Sage : How to quit your job, escape burnout and start a small business

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When is a good time to start a small business?

The global pandemic has taken a terrible toll on many livelihoods. The UK experienced more redundancies in 2020 than during the 2008/09 financial crisis, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Some 10 million people were furloughed for long periods.

Mental health has also been seriously impacted, with repeated lockdowns and restrictions creating a spike in anxiety, depression and other conditions.

A fifth of people experienced persistently worse mental health during 2020, a new study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found.

But it’s not all doom and gloom…

Hundreds of thousands of people are turning these challenges into new opportunities. They are starting small businesses that both support them financially and help keep mental health issues at bay.

Nearly half a million new businesses were created across the whole of 2020, according to Companies House.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we speak to six founders who explain how to go from corporate burnout, depression, crisis and addiction to start-up success.

And they share some top tips too.

From corporate burnout to starting a small business

Many people carve rewarding careers working for big companies. Some, however, never feel at home climbing the corporate ladder.

Hannah Feldman was a successful lawyer at Linklaters and later a banker at UBS but she wanted more from her career.

‘I had that feeling of being a square peg in a round hole,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be able to use a wider range of my skills than a particular role would allow, and to build and nurture an initiative of my own from start to finish.’

In 2015, she started a small business, Kidadl.

Feldman says: ‘Every day is different, intense and exhilarating in its own way, and there are always a few bumps in the road to keep us on our toes.

‘It’s a world away from life in corporate law but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

Would-be founders seeking a change should start by understanding the audience they want to serve, she says.

‘The best thing we did when we started was to ensure we had audience insight before we started building a product,’ says Feldman.

‘We surveyed and talked to parents endlessly about what they thought was missing from the market, and why, before we wrote a line of code for Kidadl.

‘This saved us from some costly mistakes in terms of features we had planned to build, and ensured we would find – and be able to properly serve – our target customers when we launched.’

During the pandemic, Feldman completely pivoted her business. Demand for her online event booking engine for parents slumped, so she turned it into a platform that helps parents entertain and educate their kids.

It was like starting the business all over again, she says.

Hannah Feldman’s top tip: Be realistic about the life you want to lead

‘If you’re feeling burnt out and are looking to start a company as an alternative to employed life, I think it’s important to be realistic about your purpose and the kind of life you want to lead,’ says Feldman.

‘Businesses can span the whole spectrum from those that are lifestyle-driven, to those with global ‘unicorn’ aspirations, and your experience will vary dramatically depending on the type of business that you set out to build.’

Turning grief into action

When Rachel Clark’s father passed away suddenly, she completely re-evaluated her career choices.

‘When you lose someone really close, it throws everything up in the air,’ she says. ‘You start thinking about your own mortality and I begin thinking about what I wanted my future to look like.’

Clark left her corporate career to found Nut and Noggin, a plastic-free shampoo bar company that gives £1 in every sale to mental health charities.

Speaking on a recent episode of the Sound Advice podcast, Clark said, ‘Having this sense of purpose has kept me going, even when times are tough.

‘My personal bank balance may not look as healthy as it used to some days but I have no regrets. If someone offered me a corporate job tomorrow, I’d say ‘thanks but no thanks’.

‘I feel like I’m growing every day, not just as a founder but as a human being.’

Maryam Meddin, founder and CEO of The Soke, the London-based mental health and wellness clinic, also believes that creating a purpose-led business can help offset of the stress of building a start-up.

‘I had a branding agency before this,’ she says. ‘The responsibility on my shoulders for that was smaller but this is a hell of a lot more fun.’

Meddin, who was born in Iran, was forced to flee to the UK with her parents during the revolution.

‘We arrived destitute and homeless,’ she says. ‘Aged 16, my mother gave me £10 and said: ‘You’re on your own.”

This experience, combined with the suicides of her father and elder brother ‘sent me into a deep spin later in life’, she says.

But this trauma is also the reason why Meddin went on to qualify as a psychotherapist, laying the foundations for The Soke.

‘I looked under the bonnet, both as someone in therapy and someone who trained as a therapist and those observations helped me create a clinic that is very different to anything else in mental health,’ she says.

Maryam Meddin’s top tip: Do something meaningful

Meddin says: ‘When you have lots more people involved, doing something meaningful beyond the bottom line and financials, and creating a legacy, it does wonders for your mental health.’

