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Sideways Looks #21: New Year Reflections on Starting a Business

Updated: May 22, 2022

Repost of a long thread I did on Twitter and also LinkedIn.


In new year mode, here’s some thoughts on my 2021 experience of leaving employment, going freelance, and starting a business. I’ll do 4 good things, 4 bad things, and 4 bits of advice.


Context: In Aug I started The Data Skills Consultancy. Goal = helping people/teams bring together data skills & soft skills. I've worked a lot in that overlap (inc. doing a govt comms training programme on it out of No10) & think it's increasingly important.


4 Goods


Good #1: Was one cog in big machine -> now I see whole machine. When I look at e.g. data skills cartoons I've made – I know design decisions behind them, how they fit into business plan, performance metrics, etc. It’s v satisfying.


Good #2: I expected to find competitors, instead found colleagues. Announcing my plans brought instant kind (and free!) advice from contacts old & new. Now I’m part of various great networks where we make opportunities to work together – or just to share ideas.


Good #3: Combining big-picture thinking *AND* work ‘at coalface’. Past jobs have pulled me one way or other. Now in some jobs I advise on future of tech, comms, etc; & in others I dig into numbers & plan projects. I.e. I can choose - and am even *incentivised* - to do both!


Good #4: Expected v long hours; actually been reasonable. I used to feel (internal) pressure to do more, but now think less overwork has made me more efficient (shock!). Occasional pileup of deadlines, but that's good sometimes. 'Lion not cow' works for me.


4 Bads


Bad #1: No colleagues = less input. Good network is not the same as daily input & candid feedback from colleagues, manager etc. (On other hand, I’ve found a loose network better than a team structure for not settling into group-think).


Bad #2: Everyone says persistence is key in self-employment. This is true. But I’d never appreciated what a sentence like ‘new company spent x months building y’ *really* meant. Months feel like a long time when it’s just you chipping away at something!


Bad #3: Everything takes a long time, not just core work. Sorting own I.T. issues, buying own kit, monitoring social channels… it all mounts up. Also, while maintaining quality is obv important, being *too* meticulous about one bit of machine can distract from other bits.


Bad #4: Public sector procurement = absolute pain. I now have accounts on 20+ different portals, and done hours of forms (often expecting to lose to established providers with more resource for bids). A shame - these were the sorts of projects I’d originally been excited about.


And finally 4 bits of advice


(These are from someone 6 months in, so very much starter advice).


Advice #1: Start with a safe base of income. I already had a guaranteed long-term client before I left employment. That’s given me the safety net to build stuff and experiment, not chase & take every job I could.


Advice #2: Make structure. I’ve found ‘to-do this week’ a good level of plan. Daily to-do’s stifled experiments and stressed me out; longer than a week and stuff foundered. Also regular events are great anchors. Particular shout out to Newspeak House and TxP Tech Policy Meetups.


Advice #3: Be prepared to be always-on. Not in a ‘can’t-sleep at night’ way. But have an eye for opportunities anytime. An interesting social media post can start a connection; a pub trip can lead to a pitch. Worth having mental ‘business mode’ on in background at all times.


Advice #4: Be ready finance and experience-wise, but otherwise don’t wait until you feel completely ‘ready’. I started with only vague ideas of my plans, but actually leaving employment gave me the freedom and pressure to properly explore & test what I wanted to do.


In summary


An experiment I’m v glad I've started. For start of 2022 I’m focussing on:

  • Business: Develop more learning products, particularly around 1:1 data mentoring.

  • Personal: Improving marketing knowledge.

  • Structure: Kick off more projects with network & contacts.

If you’ve liked this and want to talk more, get in touch.

Company website is here: dataskillsconsulting.com

More of my personal thoughts here: oliver-marsh.com

Happy New Year!

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