"It’s not a business model. It’s my life." How I redesigned my work and embraced entrepreneurship of a different kind.
There are many people out there who build a business. Startups, brands, corporations. They get investment, scale fast, disrupt an industry. These kinds of players are familiar to us - we hear about their founders’ success on podcasts, on YouTube, in business magazines.
There are lots of other people however building very different kinds of businesses: tiny, agile, one-person businesses. These fly under the radar. There’s seemingly little glamour or excitement about one person working hard to build their own version of success. Yet it still takes a load of entrepreneurial spirit to grow and sustain a one-person business.
Of course, it’s up to you the path you take. Although some people may try and persuade you otherwise. You need to scale! They’ll say. Hire hordes of people. Ask you what your five year plan is. But it doesn’t have to be like that - that version of entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone.
Jumping off the train
My last organisational job - two decades ago now - was very entrepreneurial in the traditional sense. I was involved in building a business, hiring staff, making sure the numbers rose every year. On the face of it I was a successful, well paid young man working in an industry I’d dreamed of working in since a teenager. But underneath the surface I was stressed, unhappy and struggling to deal with life.
The problem was that I’d moved away from my creative strengths towards a new world of business plans, financial forecasting and board meetings. It was a seductive path. But ultimately it just wasn’t me.
So I quit my job as managing director to preserve my health and sanity. In a way, freelance life chose me. So I pulled the emergency cord and jumped off the train.
Going it alone
I missed leading a team and that camaraderie of the office. But I embraced my new world with vigour and found a different type of entrepreneurship on the outside. With no rules and no walls (the title of my first blog), there were no limits to my ideas and I got stuck in quickly. I started a business with my cousin producing videos and creating websites, launched a marketing business running ad campaigns for Benetton and co-founded an artist management company. I traded internet domain names and wrote a series of books. In those first ten years I did everything I could to turn thin air into invoices, and hey I was good at it.
A different kind of train
But it was hard. Especially juggling a new family with all this stuff. And it was harder than the day job I’d walked out of. I remember standing in the courtyard at Kingston Hospital in September 2005, my newborn son less than 12 hours old, whilst I fielded a call from Benetton. No-one to delegate to. No such thing as paternity leave.
In 2008 my book ‘Leap! Ditch your job, start your own business and set yourself free’ was published. I felt like the poster boy for this freelance life. But I didn’t feel very free.
I was working long hours, I wasn’t taking advantage of the benefits of working for myself. And worse: I was doing the wrong work. It was history repeating itself. I was replicating the stresses and strains of my organisational life. I’d jumped on another train.
Designing my own life
I’d lost sight of who I was professionally and what made me tick. One New Year’s Eve I decided to reflect on my professional achievements. My earnings had been good. But I struggled to write down more than one project that year which had got me fired-up and excited. Those big budget projects paid me but they didn’t fuel me. I didn’t love them. In all honesty, I hated some of them.
And if I hated them, then what was it all about? What was the point of ditching a job and going my own way if it was miserable?
It was then I realised something really simple, obvious in fact - that I am the designer of my own work life. I didn’t have to work to other people’s expectations of what work, or entrepreneurship, looks like. I had no-one else breathing down my neck and telling me what projects I should be working on or how I should approach things. It was up to me. After all, there’s no greater freedom than being answerable to yourself.
So I set out to redesign my work life around me and:
I stopped following the money and started doing the work that was important to me. Giving talks, inspiring others, meeting interesting people.
I broke free of the constraints of what I thought I should be doing. And of what other people said I should be doing.
I stopped trying to commoditise and squeeze a return out of every moment of Monday to Friday. I started to measure success differently.
I started being kinder to myself and focusing on the things in life that really matter. I got more hands-on with the school run. I gave myself permission to go for swims at my local beach and not beat myself up under the misapprehension that I was skiving (even if I was skiving, so what?).
I started thinking more carefully about the projects I took on. I started being led by gut not by £.
I paid a lot more attention to what fuelled my best work. To make sure I had the right ingredients, the right setting to do my best work.
I decided to only work with those when there was a chemistry and culture fit. I said ‘No’ a lot more.
Reframing my attitude was about ensuring I could always rock up as the real me. That I could bring “me” to work, in any shape that took.
Let the good times roll
And six years ago, at the heart of that re-design, I did a very simple thing. I started my Good Times habit: a daily ritual where I write down all the good experiences in my life, both professional and personal.
Looking at the data - all those lists - it’s clear to see what makes me tick. And the most important thing is my independence - I love it. The freedom is the most sacred thing for me.
And yes I could approach my independent working life like an accountant might advise you: trying to commoditise every hour of the working week. But I’m not going to do that.
Because you know what: this is my life, it’s not a business model.
Miranda Green has written a great column in the FT about how survival equals success (“Cake, compromise and the price of having it all”). She describes how her partner uncorks a bottle of wine on a Friday. “As my partner declares in triumph at the end of a gruelling week, opening a bottle of something nice: survival is success. It’s now the family mantra,” she writes.
I’m writing this sitting in Caravan coffee shop, at the foot of the Bloomberg building. It’s one of my favourite places. Sun streaming in. An anthem of music, the buzz of conversations, the clank of coffee cups on saucers. This is me. This is how I roll in 2019. Tuning in to what fuels me, being me.
I have racked up over one thousand weeks working for myself. This week I’m celebrating that I’ve survived over 1,000 weeks of my ‘startup of one’. I haven’t raised megabucks, I don’t hire loads of people, but I’m still here. But I have survived 1,008 weeks of doing my own thing. 1,008 weeks of hard graft, of turning thin air into invoices.
What I’ve learned over these weeks, months, years is that life’s about tuning in to what is your heart’s desire, not listening to an accountant or advisor pressing you on when you’re going to scale. For me, a job where I can work how and where it suits me - and make time to walk the dog on the beach, skip out for lunchtime swims - that’s my dream. And it’s what I do.
So here’s to all the entrepreneurs, however you choose to do it. Whether you’re after big bucks or small wins; whether you run a large corporation or work out of your shed - just keep on doing it your way.
And join me in raising a glass to the next 1,008 weeks.
You can hear me tell my story ‘Building a life not just a business’ on The Business Builders Show podcast with Marty Wolff and J.Kelly Hoey.