Introduce yourself and your business
I’m the founder of Yena – a startup ecosystem and platform that helps people start & grow their businesses via an accessible subscription, described by some as ‘Acceleration as a Service’.
Did you go to university and what did you study?
I did for all of 6 months. I studied Business Enterprise but decided to drop out on realising that I just wasn’t academic and hadn’t really ever been.
What was your journey after this?
After dropping out I started my first business and got a part time job. I worked as a letting (estate) agent for 3 years while learning what I needed to get my business going. Almost 10 years later and I feel like I’ve finally got just enough knowledge to grow something. That frustration of it taking so long to be equipped for growing a sustainable business – is one of the things powering the future vision for what Yena will become.
How did you make the transition between the two? You said you were offered a part time job whilst working on Yena on the side.
Transitioning from stable working to working full time on your business is one of the toughest decisions you’ll make, especially if you don’t have the ability to fall back on family financially or previous experience in doing the same. It’s a leap into the unknown, so working part time was (in hindsight) me holding onto something to keep me afloat. Now I know it was the only thing stopping me from growing properly, although I don’t regret it. I probably didn’t know enough to leap any earlier so things happened the way they did because that’s the way they had to.
When did you make the jump to do Yena full time?
Around 3 years into working part-time I took my previous business – a brand agency – full time. A year into this, I partnered the business with a social agency in order to grow. We worked together for another 18 months (while Yena grew, on the side, as a passion project) before I hit an impasse – officially merge the agency businesses and share it, with a likely ceiling on growth, or turn Yena into a business (with no current ceiling in sight) from it's standing point of zero revenue. The latter ended up being the decision I made and the rest is history!
What advice can you give around making this transition?
If you do it when you feel ready, then you’ll have taken far too long and wish you’d done it sooner. Practically, I’d encourage people to be logical and practical about the process. If it’s a side hustle and you need £25k a year to survive, then can you generate £5k in a given month using evenings and weekends? If so, then I’d argue that’s 1 days worth of non-optimal time, thus multiplying this by 5x actual working days = £25k (plus an uplift due to the compounded effect of working on it every day and the initial passion + energy you have in the early days) gives you what you need to survive.
Cash flow is important to watch as it can catch you off guard and end things prematurely. However, if you wait to build up ‘too much’ cash before you take the jump then you’ll likely be complacent when you start and rely on that buffer rather than putting the real work required into driving it forwards. It’s no surprise that most people have their best sales results when they need it in order to survive. There’s a line between dangerous risk-taking and informed decisions but set a target, take logical, practical steps and use the fear to drive you. It’ll be the biggest adventure you’ll ever take and the most fun you’ll ever have. Stressful nights included.
At the beginning of starting any company, it’s difficult to market yourself. Tell us how you won clients in the early days?People buy from people. It’s one of the oldest adages you’ll hear and that’s because it’s true. At every level, business is about relationships. People are your customers, your suppliers, your team, your board, your everything. Build relationships.
While doing this, ask people their problems. If you already have a solution/product/service then get them to highlight their challenges around this through conversation. Tell them you can fix these challenges for them (sometimes even if you can’t, as long as you can figure it out and deliver what’s promised) and then get them to agree to a solution.
Understand that everyone wants something. If you can deliver that something that someone wants, then they’re willing to part with cash for it. What level of cash depends on their perceived value of the solution. Understand this and cost accordingly. Then get something signed, do the work, invoice, et voila!
Sometimes it’s difficult to be creative when money is limiting you. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had to face this problem?
Quite the contrary, I’m at my most creative when money is tight. The necessity of fixing impending doom makes you come up with solutions you may have not prioritised before; yes, out of slight desperation but the results can be greater than innovation during safe times.
In August 2018 our cash flow was scary. We were – and I’m not just saying this for drama – essentially going to have to close the business at the end of the month if I didn’t figure something out. A few bills caught me off guard and what was going out at the end of the month was greater than what we had in the bank at the time. I had countless sleepless nights, cold sweats and anxiety about the whole situation.
Brand partnerships (comprehensive versions of sponsorship arrangements) were something I had toyed with for a while but not had the reason to drive them forward. Our membership was growing slowly and this was good enough for me until this point. However, this situation meant I needed to explore these and see where I might be able to drive extra revenue from.
Do you want to give some examples of start-ups you’ve worked with?
