Routes to entrepreneurship: how we came to the start-up life

Are entrepreneurs born, made - or do they only realise the start-up life is for them only after trying a traditional career path? There are as many routes to becoming an entrepreneur as there are business ideas themselves. We spoke to three Virgin StartUp-funded businesses about their lives pre-start-up.

Maxine Thompson is the founder of PolkaPants, creating stylish and comfortable trousers for women in the hospitality industry.

Before I started my business venture I worked a few different jobs. I worked for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world - which was an incredible experience, and a very interesting insight into the corporate world. I left that to go back to school and pursue a different career path - I trained to be a chef and then spent the next couple of years working in restaurants, still working for other people. I moved to the UK two years ago, and after having work in restaurants six days a week for 14 hours a day, I decided that I didn't want to work that hard and that many hours for anyone else unless I was working for myself. So I started working as a freelance chef while I saved and developed my idea for my own company. And today - I still work as a freelance chef as well as running PolkaPants. For me, it is important from a brand perspective for me to still be physically seen and known to cook, and it also gives me the opportunity to try out and experiment and road test new products or changes to existing products.

Starting up my own business meant about 24 months of market research, product development, physical trails, saving, marketing and eventually launching. I say 24 months, but I guess in some ways my whole life has been preparing me for this. My previous experience in all three of my industries has proved extremely beneficial. Thanks to my fashion background, I was able to do all the designing and branding. My business background has allowed me to develop business plans, marketing strategies, and my cooking background allowed me to completely understand my target markets and what they need. 

If you want to start up in a new field, be sure to know your market inside out. If it isn't a market that you have direct experience and knowledge in, then find someone who does - conduct a lot of market research, focus groups, questionnaires. Read article, case studies, attend workshops and get down to the backbone of your industry, understand exactly what it is they want, need and how you can provide that. 

Be prepared for a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of self doubt and a lot of money to be spent! I'm so happy in my new venture but it's also the hardest thing I've ever done. If it is a venture that you are going into single-handedly you need to try and balance every single aspect of the business. Product development, marketing, finance, packaging, customer service - it gets hard and confusing and sometimes you feel like you are doing everything wrong. But you need to stay positive and stay focused and remember why it is that you are doing what you are doing and why you love it.

James Cadbury is the founder of Love Cocoa, a subscription chocolate service that delivers high-quality chocolate to your door.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to start my own business. My first ventures were in the school playground selling and swapping Premier League football stickers. During my time at university, I use to sell all sorts of things on eBay to get by. It was however not until 2014 when I co-founded Property Moose, the first UK online property crowdfunding website, with a uni friend that I was involved in a small business. It was this first-hand experience that gave me the confidence to launch my own startup Love Cocoa further down the road.

However, before starting up, I studied marketing at the University of Liverpool before doing a Masters in real estate. Just as I finished my Masters Lehmanns went down, so I decided to go travelling. I returned and ended up going into banking, taking a job at Deutsche Bank at their new Birmingham office. I soon moved to London where I worked my way up from the back-office to a derivatives trading role for the UK’s largest pension fund. It was a great job and I met some amazing people. However I felt I was restricted in using my creativity - so I decided to quit and start my own business finally!

Even though I was working in a completely different field of work to what I’m doing now, the skills are always transferable. What I did learn was how to communicate well with people, working with clients all over the world. I also understand the importance to have controls and processes in place for certain things - however, I also know the importance of making some decisions quickly! When working in a bank it would often take weeks for sign-off on the most trivial things, whereas in my own business I can make decisions quickly.

It’s important to read and to stay informed if you’re starting up in a different industry to the one you’re currently in. I spend a high proportion of my time reading about chocolate, technology and other businesses. I would also suggest to go to as many events as possible to network. It is amazing that so many people are happy to help for nothing in return. I've spoken to lots of entrepreneurs, including Dragons, who have been more than willing to spend sometime on the phone which is really amazing. If you can, try and get a mentor or an advisor - I have been lucky enough to get a mentor through the Virgin Startup scheme, as well as a few separate advisors. 

Peter Walker is the founder of The Curing House, a charcuterie-based restaurant in Middlesbrough.

Before I started my business, I was a time served plater working in the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea. This involved long hard work days with extended periods of time away from family and friends, treacherous weather conditions at work, and dangerous helicopter travel to and from work.

However, I suffered an injury to my ankle which saw me see the need to move away from the hard physical labour of working offshore. I was always obsessed with food which led me down the path of looking into opening a restaurant. Obsession took over and I became so focussed on it that I wasn’t  going to be able to do anything else without trying this out. Lots of people thought I was mad, but I just blocked out any negativity and forged ahead! I had some money saved up, although this was not going to be quite enough on its own, so I got help with a small Start Up Loan which helped pay for the kitchen.

Everything I do in life I learn from, so this business is a culmination of all my experiences. The concept of the food is influenced from my many dining experiences, and my management style takes the best parts from my engineering background. So far, every obstacle I have faced can be compared to difficulties I have faced in other employments so I am able to react and do what is necessary as soon as I see something which needs to be fixed.

If you’re thinking of starting a business in a new field do it, but don’t go into it lightly. All of your time should be spent thinking, think about everything. Think about whether an idea will work – and will it work in the long-term, or will it get old? Think, think, think, but at the same time don’t forget to do. This is what I have found in business so far: to succeed and then continue to succeed, the work and thought must never stop. It is an insanely busy lifestyle to run a business, but if it is the right thing for you it will never feel like work - it will just feel like you are following the right path in life.


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