year because of a few core mistakes – I followed advice I was wary of, all six founders had equal weight in decision-making, and we chased capital instead of revenue.
Do not follow the crowd – even when people you trust tell you to; consensus is no way to run a business – this model will only deliver the lowest common denominator; and revenue (not capital) is the most critical objective in business. If you can’t see a path to revenue, don’t bother.
Navigating investment details in the early days and being prepared to make sacrifices to avoid selling more equity
My investors invested £300k in cash to start Elixirr and I invested all of my salary for 18 months. We could’ve started with much less than this, but we needed the talent to deliver high-quality work. It would have been much cheaper if I took a £300k loan – the £300k in cash I took from my investors cost me 15% of my company, and that 15% is worth £30m 14 years later! However, I also got three great seed investors who sat on my board and played a significant role in building our firm.
I spent my life savings at 39 to start Elixirr, and I fought each day to get revenue and growth to avoid the need to sell more equity. Be very clear about why you need capital. Equity is the most expensive form of funding.
The importance of having loyal people on your team
Having the best people on your team is one of the most crucial elements to get right as an entrepreneur. At 27, my co-founder @Graham left his sure-fire position with one of the biggest consulting firms in the world to form Elixirr with me, halving his salary in the process.
It’s the people who are willing to work hard, put skin in the game and have a genuine passion for what you’re doing that you need by your side. All my successful partners have loyalty and resilience as critical characteristics.
There is a difference between an employee and an entrepreneur, and you should seek out the latter
Employees and entrepreneurs think differently. The nature of employees is they expect reward and compensation for their time. Entrepreneurs think, ‘If I produce something of value, I will be rewarded with something of value’. I have sought to build a team of entrepreneurs since day 1, and it’s worked out well for me.
Human beings are designed to be productive. We shouldn’t expect reward until we’re delivering value. Build your team with people who see themselves as entrepreneurs, not as employees. It will take your company from good to great.
The early struggles of starting a business and the need for tenacity, especially during this period
The early days of starting a business can be especially difficult – but these foundational years are where tenacity becomes of the greatest importance. Elixirr’s were filled with extreme highs and lows – many moments where I thought we may not even make it to the following week (this is normal!).
If you want to succeed, you must dedicate every part of yourself to building your business and pushing through adversity. The earliest years are the toughest but also the most important.
Accelerating growth while staying true to yourself as a leader (not getting distracted by the £!)
10 years in we reached a point that many notable businesses do: figuring out how to accelerate growth and capitalise on success to date. We explored every route: private equity, trade, debt and, ultimately, a public listing. Despite some shiny deals on the table, we believed in the future of Elixirr and I didn’t want to cash out. Looking back, it was undoubtedly the right choice.
Trust your gut and focus on the bigger picture rather than short-term rewards. Our business would look very different today if we had signed one of the PE deals in 2019. Be true to yourself as a leader, decide what you want to gain from a capital event personally, and make sure you set your business up for future success.
Managing fast growth is just as important as coping with failure
Six years in we experienced huge revenue growth after establishing some big client accounts and got overexcited, causing us to make decisions that resulted in losing half our revenue the following year: overhiring, changing infrastructure and increasing spend too quickly.
Run your business lean. More demand is better than oversupply. This is the best tension in a business. A quality problem!
When you invest in your team, they will invest in you
One of the best things to come from listing on the LSE is our best-in-market equity scheme. We offer performance-based options to our team and an ESPP scheme that grants individuals the opportunity to sacrifice a portion of their salary each month and invest in the business whose growth they impact daily. What really makes it unique is offering it to every single person on our team, regardless of grade.
This is one of the factors I believe contributes most to the high quality of our work. When you invest in your people, they invest in you. Offer real reward for the work they put in every day and watch what happens. Even if you are not listed, there are ways to do this. I promise it will help you build your winning team.
While I’m always proud to share my entrepreneurial successes, it’s navigating the downs and coming out the other side that is more impressive – and less often shared publicly.
It goes without saying, there is a lot of pressure that comes with running a business. You want to ensure every decision you make is the right one not only for yourself, but for all of the people on your team who are counting on you. There is no perfect formula for it. And things are constantly changing. But to be able to look at each moment of failure – which will inevitably occur – as an opportunity to better prepare for the next one is the greatest tool you can have under your belt.
Don’t dwell on the bad moments. If you believe in something enough and are willing to make sacrifices and work harder than most, success is only a matter of time. Nothing good ever came easy!