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Corporate misery transformed one step at a time

For this entrepreneur, a deviation into the corporate world was the basis of a successful business, and also a successful life transformation.

Johan du Plessis founded Corporate to Freedom in 2012 with a mission to de-risk and de-mystify the process of starting a new business for corporate employees.

Du Plessis spoke to Dynamic Business about his foray back into the world of entrepreneurship.

What convinced you to start your own business?

My journey’s been a bit strange: I started 2 successful businesses in my twenties, before I even had a real job, it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. However when I was 28, I felt like I should try to settle down, you know get a ‘reaL’ job. So I did, I found a job and spent the next 8 years or so working in various corporate positions.

By the time I was 36, I had a 6-figure job as a Product Manager with a major e-commerce company, I was flying to meetings in Melbourne, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and I was doing the number 1 ranked MBA in Australia, so you may think that my life was great… but it wasn’t. My life sucked.

I had spent 4 years in a row away from home on my wife’s birthday. I barely saw my 1-year old daughter. I had shallow conversations with “work buddies” who I knew wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I really needed help, and I had no time for real, close friends.

I made a decision to make a change, and was lucky enough that my poor long-suffering wife supported my decision. I worked out that we could probably survive for about 6 months with my separation package, so I gave notice at my job and started trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Scariest time of my life!

How has your business evolved?

Well I’ve always wanted to do something that would have a major positive impact on people’s lives. Initially I looked at helping people on oDesk to improve their profiles and skills so they can get more jobs at higher rates. I’m sure the need is out there, but the problem was I didn’t really understand their needs.

Then we evolved to just helping anyone improve in his or her careers to be more successful, but since I had quit my own career it was hard to be passionate about that.

The light bulb moment was when I heard the word “wantrepreneur” for the first time – someone who wants to be an entrepreneur, and it just resonated with me at a deep level because that was exactly the journey I was going through.

I thought about how hard it was for me to start my own business, and how many other people out there would be struggling trying to do the same, and I thought “Wouldn’t it be great if someone could figure out a way to make it much, much easier and much, much less riskier to start your own business?” And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

How did it grow?

We started really small, I founded a meetup group for aspiring entrepreneurs and started doing small, free meetups – just to connect with and hang out with aspiring entrepreneurs.

We got to know the industry, attended every event we could find, and then followed up with the coaches at the event to build relationships with them.

We started doing one-on-one coaching with successful entrepreneurs, and doing every course available. In November 2011 we had our first paid event with 52 people, and we had the first group of people sign up for our accelerator program. Now we’re doing events with around 200 people, we have partnership agreements in place with most of the Incubators and other players in the Sydney startup space.

We also have a team of nine highly successful and respected entrepreneurs to coach and mentor in our programs, and we have a small but very loyal following of people who’ve been involved in our programs and love what we do. It’s still early days but it’s very exciting!

What challenges have you faced along the way?

Not having any startup capital was the biggest one. Because I quit my job I had no income, so I had to figure out a way to build a business very fast with very little money. I’ve realised that this is not the best way to build a business, and if I could go back I would do it differently. Finding the right partners was a major issue, as it is for most startups. Testing my ideas quickly, so I don’t waste time and money on something that won’t work.

What mistakes have you made, and how did you grow from them?

Well I think the first big mistake I made was to quit my job and just jump in. Yes it did work, but I had incredible financial pressures and woke up dozens of times with a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking “Will we be out on the street next month? I can’t pay the bills!”

The second big mistake is that I wanted to raise capital immediately (because I needed the money!). This forced me to focus on what investors wanted rather than what customers wanted. If I had stayed in my day job I would have had time to build more relationships with customers.

I also wasted at least $10,000 in building a product (the oDesk thing) which I thought people wanted, but in reality they didn’t. I now know that there is a process and a set of tools for testing and validating ideas so you don’t make the kind of mistakes I made.

What tips do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Here’s my best advice for someone in a day job who wants to start a business: Don’t quit your job yet. Every year thousands of Australian employees quit their jobs to start their own business. And most fail. Sad, but unfortunately very true.

The problem for most is they don’t have the right mindset, they don’t have the right processes, and they don’t have the right tools. They waste time and money by making the same mistakes that every ex-employee entrepreneur has made since the dawn of civilization.

Rather, find a way to learn from experienced entrepreneurs who have proven trackrecords. People who have been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it. For example, figure out what kind of businesses you admire, and start following social media posts by the leaders of those businesses.

Go to events by experienced entrepreneurs and learn from them. Set aside an amount of money you can afford to lose, and use it to start testing business concepts. Get involved in the business startup community and find out who the other startups turn to for advice.

When you find respected entrepreneurs, be humble, offer to buy them a cup of coffee and ask for their feedback on your plans.

Stephanie Zillman

Stephanie Zillman

Stephanie is the editor-at-large of Dynamic Business. Stephanie brings with her a passion for journalism, business, and new ideas. On her days off, you might find her reading a book on the beach.

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