Start-up Confidential: Why I’ve got better things to do than poach clients

Ex-employers don’t like it when you start-up in their space. But our secret start-up explains how to succeed without ‘nicking’ clients

Launched last week, Start-up Confidential – the ‘younger sibling’ of our Secret Entrepreneur – takes you behind the curtain and reveals the realities of what it’s like to start a business after years of employment.

Having ruffled some feathers with their employer by announcing their intention to leave and start a business in the same space, our secret start-up was sent on ‘gardening leave’. But the employer needn’t have worried, as our anonymous new business owner tells here how you’re more likely to damage yourself if you start pinching business.

“One of the biggest things standing in the way of any start-up is the need to generate the business which will keep you afloat so that you can keep going post-launch.

In the run up to my recent business launch, this was the thing which kept me awake at night more than anything else. Of course, getting some funding behind me was important to get through the initial months but the real challenge was in getting clients who would pay the bills in the long term.

If, like me, you are starting-up in your existing industry, the easiest way of laying the foundations for your new business can come from your existing client list: a quiet drink, a nod and wink and Bob’s your uncle: a ready-made revenue stream for when you start-up.

Tempting though this was – particularly given the number of clients I worked with and the volatility in my old business which had the potential to be exploited – it was a route I chose not to take. It wasn’t just about legality but more about the lack of scruples in doing this: in starting a business reputation is everything and I don’t think anyone should risk that.

But when it came to quitting that didn’t mean I just sat on my hands quietly in the corner – there were plenty of things I could do without breaking any rules.

In fact, the timeline I had in mind for my departure – and the prospect being frozen out with gardening leave once I had gone – gave greater urgency to the things which I knew would pay back in the form of clients and prospects further down the line.

1. Get your name back out there

The first thing on the list was looking after my tired-looking professional network. Years in the same job and an apathy towards networking made this a critical thing to address so ahead of my departure I got myself out there to meetings, conferences and seminars. My aim was to meet the referrers, movers and shakers in my industry and get myself squarely on the radar.

2. Spend time with clients you’ll leave behind

The second focus pre-departure was getting client face time. I couldn’t take them with me but I wanted to ensure that across the board they would remember me for running a good team who did great work.  This burst of proactivity may have benefitted my old employer and created loads of extra work for me, but looking back it was worth it.

3. Get endorsed!

Next on the list was gathering recommendations and endorsements. The world of LinkedIn means this is pretty standard thing to do now. But if you are going to be locked out of talking to people – and this can increasingly include activity on LinkedIn and social networks now – through a non-dealing clause in your contract, then the time to get the recommendations you need to support future new business is before you leave. It’s a tedious, nagging job but one which is worth it.

4. Focus on the prize: profit

Last of all, I set myself the target of doing a great job. With your eyes on the start-up prize, it is easy to let your attention drift and performance drop. Despite that, I thought it was important to leave on a high, valued by colleagues and well-regarded.

Naturally, some of my friends think I was mad not to have plucked a few choice clients from the fold. But I’m pleased I did what I did. Starting a business is hard enough without having to worry whether an angry former employer and their lawyers will be pursuing you.

What’s more, I can tell you right now, that the first piece of business which you win and then invoice in your new company’s name is the best piece of business you will ever win.”

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