The path to launching your own company is often not clearly defined or even expected as life choices and situations are sometimes outside of your control. Over the past three years, I’ve been working on a startup on top of full-time consultancy work that at the time of inception was nothing but a side project. But now, as I’m about to step into it as a permanent full-time job, I thought it should be best to bring you back to the very beginning of my story to explain how the path to setting up my company.
Where It All Started
I was 17 years old when I sat across the table from a careers counselor who explained to me why I was unemployable. I didn’t take orders very well, I questioned authority, and I was very focused on working on my own projects both during and after school. I thought the traditional educational system was broken and I had little interest in working towards a standard 9 to 5 job which is what many us are brought up to believe is the norm. Find yourself a good job with a steady income, settle down, buy a house, have kids and all of that other idyllic dream mentality which I taught from a young age but thought was a boring life not suited to me.
It was during this time that I was building and nurturing community gaming community websites as I really enjoyed understanding the technicalities behind website development, graphic design, video editing, and marketing. One of the gaming communities I formed called ‘Xbox Ireland’ was supported by the Xbox division of Microsoft and Ubisoft’s community partner programme which allowed us to receive early access to new games and prizes to give away in competitions. At the time it was quite a big deal for someone who knew nothing about marketing, but I had a solid understanding of how to foster a community and promote it to a wider audience. I was also working on my own Role Playing Game called ‘Crystal Sword’ which took up a lot of my time as I was creating all of the graphics, music, character dialogue and animation for what I had hoped to be a 20-30 hour game in a similar vein to the Zelda game series. Looking back now, I realise I gave up those years of my life where my friends were regularly going out drinking at the weekend, but I’ve never regretted the choices I’ve made. The skills I learnt all of those years ago have been invaluable ever since.
I had realised that for what I lacked in creative skills, I made up for in my knowledge of what it takes to drive awareness of a product or service. It took me dropping out from a degree in Interactive Multimedia Design after 3 months, taking a year out of college and then re-applying for a degree in Business Studies and Computing to get to that point, but rarely is someone’s career path so clear from an early age. It was during my second stint at college that I applied for the SPEED programme at the University of Ulster which allows students to pitch business ideas to a panel of judges in the hope of receiving £3,000 in funding, mentorship and the opportunity to work on their own business instead of a dissertation. As immigration was on the rise in Northern Ireland, I pitched a business called ‘My-NI’ which should be an online portal and community to provide foreign nationals with all of the information they needed upon arrival in Northern Ireland. I was only 20 years old when I walked into a room at the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster to pitch this idea to a panel of four judges, and after an intense 60-minute grilling session, I found out a week later my business idea had been approved. Unfortunately, after a couple of months of working on the project, I realised my heart wasn’t in it so I scrapped the business and got to work on a dissertation instead.
Several years passed by after completing my degree before I finally found myself in a role that involved marketing duties. I had 600 miles a week commute to a small family owned fancy dress costume shop in Ballymena which needed help with their brand, creating an online store, adding their inventory to it and increasing footfall in their Ballymena shop. While the role itself was very challenging due to the variety of tasks and long commute each day, it quickly made me realise that the only areas I had an interest in were related to digital marketing and not web development.
The Beginning of Learn Inbound
Fast forward a couple of years, I was in a digital marketing role where I wasn’t happy for a number of reasons, and it was this dissatisfaction with my day-to-day role and a hunger to build something of my own. At the time, there was a lack of great digital marketing events in Ireland that I felt matched up with the quality of conferences I had attended in Brighton, London, Seattle and New York. It was the hunger to build something of my own while providing affordable learning opportunities to local marketers that brought about the creation of our website and quarterly events in Dublin.
To-date, we’ve held 8 evening events and 1 full-day conference where over 2,000 marketers have learned from 35 leading industry experts who in many cases have never spoken in Ireland before. I’ve been working tirelessly to bring a different type of marketing event to Ireland which prioritises the learning experiences for attendees over commercial intentions. This often means turning down sponsors who are not a correct match as they want a speaking slot in exchange for sponsorship. As marketers ourselves, our focus has and always will be providing the best experience for those in attendance.
However, as great as it is to talk about our successes, the problem when you read a story about how a startup is that it’s never clear how much time and effort went into building it or the many challenges faced along the way. I thought it should be great to pull back the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes at Learn Inbound to give you some insights into the amount of work that’s often required to make a startup succeed, and what you too can learn from it.
Challenges & Problems
1. Cash Flow:
Besides the sponsorship money we had gained from the companies we partnered with over the past couple of years, Learn Inbound has been 100% bootstrapped. I’ve been working in a full-time role since the inception of Learn Inbound up until today to cover the cost of web development, graphic design, paid advertising, branding and the balance where events didn’t break-even. Unless you have funding made available to you, it’s likely you will also need a full-time job to subsidise your startup when it’s nothing but a side-project to you. For me, it was the feeling of having a permanent job as a safety net that allowed us to take more risks, focus on the smaller details, and avoid the pressure that typically comes with borrowing money.
While I’m no advocate for Gary Vee and his advice about working 18 hour days, I do support the key message he tries to get across in his own shouty way. Building a startup is hard – really hard. For the past three years, I’ve given up most evenings and weekends to work on Learn Inbound when at times I was too tired or frustrated after spending the week in a full-time job. You will have to make sacrifices to get your own startup off the ground and most of the work you do will never be credited and recognised by other people. If validation and recognition of your work are important to you, the early days of startup life will be a struggle as a lot of sacrifices will be required on your part to get initial traction with your idea.
Every day is a learning day. I’m regularly pushed outside of my comfort zone which can often be quite frightening when trying to execute quickly on a new opportunity, but if you’re a small team, you will need to learn and adapt quickly. As I type this, I’ve another tab open with a spreadsheet of our annual accounts that need to be filled out (oh, the pain) and Skype calls to arrange with some potential speakers which the introvert in me wants to avoid. Unless you’re lucky to have a talented team supporting you, it’s likely you’ll have to develop skills in areas which you’re not comfortable with.
When we first launched the Learn Inbound website, we promoted other events, allowed companies to list available job positions, offered a community portal, as well as advertising our own events. Following feedback from our audience, we decided to strip Learn Inbound back to being just about us by removing everything but the homepage, blog and events listing page as we realised there wasn’t enough interest in our the other offerings we had. As a startup, it’s important to validate your ideas early as possible and make changes as ultimately, the market decides whether your product or service is any good – not you.
One of the perks of working in a co-working space like The Brickhouse is that you have the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds who are more than happy to share their knowledge and experiences with you. With each person I meet, I learn something interesting about how another company was formed, the successes and challenges they’ve had, and what they’re working on at the moment. The introvert within me is happiest sat at a desk with earphones in and a coffee cup within reach, but getting up off your desk to arrange a chat with someone who has their own story to share is invaluable. You should never be afraid to learn something new by chatting to others within a distance of you.
If you have any questions about Learn Inbound and what we’re working on, you’ll soon find me in The Brickhouse Monday – Friday, but for the moment, I’ll be that guy sat there at the weekend working on his mission to bring a better learning experience to digital marketers in Ireland. Feel free to reach out to me anytime if you’d like to grab a coffee (love the free coffee) and have a chat.
Mark Scully, Founder & Director at Learn Inbound
When he isn’t debating with granulated Nescafé drinkers about what constitutes ‘proper’ coffee,
he’s probably at his desk working on inbound marketing events and training courses in Dublin to help marketers take their game to the next level.