After a decade in fundamental research in-between physics and cell biology, I decided to quit academia in 2015 and to start my own company in a completely different area: KÄNDI– a company about the development and small-scale production of high-quality, sustainable sweets. Beginning of 2018 I finally decided that I had to stop this endeavor. Since then I have moved back to scientific research where I now work as a data scientist.
Thirteen month after making one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, namely to stop with this company, I finally want to share some of the lessons I have learnt.
Wasn’t I aware of the risks?
In principle, it is clear that every newly started business has a considerable risk to fail.
<> There are many that get so scared of the risk that they will never ever dare to finally start.
<>There are few that have the means to not worry at all.
<>Then there are those — like me — that know that the risk to fail is high. That tell others that they know that the risk to fail is high. Nevertheless, deep inside remains the persistent believe that failing is of course nothing that will happen to you. After all, isn’t that exactly what it means to be convinced of your own business idea? ¹.
Was I not prepared enough?
To make it simple: If you wait until you are 100% ready to start, you will never start.
Of course the opposite is even worse. Better don’t start at all, than start unprepared.
Luckily, many things in life people can teach you about, or you can read about, and then you’ll know. You can learn facts, dates, but also techniques, skills and even new perspectives.
And that is what I did for about 2 years before I finally gave it a go. I developed and tested my products and my business plan, worked my way through books, course, tutorials, talked to people, did professional chocolatier trainings, and I tried to think as an entrepreneur.
At some point that becomes a bit like learning to swim without ever having been in the water.
On the other hand, daring to become an entrepreneur is a bit like jumping far into deep water without a life ring, only having read some book on how to swim ².
List of things I could only learn by experiencing:
Burning fingers when touching something hot. Feeling pain. Eating sand. Having friends. Being alone. Being a stranger. Being in love. Having a girlfriend. Losing a girlfriend. Having kids… and… being entrepreneur.
Does that mean it doesn’t make sense to learn about it before doing it?
Sure not. Try to plan and learn as much as possible before. Try to prepare yourself as much as you can. For both success and failure. Talk to many people that know some angle of what you want to do. It will most certainly help. And then see how it compares to the real thing.
List of things I have learned.
Let’s put things to perspective. I started one company. And I stopped. By no means I can claim to be an expert. And everything that I share here is obviously very anecdotal. In other words: If you listen to me, please also listen to others.
Some things that I think had a huge influence for my business plan to not work out the way I wanted are very specific to my case (market: high-quality sweets, sustainable, plant-based food. Place: Amsterdam, Netherlands). I will mostly skip those issues and try to focus on more general lessens I have learnt.
1) Try to avoid too much sense of urgency!
Once I came near the decision to really quit my job and start my own business, I suddenly felt a lot of urgency. Things like
“If I’m not doing it now, someone else might!”
“It feels like the time is right. If I wait it might be too late!”
“If I don’t do it NOW, I maybe never dare to do it at all!”
While some sense of urgency is probably a good thing (otherwise you would never dare to make it real), still try to prevent being driven by urgency alone. I suspect that in most cases good preparation and reflecting on things with some distance will turn out to be more valuable than being quick. So, once you are determined to go: Take a deep breath and a step back, and look at the big picture again. Then share your thoughts with others and see what they think.
2) Check your business model for flexibility and long-term options.
Kind of funny, but as an entrepreneur I made a very classical mistake (is it one?) that was totally against my scientific background.
I thought my idea was great. And I wanted my idea to be great. So, obviously I also wanted my business plan to only tell me one thing: it’s all going to be fine!
The problem is, you can nearly always tweak your business plan to tell you what you want. If you start something new that usually also means that some key factors are not known yet (such as how many people/shops will buy your product…).
That can be fine, because many things you can only find out by trying out!
But in retrospect I believe it is very important to think about what you want to achieve on the long run (which I actually did). And then see how your business model and your future role in this envisioned business fits to your ideas (which I didn’t do enough!).
