Reflections of stepping off the startup cliff

December 12, 2018

This year I made the big leap.

After years of working with and supporting startups and entrepreneurs, I decided it was time to take the step into the unknown and back myself.
In April 2018, I decided to double-down on a business idea that I had been exploring since the previous July.

Skills of the Modern Age, or SoMA, is an innovation academy helping entrepreneurs, innovators, and intrapreneurs get ready for the future of work.

Through workshops, innovation sprints and facilitation tools, we help Australian workers learn the critical skillsets, toolsets, and mindsets of the modern workplace.

As a 29-year-old, I was a bit late to the startup party. I had spent my 20’s on an incredibly rewarding near 10-year journey with RAC, working first in operations; then in training and change management; and finally helping to establish the organisation’s innovation program.

Nate Strucke holding a picture of him at RAC as Employee of the Year
Me on my last day at RAC, holding a picture of a Hobbit.

RAC provided me so much over my tenure. They not only gave me a rich and rewarding career but also sponsored my Undergrad and Grad Cert degrees, as well as provided the flexibility and trust that allowed me to take on additional roles outside the organisation, such as Startup Weekend and Founder Institute. As a result, I still fly the yellow flag and continue to be a fervent promoter of the company and its mission.

After a brief but exciting stint at Australia’s largest health marketplace startup, HealthEngine, I was lucky enough to stumble upon seed-funding for SoMA through long time collaborators and friends, Spacecubed.

Brodie McCulloch, Matt MacFarlane and Chandra Sundareswaran, put their faith in me and the vision for SOMA by committing early capital to the fledgling business.

It was exciting, but I was scared shitless.

In some ways, leaving a safe, corporate job that you love to work on a startup idea is a bit like moving out of your family home for the first time. It is super exciting and extremely liberating, but you know that there is going to be a lot of late nights, you’re going to be eating heaps of baked beans and you’re almost certainly going to make a tonne of mistakes.

However, it wasn’t just leaving the safe, corporate gig and taking a 65% pay cut (🙈) that scared the shit out of me.

It was the reputation risk.

It was the fact that as someone who mentors startups and who runs programs to support entrepreneurs, what the bloody hell use am I if I can’t apply my skills and experience to my own entrepreneurial journey?

Where are we at?

So, after 7-months of working on SoMA fulltime, where are we at?

Well, I’m glad to say we’re heading in the right direction.

Thanks to supporters like Spacecubed, as well as a huge list of early mentors and advisors who waved the SOMA banner high and proud, we’ve had an amazing and crazy first three quarters.

Since launching, I am super proud of the milestones we have achieved:

  • 2,300 participants and counting across our public skills workshops and corporate programs.
  • 93% learner satisfaction and an NPS of 66.
  • 8 public skill workshop topics launched, including design thinking, rapid research, service design, and 3D printing.
  • Establishment of the Plus Eight Academy and launch of the inaugural Sprint program. Following the pilot, Sprint has been successfully funded through the Federal Government to run over the next 2 years to run in Perth, Geraldton, and Bunbury.
  • 850 attendees across 7 community lunch masterclass mash-ups covering topics like bitcoin, growth marketing, and automation.
  • Launched the Elevator Pitch ice-breaker, which shipped to over 100 pre-order customers.
  • Over 60 skills and innovation programs ran with some of WA’s leading organisations, universities and government departments, including Communicare, Water Corp, Bankwest, Western Power, Monadelphous, Landgate, Department of Finance and many more.
  • Working with our mates at Impact Seed to bring Fuck Up Nights to Perth, to share and celebrate professional failures.
The team at Water Corp who attended one of our first design sprints.
The awesome team at Water Corp at one of our first design sprints.

Lessons learned from first stumbles

The amount of personal and professional learning I have undergone in the last 7-months is both enriching and confronting.

I have learned a lot about what I’m good at, and the things I desperately need help with. I have also learned more about who I am as a person through this process than I ever thought I would.

