What I’ve learnt 12 months into my startup and how I got help

In March 2015 I found myself on the journey of a lifetime. At the age of 48 (almost 49) and after decades of working for other people I decided to start my own business.

It has been nothing short of the best roller coaster  and I thank the tech, Startup and entrepreneur community for being there. 

I thought I was prepared - I wasn't. I had a lot to learn but didn't know it. I am writing this blog to help others - and because my best performing post was one where I talked about my year in business. Turns out people want to know.

Starting something

Starting something requires a lot of chutzpah - whether it is a start up, starting a traditional business, a social enterprise, a project - it all requires a great deal of passion, persistence and resilience.

I thought I would be fine because I had an Associate role at UTS with the Design Innovation Research Centre and the Centre for Local Government that gave me a space and support to develop my ideas.

Rodger Watson from Designing Out Crime believed in my work and allowed me to sit alongside his team (Douglas Tomkin, Rohan Lulham, Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, Clementine Thurgood, Chloe DeBrito,  Patrick Forrest, Jess Wong, Jess Francis, Sarah Churchwood Norton and more) which was truly a blessing.

I had an extensive network cultivated over 33 years spanning government, NGO, corporate, tech startup, innovation and academia. I was going to rock this consultancy gig. 

In 2014 the planets were aligning. I had a brand and a blog, thanks to Karen Frith (who convinced me I was a brand and to write a blog) and TedX Ultimo which gave me the platform to share my message - Disrupt the status quo for social change.

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 - "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. 

Armed with an artillery of presentations, workshop ideas, a website, a blog, and good social media (LinkedInFacebookTwitter and Instagram) I got started. Then I met the  amazing Rebecca Tapp, and became one of the first speakers of the Supernova Tribe.

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, startup. I was invited to everything and was involved in everything fromGovHack#HackFood15HealthHackThe Hult Prize @ UNSWStartupBus SydneyStartUpWeek Sydney, to a plethora of conferences and round tables.  

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.

Were my efforts converting to dollars? Not nearly enough for the expended effort. 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.

Part of this was a huge reaction to working for others most of my life where the inward facing culture of NGOs, government agencies and ministerial offices drove me crazy.

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.

I found comfort in the chaos and solace in the mayhem, but like that song says "I've never been to me." All advice pointed to the same thing - chill out, take time, focus and recharge, then go get 'em. 

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?

I was so busy taking care of others that I forgot to recharge and be still, enjoy the sunset, sunrise, the beach, my family and friends - the stuff that re-energises me.

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

Two significant turning points came from conversations with co-founders of muru-D. Mick Liubinskas questioned why I was applying for a PhD - a 6-8 year part time journey, his view "You are doing it anyway, write a blog, a book...just do it."  Annie Parker suggested I focus, something Nicole Williamson told me a year ago! Annie Parker wanted me to pick one passion project on which to focus my energies I could achieve better results than continuing with my scattergun approach. 

Then in January I was invited by Associate Professor Roberta Ryan and Tomas Lopata (a former colleague from NSW Government) to sit in the Institute of Public Policy and Governance at UTS - an important move to consolidate my work on building an Innovation Master Class for government.

I also decided to spend more time at Fishburners (thank you Murray Hurps) where a community of startups at various stages of the journey could inspire and counsel me. 

I reached out to Gavin Heaton, someone I deeply respect and admire to help me get through a period where I just wanted to jump ship, get a job and leave this crazy idea of starting a business behind. 

The Problem

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. A conversation with John Hovelmann got me started. It was important to value my contribution. If I didn’t, others wouldn’t.

I had little idea how to manage my tax, invoices and receipts, so every 3 months I'd have to calculate my income and expenses to send to my accountant. It was such a steep learning curve that added to my stress.

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 ScandurraAnne 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.Maria MacNamara as always offered her words "Keep going, you are nearly there." Maria has to know I hear them daily in my head - she is my guardian angel that way.

My daughter Ysabella is my rock and got me to join a gym with her and do yoga and pilates classes, she also says some of the most profound things that jolt me, like the time she said "why hang around where you don't feel valued", or when she said "I want to work to live not live to work." Amazing insights from a teenager and I must heed her counsel more often.

Sitting at Fishburners was important - this is an incredible community. I had so many people share their insights and advice on their own experiences - thanks Jess Wilson for showing me some blogs from Tim Ferris which shifted my thinking about being so scared - it was all ok and normal.

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?

Sure I could do free stuff too – it’s in my nature to give, but not at the expense of me. 

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

Key Learnings 

I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and that everything works out in the end (thank you Donna Moses for imprinting this in me from childhood, your wise words still guide me through every difficulty).

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.

I realised a few key things that re-set my frame of mind about what I was doing. I reached out to a few people I trusted and was mentored, coached and counselled by the best people on the planet. Nicole WilliamsonMaria MacNamaraGavin HeatonAlex ScandurraMurray Hurps,  Mon WulffAnnie Parker and Mick Liubinskas.

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 learned: I was not a salesperson. I was not a business. 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. I reached out to my people and they enveloped me in hope and a renewed determination that I had to keep going. I found services that would make my life easier like a Virtual Assistant to help me manage my tax and invoices (thanks Vicki Tooze  founder of VA Client Solutions), like getting a trial of MYOB (thanks Jack Skinner) and the most awesome group of people I now join every Friday morning at #CoffeeMornings in Surry Hills (thanks Gavin for creating the space for nice people to come together). 

"The level of stress that you’re under generally will magnify things, incredible highs and unbelievable lows at whiplash speed and huge magnitude. Sound like fun?” Marc Andreessen

Co-founder of Netscape, Marc Andreessen, says it beautifully, “First and foremost, a start-up puts you on an emotional rollercoaster unlike anything you have ever experienced. You flip rapidly from day-to-day – one where you are euphorically convinced you are going to own the world, to a day in which doom seems only weeks away and you feel completely ruined, and back again. Over and over and over. And I’m talking about what happens to stable entrepreneurs. There is so much uncertainty and so much risk around practically everything you are doing."

This too shall pass as things seemingly insurmountable have passed long before. 

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.

So, I'll see you soon somewhere across the ecosystem. 


Anne-Marie Elias


Anne-Marie Elias is a speaker and consultant in innovation and disruption for government and social change. She is an honorary Associate of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS.

Anne-Marie is on the Board of Western Sydney Women; the Australian Open Knowledge Foundation; Autism Advisory Board, and the Settlement Services International Foundation.

Follow Anne-Marie's  journey of disruptive social innovation on Twitter @ChiefDisrupter or visit www.chiefdisrupter.com  and anne-marieelis.com 


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