I’d be here forever if I named them all (we connect 5,000+ people a year across our meetups and have over 200 members now in our subscribed community). However what I love most is the diversity in the startups we get to work with. Everything from freelancers, to scaling companies. £0 turnover, to £3m+ turnover. From biscuit brands, to lingerie sellers, to music agencies, to care technologies, to online marketplaces, to wine retailers and everything in between. They’re all in the Yena community.
How big is your team at Yena?
Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually a tiny independent team of two as a staff. We manage the product, partnerships, developments, expansion and comms all from there. It’s a lot, but being bootstrapped we’ve not been able to grow a huge team (and salary bill) as a result which we believe has set us up for success in the future by helping us become hugely capital efficient.
Your business model is super smart. You’ve managed to expand globally to 14 countries. Of which I am one of the hosts here in Singapore. Why did you decide to make the events free?
Starting up is expensive as it is. Business events have constant barriers to entry and we believe that everyone should have access to the chance to connect with like-minds, regardless of their circumstances. So we’re able to do have that local impact everywhere in partnership with hosts (like you) and thanks to our partners to impact 3,500+ people each year.
It also helps us reach a bigger audience for our paid product too. I recently realised that our business model is actually reminiscent of some of the biggest impacting & commercially successful organisations in the world – religion. While I don’t want to pitch Yena as a religion or a cult in any way (ha!), they also run free meetups most Sundays and end up driving incredible communities around central beliefs, values and missions.
Check out our past another startup story and Yena events here.
How did you fund the business in early stages?
Time, favours, service swaps, sacrifice.
Time in exchange for cash to make the business grow faster. People keep remarking on how we’ve grown out of nowhere, which is funny considering Yena has been a community for 6 years now.
Favors and service swaps to help get what we need in exchange for value we can provide through advice, support, introductions, opportunities etc.
For example, all our early videos done by Gadgetline Film (a founding Yena member) were for free on the promise he’d get work out of it. In year one he ended up landing £8k+ of contracts from people he met from it, paying for more than the time he spend with us and actually more than I made from Yena that year!
Sacrifice - a personal choice depending on the lifestyle you want and how long you’re willing to wait for gratification. Living with your parents for most of your 20s while friends are buying houses, settling down, having children, building careers is hard. Especially when you can only afford to holiday every 2 years (or longer). However, that has led to having the ability to set Yena up for incredible growth over the next 5-10 years and I couldn’t be more excited. Friends are starting to remark on how I can be so flexible with time or even afford to pay for my holiday before they have now. The reality is that the investment in the foundations have helped build the greater opportunity I have now.
What is it they say? “Entrepreneurs live for a few years like most won’t so they can live the rest of their lives like most others can’t”? I think that’s true. Although a big part of this for me is also legacy and impact. Money isn’t really a driver for me personally and can come in time.
One of the qualities I love about you is how good you are with spotting opportunities to collaborate. You’ve consistently partnering with the best brands, which is important for any start-up. What advice can you give to start-ups wanting to collaborate, what kind of approach should they take?
Everyone wants to achieve something. Understand what that is, get access to it and then provide it to people who need it most in return for what you need. Spotting mutual benefit is something I often take for granted but is a habit built up over time. Maybe it’s nature vs nurture but I think it’s a skill that can be built up.
Simply, though, just reach out. Empathise with the brand on a subject you share passion/interest in. Offer something compelling that they won’t ignore. Then agree a way to move forward on it. Oh and don’t forget to deliver too.
Naturally in this line of work you build a massive network of entrepreneurs. We actually met through a friend who purely connected us through our shared passion for entrepreneurism. I say met, but we’ve never actually met before but it’s funny because I would consider you as one of my close friends now! How important do you think it is to build a community?
Vital. More now than ever.
People are creatures of community. There’s a reason we live in towns and cities, not all on a hill on our own. We crave engagement. Brands are realising this and building communities now too. I don’t think we’re far from seeing job titles like CCO (Chief Community Officer) coming into the fray.
As mentioned above - people are everything. Get them on-side and everything else is a whole lot easier. Through community building, you’re able to get feedback, customers, referrers, suppliers… and friends!
You’ve got a very active private Yena FB group where people often bounce ideas off each other. How did you encourage people to start posting on here?
