Ever since I left school I've been pursuing one goal. To run my own business.
At 18 I joined forces with a couple of friends, and we started a web design agency. None of us really knew what we were doing, and I certainly didn't. All I knew was my way around photoshop, and armed with that I called myself a Designer.
That venture didn't last too long. After a little over a year, having worked with a handful of clients, made no profit but broken even on our Adobe licenses, we went separate ways.
We'd learnt a lot in that year, but how to run a successful business, and how to make money, was not one of them.
In the time following, this idea of running my own business would not leave. I remember wondering about this deep seated urge, whether it would stick around whilst I prioritised other areas of my life, whether it was just a whim or part of who I was.
After a year out, having chosen to step away from the goal of building a business in order to create space and re-evaluate, I was ready to get going again.
Mike, one of the co-founders of the web agency, and I were still in contact, and we started dreaming up ideas of The Next Big Thing we could make. We soon hit upon some cool ideas, and over the next few years we worked on many of them.
There was the niche website builders, aimed at offline markets like plumbers and builders. There was the presentation software that was going to make presentation's two way, giving attendee's a voice back to the presenter. And there was the notification service for non-mobile apps that I was sure was going to be huge.
All of these ideas had one thing in common. We spent months working on them, and then threw in the towel with nothing to show for it.
The only real thing we had to show for it was learning, learning that we really had no idea how to build a software business.
It was around this time things changed. Mike connected the dots. The ideas weren't the problem. We were. We needed to work on ourselves, not the ideas. Until we sorted ourselves out, the ideas were irrelevant.
And so we did. We spent the next six months devoting every spare moment to our side projects. We committed to launching six in six months. And a little after six months later, we'd done just that.
This time was when we learnt the fastest. It's when we really sped up our progression. Having spent 5 years dabbling with ideas and not launching a single one, we'd now spent just over half a year and launched six.
The reason we learnt so much in this time? Feedback loops. We finally managed to put something out into the world, and got near immediate feedback.
The first thing we built was dead as soon as it launched. The nature of launching six projects in six months means shipping something and moving on. We shipped howsitgo.in, a web app aimed at daily engagement, with no hooks to bring the user back. "Develop a habit on your own" is what we said, and as anyone with any understanding of habit formation knows, that's not how it works.
Beyond those six months, we started to look at building a business more seriously. We'd learnt how to launch stuff, now we needed to learn how to build a business. In the next couple of years we worked on a few different projects, most notably UserCompass, but never really pushed them beyond the launch stage. We made some efforts at sales and marketing, but never really believed in what we'd made, and so never pushed it that hard.
And so in early 2018, we set out to give UserCompass a proper shot. We set out to build a business, hit $10k MRR at the end of the year, and finally make this dream a reality.
As I arrived in Bali, the home of the digital nomad, in January that year, I bought an extended visa, so I could stay with my fellow nomads longer and stare at my screen for prolonged periods without needing to leave the country anytime soon.
But as I arrived there, I realised something wasn't quite right. I'd been following my dream, Mike's too, for the past few years. Spending every spare moment doing something to move us forwards. It had been all consuming.
And now, landing in Bali, something changed. A big part of it was a realisation at just how lonely I was.
It was a strange realisation, because the past few months had been some of the best of my life. I'd been travelling around Asia on my own, and genuinely loving solo travel. Before setting off I was fearful I'd feel lonely and realise it wasn't for me, but it had been a great few months.
But arriving in Bali, the distractions of new sights, smells and sounds wore off. I was here to work, and I was confronted with the big questions of what I was doing with my life, whether it was really going how I'd hoped.
Having spent years heads down on the treadmill of building a business, I, for the first time in years, looked up to see where I was. And it wasn't great.
Everyone knows if you go long enough without eating you will die. We need food to survive and our bodies are good at telling us so.
But equally, beyond the core energy we need to fuel the machine that is our bodies, we need to be healthy humans. And a big part of that comes from relationship, community with others.
And so, in January 2018, having set myself up to finally give this business building a proper crack, I stepped away from it all.
It wasn't a quick decision. For the next two months I wrestled with it. I really didn't want to stop, we'd invested so much together, so much time and energy to get to where we were. But in all honesty, we didn't have too much to show for it.
We'd gotten good at creating good foundations, but the building's we'd built were far from what we needed them to be.
Most of all though, regardless of where we were at business wise, I knew I needed a change. I felt famished. Under-fed. Running on fumes. Living an isolated life devoted to working all the time wasn't working out for me.
So early that year, I had one of the hardest conversations of my (relatively easy) life. I told Mike I couldn't continue. I needed to step away.
It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, because I felt like in some ways, I was throwing away what we'd been working towards the past ten years. I was stepping away from something, but not into anything noticeably better. I was stepping into a void, opening space so other priorities might find room to breathe.
Most of all it was so hard because I was stepping away from myself. Or at least the me I'd built up in my minds eye. The identity I'd built over time, that I was destined to be an entrepreneur, destined to run my own business. That I will hustle and grind my way to get there no matter what.
Stepping away from that was a risk. It was into the unknown and I had no idea if I'd ever return to it, if I'd ever attempt to build a business again.
Fast forward to today, a little over a year later. I'm sitting here in my small flat in London, on a sunny spring day. I've not been working on any side projects in over a year, and I've not really wanted to.
In the space I stepped into, the void of I knew not what, I prioritised another area of my life. I prioritised the life outside of the glow of my laptop screen. I prioritised what most people would simply describe as "life".
Simply put, I spent time with other humans. I worked normal hours. I started exercising regularly. I started eating healthier. I took care of the garden that is my life.
And now, having spent that year focussed on the project that is Fred, it's only now that I'm starting to get that desire to build a business coming back.
It's only early days. It's only a whisper today. But it was a voice that had been gone a long time, and I wondered if it would ever come back.
I just haven't had the capacity to work on side projects this past year. I've not felt the urge to, other than the times when I felt guilted into it, that I must do something, on days when I remembered my entrepreneurial dreams and wondered where they'd gone, and attempted to kickstart them despite the empty fuel tank.
My focus and brain space were on more basic human needs. Namely, human connection.
I've had a lot of time to think the past year, and I've spent a fair amount of it thinking about that. What was it that I was really looking for? Like someone who's stomach aches for food, what was my hunger pointing me towards?
I'm not sure I have The Answer. But more and more I've come to think it's something like this:
To know and to be known.
That's the crux of it. To have friends who really know me, and who let me get to them them. To be more vulnerable, and to be more loving.
Only now, just over ten months into life in London, do I feel that's starting to kick in.
And only now, with some form of satisfaction to the hunger of my humanity, do I feel the desire for building a business return.
I don't know how long this desire will last for. I don't know what tomorrow holds. But today, something clicked.
We are all human. We all have needs.
We can choose to ignore them, and famish ourselves. We can get our heads down, looking at our two feet beneath us, and work and hustle and grind. And these things can be good. But total focus is exclusionary, by it's very nature. Total focus on work means no focus on other areas. Intense focus on work means little left for life.
And so, on this Saturday morning in my flat in London, it's got me wondering whether total hustle, extreme focus for months, years or decades at a time, is worth the cost it comes with.
Maybe, rather than grinding ourselves into the treadmill of business building, we should take time to care for ourselves, and to look after our basic human needs.
Maybe, instead of focussing entirely on one area of our lives, we should look after ourselves, and start with a foundation of a healthy us.
And maybe then, with our core human needs somewhat met, we can go back to our deep desires of business building and impact making, with the strength of a solid foundation that isn't creaking at the seams.