How I did it

Reflections on a year of startup life: “It’s been the journey of a lifetime”

StartupSmart /

By Anne-Marie Elias

In March 2015 I found myself on the journey of a lifetime.

At the age of 48 and after decades of working for other people I decided to start my own business.

It has been the best rollercoaster and I thank the tech, startup and entrepreneurial community for being there.

I thought I was prepared – I wasn’t. I had a lot to learn but didn’t know it.

Starting something

Starting something requires a lot of chutzpah – whether it is a startup, a traditional business, a social enterprise or a project – it all requires a great deal of passion, persistence and resilience.

My mission was to teach government and NGOs about innovation and how it can deliver a better return on investment.

This didn’t require new money. It needed a recalibration of existing resources and an appetite for improvement. My mantra was “we have enough, we can do better, innovation through cross sector collaboration is key”.

Government has to do better because despite the countless efforts and enormous expenditure, it was failing people.

We have to do better because in the business of social change people’s lives are at stake.

I thought I would be fine. I had some savings and a consultancy with the department I had just left. I was set – or so I thought.

Looking in

I hit the ground running. I went to hundreds of events, grew my following on social media and was even being quoted in media about my views on innovation and startups.

It was a wild ride and every one of these activities fed my soul and helped me learn.

I always had a lot of energy and inclined to live to work, so working really hard wasn’t unusual, but at some stage I had to question the ROI on all this activity and energy.

Something had to give because there weren’t two of me and I couldn’t keep it up.

By December I was exhausted and a little worried.

I was running so fast, cramming each day with back-to-back meetings, events workshops, and phone calls that I rarely got time to regroup, focus inward, breathe or do anything for myself.

I wanted to feel alive and be out there.

Part of this was also the fact that my anxiety levels prevented me from staying still. While I was out there I avoided being in the company of my fears.

Reality check

The warning signs came early – someone commented on one of my posts “Are there two of you?”

That made me stop and breathe – it scared me that I was running so fast that I didn’t take time to regroup and spend some time refining my offering.

I was so focused on being out there that I didn’t take time to look within me – was I on course? Did it feel right?

My friends warned me and questioned my approach and I listened.

I honestly didn’t know how to sell my services – I’m not a salesperson, yet I had to be to scale my business beyond a few clients.

For the first time in a long time I opened up to a few people I trusted – I shared my fear and anxiety about building a business.

I felt I had to fess up and get a “real job” – I felt I wasn’t cut out for this world and while it was fun I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing. I expected to get a few cuddles and full support to leave it all behind and get a job.

What happened next blew my mind. People like Alex Scandurra, Anne Moore and Gavin Heaton gave me their time and counsel, Kristin Rohan helped me get clear on my offering and ask. Bel Johnson offered to help me sort out my website.

Overwhelmed by the support I was able to keep going. I started to pull back, I cleared my diary, questioned each appointment, meeting, event – was it in line with my purpose or not, would it add value to my business or not?

All these things were vital to getting me to recalibrate my energies towards my purpose in business.

Key learnings

Every part of this journey was perfect in shaping me to be more resilient and focussed. I started to refocus myself on the things that mattered – I was not alone, I would get through this and I am on the right path.

Through many conversations I realised a few home truths: I was not great at monetising, I didn’t have a clear view of my offering, and had no idea about running a business.

Finally I realised that without recharging myself often I wouldn’t survive this starting up a business.

I learnt that I was not a salesperson; I was not a business and take care of me.

I am now in the process of redeveloping my website and clarifying my offering with the help of my community and for those who wanted me to quit – tough – I’m not going anywhere.

I am even more determined to push through the lows for the sake of my purpose – to teach government and NGOs to embrace innovation and to drive the ideas boom agenda to touch the lives of disadvantaged people.

Nothing prepared me for the false highs, the fear of failure, or the frequent self-doubt.

On more than one occasion I wanted to just get a job and leave this rollercoaster behind.

You will get through this. The best advice is this:

1. Take time to breathe

2. See your time as precious and valuable. Align everything you do with your purpose

3. Work out what you need and ask for it

4. Decide who you have around you – friends, colleagues, partners. Who adds value?

5. Take up yoga, meditation, running, dancing, bush walking – anything that helps you relax and free your mind

These are all important steps to get you through and support you through a sometimes-turbulent ride, but it’s worth every second and it will be the best experience of your life.

Starting up is worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears because that comes with a whole lot of laughter, love and support.

Anne-Marie Elias is a speaker and consultant in innovation and disruption for social change. She is an honorary Associate of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS. She is on the Board of Western Sydney Women; the Australian OpenKnowledgeFoundation; Autism Advisory Board, and the Settlement Services International Foundation.

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.

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