Think big, start small

Why I swapped big business to become a business founder

After over 15 years in big business I left to start from scratch. At that time and still today, many ex-colleagues ask me why I had decided to move from one of the most admirable employers to, well, basically nothing. As an employee of a leading, multinational pharmaceutical company, I enjoyed all the benefits of working for a big, famous player and leading the world’s most inspiring brands. Then I decided to swap my career to work for Fresh Strategy (Fresh who?).

In the beginning I wasn’t sure myself if I made the right decision. After all, I was responsible for challenging global projects with big budgets, had passionate and dedicated colleagues and worked with inspiring leaders. But I still stepped down from my role as a global manager, to the surprise of my team and superiors, and admittedly even to myself.

 

My startup disaster

What drove me leap into the relative unknown was my desire to explore the world outside of corporate, create something and make a significant difference. Innovation and startups have become the buzzwords. It is a massive trend and executives, scholars, politicians and even educators agree that innovation is the key to future growth. With that in mind, I also wanted to give it a try and start my own startup. And I did.

The first rule about entrepreneurship is that it’s okay to fail. In fact, it’s expected. But when I started off I believed that changing course was a weakness. There was no room for that in my mindset; I had to bend the universe in the direction of the future I envisioned!

 

I created a first startup idea in that mindset – fully fleshed out with a business plan – and wouldn’t change much of it. I wanted to develop perfectly fitting sports fashion for women over 40 who did not want to look girly and reveal too much skin. Studies proved that there was a white space to conquer and I even managed to get an ex-Puma designer and an ex-Adidas sales head to join my project (nothing could go wrong, no?).

It turned out that my business partners weren’t very committed, after all. So, I gave up the venture. Immediately, I started with another startup idea: I wanted to create a mobile game that incites kids to move more by using AR. This time, I pulled it off differently, applying the Lean Startup principles. I was accepted in a startup challenge and was even awarded for the validation of my business idea. But I still abandoned the venture.

The second time in a row that I ran against a wall! I wanted to run away, hide for a while, or go back to a job in corporate! Giving up again felt like the evidence that I am not quite the business leader that I thought I was.

 

Now, I think back to that time with more than a bit of laughter. The simple truth is that dreams and hopes can blur your vision to an extent, that you fail to see the opportunities at hand and outright ignore them! Luckily, I didn’t waste too much time and money before realizing I wasn’t ready to create my own startup. And when the opportunity came, I was ready to pivot to another business.

The accidental consultant

The best opportunities will come as a result of circumstances that you can not predict. In my case, navigating the startup world actually brought me in touch with other entrepreneurs, VC’s and innovation practitioners. Many of them sought my help. It all started during a dull moment with my own startup, when I helped another founder crack his challenge.

The working session was so good, that from then on I was regularly invited to contribute to his venture. The word spread quickly and within a few months, I increasingly faced inquiries, also from VC’c and startup accelerators. In the beginning it was sort of a hobby; out of curiosity I would dedicate a couple of hours to help peers and colleagues.

 

And so, one thing lead to the other: What was a hobby at first, turned into paying assignments. It became apparent that my strength lies in helping others develop innovative products; as opposed to creating my own. So, I founded Fresh Strategy – a strategy and innovation firm – and as such, I always have sticky notes in my bag (that’s right!).

In the past 2 years, we’ve helped on average one founder or SME per month validate, launch and grow their business. Our aim with each one of those new ventures is to ensure they will be amongst the 10% that succeed (as a matter of fact, over 90% of innovation fails). I am convinced that only those who dare to expose their brilliant innovation to be used and bought by real people at prototype stage already ensure those ideas can survive in the real world of real firms placing real bets with real money.

Dokoki (while reluctant when we started off) is one emerging venture that accepted blows from reality and is thriving now. I’m sure they’ll take off like a rocket (while others fizzle…).

When a new product gains traction (without spending millions on marketing) or a startup secures VC funding, it makes me feel pretty good about my choice to abandon my own startup (and the corporate world)!

Prepare to fail – or fail to prepare?

In a situation of extreme uncertainty – as I would describe my career change – the key to finding the path to success lies in a path you haven’t yet found. While that may make some uncomfortable, I cherish. Entrepreneurship is nothing for the timid. It’s not that it takes tremendous amounts of courage, but you do need a certain determination to hit the ground running every morning when you swing your feet out of bed.

I can only predict with certainty that Plan A never works. Neither does Plan B, C, D, or E. My rule of thumb is that it takes at least 10x the time and iterations expected to find a plan that works! 

So, no matter how brilliant my plans are – an open mind and agility have proven to be much better companions! (I am not a genius after all! Sorry for the disillusion.)

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