The Smoke-and-Mirrors of Starting a Business

Published: Jul 5, 2022  |  

Darren is a former ITN journalist turned entrepreneur

I’m meant to say I’ve always wanted my own business. It was a childhood dream. I always knew I’d be a CEO. Well: that’s all lies. Like many who leave school or enter university, I had very little idea of what the next twenty years of my life would hold.

A chance offer of work experience at Sky News when I was 17 led to a successful career in broadcast journalism, predominantly at ITN, which kept me entertained and out of trouble for much of my twenties: interviewing Prime Ministers and covering riots, court cases, and showbiz red carpets tend to give you a good handful of stories to dine out on. So it was as I saw the big 3-0 looming, when an opportunity arose to take on some investment in a new business idea. And so I jumped ship and started Out Of Office, which is now the world’s leading LGBT+ luxury travel specialist.

I’m pretty sure my grounding as a journalist helped me remain calm when presented with a blank canvas for my business. My idea was not particularly well-formed — I knew that the world of gay travel had a pretty poor reputation, though I really wasn’t sure that I was the one to change that. A helping of naïveté with a dose of energy seemed to carry me on that initial journey from basic idea to a multi-million dollar revenue business.

But I can’t sit here and pretend that this hasn’t come with some soul-selling and white lies along the way to get us to where we needed to be. And because I’ve used PR for my own benefit in starting my business, it’s given me a new lens when reading about the “success” stories of other businesses in their fledgling stages.

In the early months of our launch, a PR agency span to a journalist that we’d turned over £1m in our first three months of business. I don’t think we’d even turned over £100,000 at that point, but much to my surprise, the journalist printed it anyway. When they asked me: “So I hear you’re set to turn over £1m in your first three months,” my reply was simple: “That’s what we’re aiming for!” It wasn’t a lie, strictly speaking, but suddenly I found myself in a national newspaper with a business that is turning over £1m a quarter. I’m pleased to say that, some years later, we are now easily turning over that sum, but it was a sharp lesson to me — don’t believe everything you read in the papers

As a (previously) scrupulous journalist, it made me wonder how much else that I read in respected newspapers columns were simply printed because a CEO or Founder had said it, rather than because it was true. Since when did journalists interrogating their subjects a little bit harder fall out of fashion?

This was, however, a huge relief as a fledgling entrepreneur without any previous experience running a business. Realising that everything I read about entrepreneurial counterparts wasn’t necessarily true meant I could actually focus on getting the business started without feeling like a constant failure. Every day we’re bombarded by success stories of amazing life hacks, shortcuts to financial stability, or how you have to wake up at 4 am and work until 11 pm each day to build a successful business. How have these myths continued to perpetuate throughout society? It’s because there isn’t a business owner out there that hasn’t spouted some bullshit to get their business off the ground. There’s a certain expectation—alongside self-preservation—that when you start a business you must ensure it looks successful, even when behind the scenes, you are anxious, stressed, and taking more wrong turns than you ever have in life.

These messages of success are the ones that get through to the mainstream. Stories of others’ success that give those on their own entrepreneurial journey a false sense of how they should be performing.

Why do we put so much weight on success? And will there come a time when we’re not measuring it in the number of likes, a valuation multiple, or worthy quotes that direct us how to live our lives or be good at business? People like Steven Bartlett are constantly putting out powerful one-liners, capturing excellent CEO soundbites in podcasts. Of course, there is good advice in nuggets of what is said, but are we really all so simple that we need a guidebook for how to exist? Isn’t there something beautiful in the complexity of individuals that makes it worth not putting ourselves inside a box? I’ve found certain magic in not being wedded to business books, mentors, and gurus, instead figuring my business journey out all by myself.

Having said all this, I’m still an avid reader of business news pages, I still lap up quotable one-liners, and I still look at other business leaders with envy. Even though I know so much of this public-facing journey is represented through smoke and mirrors, I still find myself wondering why I’m not at the same levels of these so-called thought leaders.

So that’s why I wanted to put my hand up and tell you I lied. I played into this bullshit early on in my career as an entrepreneur, and whilst it absolutely helped grow my brand to where it is today, it might also have made another individual feel like they weren’t doing well enough, or that there was no point in them starting their own endeavour.

It’s important to remember that every journey is different. So when you start crafting your own, don’t look to others as role models without noticing their flaws. Make sure that you question whether what you’re reading is real. Could they be just another desperate entrepreneur wanting to see their idea succeed?

You might be wondering what I have learnt from the experience. Well, if I hadn’t told a white lie myself, I would never have seen how ridiculous the whole construct of PR and social media is for entrepreneurs. Would I lie again? Absolutely, but only because it taught me a valuable lesson — that the only benchmark of success should be whether you can look yourself in the eye and tell yourself you’ve done the job to the best of your ability and that you will only ever learn from mistakes. If you can do that, then stand proud. You’re doing better than most other entrepreneurs out there.

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