HR & Management
How eight people stumbled into the world of entrepreneurship
24 min read
11 September 2017
There are arguably two types of founders: the ones intent on starting a company from the get-go, and those who stumble into entrepreneurship quite unexpectedly. We focussed on the latter.
Real Business found out how eight UK founders ended up in the world of entrepreneurship, what the transition to company owner was like, and what they wanted to become before embarking on said journey. We’ll let them do the talking:
(1) Jenk Oz, iCoolKid
“The concept of iCoolKid formed when I was eight. I have always had broad and varied extra-curricular interests, and my school friends were keen to learn what I would be trying next. To streamline this my mum and I put together a weekly email, letting them know what I had planned so they could join in if they wanted to.
“I presented the idea of placing all the coolest, on-trend and interesting things to do in one place, during a show and tell session at school. iCoolKid officially launched three years later! Since then, it has grown into a digital publishing, media, consulting and production company, creating content aimed at a Generation Z audience.
“I never imagined my idea would turn into a business – it’s crazy to think it all developed from a simple email. Becoming a CEO – the youngest in the UK – was certainly something I didn’t expect to happen. I’m also a professionally trained actor, singer, dancer, model, presenter and musician. I imagine if I wasn’t working on iCoolKid I would be focusing my attentions in this area even more – as well as my studies of course!
“The transition to being my own boss has been strange! I find it exciting and challenging to lead a team. I learn so much every day and am grateful for the support I get from those I work with. I really enjoy the variety of projects I get to work on. One minute I’m in an editorial meeting deciding on the day’s content, the next I’m on my way to interview a celebrity for our ‘Cool Cast’ page.
“The work is always different, which keeps things exciting, fresh and relevant for our audience. I also love learning new things about running a business. I find it rewarding when I overcome something I haven’t had experience with before. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t challenging to juggle everything, alongside my other commitments and studies. I wouldn’t change a thing though. I thrive on being busy and am fortunate to have the opportunity to develop and grow a business at such an early age.”
(2) Chris Vincent, V4 Woodflooring
“I’m probably not the archetypal entrepreneur. I left secondary school with no qualifications and a burning desire to be a racing driver. This was a dream that almost came true as I successfully competed in F Vauxhall and F Renault competitions, including racing for ex-Formula One driver Martin Donnelly’s race team. But it became clear I wasn’t going to be the next Michael Schumacher.
“So I made the difficult decision to walk away from the profession. That left me, at age 23, without a clear career path. My father and grandfather run their own flooring businesses, so it wasn’t too great a leap to move into the sector. This led to the birth of V4 Woodflooring 15 years ago. I started out with ten pallets in a small rented warehouse distributing flooring to a single Austrian brand. Now we supply products to a network of over 1,500 dealers across the UK.
“I always have been business-orientated and as a schoolboy would buy sweets and trading cards, which I sold to fellow pupils for a profit. Some may see my dyslexia as a challenge. However, I have found it an advantage as I tend look at things differently. This has been beneficial for the business.
“Becoming my own boss has brought many more rewards and challenges. A fire in 2011 destroyed one of the company’s four warehouses and burnt half its stock. It was a tough time, but with determination, focus and hard work, and the support of a fantastic workforce, the business was soon back on track.
“The entrepreneur ‘bug’ is very powerful and I am always looking for the next opportunity. I have already invested in an estate agency business, a long way from flooring. The adrenalin rush might not be quite the same as driving round a race track at 120mph but the buzz of being my own boss is undeniable.”
(3) Alexandra Wall, Xandra Jane
“Having only recently graduated, my focus was on gaining experience under a more established brand. I saw, however, an awful and common side to the industry that takes advantage of our consumerism society. I ended up moving home to Cardiff from London with an exhaustion breakdown and the little money I had after working as a full-time graduate in an unpaid position – which is illegal.
“Some 18 months on, and without borrowing a penny, I am running my own company, Xandra Jane – a sustainable streetwear company that explores gender fluidity through zero waste processes and up-cycled luxury. I love running a business that exercises the morals and ethics I care so strongly about.
“Entrepreneurship was not my immediate plan. As a graduate you are told to gather as much experience as possible, but when the industry is hell bent on free labour, something has to give! Did you know fashion is the second most polluting industry? Or that it takes a fast fashion brand 12 years to recycle the same amount of textile waste it produces in 48 hours?
