Here lies a mediocre banker

There’s no denying it, things have been OK lately. We seem to have mostly happy clients, there’s some hot prospects for more, the team appears motivated (prior to the high-summer slackening, no doubt) and even the new-office issues are settling down. This can mean one of only two things: a huge problem is about to hit us; or it already has and we’ve yet to notice.

Of course, I’m known for my pessimism – my conviction that things are certain to go wrong, and that any good-fortune is either illusionary or comes with a cost that’ll more than compensate for the gain. This feeling’s never left me – and probably never will. The only difference now is that I don’t let it kill my endeavours, as it once did – so my progress over time at least offers some comfort.

Yet even that statement doesn’t stand strong scrutiny. Sure, I managed to overcome my fear of entrepreneurship and start a company that, at last, feels sustainable – even scalable (if that very statement hasn’t set the voodoo working). But Moorgate – my financial PR firm – has been going for 10 years. Perhaps more adventurous souls would have built it, flogged it and be on their third or fourth venture by now.

Not me. I’ve never made any huge leaps with the company: preferring small steps instead, each fully secured before the next is taken. Indeed, Moorgate has been profitable from day one – if only on a micro scale in the early days. I’ve never borrowed, never hired big-name account managers, never splashed out on cool offices in Soho or expensive marketing campaigns. Indeed, Moorgate’s progressive rhythm has been: slow, slow, slow-slow, slow.

Some swashbuckling entrepreneur I make!

But there’s something to be said for this branch of entrepreneurial endeavour. Many times I’ve heard it said that, while enormous numbers want to start their own business or somehow work for themselves (the estimates vary from 30-55% of the population), those that don’t take the plunge (the vast majority of that percentage I’m afraid) are usually restrained by one thing: fear. In other words the pessimism has won.

Comparing this to my own case, the only real difference is that the pessimism didn’t win. Sure, it changed my behaviour – making me more cautious, and therefore slowing Moorgate’s potential growth – but it was unable to claim total victory. I did, indeed, take the plunge.

That said, I’m well aware that certain things came along at the right time to help me make the move towards entrepreneurialism: some luck, some judgement, but all – in hindsight – a proverbial parachute strapped to my back as I inched over the aeroplane’s threshold.

These included:

Trying to leave the bank on good terms – just in case. In fact, bridges were burnt soon after, although – by then – I’d won my entrepreneurial wings, which meant the loss bolstered rather than weakened my resolve. Prior to that, however, their parting statements of “come back if it doesn’t work out” were comforting – whatever the truth behind the statements. They gave me the mental strength to make the leap, so I’m grateful to the man that said it.

Working with a partner. My first post-banking venture – a dotcom incubator – was hatched with a partner (in fact it was more his venture than mine, though neither of us were majority shareholders). He had a track-record with start-ups, and at least gave the air of a seasoned entrepreneur. So I was leveraging off his knowledge and confidence – for sure. But it got me across the line and he quickly taught me the ways of the start-up, lessons for which I remain grateful despite out parting after the incubator was sold.

I took on some freelance work. This only lasted three months or so, but it meant I had some money coming in. Of course, it eroded the time I could spend on the venture, although in the pre-launch phase the time-demands came in erratic but frenetic bursts, so it cost the venture nothing while giving me the mental comfort of: a) knowing I could still make a living, and, b) that I wasn’t digging in to my savings.

We had an investor. In fact, the importance of this was less to do with the money (though this helped, for sure) than the third-party confirmation that we weren’t entirely nuts. He was a seasoned angel investor that had looked at the business plan and thought it worth backing, which was a greater vote of confidence than we could have ever given ourselves. Indeed, of those parading their wares on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, I’m convinced more want the dragons’ experience and support than their cash.

Yes, we had a business plan. And it was more than mere words – it was a thought-through base case with strong numbers that made sense (i.e. was solvent) from even the most conservative of projections. The numbers were cautious – the froth was absent – which was again comforting. Indeed, given that the first venture involved examining the business plans of scores of start-ups we soon learnt to appreciate our prudence when it came to business planning. To us, many of their plans looked wildly over-optimistic – with the numbers sheer fantasy – as time proved.

 

Ultimately I got myself to the point where it was easier to jump than to stay at the bank, in a career I thought going nowhere. Interestingly, a few years later I was given the opportunity to go back into banking. A contact at a major European bank sought me out and offered me what would have been a major rise and all the job security I could ever want.

By then, Moorgate (the second venture) was established although still a slog. Was I tempted? You betcha, but I was persuaded against it. First, by the thought of having to unwind a business I’d built up from scratch. But, second, by a remark from that earlier angel investor (now just a friend).

“What do you want on your gravestone?” he asked, astonished I was even considering it. “’Here lies a mediocre banker’.”

I’d left the bank because I was never more than average at banking – lacking both the maths skills and the killer instinct – and I simply didn’t enjoy it. And I’d started a business because my experiences had given me strong ideas (including how best to communicate banking) and I enjoyed working for myself. A big wage and a bit of job security were never going to compete, despite the temptations.

Two years later the financial crisis kicked in and the bank was wiped out – destroying 100s of jobs, including my contact’s. Meanwhile, Moorgate’s slow-slow progress plods on. Job security ain’t what it used to be.

www.robert-kelsey.co.uk

 

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