Our #MVPtoVIP series celebrates the inspirational journeys of some of the fantastic founders in our Farillio network. This time, it's the turn of Ash Phillips Founder of YENA- a global community for rebels. Get to know Ash better below...
1. How would you sum up the concept behind your business?
We're a community for rebellious minds. A place the people that feel like they don't fit in can go to find others just like them. Networking is a fairly broken experience, especially in the UK, so we started here to provide people with a more engaging environment of like-minded individuals where they can start & grow a business with the modern approach to business support that they need.
2. What were you doing before you set it up?
Before I set up Yena I was running another business – a digital marketing agency, which I merged with a specialist social media agency actually after I'd started Yena. We were managing social strategies, communities, ad campaigns etc primarily in the leisure & hospitality industry for clients such as Longleat, Wild Beer, Bodean's, Cheddar Gorge, to name a few. Yena was never supposed to be a business, just a meetup for people like me. I didn't realise we'd hit such a nerve with people and the community grew from there to a point where people were asking what they could buy from us. After that, I jumped out of the agency and took Yena on full time.
3. When did you realise that you wanted to run your own business and what led to you achieving it?
Annoyingly, I realised this just after I'd started university. After 6 months I was so sure it was what I wanted to do – it literally felt like a physical feeling in my gut, I really can't describe it – I dropped out of university to start up.
Even though I deferred for two years, it was still a hugely emotional decision. I felt I'd let my family down, who'd always wanted to see me in a cap and gown. I'm not an outwardly emotional person, but it was the first time in a long time I cried properly.
But I knew it was the right thing to do. I started up, worked super slowly, doing part time work to cover the bills, and being supported by my family, who gave me a roof over my head - when many of my friends had left home by that time – but it was a price worth paying so that I could learn as much as possible as fast as possible.
After 3 years, I reached the threshold of the amount of work I could do whilst working part time. At the time, I was working for a friend of mine as a letting agent at an agency he had started. He recognised this challenge as he had experienced it when he started up. He pulled me aside for a lunch where he told me that I needed to go full time – and he told me he wished he'd started his own business earlier and that someone had said to him what he was saying to me. He told me he would stop paying my salary in 2 months to give me the motivation I needed. That was a super scary moment, and I guess you could say I was technically fired?! But it's the best thing that could have happened, and I'm forever grateful to him for it.
From there it was necessity that made the business grow. Sink or swim. If you've got bills to pay, it's remarkable how inventive you can be at finding work to make ends meet.
4. How did you find the process of launching the business?
Confusing. Tiresome. Stressful. So many terms I could use for 'exhausting'. But it shouldn't have to be. That's why I started Yena.
5. What is the most challenging aspect of being a business owner?
Imposter syndrome is rife among founders. An entrepreneurial mind is a blessing and a curse. It gives you the drive to achieve things that many others wouldn't take a risk on. But at the same time, it keeps you awake at night and makes you feel unfulfilled regularly, because that same mindset always wants you to achieve more. Not for material gain (hopefully), but just for that vital need to feel progress and validation. that all the sacrifice has been worth it.
There are physical stresses involved in running a business for sure, but not enough people talk about just how massively it can affect your mental health. More people should make that apparent to startups who often only see the glamorous side. We're hoping to make that part of our core messaging going forward, at Yena - and of course, to support mental strength and make it easier to be strong, even when you're facing the inevitable self-doubt.
6. Why is having a network so important when you’re an entrepreneur – and even an established business?
They say "it's not what you know, it's who you know". Well, actually it's both.
If you have the best product in the world but no one to share it with or sell it to, you don't have a business. If you know all the people in the world but have nothing to sell to them, you don't have a business. Both are vitally important. People are everything. Your customers are all human. Your suppliers are human. Your colleagues are human. Building a solid network is the foundation to building a solid business. It's the key to everything.
