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Commentary

I Had to Leave Google to Succeed As an Entrepreneur

Mar 21, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What advice would you give your 22-year-old self today?” is written by Pete Johnston, CEO of Lystable.

I always knew that I was not going to spend my life working for someone else, but it took a while for me to get to the point where I could actually build my own company. Throughout this process, I received two key pieces of advice—one personal, one professional—that I would give to my 22-year-old self.

My background is in graphic design, and after graduating from university I took a couple of freelance and agency gigs before landing at Google. It was a great job, but I knew that it was going to hard for me to settle there. I had just never found my groove in a company, and so was always looking for what my next thing would be. I felt that I just needed the right idea. In all my jobs, I’d experienced the pain points involved in managing freelancers, and this experience, combined with exposure to all the entrepreneurs succeeding through programs like Google Campus and Google Ventures, inspired me to found Lystable.

Armed with this inspiration, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was on my own, without many connections or much experience, but I managed to wrangle a meeting with the managing director of Techstars London, an organization that helps entrepreneurs build their startups. He was upfront with me, saying that I would never get into Techstars as a solo founder with no product, no team, and no business plan. My cozy job at Google, where I got three free meals a day and stayed squarely in my comfort zone, was beginning to look pretty nice. But after a number of weeks and grueling interviews, Techstars decided that they liked my idea. I was told during my final interview that if I wanted to pursue it, I needed to hand in my notice to Google the following day.

I made the decision to leave the Google mothership and venture into the unknown for the first time. Everyone around me thought I was crazy. My mother couldn’t believe I left a job that paid well and enabled me to support myself. I knew that founding a startup would be risky and involve a different pace of life, but I still wasn’t totally prepared for the intense, draining experience of going through an accelerator program as a solo founder, with no one to share the burden of brutal feedback.

At Techstars, I was introduced to a veteran in the startup space who generously met with me on a regular basis. He said to me, “Look, it’s going to be scary. This is normal. All passionate startup founders go through this, and you can’t give up. Keep going.”

This was what my younger self needed to hear. There are countless moments of doubt and fear as an entrepreneur. I know it sounds simple, but “don’t give up” was a piece of advice that got me through the intense ups and downs and reminded me that I could start a company. The unknown used to be something I feared. But now I welcome it, since I know I have a great team and network behind me.

The second important piece of advice was about how to approach my product. In the early days of Lystable, the Techstars London managing director told me to throw out the rulebook. I was accustomed to a somewhat rigid corporate environment, and he wanted to make sure that I didn’t limit myself.

That advice still rings true for me today, more than I ever thought possible. For example, Lystable is currently tackling payments from our companies to freelancers this quarter, and originally I thought something as transactional as this was going to be simple. I was totally wrong—we ended up needing to find more creative solutions to the problem.

These two pieces of advice—don’t give up and completely ignore the rulebook and conventions already in place—have had a profound influence on who I am as an entrepreneur. If I hadn’t listened to these lessons, I’d most likely be back at a nice comfy corporate job, wondering about what could have been.

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