Escape the City: Dom Jackman and Rob Symington
The founders on helping young professionals 'do something different'
Tell us what your business doesWe lead a community of ‘city’ professionals working in high-flying but ultimately unfulfilling corporate jobs. Our platform connects people for exciting career changes, innovative start-ups and epic adventures, for those who want to ‘do something different’. Our philosophy is based on the belief that there is more to life than doing work that doesn’t matter to you.
Where did the idea for your business come from? Like lots of start-ups, our business idea came from us living through an experience, thinking ‘hang on, I wish the world didn’t work like this’ and then setting out to do something about it. We both worked as management consultants in the city and bonded over a shared feeling of ‘there must be more to life than this’.
We realised that there were many other people that felt the same as us but that there wasn’t anything out there that genuinely helped people make the leap from mainstream corporate jobs to something more unconventional and exciting. From that point the decision to do something about it was relatively straightforward.
How did you know there was a market for it? We have built the exact concept that we wished existed a year ago. We know there is a market because we built it for the thousands of young corporate professionals who feel exactly the same way as we do.
Countless evenings spent moaning in the pub and lunch-breaks plotting escape plans convinced us that people would flock to our platform if we solved the problem in the right way.
What’s your USP (unique selling point)? There’s no one doing what we’re doing in the way that we’re doing it! If you’re four years into a banking, law, or accountancy career and you want to go and do something different it makes perfect sense to join us because you won’t find most of the opportunities on our site anywhere else.
Our USP to our clients is that we offer exciting organisations access to a talented and experienced community of ambitious professionals. These people aren’t in the job market looking for jobs. They’re working in blue-chip firms and they’re looking to keep their options open. It is very hard for organisations to reach them.
Have you always wanted to run your own business? We have both always thought that starting a business would be a very rewarding experience. The most appealing things about being your own boss are having independence and control, and the exposure to a huge variety of areas.
What planning did you do before you started up? We did lots of research online. Being ex-management consultants we made lots of PowerPoint decks outlining our plans. I would call them project plans rather than business plans. We believe that there’s no better way to develop a business plan than to begin building. Before you have started it’s all just conjecture. Start, start small, but start, then figure out the business plan. Granted this might not work for all businesses – but it has worked for us because ours is a community and a movement first, and a business second.
How did you raise the money?We haven’t raised any money. We’ve bootstrapped from the beginning.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them? Learning about website development has been a big, but enjoyable, challenge. Other than that, the confidence to keep going through the early stages when everyone thought we were mad.
How have you promoted your business? We emailed 100 friends when we launched our blog (which was online for a few months before our website). Amazingly the word has really spread from there. We now have more than 15,000 members, which goes to show that word-of-mouth is incredibly effective.
Good PR is also a great promotional tool and is the only other means we have used to promote our business. We’ve been written up in the Evening Standard, the Financial Times, Time.com, and the Sunday Times Style Magazine.
How much do you charge? How did you decide this? Our site is free to join for individuals, but we’re still working out what our pricing model is for organisations. It’s trial-and-error really. We offer organisations two ways of listing opportunities on our site. We’re working out what works best and the implications of each option (pay-up-front or pay-on-success). We might continue to offer both.
What has your growth been like? Growth in terms of members has been really exciting. We’ve got 15,000 members and it’s increasing at the rate of about 1,000 new members a month. We’re ahead of target with the membership and should have 20,000 by the end of the year, which is double what we hoped to have.
We’re profitable enough to pay our living expenses. We have really limited costs other than our time and a little bit of website development work. Anything from this point onwards is pure upside which is nice.
What’s the impact on your home life been like? Very positive. We’re way happier than we ever were when working for someone else. Obviously curtailing your spending for a while till you can support yourself is a consideration. However, it is more than compensated by building something that you’re passionate about.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up? Persuading other people that it would work before we had actually built it. For a variety of reasons people are risk averse, cynical, or pessimistic. Sometimes it is for really good reasons, and sometimes they’re just grinches. Proving people wrong is fun!
What was your first big breakthrough? Perhaps it was having a half-page spread in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks after launching our site.. That and getting a call from Innocent Smoothies asking whether they could list opportunities on our site. Oh, and most importantly, successfully helping dozens of people escape unfulfilling city jobs in order to find work that makes them tick (Mayfair hedge-funder to Mozambique beach lodge manager is a great example, as is the bloke now clearing mines in Cambodia with the Halo Trust).
What would you do differently and what have you learnt? We have learnt absolutely masses. We’ve learnt that you should just start, and tweak as you go. We’ve learnt that if you focus on solving a real world problem and do it effectively that the rest of the business will often fall into place.
We write a blog which tracks what we’re learning: http://blog.escapethecity.org/
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs? Start. Start Small. But Start. (that’s stolen from Innocent’s book – but it’s great advice!) Listen to everyone. Incorporate all inputs into your idea and then be brave and determined enough to execute your vision.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan? We’re not growing this for sale. We want to solve a problem. As long as Escape the City continues to do that we’re happy. In due course we’ll look to step away from the day-to-day running of the business and perhaps get some young corporate escapees to come in and manage it for us.
We want to be the place for corporate professionals in their 20s and 30s to plan exciting, unconventional paths through life.