But quality over quantity, always. I never accept someone I don't know on LinkedIn, for example. I have 88 requests waiting right now. Spamming contact requests to people digitally or similarly throwing your business card out to as many people as possible at an event won't build opportunities. It may build vanity numbers on your connections, but deep, meaningful, purposeful business relationships are what make a network worth building and can be the difference between no business and constant, rapid growth
7. How hard is it to build a network?
It takes time, but it has never been easier.
We live in a digital age and this means that we can connect with people with less barriers in the way than ever before. This is why Twitter is my favourite social platform. I can connect with people/brands I otherwise would have trouble doing so with and, more often than not, get a response and engage with someone there.
With social now presenting so many opportunities for networking, it's easy to make this the only way to build a network, so many people do. This presents an opportunity. But, by taking online networks offline, and building face-to-face relationships, you can go against the grain of digital-only networking and build solid relationships with people that turn into business - and they are often the more sustainable relationships.
8. What are your tips to building a great network ... and how long does it take?
The job is never done. So this isn't a question of time. It would depend on your definition of a network. It can be easy to meet 2 people in one day. Is that a network? Maybe. It will take a while to meet 1,000 people. That's definitely a network. But as ever, quality over quantity.
A quick tip here would be about using the right type of questioning to get you to the right results for both you and the person you're engaged with. Chatting is nice but isn't productive. You need a balance of both chat and purpose – even when it comes to digital networking. Tweeting someone complimenting them on their product, telling them you'd love to discuss partnerships and then asking "who should I chat to about this?" is one of my favourite ways to create an interaction that is otherwise completely cold. It's public domain, so they have to respond for fear of delivering poor customer service, and the question is closed, meaning you'll invariably get the contact details for the right person. Fast and to-the-point, but also not awkward, like a cold call might be. There are so many tips I could list here but oh so little time. Maybe tweet me with any questions?
9. How does YENA make networking and being an entrepreneur so much easier?
Our meetups are designed from the ground up, to be more comfortable than virtually any other networking environment. We are suckers for detail, so everything down to lighting and furniture is considered when deciding on a venue. Brand plays a big part by creating a culture perception before anyone even attends an event. Colours, phraseology, imagery, and interactions all play a part in making people feel that Yena is a superior experience to anything they've had before, and it works.
We make being an entrepreneur easier by saving people the 3 things that they deal with most when starting & growing a business: Time, Cost, Stress.
The benefits of our membership solve all of this and more for people on the journey and, even for non-members, our free meetups are an experiential way to interact with the Yena offering and get benefit from meeting others just like themselves, with zero cost or intimidation.
We recently launched yenava.co.uk to help people over the hurdle of hiring the next employee and the admin/cost involved in that, by supplying high-level, virtual support that is easy to contact, trustworthy & affordable.
We're always developing new ways to make the journey easier, so watch this space for more to come!
10. Do you have any advice on the following areas for other founders and start-ups?
- Starting up - business plans & models, funding, admin
It's controversial – don't bother writing a traditional business plan as a startup. It's a waste of time to spend hours/days/weeks writing a thesis on why something should work when you could be out proving that idea already. A 40 page document on a product with no sales is far less impressive than no document with 100 sales. Business is about practice, not theory.
However, having said that, I do like to create a 'Deck' of new ideas to test my own metal and get my thoughts onto paper. This will often be a much shorter, visual style presentation that could be (not necessarily is) used to sell the idea. It gets your mind right and saves a lot of time, as well as creating an asset you can actually use.
Models. People forget – somehow?! – that business is simply about the following: Selling something for more than it costs to create & deliver it. We now live in an age where some of the world's biggest 'businesses' make no money. It's controversial but in my opinion 100% correct to say that these are nothing more than massively-branded, costly projects that are also dangerous to the economy. Not sure I could sleep at night growing a business with countless staff and a 6-month runway before I'd have to let them all go. That's a lot of mortgages/rental payments to screw up.
