StartUp Diaries: From Big Corporate To ‘Going it Alone’

Kirstie White portraitKirstie White shares her journey and the lessons she has learned from the major corporate world to following her childhood dream of becoming her own boss.

The first business I built was ‘Kirstie’s Candy Corner’. It was basically a sweet shop where I created my own sherbet and sold it profitably. The only problem was that I was just seven years old! From there, the entrepreneurial spirit just grew, and the following is a speedy journey through my career and specifically how I started in the big corporate world, but just couldn’t fight that inner entrepreneur. I hope you identify with some of my experiences and gut feelings, and that you also have the confidence to cut loose and go for it to realise your career dreams!

The beginning… After leaving university in Manchester, I applied for various blue chip companies and landed a graduate job with Procter & Gamble.

P&G is about as corporate as you can get. I loved my job, which was all about finding the next new product housewives would love. The company structure taught me a lot about always working to a process, deadlines, being in fierce competition with peers and rival companies, and always being professional.

I launched a few initiatives and was most proud of a series of monthly presentations/talks about the psychology of shoppers. It was a bit of a gulp moment to stand up in front of the teams, but I thought´Look, if I make a complete hash of it, I’ll just leave`. I actually ended up loving it and, for some reason, people found me quite ‘funny’ (amusing, that is, not odd, so I’m led to believe). This gave me the needed confidence that I could promote my own business too.

After eight years, my role was moving to Geneva. I wanted to make my own decisions, come up with a strategy I believed in and act on it – be the boss, taking the fall for wrong decisions and celebrating the good ones. My first step to being my own boss was freelancing at Shell. My job was to help launch new brands and services under the Shell name.

My ideas and insights were listened to more and, together, we grew ideas. After a year or so, I realised ‘I could go it alone’, that my ideas might work and I could make money and be my own boss.

Setting the entrepreneur free… With itchy entrepreneurial feet again a year down the road, I met up with 3 friends who were also feeling the same. We brainstormed a great new idea: an ethical estate agency based on low fixed fees (why should you pay more to sell a large house vs a small flat when it only takes a few hours more to take photos/write up the particulars!) and a great service. So ‘We’re Moving’ was born.

I sold my house and had the money to set it up and enough funds to just about live on, given my salary was equivalent to a 90% pay cut (and that was in year 2 if we made a profit in year 1!). My advice would be to have enough money to finance the initial plan (then double that sum) plus 2 years of income in the bank to cover you if the company doesn’t make any profit. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back a step (freelancing or a corporate job) and build up money for the next venture!

At ‘We’re Moving’, I learnt how to gain trust from the public directly, negotiate great deals, be responsible for marketing decisions and sales strategies and appreciate an expanding business just because of your efforts. It is the most rewarding feeling.

The office was running well – I loved opening up our lovely glass cornered ex-haberdashery office in Battersea every day of the week. Two years later, we were going to expand nationally, but we had a difference of opinion on what that would look like. This caused a downward spiral – quicker than I’d ever imagined – and realising we couldn’t all work or be directors of the same company, we sold it.

I vowed to make sure the next venture had good contracts in place to keep a company going despite differences of opinion and opt-out clauses.

Cranking it up a gear… In 2006, I was talking to a couple of guys from the investment sector that I had met through ‘We’re Moving’. They loved the way I could sell a concept and the genuine enthusiasm for launching companies from scratch, so we started to discuss an interesting idea about recording summaries of sales meetings. The more we discussed it, the more it seemed like a GREAT idea.

After making a couple of phone calls to friends and relatives about the service itself (a pretty useful, and necessary research tool - and it’s free!), it was clear this could be an idea that was simple but unheard of before.

I then had to pitch for £150,000 investment, so I pitched to investors in the City. The first pitch didn’t go so well, with an investor saying, ‘her son could set this up for nothing’. Charming! Determined not to let this deter me, I pitched again, then again, until finally I found two fantastic investors who really bought into the idea.

Then I launched it! Solo this time – all was on me to get it profitable (I loved being the only one responsible!). I designed the technology (which was then built by one of the shareholders from my previous company – contacts are key after all) and created the marketing and sales strategy. Several meetings later with sales people in the City, we started to attract clients. AMAZING!

Getting the first sales underway is what really motivates me. We were profitable in 2009 and I then doubled my salary – nice (don’t get me wrong, it’s still not at a corporate level but worth every penny!).

VoiceNotes is a dictation service that allows you to leave meeting notes and actions which are then typed up/proofread and emailed back to you/your PA/a CRM system. Your memory of a meeting nose-dives as soon as you leave, so dialling us from your phone as you leave/get into a car/walk to the train etc means you’ll record a great deal of what was said. Certain industries need this for compliance/audit trail purposes, but any good salesperson needs it to remember the actual meeting results!

Happier than I’ve ever been! We are now 8 years down the line, have some of the biggest banks and financial clients in the world, and a lovely, really lovely company. The people here have a dedication to the job I’ve never seen before, and, while we can’t pay silly City salaries, we have the best work/life balance and commitment. Team recruitment is a challenge, but when you get it right, it’s an absolute joy!

So what’s the future? I’m a start-up kind of girl so am looking for the next venture. This time I’ll finance it myself and aim to own 100%! I’d like to have an office near my home, and an idea that relies more on technology than humans, a subscription-based model (for regular income flow), then to sell this one for a million! Then, after a long holiday, start the next!

Top 10 Lessons

  1. Having the confidence to realise ‘I could go it alone’, that my ideas might work and I could make money and be my own boss.

  2. Sales negotiation training – extremely beneficial for anyone in business and private life – saved me a fortune.

  3. Don’t leave it too late – if you’re growing, keep investing and push the business to the next level. Growing organically could make you miss the opportunity.

  4. Cold calling – hate it, but actually once you get over any timid inhibitions, it’s quite good fun and necessary to start a business.

  5. Assume you’ll fall out with business partners and be pleasantly surprised if it does all work out!

  6. Protect yourself in contracts whether you’re going into business with friends, family or unknowns. Protect yourself in cases of dilution of shares when looking for investment.

  7. You’ve got to get lucky with recruitment, as one bad employee in a small company can easily bring everybody down. Trial periods are essential.

  8. You can turn down a sale if the terms aren’t great (I’m still learning this one!).

  9. Always keep on top of the finances. There are some good (and low cost) packages out there that you can delegate to an accountant/book keeper but still remain in complete control.

  10. Don’t sit on cash in a business if you can use it. If someone wants to buy the company, cash doesn’t count as much as revenue, so even if you spend a huge amount to get revenue up, you’ll get a better offer! I originally was a little obsessed by monthly P&L, but it’s balance sheet and revenue that really count.

Kirstie is the Managing Director of VoiceNotes a UK-based company that captures critical meeting notes and business documentation for busy professionals. She is a seasoned entrepreneur having originally set up ‘We’re Moving’, one of the first fee-only estate agents, and then VoiceNotes; both UK-based companies. Kirstie has a degree from UMIST and originally worked for blue-chip companies including P&G and Shell before starting her own businesses. She lives with her husband and young son in North London. To contact Kirstie, please email her at info@voicenotes.co.uk.

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