“What really attracted me to entrepreneurship, alongside design, was the need and ability to problem solve. My GCSE in business studies has almost been irrelevant and moving forward as a sole trader I have learnt so many lessons, being quick to adapt to these has proven to be an invaluable trait.
“I would offer advice to any young founder that it takes grit and a level of determination that can only come from within. You can only rely on yourself, that includes family as ultimately what you put in is what you eventually get in ROI. It’s also important to cut your losses, the niceties with money talk and finally, be at peace enough to know that not every idea is a good one.”
(4) Simon Douglass, Curated Digital
“Initially I just wanted to do something I would a) be good at and which b) others would find helpful. Digital marketing – the sector in which Curated Digital sits – can be so niche, confusing and at times labour intensive. It’s no wonder many get it wrong or employ unscrupulous companies to do it with extortionate costs and limited ability – a concept which tempted me into entrepreneurship.
“I’ve only really done digital marketing for the last 14 years, so I don’t know anything else. If I am completely honest though, I wanted to run a collective, rather than a company. That is, being surrounded by nice, interesting people with similar interests – make money, but in the right way, and for it not to be the only thing.
“Actually, three years in and it still doesn’t feel like I go into ‘work’. Some of my team feel the same, yet it’s still the most fun, fulfilling job I have had. And the transition into entrepreneurship was surprisingly smooth. Bizarrely, I was more worried about paperwork – like, who would do my accounts. I discovered you can hire people who know about this stuff who can do it for you.
“I started a business based on something I knew how to do. But now it was all on me – I was making the decisions, not someone else, and that was empowering to be honest.
“We started the business with a handful of clients, and the work we did got us noticed by other clients. Slowly but surely we grew, and are still growing. It’s not been easy – it’s a lot of work, but when I reflect on previous jobs, I’ve always put the hours in. This one is much nicer though, because nobody is telling me what to do. I must admit I do wake up some days wishing that somebody would.”
Read on to find out how a violin professional stumbled into entrepreneurship.
(5) Danny Braggs, Fine Fettle
“Stuart Morse and I are the co-founders of premium grooming products Fine Fettle, an idea Morse initially pitched to me over a curry. There’s a reason why I didn’t expect to land in the world of entrepreneurship though. I’ve worked in the technology space for 20 years and have always enjoyed its brisk pace of change, not to mention the level of opportunity that comes with it. I thought the word ‘entrepreneur’ was greatly overused (especially in the tech industry).
“While I’ thought there was an entrepreneurial spirit within, I never felt comfortable exploring the ideas of products and services in the non-physical software space. There needed to be something physically tangible for me to be convinced and it happened to be Morse’s product idea and his abundant passion for true substance that presented the opportunity for me to put myself to the test and start the transition – albeit in a managed risk kind of way 😉 I’m loving every minute of it so far.
“The transition to entrepreneurship has been a fantastically enjoyable ride so far but one that has been, and continues to be, challenged by the fact that we are building the business alongside our full-time jobs (as well as meeting demands of being kick-ass dads – the modern man has to be able to do it all after all!).
“Our daytime roles as teaching assistant and digital marketing manager are obviously quite different to running a male cosmetic company and in completely different sectors than retail but it is definitely interesting to see how patterns of behaviour can be usefully brought across.
“Whether that be Mores’s calm and reassuring way to communicate and educate or my desire to do things in small iterations to reduce waste and cost, we’ve found that luckily we bring very different skills to the company that work very well together, which has made the transition so far a relatively frictionless one from a working together perspective.”
(6) Owen Derbyshire, TrackMyMove
“Young people often feel they need to go to university to be successful. I knew in my heart I didn’t really want to go, but ended up going twice – first to Exeter to study psychology, and then to Cardiff for education and psychology. I dropped out both times. I suppose I felt trapped. I wanted to be building things. But having now spoken with family and friends who knew me at school, it seems everyone knew I would land in the world of entrepreneurship.
“I was always selling lollipops at school, and I would go to Police auctions and re-sell the stuff on eBay – my parents thought I’d grow out of it, but fortunately I never did. It’s important to note young people leaving school today have a wealth of opportunity at their fingertips, so should do what they know is right for them. For me, that was entrepreneurship.
