A Big Cog in a Small Machine

…or a big fish in a little pond.

If your business grew to an unimaginable size, would you be happy?

I work for myself because I have an authority problem.

I have a problem with other people in authority. I have a problem being a part of someone else’s dream. I intend to never work directly for anyone else again, because I’d sooner be a big cog in a small machine than the other way round. Repeat clients are fine and dandy, but when building things for them starts to feel like a job I know our working relationship needs to be adjusted, or it will surely be doomed. This is all just context.

My most pressing side-project is a fledgling e-learning system that’s been in the works since June 2012. It was my friend Leon’s idea, his baby. He roped me in during the neonatal stages, needing someone to turn his Excel spreadsheet prototype into a web application. I became the technical cofounder.

Now, after almost three year and a couple of minor pivots, we’re approaching a release date. We aim to go live on 1st April 2015, and I’m nowhere near ready; still plenty of slog work to do. I’ve got some busy weekends ahead of me.

Three weeks ago, on the night of Wednesday the 14th at a coffee shop in Nottingham, Leon introduced me to Jonathan. Jonathan is new to me, and we’re vetting him to see if he’ll make the ideal third cog in our small machine. He’s a maths teacher and YouTuber, adept at producing polished and professional instructional videos that look like they weren’t just hacked together at a moment’s notice. Leon, for all his abilities, isn’t a details guy – he drags projects forward by weight of charisma, and isn’t afraid to throw money at something when his own capacities fall short. Our second meeting with Jonathan is tonight, and whilst we haven’t come to a decision yet I expect that he will join Leon and me as shareholders as we push to get this thing off the ground. Jonathan possesses the three things that I was specifically looking for: (1) he’s good at what he does, (2) he’s ambitious, but (3) his temperament is closer to mine than Leon’s. That last one was an important feature for me; I need all the help I can get when wrangling Leon’s focus. I need someone who isn’t easily distracted.

Over the years I’ve grown used to Leon’s ways. His ability to pitch ideas and recruit acolytes to his cause has to be seen to be believed. He possesses a nucleus of eager energy akin to a force of nature, and because it isn’t an act – it’s just him – he can’t help but use these skills to full affect. In turn, when in his presence my subconscious automatically adjusts my own enthusiasm levels, compensating for the overload in the room, and thus I become more cautious, more naysaying. In my head I instantly halve the number of any target subscribers/revenues/profits/growth percentages he quotes at me, not because I don’t believe they can be achieved, but because I’ve been bitten by other people’s excited estimates before, thus I now refuse to let myself join in anyone else’s excitement. I’m constantly primed for a horrible fall.

On the Wednesday, towards the end of our two-and-a-half hour discussion, the clock edging towards 9.00 p.m., Leon fervently stated his expectations:

I’m certain that, by the end of our first year, we can have 10,000 sign-ups, at £100 per time for a 12 month subscription, giving us a £1 million revenue.

In my head I halved this to 5000 sign-ups. I then halved this again to 2500. I then halved it again.

Call me dispassionate, but I set my sights much lower. If we get one thousand sign-ups I’ll be over the bloody moon; that’s my target, for the first year – ten times that seems ravenous. If we do reach that number I’ll happily admit that I doubted its achievability all along.

Toying with the notion – if the business did turn £1 million within its first year we’d have to expand operations. The three of us would need to bring on staff immediately, to produce improved video content, to translate learning materials into multiple languages, to write website copy, to manage social media interaction, to evolve the web application…so from the topic of Leon’s ambitious targets the discussion turned to our longer term aspirations for the enterprise. If, against the power of my pessimism, it’s a roaring success, how would each of us expect our roles to morph as the business grew? Leon, as The Big Boss, would still be at the helm. It was his idea, and whilst he may lack overall business acumen I’ll take his hustle any day of the week. If Leon is the marketing cofounder, and I am the technical one, then Jonathan is the content guy, and if we’re to grow successfully then we’ll need him managing the creation of videos and documents that can prise open the enormous foreign markets that both him and Leon have an eye on. Leon plans on having a business ultimately worth £100s of millions…if we execute things right. I told him that I’d happily sell up if we reached a £10 million valuation.

What I didn’t tell him was that I’d actually accept a disposal at much less than that value. On the current face of it, pre-launch with precisely zero paying users, I’d accept a future valuation of £1 million. I say this because, to me, the enterprise isn’t mine. Pre-Jonathan, nominally I have a 40% stake, Leon the other 60%. This business is both Leon’s and mine – his core concept having been developed and brought to life by me – but I still feel that I’m just a cog in his machine. This is fine right now, drifting along as the big cog in the small machine, but if, and it’s a big if, it becomes what we hope it might, will I want to be the big cog in a big machine?

I don’t know if I’m built for big business, even if it is mine.

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