From addiction to achievement

Liam Norval spent 10 years as the marketing manager for Café de Paris in London.

‘My entire twenties were spent partying till 7am, five nights a week,’ he says. ‘I drank too much, ate terribly, and that took its toll.’

When Norval’s daughter was born, he knew he had to change his lifestyle.

‘Having a baby and a hangover is no fun for anyone and I was frightened I wouldn’t see her grow up,’ he says. ‘I was 30 but I looked 45.’

He quit his job and launched PR and communications agency, Posh Cockney, taking all his skills from the nightclub scene into a brand new industry, going from zero employees in 2019 to 15 today.

‘I had a great little black book full of celebrities and great clients from clubland, and I offered to run their events and do the marketing and PR for their restaurants,’ he explains.

‘Now, I’ve moved away from 10pm starts and I have salaries to pay, which has forced me to professionalise and make decisions for the long-term.’

Liam Norval’s top tip: Make the most of your unique selling points

‘Work on highlighting your USPs first,’ says Norval, referring to unique selling points, which set a business apart from the competition.

‘I know how to entertain people and spent a career with high rollers, and you need those skills in this business.’

A start-up borne from a change in circumstance

When a career move to Australia was cancelled due to the pandemic, James Edwards felt like he was ‘sleep-walking through life’.

He decided to start Piece and Quiet with university friend Ashley Ling, selling modern and beautiful puzzles and games to promote mindfulness.

The benefit of swapping a corporate career for the life of a founder?

‘Seeing the exact results of what you put in,’ he says. ‘We can spend hours and hours working on a new design and then a couple of months later you see it come to fruition and reap the rewards.

‘It’s a sense of accomplishment and achievement that I always found really hard to get with a corporate job, where the effort-to-reward ratio is way off.

‘It also gives us complete flexibility to work when we need/want to.

‘There’s no sense of guilt for not signing on at 9am, and on days when you’re really not feeling up to it mentally, you can take the time to help yourself feel better, without the pressure of missing meetings and deadlines.’

The life of an entrepreneur is rarely stress-free, though.

‘It massively helped that I started Piece and Quiet with a co-founder,’ he says. ‘It means that even if one of us is having a tough time, the other one can pick things up and vice versa.

‘It’s also amazing to have a constant sounding board for ideas.’

James Edwards’ top tip? Build your ideal scenario of happiness

If you’re pondering taking the plunge into start-up life, Edwards says: ‘It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of working to live rather than living to work.

‘I think for me the pandemic really accelerated this realisation and I would advise anyone to just take a step back and think if someone could build their ideal scenario in terms of happiness, would it involve doing what they are doing at the moment.

‘If not, it may be time to think about how you can make some alterations.’

No quick fixes

Starting a business is not a quick fix for burnout or mental health issues, warns Simon Paine, a former police officer turned business founder.

‘If your career is having a negative effect on your wellbeing, take every opportunity to get yourself in a good place before you make the jump.’

Paine suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after nine years of working as a policeman. He now runs Rebel Business School, which helps those from all walks of life start companies.

Simon Paine’s top tip: Starting a business won’t fix your mental health

‘Don’t outsource your happiness to your career,’ says Paine. ‘Be happy first and then you’ll make better decisions about which route to take.’

Consider the highs and lows before starting a business

‘It’s really easy to envisage success,’ says Meddin, The Soke founder and CEO. ‘You can lie in bed and fantasise about the life you’re going to create and how amazing it’ll be.

‘It’s crucial that you also realistically imagine what it would be like if it all went to pot. Spend more time thinking about that and whether you can live with that.

‘If you think you can fail and it won’t be worse than how you’re feeling right now working for someone else then go for it. Then you have the makings for setting up your own thing.’

Rachel Clark’s top tip: Stay in your day job for as long as necessary

‘Don’t quit your day job too soon,’ advises Clark from Nut and Noggin. ‘Do your research in the evenings and on weekends. Make sure that you can support yourself financially through those early days.

‘Remember that the goal posts will keep moving,’ she adds. ‘You will achieve your targets and you’ll have to keep re-assessing where you want to go next.

‘The great thing about being a founder is that it allows you to do that – you don’t get stuck. There are always more ways to learn and develop.’

Are you ready to be your own boss?

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