Lessons from my failed start-up

failed business start-up

Even though my mother was a successful entrepreneur, it never occurred to me that I could be. So when all my university friends started drifting into corporate jobs, I thought I should too. I craved constant change and bounced from one ill-suited position to another, never really fitting in anywhere, but feeling like I had to struggle on regardless. With hindsight, I lacked the self-awareness to understand my own skills and what sort of role or industry I belonged in.

Eventually I ended up in a creative position at an agency, and the stimulation I got from being around exciting, ideas people made me feel I could stay put for a couple of years, until I got itchy feet once again and I cut myself loose to work on a project with a friend. We ended up publishing a very successful book and an idea for a small business sprang from that.

I never made a conscious decision to ‘become an entrepreneur’, it was a gradual transition aided by ideas and circumstances.

And as time went on, my reputation grew and my business went from strength to strength. But there were some confidence issues bubbling away under the surface. One of the things I’d always hated doing, for example, was talking on the phone. But I had to talk to clients and makes sales every day so I just cracked on without really dealing with the root causes.

I was in a phase of self-doubt when my future business partner came into my life. She called out of the blue to seek my advice as she was planning a business venture very similar to my own. I remember thinking it was odd – calling up a competitor to ask for help. But I brushed that aside because I was so impressed by her. She was a great sales person, oozed confidence and was way more ‘corporate’ than me – we complemented one another well. We seemed to be on the same wavelength too, and soon I started to think she could be a great asset to my business.

So, I took her on as a freelancer and it was an exciting time. Business was growing, we talked and shared ideas all the time and she was happy to pick up the areas that weren’t my forte, leaving me to concentrate on the things I most enjoyed.

She occasionally made digs about my lack of sales prowess, but I took little notice.

As far as I was concerned, I’d brought her on board to plug that gap and I was pleased to have someone running that side of things for me.

It came as a complete shock when she insisted that I make her partner. A joint venture had never been part of my plan; I wanted a freelance resource. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer and, over time, wore me down. She threatened to leave if I didn’t split the business, and because I believed that I needed her in order to succeed, I relented.

It quickly became obvious that I’d made a huge mistake.

She started taking the business in a completely different direction. My preferred way of working was to have a virtual team of freelance resources I could call on; but she set her sights on building a London office with a permanent team. Then she started focussing on bigger clients a million miles away from the small businesses I wanted to work with. She accused me of being a ‘small-time player’, even intimating that she should be paid more than me, and gradually eased me out of client interactions until I was working almost exclusively on the finance and admin side of the business. When she started talking about opening New York and Shanghai offices, I knew enough was enough. Things came to a head when I found out she was falsifying client reports in order to appear more like the big corporate players she wanted us to be. She’d just become too greedy.

A painful and very stressful legal process followed and though I ended up retaining my brand, there was no business left: she walked away with all the clients and our team of staff. I retreated into my shell, too embarrassed to really talk to anyone about what had happened, and seriously worried about what lay in store for my career. I’d never been short of ideas, but I’d never before been in a position where my future depended on me coming up with some new business concept. I feared for my reputation too – I knew my ex-partner had been bad-mouthing me to clients. My family life suffered; I felt angry all the time and distrustful of others.

Over the next few months I scrabbled around for work, conscious of a voice inside my head telling me that I wasn’t good enough.

As I gained the confidence to talk about what had happened, I realised I wasn’t alone as a business owner who felt scared or too little to be successful. I saw that I could embrace those feelings and reach out to others in the same boat. In a way, the lessons I learned at that time sharpened my sense of personal brand and inspired my next move into business coaching. It helped my confidence no end that many of my old clients were reaching out to me again, having fallen out with my ex-partner, and that the old team was no more – one by one they all left after huge bust ups with her.

On a practical front, I wish I’d paid more attention to the logistics of our partnership agreement.

We split everything down the middle rather than drawing up a proper outline of what the partnership should look like. If anyone out there is thinking about going into business with someone else, that’s an absolute must – and if the other person is reluctant to do the same, consider it a huge red flag.

From an emotional perspective, if things don’t work out in business, it’s important you give yourself time to heal. There’s no point pretending you’re fine if you’re not. Take time to examine what’s gone on and what you can learn from it. I strongly believe that people come into our lives for a reason and that sometimes we unconsciously invite people to behave badly towards us. Someone came into my life and undermined my confidence at a time when I was growing a business and questioning whether I had the skills to be the boss. Because I doubted myself I didn’t have the strength to recognise what was happening.

I still occasionally beat myself up for not spotting the early warning signs, for ignoring the voice in my head telling me that the partnership was a bad idea. These days I’m done pretending I’m something I’m not - being anything other than true to who you are is too exhausting.


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