“It came in a round-about way. After leaving university, I worked in my local comprehensive school as a learning support assistant for 18 months. It made me realise I wanted to create something that helped people. So I started designing apps to support Welsh-speaking students struggling with Dyslexia.
“The market was too niche and I failed at lots of things. Although that business wasn’t a success, I learned from the experience, and found myself hooked – entrepreneurship was the path for me. I’m now the CEO and co-founder of Properr, creators of TrackMyMove. And as with most business ideas, it stemmed from a personal issue. When I was buying my first house, it took three to four months to complete – 90 per cent of the process could actually be done in two to three days.
“If you look at the mechanics of a house purchase, it’s relatively straightforward, so I wanted to build a platform that would work as a one-stop shop for everyone involved. I love the flexibility and creative freedom that comes with being my own boss. However, I think it’s a common misconception that being your own boss means not having to answer to anyone. It’s vital to earn the trust and respect of investors and employees alike – you’ve got to be accountable for my actions!”
(7) Brenda Gabriel, Biz Gamechanger
“I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. I was happy to work my way up the ranks as a civil servant. My aspirations were to make it to senior management and earn 60-70k a year. I was two promotions away from that when I was run off my bike in June 2012 by a driver who misjudged my cycling speed. I was lucky not to be seriously injured but questioned whether I would have been happy with my obituary if I died that day. The answer was ‘no’.
“I didn’t love my job or the bureaucracy that went along with it. So when I fell pregnant with my second child a month later –I wanted to spend time at home rather than working long hours for someone else – I opted for voluntary redundancy. At eight months pregnant I took a leap into the unknown believing I’d make my fortune from the MLM I’d signed up to, setting up a new hair extension venture. Both flopped.
“I was targeted by a property training company and shelled out the 10k from my accident payout on learning how to acquire and sell below market value properties. It was during this period I realised that I had a passion for marketing and PR – anything that allowed someone trying to change the world to communicate effectively with a large audience.
“I never did get started in property but did blag my way into working with a top London PR agency to help improve marketing. I stayed there for a few months as a freelancer honing my skills and learning the trade until we parted ways and decided to tap into the serial entrepreneurship trend. I focused on social media marketing to start out with but realised my real passion and zone of genius was PR. I rebranded as a publicist and landed the Damilola Taylor Trust as one of my high profile clients. Things have continued to grow from there.
“The transition to entrepreneurship has been interesting. Despite having had two business coaches I had to face facts that I couldn’t sell. Most of my clients were through referral. I couldn’t close a deal to save my life so struggle to increase my income. I eventually hired a sales coach and since then have gone from strength to strength. Selling is the backbone of a successful business and it was the best investment I made.”
(8) Michelle Wright, Cause4
“My journey into entrepreneurship has been unusual. I trained as a violinist at one of the UK’s leading conservatoires – London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama – after which I have a five-year professional career. Then, completely by chance, I found my way into the charitable sector where I worked in a variety of communications and marketing roles. Eventually I became a chartered marketer.
“I loved the charity sector, and immersing myself in the world of arts and social charities I accepted a role in 2005 as the marketing director of a socially-driven theatre company in the East End of London. The job turned out to be both a baptism of fire and fortuitous in equal measure. On my first day, one of the directors said: ‘forget marketing, we need you to raise £1m this year to keep the charity going.’ On that note, quite by accident, I was plunged into the world of charitable fundraising.
“For a year I had to learn quickly to try and raise the money that would keep the charity afloat. But five years on from putting the music behind me, I was in my element. I was working with a wide variety of people to create programmes across a range of areas including arts, education and social justice. The more diverse the causes the better, as long as I was curious about them – each initiative fed new ideas into other projects.
“At the end of 2008, I was working as development director of the London Symphony Orchestra based in the heart of the City of London. Then Lehman Brothers bank collapsed and 20,000 people lost their jobs overnight. I knew at that moment the world had changed and that the charity sector was going to have to develop, grow and respond if it was going to sustain itself and survive.
“As the UK economy started to wallow in recession, the idea for setting up Cause4 was born. I felt there was probably scope for a small organisation that could work more entrepreneurially in the charitable sector, to specialise in creating programmes of scale and to look at developing interesting partnerships that could navigate what was set to be an ongoing challenging financial climate for charities.”