Funding. Sustainable business models are also, for some reason, no longer cool. It seems that the ability to sell something from day one has been lost as a goal and that fundraising is now celebrated as the goal. Don't get me wrong, fundraising is a vitally important part of many businesses wanting to achieve scale or those who require assets to grow, but many service-based businesses that could grow organically are often distracted by raising millions then, crazily, celebrating it like it's the win. Sure, celebrate it. Have a beer with the team! But the reality is you've borrowed a tonne of money from someone who expects a return. That's the time to get your head down and – as Jason Calicanis says – do the work.
Admin. I'll focus on accounting here but outsource, outsource, outsource. Obviously my opinion wholly and because I'm terrible at accounting, but find a great accountant, become their best friend and you'll never have to worry about brown envelopes if they do their job. Giving you the ability to do what you should be doing – selling & growing the business.
In the early stages, it's good to experiment.
I've done a tonne of that and the biggest piece of advice here is hiring talent that is a culture fit > skills fit is the best way to go.
People can always learn more and do a job better, but their personality may never change and so you need to find people that fit your company culture and brand. Don't hire someone you wouldn't be okay with spending the weekend hanging out with.
I wouldn't call it advice at this point as we've not been going long enough but we have very open practices at Yena which work remarkably well, including unlimited holiday, output only working, remote working and a very open conversational workplace, i.e. They can talk about all challenges.
These practices actually enable people to work at their peak, at the times that suit them, in the environment that works best for them and how they like. Paying people to clock in and out and do specific tasks you set them puts them in a hole and they feel confined. Let them be their best selves and they will help grow your business faster than you thought possible. It's unnerving paying their wage at the end of the month and feeling like you have less control of what they're up to, but they'll generally work more hours than you'd expect, take less holiday than before, and be more passionate about the business (and therefore a massive ambassador) enabling better growth of the brand both when they're at work and when they're not.
- Protecting your business
Contracts are key. Don't fall down on these - especially as a startup/freelancer. Big companies pay well, but often pay late. Small companies pay less well, and also usually late. Factor this in. Set up direct debits where possible. Set short payment terms to counter late payments before they happen. Be adamant about late fees. Reward early payers.
Protecting an idea with a NDA is overdone in my opinion. Too many people have watched the Facebook movie and are worried about being 'Zuckerberg'd'. There is a time and a place for NDAs, and that's usually when there's some IP that's very sensitive or something that is being/has been implemented. Do use them then and use Farillio to help with this. Don't use them when you've just got an overarching idea. How fast do you think a business will grow when no one is allowed to talk about it?
- Trading, selling, and marketing
Well this is my bag, so I could write forever on this, I'm sure. However, I'll be a little controversial here...
Social media, blogging, etc, isn't everything. Use it to build a community and keep them happy, but relationships build businesses. It's very unlikely you'll sign a £10k contract over Twitter alone. Use these platforms to grow and reinforce relationships to get deals done. If you have a mass market product then do use these, but outreach is key. Everyone sets their platforms up and expects people to come to them. How nice would it be if your favourite brands actually interacted with you on them? Some do and they do very well from it (see: Innocent). While you're small and have the ability to, do this where possible. Make people feel like gods. Create raving fans. Then they'll do the selling for you.
Oh, and chat systems on websites like GoSquared or Intercom are amazing. They give you an opportunity to sell like never before. If someone is on your website product page and you can message them to ask if they have questions, your conversion rate can skyrocket.
11. What does the future hold for your business?
Ohhh lots ;)
We have a couple of very big plans currently in the works but saving the confidentiality on those, it's all about growth now. I'm using the metaphor of a building a lot lately. If you're building a landmark, it needs foundations. We've spent 3-4 years building really big, solid foundations. Now they're done, it's about starting the building. We're aiming for the sky but that, of course, isn't even the limit in the age we live in. Watch this space.
Are you inspired by Ash's journey? Why not Tweet about it using the hashtag #MVPtoVIP.