I have discovered new strengths and interests, and been confronted with moments and made decisions that I wish I could do over.

At times I have been absolutely elated, and at other times I have wanted to run away to Jamaica and start an organic bean farm.

Below, I have tried to capture some of these learnings into a few lessons that I think are worth sharing.

Lesson 1: Following your passion is a cliche, but an important one.

Learning and skills development has always been my thing, in one way or another. Every role I have ever had has come back to learning. I’m like a moth to the flame of lessons-plans and slide decks. I love it.

In other words, Skills of the Modern Age is a culmination of what I have always been naturally drawn to — sharing skills, teaching, and facilitation.
I’ve always enjoyed work, but now I wake up looking forward to it. And that’s because it isn’t work. It is something I enjoy, not endure. It is a passion as well as a vocation.

I know following your passion is as a cliche as lesson’s come. And it’s also harder said than done — if your passion is obscure Korean literature or crocheting scarves for Alaskan Malamutes, it might be hard to sustain a living (or perhaps not).

My point, however, is that if you’re thinking about starting a business or startup, don’t just go after a big market or an emerging technology. Pick something you can wake up every day and get stupidly excited about.

Don’t follow the trends, follow the passion.

Lesson 2: In the early days, say ‘Yes’ to everything aligned to your mission.

Saying “Yes” is a principle most people will not agree with.

Focus — not divergence — is the mantra of most startup mentors and advisors.

However, on my journey, saying “Yes” has worked for the business. It has allowed me to identify the things I am not good at or the engagements that I don’t enjoy.
It has also allowed me to pull at the thread of my business idea and bump into new opportunities that I would have never considered.

Saying “Yes” is one of the best ways to challenge the assumptions in your business model and to really listen to what your customers are looking for from you.

However, it only works when you’re in the murky waters before product/market fit: when you’re not quite sure what’s going to drive your commercial engine or build your tribe.
Saying “Yes” to opportunities aligned to your mission is like listening to advice: take it with a grain of salt, apply common sense and know when to stop and back yourself.

Lesson 3: Know when to take the leap.

This is a question I often get asked by early-stage founders: “When is the right time to quit my job and focus full-time on my business?”

This is such a deeply personal question on so many levels. The answer completely depends on your personal circumstance, your ambition for the business and the approach you’re taking to start it up.

For me, the right time to take the leap wasn’t the level of safety net I had in my bank account. It also wasn’t even validation that I could sustain myself.
It was just the right time.

I was spending more and more energy, time and brainpower on thinking about my side business (at that time SOMA). I was waking up thinking “what if?”
And so, it was time for me to find out.

UWA FutureCamp — one of our first corporate collaborations.

Lesson 4: Don’t rush the important stuff.

Anyone who knows me or has been to be one of my programs (or has even had a coffee with me), likely understands that I am a frenetic person: high energy and fast-paced. My school teachers would call it “rushed.”

However, after many trips and stumbles, I am learning not to rush the important stuff.

Tasks like hiring staff; signing up to formal partnerships; bringing on advisors; or committing to long-term plans. These are the moments when I have learned (or at least tried to) slow down.

As someone who is often guilty of being caught up in the adrenaline rush of “being busy being busy,” this hasn’t come easy.

Trying to simultaneously move some parts of the business forward as quickly as possible, whilst being consciously slow in others, is super hard.

It feels a bit like running when you’re waist high in water — your legs are willing you to move really fast but the weight of the situation requires you to slow down.

Lesson 5: Your business is not you.

Most founders have been through this existential battle: your startup feels like an extension of yourself, and it’s successes and stumbles seem like a mirror of your own self-worth.

Like getting better at slowing down, separating my personal identity from that of the business is something I am still working on. I often still take constructive criticisms too personally, and I struggle to relinquish control of the things that I perceive as important when they’re often not.

But projecting your own standards or identity really has no place in early-stage businesses, and certainly not in the growth phase.

Not separating yourself from the identity of the business puts you as a founder at the risk of emotional exhaustion. There is always something that you could have done better.

