The Top 5 Things to do Before You Quit Your Corporate Job (and become an entrepreneur)
In the 6 months since I launched into Coeo full-time the conversation topic that has come up most often with friends, colleagues, and new contacts is how one day I just quit my corporate job to launch this fitness/tech startup. Now I know I have a penchant for the dramatic (ha!) and combined with the fact that our culture today idealizes startups and our swanky techy lifestyle (not swanky yet over here!) it’s easy for a leap like this to look obvious and easy. But the truth is it’s a pretty wild and scary move. So when Ashley Lucas from Babson’s WINLab asked me to reflect on the topic of the Top 5 Things to do Before you Quit Your Corporate Job (and become an entrepreneur) I jumped at the chance to reflect and share.
Before I dig into it, here’s a snapshot of my top 5:
1. Idea validation
2. Deep learning
3. Advisor assimilation
4. Financial analysis
5. Mental health check
And here are the details… it’s a little long because… this is a HUGE decision!
1. Idea: is the idea good enough to take a risk?
My dream of becoming an entrepreneur started when I was in college and it began with a vision of selling widgets. AKA I knew I wanted to sell or provide a service for something, but I had NO IDEA what! I knew what I wanted customers to FEEL like when they engaged with my brand, or that I wanted them to feel something deeply, but the space of what was unanswered.
The idea that allowed me to take the leap came along as my subject matter expertise grew and morphed within my professional career and personal interests. Coeo was launched between my knowledge of the fitness industry as an expert, my intimacy of that industry as a participant, and the identification of a pain point that was unsolved. This deep knowledge of the marketplace and subject matter is paramount when identifying the problem a startup will solve.
Once an idea is identified, it’s important to determine whether it’s big enough to warrant the risk. To define the size of an idea I’ve always found it helpful to tap into the “3 M’s” that I learned at Babson: Market Size, Market Share, and Margin. AKA, how big is a market? (For example boutique/studio fitness, the space where Coeo operates, was almost $11 billion last year.) How much market share can I get? (What part of that pie can be claimed?) And how much profit can be gained from this opportunity? Note, I used this approach in my corporate life for line extensions, new opportunities, etc. so it’s a powerful quick test no matter what you’re up to.
Finally, you’ve got to figure out if an idea is compelling to your target market. When I was working on an earlier version of my business I connected with my awesome Babson classmate Carlos Espinal (IG: @iconographico Twitter: @cee) of London-based Seedcamp and he suggested picking up Rob Fitzpatrick’s book The Mom Test . I really like the approach outlined in the book as it de-personalizes opportunities and ensures that your friends and family (or your mom) won’t say “that’s a fabulous idea” just because well, they love you and think you’re great. It’s important in this moment to be rigorous and determine if there is a true pain point to be solved and demand for your idea.
Once you confirm that your market intimacy is powerful, the idea is big enough and that the solution is compelling, then it’s time to LEARN.
2. Learn: Learn the market, the approach, and throw in a little philosophy while you’re at it
I started to get really jazzed as I dug into Coeo (and the earlier iterations) when I started LEARNING everything I could about the boutique fitness space, tech development strategy, and even more philosophical books about ways of thinking.
For Coeo’s space I am head over heels about Jason Kelly’s book Sweat Equity that talks about the metamorphosis in fitness over the last few decades and success stories of new enterprises and renewed strategy. Seth Godin’s Tribes is also pretty interesting.
In the tech space our now-tech advisor Joost Ouwerkerk of Hopper sent us to Steve Blank’s Four Steps to an Ephiphany and The Owner’s Startup Manual. Eric Ries and Ash Maurya are also powerful in this space and have informed how we approach development and iteration.
Finally, the philosophy part. In this journey it has been powerful for me to think not only about the what, but also about the how. On the more spiritual side Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist writings that are Western culture friendly have been quite moving to me, and Angela Lee Duckworth’s writing on grit and growth mindset help inform how I approach challenges and learning. I also cherish Dr. Seuess’ Oh The Places You’ll Go. My copy was a gift from the talented and passionate Jane Mason of the Boston startup banking community.