I think the timing was important here – people just did it without much prompting. Generally we built a community based on core values that are visible through our branding and original events anyway, so the digital manifestation just continued this online. We actually thought we’d have to encourage a lot more than we did/do. We’re working on ways to improve this though. Stay tuned over the coming 18 months for more…
Having dealt with a number of start-ups what would you say is one of the most common challenges faced and what’s your advice for overcoming this?
‘Wantrepreneurship’, unknown unknowns and not selling enough.
Lots of people want to feel like an entrepreneur but not actually be one. That’s ok but it won’t fill the gap they’re emotionally trying to fill in their life. It’s better they practice self awareness and understand truly what they’re seeking. If it is ownership of their own career + journey they go be an entrepreneur but do it and do it properly.
One of the things that stifles this is not knowing what you need to know in the first place. Running a startup is the only job in the world that you don’t get on-boarded into, so you’ve no idea what to do next. That is what Yena hopes to fix and we’re excited about what’s coming next to make that happen.
And selling! People get distracted by building a brand (personal brands even more so!) but forget to provide value and a solution to challenges. Yes, all are symbiotic but if you don’t sell, you don’t survive and if you don’t survive, how many people can you really help? It’s an old-school take, but I’d like to see people setting targets (worked backwards from what they want to achieve in line with lifestyle/aims) and then sell to hit those.
What do you look for when hiring people to potentially join Yena?
Abby does the hiring now because if I had my way I’d just hire everyone because they’re all interesting, haha! I mean, I offered Abby a job after we had one coffee. Luckily that one worked out!
Generally though – initiative, passion and personality. We work on an output only basis - against tasks rather than hours; this rewards efficiency and effectiveness rather than ‘time spent’ which is just so outdated, in my opinion. Everyone that we work with should be entrepreneurial and be interested in their own way. I can’t wait to start building a team over the next year. We’ve actually listed out our dream team of people we know internally and without even trying it ended up being so diverse of all different backgrounds, personalities and specialities. if we can emulate that, even closely, we’ll have a killer team ready to save the startup world.
What’s the big dream and 5-year plan for yourself and Yena?
We want everyone to have access to high quality business support, anywhere, anytime, regardless of their circumstances. That’s a big ol’ mission statement but it breaks down into actual tasks (OKRs) and helps keep us pointed at what’s important – vital for someone who is a bit of a magpie like me. We even have very specific numbers to hit now to qualify different stages of ‘success’. Generally though, I want to build a company that is recognised for doing great work, with a great team, setting an example for the next generation of startups.
It takes a certain level of focus, resilience and character in each individual to drive routine and want to make their mark on the world. What do you think taught you to be this way and what childhood influences have contributed to this?Probably a combination of socio-economic circumstances and parenting.
“Not coming from money meant I had a lot to prove (in my head), and I’m brilliant when I’m the underdog. So, I continually try to surround myself with people who are steps ahead of me and try to keep up”
I was also good at school with the potential to be great but never really focused enough to get those A* grades. As a result, my dad would always ask me why - in a tongue in cheek way - why ‘that B wasn’t an A’ and I think this inbuilt some kind of overachiever mindset in me.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
Don’t panic. Easier said than done but I’m quite an existentialist. Life is a game. If it won’t kill you or put you in prison then you’ve still got opportunities to explore. Take a breath, think logically, listen to your mind + body for what it needs, react and go again.
Often for me this means mental time out and ‘focused play’. While that sounds deep it often means watching Iron Man for the 25h time or jumping on the latest Playstation game. However, this is on purpose as it resets my brain and helps me filter the rubbish. The same can be said for sleep, running or jumping in the shower.
What tools or apps do you use that have made your life better?
Twitter is my favourite social platform. It’s where I can connect with super smart people and get their thoughts in small sentences all day long. Ideal content for a millennial with definitely-undiagnosed-ADHD, like me.
If you had to gift one book to someone what would it be and why?
Oversubscribed by Daniel Preistley. Probably the best audio book I’ve ‘read’ and really drills down on some core principles of business.
Philosophy on life?
As mentioned, being quite the existentialist, it’s up to you what happens. Go and make it happen. We get one go around, might as well make it a good one. Although being more philosophically deep (and an armchair-scientist), life is an anomaly. I’m curious about its existence as a whole and will always have a 5 year old me inside my head constantly asking “why”.
3 June, 2019