Why I'm leaving traditional publishing and risking it all on a startup

Why I'm leaving traditional publishing and risking it all on a startup

I quit my job last week. I waved goodbye to traditional publishing, threw away my business cards, emptied my wardrobe of office wear, and updated my LinkedIn profile to startup founder. It feels amazing.

For the past four years, I’ve been juggling getting my startup off the ground while working for Emerald Publishing as head of innovation. It was an amazing job: I had great colleagues, a supportive boss, a lot of freedom to work on partnerships and implement new systems and projects.

But, the time has come to commit, to sacrifice my pay check for my dreams – I’m going all in for the uncertain road ahead. To some it must appear a very risky, if not downright foolish, decision. I want to say to publishing ‘it’s not you it’s me,’ but with any breakup, it’s complicated. 

Is there a trend towards innovation leeching out of traditional publishing? Just last week Danuta Kean wrote in The Guardian about a band of women starting independent businesses “to exercise their creativity in a way the tiers of management in global businesses do not allow.” There are certainly push factors for many woman who seek flexible working more often found in independent publishers, who are currently on a winning streak for innovative books.

For me the lure of startup life was strong. I might have fallen for the hype, but I’m seeking the freedom to experiment on my own terms, the ambition to make my own idea happen, and the thrill of not knowing whether it will work – it’s certainly more exciting when the stakes are high.

That said, I’m not leaping blindfolded. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing startup founders for a book I’m writing on making ideas happen. I’ve heard so many inspiring stories. The moral of most seems to be ‘keep going’ – persistence is the defining characteristic of successful founders. Startup life is not for everyone, but speaking to others who have taken this path means I can learn to avoid their failures and aim to emulate their successes.

At this stage in my journey I’m fascinated by tales of people leaving work and making a commitment to their idea. Founders often struggle with the decision about when to quit jobs, and many are advised to hold onto their salary for as long as possible - advice I’ve given people myself.

Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, founder of Stemettes, a social enterprise that inspires girls to get into science, technology, engineering & maths (STEM), was told by an advisor to not leave until you ‘literally can't do both anymore.’ She clung to this advice for two years. Imafidon said, “as much as Stemettes might be cool and as much as we have so much fun in the office, I shouldn't move across until I literally don't have enough hours in the day to breathe – only then consider going full time.”

I asked her if that was the right decision, she said that part of her wishes she’d done it sooner. When you see what she achieved with Stemettes, it’s amazing she had any time for her job in the technology department of Deutsche Bank – she got funding, launched and ran multiple events and a mentoring scheme, advised the government and met the queen. Now she’s c.e.o. and Head Stemette she has a team to help her achieve her mission, with an app, a documentary and a TV series in the pipeline.

Giving up a monthly pay packet is tough. I’ve squirrelled away some pennies to keep me going for a few months. There’s always consultancy to fall back on, but the opportunity cost of taking on paid work feels too high. I must focus on my primary goal of making Prolifiko (a writing productivity app and community) profitable. I need to face off fear of penury.

I have admiration for Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli who survived month to month as he got his patient-controlled online medical records company, Patients Know Best, up and running. For the first five years, he told me, he never had more than a two-month working runway. “This is not advice by the way," he said. "Do not do this at home!” 

His wife worked, but they were also starting at family at the same time, so they had to find a way through maternity leave. They agreed ‘red lines’ and family always came first. As a result, he set up the company so he could work from home and run a virtual team, which has now expanded to 42 employees from 12 different countries.

It was really hard work, admits Al-Ubaydli, who became very disciplined about survival. His advice is to “plough every penny back into something the customer cares about and will want to pay money for…. the tactic is to stay alive for as long as possible. To keep overheads as low as possible. Be as efficient as possible. Extend your runway anyway that you can.”

Speaking to founders like Imafidon and Al-Ubaydli has cemented much of what I learnt from working in publishing innovation. Whether you are iterating a product idea in-house, starting a side-hustle or going all in for a new business, there are a few key truths to keep in mind.

1. Make something people want. By understanding people’s needs, wants and motivations you’ll be able to design books, products and services that they love. Keep a relentless focus on your users, and never forget they are the ones you are working for.

2. Iterate and learn. Start small, test ideas with people, learn from their feedback and from any mistakes you make. By building your idea in stages you’ll have the best shot at a sustainable model and not waste too much money proving your concept.

3. Innovation is hard. It’s a slog making something new, you’ll need to convince colleagues, funders, customers that your idea is a winner. Persist – it will take time, money and effort.

4. Keep it real. You might be pitching a billion-dollar idea but don’t fall for your own hype. Keep a sense of humour, spend time with people you know and love, and take a day off from time to time. Your idea will still be there in the morning.