I believe it’s important to make space for this learning and creative thought prior to turning in your notice for that stable job. It helps drive your intimacy with both the market and the mentality that you’ll need to rely on so heavily when you launch.
3. Advisors: Who will engage? Call your bullshit? And listen when the skies feel gloomy?
It’s important to identify and enroll your army of advisors prior leaving that corporate career. And when I say army I mean army! Some will be subject matter experts, some will be technology or operational experts, some will help you navigate financials and some will be a shoulder to cry on or someone you can share a glass of wine or bottle of kombucha with.
My army of advisors started at 5-7 or so, but has expanded to dozens as I’ve networked in the Boston community, found new friends, and found new communities. In one case Emily Welsh of Pixi Cycling and I even created our own community of Boston female fitness entrepreneurs, realizing there were a good number or us and we can support each other and help each other.
So enroll others. Be vulnerable. Talk about what you do know and be honest about what you don’t know. Allow others to be part of the journey and open your heart and mind to their perspectives and expertise.
4. Finances: Making money costs money
The expression “it takes money to make money” drives me crazy, but it’s also true. This is a consideration on both the personal finance and business finance side of the equation.
On the personal side it’s important to look at your own income and expenses and determine if you can forgo that salary, those health benefits and other perks for… perhaps a long while. I find this to be the MOST difficult part of leaving one’s job to launch a start-up full time as it is SO hard for anyone to say yes to this statement. And whereas these considerations can be emotionally fraught, I’ve found it meaningful to think of these numbers in the same way that I managed my corporate budget at New Balance or otherwise. Tools like Mint help track expenses. I’ve learned here that whereas I’ve always been naturally frugal and good at saving, the degree of frugality and restraint as an early stage entrepreneur can be maddening (especially if you have a passion for shoes and fashion like me). So be sure to take a moment (or preferably more) to ensure you’re ready for this leap.
On the business side of finances you have to look at the cost to run your business in steady state, ramp up costs, and means of financing. There are so many options here these days from crowd funding (new player ifundwomen.com looks cool for all you women entrepreneurs), to grants, to friends and family investment, to loans and more formal equity investments. And bootstrapping from your own savings and income could be an option as well.
Looking and re-looking at finances and projections is something I do more often than I’d like (I prefer the sexy marketing stuff), but it’s what will allow you to grow and thrive so making time for this work is imperative before you quit that swanky job as well as after.
5. Mental Health Check: Are you ready for the stress and uncertainty? (And thrills)
When I first launched into Coeo full time I joined the Capital Network, a local non-profit dedicated to educating the startup community about funding and all things related to funding. I first met with program director Marie Meslin to pitch my idea and glean her insights, and at the close of the meeting I asked for her insights of what else I should be thinking about or doing. The first thing she shared was building my network. And the second thing she shared was creating a support system to maintain my mental health during this wild ride.
When she first said it my initial internal reaction was “like yeah totally… I’m psyched… I’ve got this.” But in the days and weeks and months since there having been days where things have felt more challenging. Where I felt lonely. Where I felt frustrated. Where I felt tired. For me my own practice of yoga and my voice as a teacher help me to constantly assess and analyze how I’m feeling and be mindful of my reactions to moments good and bad in this early stage of Coeo. I also have an incredible husband, a supportive dad, and a few great girlfriends from my Babson days that understand the adventure and all that comes with it. But, let’s be honest, there are still days when it’s hard to get my head on straight and push ahead.
So when considering leaving that job doesn’t forget this 5th thing. Do you have the support network to help you through those tough days? Do you have the mental and physical stamina? And what can you do to build your strength and tap into the strength of others now to prepare for that moment to launch?
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but these are a few ideas about what to consider before taking this big leap. I’d love to hear your thoughts too so please drop a line!