Could your next step as a data leader be starting your own business?
As I catch-up with other leaders and old friends, I’ve noticed the topic of starting your own business often bubble to the surface.
Most of those I’m chatting with are still working as senior leaders in big businesses. Yet, as part of their time to think about the next right role for them, many have pondered out loud about striking out on their own.
Perhaps I’m an obvious person for them to talk about this with, as I left corporate life to start my own business over 6 years ago. So, in this post, I thought I’d share some reflections on what I’ve learnt. I’ll focus on those insights that might be helpful for those now considering such a change themselves.
Where to begin? Well, as the old adage goes, let’s start at the beginning and see where we go from there…
Understanding why you want to be starting your own business
The first key I discovered, was the importance of being clear on your motivation and to be self-aware. In my case, that took me years. But, I did eventually take time to explore more deeply the sense of discomfort that I felt working within a large corporation.
I know, like many others, some of my personal development work as a leader helped that. I still powerfully recall an “Inner Leadership” course that I attended & returned convinced that I needed to leave. Others have told me about the impact of leadership development programmes at colleges like Ashridge.
However you raise your awareness (of such discomfort) & discover the dream of “being your own boss“, dig deeper. It is well worth, as Simon Sinek popularised, knowing your “Why?” What is your chief motivation for striking out on your own. What matters most to you & do you have any ‘red lines’ that you won’t cross. Just as Kevin Watson advised for your next job, take time to think about your dream business too.
My previous post recommending the book “Living Forward” may help you here too.
Discovering & focussing on your ‘sweet spot’
It can be tempting to avoid being too niche. Much of what is written for entrepreneurs focuses on how to rapidly scale (often with the aim of one day selling and going on to make more money). However, many leaders, like me have different aspirations.
If it as important to you to love what you do & feel strongly aligned with your values, then start differently. Rather than starting with the market research to assess business plan viability (work that will be needed later), start by getting clear on What?
To achieve this, I recommend taking time to think through the intersecting of three sets (like the classic Venn Diagram):
- What do you love doing? (Which work absorbs you & you enter a state of ‘flow‘, where time flies by unnoticed? Does any work energise you?)
- What are you good at? (Which of your deliverables have been praised by others? Which have prompted others to ask for your help?)
- What are others willing to pay for? (Here is where a focus on the market is needed. Can you spot an unmet need? Is there precedent for such a service being paid, even well paid?)
You best opportunity is likely to lie in the intersection of all three.
De-risking by learning as you go
All the above reflection caused me to become clearer that I wanted to focus on developing others in the area of ‘The People Side of Data & Analytics‘. Developing leaders through mentoring & teams through training, to identify and master the softer skills needed to succeed in data & analytics careers.
But even with such clarity, there has been a hell of a lot to learn along the way. I’ve said to others before that even after 25 years of corporate life, it’s in the last 6 years that I feel I’ve really come to understand business. Life as a solopreneur gives you a great opportunity to learn about all aspects. You will need to develop skills in Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, IT, Finance & Partnerships.
It’s also been a fascinating journey of learning How to adapt to changing situations and my own learning curve. Reflecting on what I’ve learnt, I want to share three principles that I have also learnt from investing:
- The importance of diversification: I started by offering training or mentoring or coaching or consultancy or writing or speaking. Such diversity both allows you to better weather changing demand & gives you time to learn where to focus.
- Understand your risk tolerance: Taking this route requires you to be increasingly honest with yourself. Despite all the press excitement about high-risk innovators, you need to soberly assess your financial situation & stress tolerance. By all means, take risks & pioneer something previously untried, but only if you know you are ready to weather potential/likely downside.
- Protect yourself against your biases: I’ve shared before on the importance of Cognitive Diversity in teams, the same is true for our business. So, make friends, share experiences. Even consider investing in a business mentor. Above all recognise that you have your own blindspots & biases – stay willing to learn from others (especially your clients).
But let me finish such a serious-sounding list by saying ‘stay playful‘. Just like a sense of humour can be vital to a long term relationship, curiosity & playfulness can help hugely with running a small business. Enjoy the journey and embrace opportunities to try something new. If nothing else, I have had the joy of learning something new most days.
Are you still thinking of starting your own business?
I hope my above confession was helpful. There is so much more I could of shared. Maybe one day I’ll take enough time to write a book about it all. But, for now, I hope that helps you think more about your potential.
Much that is written about starting your own business can be off-putting. Yes, I suppose I work longer hours on average (but I enjoy it more so it doesn’t feel like it). Yes, there is a greater financial risk (but my area of focus has always yielded demand). Yes, it can be lonely (but even an introvert like me has learned to enjoy the generous communities of support that do exist).
So, let me add my voice to that disquiet inside you. Yes, starting your own business might be the way to go. I firmly believe many more of us will need to work this way in future. Why not make a plan now to take some protected time to think it through – you owe yourself that at least.
A great blog Paul and you touch on many important aspects of making the decision to set up on your own. I set up my own business over 16 years ago, and since then I’ve seen a few occasions when the opportunities to take that step appears in greater relief.
I work with many small business owners and they all, without exception, started their businesses with enthusiasm for what they do, for their skills, and the value they add. I also consistently find that there is much that they didn’t fully appreciate will be required. As you rightly say, clarity of the reasons to start the business, understanding your sweet spot and de-risking the effort is vital. All of those things are hard to do on your own. It’s thinking that needs the opportunity to allow others to reflect on what you say, and for you to reflect on their experience.
When you get it right (and that will not be at the start, but it will develop over time) there is much joy at being able to focus on the things that we really enjoy. Like you Paul, I think the world of work has already changed, like the industrial revolution the primary source of work most likely won’t be long term employment with a single employer. Instead, coordination of the skills of the very best people in short term engagements will be much more common. Individuals will provide their capabilities for many organisations over a working life, perhaps many at the same time.
It’s not for everyone, as personal circumstances and motivations have such a large part to play, but for someone considering it, your advice here is a great place to start.
I thank the author of this article for his advice.