Rob Symington left his comfy job at Ernst & Young to escape the normal corporate structure and out of that frustration came - Escape the City.
Today I speak to Rob to learn more about his background, leaving his job at Ernst & Young, starting Escape the city, what Escape the City does and other valuable insights into his journey as an entrepreneur so far.
Below is the full interview.
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I did always have lots of plans and projects on the go when I was growing up but they weren’t necessarily business-related. They were normally adventures actually. I grew up in northern Portugal, went to boarding school in England, university in Scotland and France. Aged 21 I drove an old Land Rover through Africa from Cape Town to Cairo.
You studied History at Edinburgh University, tell me about your experience there and some of the key things you took from that experience?
Studying History was a massive indulgence. There’s less of an emphasis on vocational degrees in the UK as there is in other countries but it does mean you can feel slightly lost when you graduate! When I got my first job in consulting I had to make up all sorts of creative reasons why studying History meant that I would be the ideal management consultant! In retrospect however the analytical skills and sense of perspective that I got from that degree have really helped me with building Escape the City.
Tell me how the idea for Escape the City came about?
The idea was born out of our frustration with the corporate world. Dom Jackman (my co-founder) and I realised that we didn’t want to spend our careers as management consultants. We were attracted by the prospect of ‘doing our own thing’ but didn’t know what business to start. Ironically the feeling of ‘why is it so hard to find viable alternatives to working in the corporate world?’ then translated into our very own start-up plan. We realised that it was a problem that many people shared and that there would be lots of interest if we built something genuinely useful.
So you left your job at Ernst & Young, Did you get chicken out of it a few times before leaving, how scared were you?
I’m pretty impulsive so I just went for it. For a conscientious person I had become dangerously demotivated and I knew it was time to leave. I actually resigned because Dom bet me I wouldn’t. He went to Canada for the Yukon canoe race and as he was leaving he leant over my cubicle wall and said ‘I bet you won’t have resigned by the time I get back.’ I did.
Working at Ernst & Young must have helped you in some way to run your business, what were some of the key things that you learnt from that experience?
It was a valuable experience from lots of perspectives. It taught me what I’m good and what I’m bad at. It showed me ways of working to avoid (and some to adopt!). The base skills that I got from that environment – project management, communications, structuring problems, PowerPoint(!), Excel, etc – have been great building blocks for starting a business. Ultimately I already had the main characteristic that starting something from nothing requires: stubborn determination!
What is Escape the City?
Escape the City is a community for corporate professionals who want to do something different with their careers. We help ambitious people find exciting career alternatives outside of the corporate mainstream. We connect our members with hard-to-find opportunities, likeminded people and useful information to help them make the leap.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
The first months were like walking on air. We were blogging about our idea, sending out newsletters, getting engaged on social media. Every positive email served to reinforce the feeling that we were being rewarded for being brave (and foolish). It felt like this: http://blog.escapethecity.org/categories/startup/committed/
The hardest? It gets harder by the day! It’s counter-intuitive but in the early days every bit of progress is a massive victory. You’re starting from nothing so everything you do is forward momentum. The trouble comes when survival is no longer the priority – today growth and really delivering on our brand’s promise is the main challenge… and a hard one at that!
How were you able to fund the business?
We each loaned a few thousand pounds off our respective families and we had saved as much of our salaries as we could from that final year in full-time employment. Post-resignation we both did some part-time work to pay the bills until we made our first revenue.
What’s your business model?
In its current incarnation our business model is a jobs board. Exciting organisations that want to attract smart professionals pay to list their positions. We also make money from event tickets and escape (career) coaching. We are working on new revenue streams but we’ve been fortunate to have such a ready stream of income to survive on in the early days.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since 2010?
The problem we are trying to solve hasn’t changed: “Why is it so hard to find viable career alternatives outside of the corporate mainstream?” Nor has the philosophy: “Life is too short to do work that doesn’t matter to you.” The business model is unchanged from launch but going forwards things will change on this front as we now have a much clearer idea of the potential behind our idea.
How big is your team now?
Eight people in total (four freelancers).
How many users do you now have up to date?
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
Crucial what? Crucial actions?
The best thing we have done is our Monday newsletter. That has been our single most powerful marketing tool and the reason why we have the users that we have. Reading Tribes by Seth Godin was a massive eureka moment in terms of the community model.
Is the business profitable?
It is breaking even. We reinvest everything we make in building.
What’s been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
We were interviewed live on Bloomberg TV on our last day of a 3 month stint launching Escape the City in New York. That was pretty exciting.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Just Start. You don’t have to quit your job to see if your idea has legs. Manage your risk but get something out in public. Even if it’s just a blog, a survey, a facebook page, a prototype product. No idea survives first contact with the people you are building it for. So get it out there!
On that note, here is our manifesto: http://escapethecity.org/pages/manifesto
What can we be expecting from you and Escape the City in 2012?
An evolution of our brand to reflect the people who are using us (global, not just UK and all professionals, not just ‘city’ ones). Our website will become a lot more personalized – you’ll be able to tell us what you’re looking for and then receive information tailored to your aspirations. At the end of the year we’ll be publishing our manifesto in book format. Watch this space.
Where do you want the company to be in five years?
The default global destination for any smart and ambitious professional in the world to find genuinely exciting and meaningful things to do with their lives.