Always one customer that could have been helped just a little more. One more email that could be answered today and not tomorrow.

As a founder, it’s important to draw your own line in the sand and to not let your own identity and emotions be consumed by the business, or worse, make the business an extension of you.

So, what’s next?

2018 was a bumper year — massively exhausting, but absolutely exhilarating. Full of learning, flearning and everything in between.

I am looking forward to 2019 being even bigger. 🚀

We’re doubling down on our public Skills programs, expanding our Sprint offerings and launching a whole suite of Innovation Tools to help facilitators throughout Australia deliver great learning experiences.

We’re also excited to expand our team, with our first fulltime employee joining the team late-January 2019 (announcement to follow!).

In preparation for next year, today we’ve launched a new website, which consolidates our learnings from the past 7-months into a refined offering for teams and individuals.

We’re also excited to announce a bit of pre-Christmas madness where we’ll be launching 5 new products over the next 5 days.

Over the last 7-months — in between running around like a headless chook 🐓 — I started working on so many new product ideas I lost count. (*Cough* Focus, Nate *Cough*).

Before the calendar rolls over to 2019, I am committed to getting some of these products out into the wild.

So, here is a public commitment and in the words of an esteemed advisor I am taking the attitude of: “f*ck it, ship it.”

Starting from today, we’ll be launching the following beta products over the next 5 business days.

  • Day 1 (today) — New website—technically not a product, but hey, it’s been half-done for about 3-months and it took a lot of effort to get it over the line.
  • Day 2— Rapid design sprint toolkit — an activity-based toolkit for running a design sprint with your teams.
  • Day 3— Future of Work Index — a learning diagnostic tool that helps leaders measure their team’s sentiment and readiness for the future of work.
  • Day 4— Innovators toolbox — A marketplace of our favourite innovation and design tools.
  • Day 5— Design Jam — this one you will just have to wait and see!
Hand holding a jam jar promoting Design Jam Bootcamp
Design Jam — no artificial facilitators. Yes, this is a real product… sort of.

A final note of gratitude

With the risk of sounding like an Oscar’s speech, and with the very real fact that we haven’t really done anything yet but got off the starting block, there are a few people who I am very grateful for their support so far:

  • The amazing team that has got us to this point: Chloë Constantinides (growth), Ben Crane (marketing intern), Azrin Zaihan (social media intern) and Andy Sturcke (accounts).
  • The whole Spacecubed team, with special acknowledgment to Brodie McCulloch, Chandra Sundareswaran, and Kate Kirwin.
  • Workshop partners, Rebecca Prior, Jethro Sercombe and Jonathan Steingeisser.
  • Rampant advocates, like Dylan Lamb, Pete Wernicke, Melinda Cahill, Paul Whitfield, and Lily Jovic.
  • Informal advisors and supporters, such as Paula Rogers (CEDA), Lindsay O’Sullivan (Keystart), Erica Haddon (RAC), Linda Winter (CCI), Ty Hayes (Curtin) and Andrew
  • Outhwaite (Meshpoints).
  • Program partners, such as Paul Leone (Yhub), Nikki Madden, Neil Aldum and Chris Watt (Water Corp); Rod Peredo and Kevin O’Brien (Water Corp); Leila Saba and the
  • Communicare Executive team (Communicare); Nick Leigh, Marie Archour, Joey Mailau and Tash Tavani (Bankwest); Lisa Yewers (Monadelphous); Peter Murdoch and Yuliwirri McGrady (Minderoo/Generaton One); Katie Bawden (DPIRD), Alison Neal (JourneyOne), Rohan McDougall & Tom Hammond (Curtin), Jo Hawkins, Rob Shannon and Hai Binh Lam (UWA).

I am so fortunate to have spent my working hours around an incredible range of brilliant, beautiful and smart people.

Here’s to meeting many more in 2019.

Onwards and upwards,

👨🏻 Nate

Nate Strucke founder of Skills of the Modern Age in his office
Thanks Fam xx

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