I Left Corporations to Build Startups With Them

Let me tell you why I left big corporations to start building startup.

I just checked in my luggage at Zanzibar airport. We were ready to say goodbye to a New Year’s trip in the sun and to return to our life in cloudy London, back to the old routine.

If you’ve been to Zanzibar airport before, you know that it’s efficient but lacks the usual machinery, such as the counters and conveyor belts you regularly see at check-in facilities. It’s a less common experience as airports go, and one that easily helps strike a conversation between strangers.

That’s where I met John. He was standing behind my girlfriend and I, and we got to talking. We found out that John is American and had been to Africa to promote his recently published book, “Unleash Your Inner Company”.Two weeks later there I was, on the 23 bus to Oxford Circus, with his book in hand:

“The longer you remain an employee the less likely you are to start your own business. Be wary of becoming too comfortable, too specialized or too dependant on staff. You will probably learn less each passing year as an employee than the year before. Don’t stay too long.”
‘Unleash Your Inner Company’ by John Chisholm

It was January 2018, that perfect time of the year to plan ahead, and there I was faced with an urge to move on. But to do what? Without a second of hesitation, I latched on to what I missed the most: creating something, building with people, the thrill of a venture. This was Wednesday, and by Friday I took the plunge: I resigned from my job at LinkedIn.

Now, it was time to unpack and unpick what I had: 16 years of corporate life; 6 full-time jobs in 4 countries (+1 short-term role in 1 additional country, but I’m not here to brag); an array of positions and 100+ initiatives that were could have beens and only a couple that actually lifted off during my time at Adidas.

The above list is what became the foundation of my next step:

  • A) During that track record, when was I happiest? (my diligent girlfriend, now fiancée, asked)
  • B) And even then, what was missing? (I added)
  • C) What made each role special?
  • D) What made me lose interest?

I formulated: (A-B)+(C-D). Nothing happened apart from one resonating thought: If only I could have built something in those companies that actually worked.

Fast forward 2 months (4, by the time this gets published) and here I am on my daily IC train from Brussels to Antwerp. Learning, building, and reconfiguring with people who know it best: Corporate Venture Building with Bundl.

Afonso Rebelo De Sousa

But what makes me so sure I can dig my heels into entrepreneurship after 16 years of corporate life? Some short startup involvements and one ongoing startup experience at Airfinity?

Apart from backing myself up with the necessary skills (big help from Insead) and my own drive, there’s something I know far too well: how the employee ticks, and the hurdles you go through for approvals and buy-ins.

Propose a venture in the corporate mothership and here are the common initial symptoms:

  • The “it’s not my company” stance
  • The “don’t rock the boat” philosophy
  • The “oh that’s an HQ function” deflection
  • The “in addition to my role?” realization
  • The “I can’t get support on this” conclusion

It’s okay if you have ever felt that because I did and know it’s true. When it’s not an activity that you were assigned to do, you become exposed, you develop avenues that may not see the light of day, you remove yourself from the core business (oh what joy to be writing this) and, most importantly, in corporate barometer jargon, you risk recognition in the form of reward. Yes, you may not get a promotion or the same money as the guy who sells the same stuff every year to the same customer.

And so, to those who like me experienced the thought “I can’t build anything here,” you eventually quit, and to be honest forget the foregone projects because they are not worth holding any remorse about. But you will want to build again, wherever you go.

This begs the questions:

How do I put a venture on the table at my current company (and avoid symptoms 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)? How do I get a corporate venture on my CEO’s or MD’s agenda wherever I go?

Here’s the plan:

  1. Diagnose who and in which department the word “innovation” is used.
  2. Propose a plan that mentions competitor innovation to that department.
  3. Take the words “new business” and “revenue stream” to your MD/CEO/Director.
  4. Add a timeline and a cost.
  5. Apply a proven framework with milestones.
  6. Build a team you trust (call me).
  7. Alleviate what you can’t do.

Do what you love for a year and prove everybody wrong. Build that startup you thought you’d never be able to.

Why would I go back to another corporate company if it’s hard to build there?

Simply because it’s in the corporate world where you’ll identify the Need to venture (read innovate by creating a new business) and the Resources to venture (leverage of synergies and assets): this the playground we are in.

And don’t forget: you, as an employee, are the withholder of your company’s DNA. So much is spent on recruitment efforts that they will just stop and listen. Proposing a venture idea might be a pretty small barrier to entry if it gets you to build an internal startup after all.

Why am I not doing the above myself?

First, I’m like oil. I want to sink into the motor and facilitate movement.

And this is my return to the corporate world but in the form of a conduit. As a means to an end, to help you build your startup from within.

Second, as mentioned, I missed building (perhaps from my foundation days as a designer and a super long stint at The Brand Union London and Dubai). I want to build a lot of things fast, and this is my way of doing it while leveraging my experience.

Third, because I found people like me in skill and mindset at Bundl, who work hard to build proven ventures. So, I’m not alone here and can only see upsides.

Fast forward a couple of weeks from now, and be it a bus, a train or plane, I am getting off at the next stop and partnering with a corporate entrepreneur who is ready for the thrill of venture building.

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