In my case I had a business plan for the artisanal production of premium candy. I had good enough reason to believe that I could make a living from that eventually. But its less optimistic scenarios (which turned out to be the closest to reality) didn’t give me enough room for the things I was most interested in.
3) Be prepared to go far out of your comfort zone.
I think I knew many of my strengths when I started my first business.
And I also knew quite many of my potentially conflicting weaknesses. I knew for instance that I was a rather poor salesperson. And I knew that I could be a passionate paperwork-avoider.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is a good start. But it is not enough.
When things don’t work the way you want you will suddenly realize that knowing your weaknesses is really no good-enough ease.
In ‘normal life’ you can often deal with your weak sides by avoiding exposing situations and by asking for understanding from others.
Now you suddenly need to fully accept that they are your very personal weaknesses, shortcomings, incompetence. And you need to find a way to deal with them!
Yes, sure. You can delegate and outsource respective tasks. That sometimes works quite well (You don’t like doing your taxes. Let somebody else do it. Simple. Done.). But be prepared that it is VERY unlikely that you can delegate them all. Some of them you will simply have to learn to do yourself. At least to some extent.
You don’t like networking, doing small talk and reaching out to difficult-to-approach people? Too bad. It’s your company, so who else should do it in the beginning? You don’t like accounting and numbers? Your accountant can ease your pain a little, but you still have to understand what’s happening. You don’t like being at the center of attention? Too bad, because that’s what your company most likely will need! You want to be at the center of attention? Too bad as well, because for quite a while no one might care.
So, yes. Be prepared to go far, far out of your comfort zone. Frequently.
4) Start as a good team.
I know that this is not true for every case. But in my case (and I believe in many others as well) I am very sure that it applies. I felt too urged (see (1)) to build a good enough team or network of established collaborations first. That would have eased at least some issues described in (3).
5) Be honest with yourself. Set, and question your priorities.
Very likely, you will be under a lot of pressure. You will be constantly forced to leave your comfort zone (3). You will be alone or you will have fights (4). Some will tell you to go right, some to go left. Don’t question everything all the time. But every now and then, really take some time to reflect on things. Do this together with others. Share ideas and get feedback. And be brutally honest about how it goes and about the perspective.
Getting your business to work is great. But that should rather be a necessary step on your path to realize other things you had in mind. Don’t make it your only goal. And especially don’t let this goal control your life!
After 1,5 years I was considering to quit.
But I had too many untested ideas and plans, too much trust in my perspective to really stop the endeavor.
After 2,5 years I again took quite some time to reflect.
And that time I had much more arguments for stopping than for going on. It was extremely sad, devastating, and difficult to accept. But from the moment the decision was made I was sure that it was the right one. Now, a year from then, I am still not happy with how many things went. But I am very glad that I found a good moment to stop and never have regretted that I did stop.
Will I do it again?
Right now? Sure not.
But I clearly have a different view on many things now. I had never planned to become an entrepreneur. I actually was lacking a lot of entrepreneurial features. But as it happened, starting my own company seemed the only feasible way to realize what I had in mind. So I did it.
I still wouldn’t consider myself an ideal, well-rounded entrepreneur. But I have gained an entrepreneurial perspective. And who knows what opportunities this will lead me to…
Questions, suggestions, comment?
Let me know! Either here or through twitter (me_datapoint).
¹ This contradictions between the individual’s perspective and statistics really keeps fascinating me a lot. We often wonder why there are some crazy people that apparently risk far too much. They jump of enormous cliffs, climb impossible rocks unsecured, seemingly only to get some social media attention. For all those things there is knowledge telling us that it is extremely dangerous. Life threatening. But deep, deep inside, those who do it anyway believe that they will be on the surviving part of the statistic.
The good thing first: Entrepreneurship is rarely life threatening. But it often comes with a similar risk assessment. 9 out of 10 startups fail? Well … not mine!
² When you actually learn swimming you usually start in shallow water. In my case, and I guess in many other cases too, shallow water to train how to be an entrepreneur is hard to find. Some might even argue that this will not exist.