Becoming an Entrepreneur by Jake Desyllas

Jake Desyllas: Becoming an Entrepreneur

Who doesn’t dream about quitting the rat race? Jake Desyllas is one of the people who moved beyond dreaming and actually did it. He built a successful company, sold it, and has been able to spend his time doing whatever he likes ever since. I first heard about him through his podcast, The Voluntary Life, about entrepreneurship and freedom. I spoke to Jake about his new book: Becoming an Entrepreneur.

I love your approach to employee conditioning, especially the fact that you make the role of families clear too, as school and the workplace are not the only places responsible for passing on the employee mentality. As you write in the book, starting your own business was only wishful thinking for you for a long time. Can you share with us how it became clear to you that being an employee was not your path and you had to start your own business?

Thanks, Zsolt, it’s great to hear your experience of the book.

I was most influenced by seeing other people become entrepreneurs. Growing up, business owners were faceless “others” to me. I was surrounded by employees and all my teachers were employees, so that was just the norm. When I was a teenager I knew one very successful entrepreneur through my family (he was actually the guy who eventually lent me money to start my business) and I admired what he had done, especially as he came from a very poor background. We became friends and I learned a lot from talking to him. Then gradually in my 20s, I noticed a lot of people my own age starting their own businesses in the 1990s boom. Finally I realised that if they can do it, so can I!

For a long time, I thought that selling without bragging was impossible and that a modest person could never be good at selling. You do a great job at explaining why that is not so in the book and you also refer to it as a learning process. Can you explain what you mean by that?  

I can empathise with how you saw it, as that was my experience at first too.

Selling is simply the best way to get feedback from customers about your product. The big questions for entrepreneurs are about whether or not people will buy their product. Are they more likely to buy if I do X, or if I do Y? Of course, you can survey people and ask them “If I made this product, would you buy it?”, but that kind of feedback isn’t very useful. When someone pays for something with their own money, they vote with their wallet. It’s the most valuable feedback you can get. That’s why selling is how you learn.

The advice you give about revenue financing, as the best possible option, is super valuable. My question related to that is how do you determine the features of your minimum viable product? If it’s not good enough, people won’t pay for it and your whole business may fail because of that. If you want to make it too good, you probably won’t have the money to do so. How do you find the fine line in between?  

Ultimately, the way to tell if your product is viable is by experimentation. You can develop whatever you think is the bare minimum viable product and then learn from how the customers respond (and indeed whether they do respond at all).

You also write about making yourself redundant in your business, which is absolutely vital and yet neglected by most people. There are different approaches to proceduralization though. Some rely more on documentation and specifying details as much as possible, while others lay out some guidelines and leave more freedom to maneuver for the individual. Which approach do you recommend? 

I think that is one of those choices where you get to express your individuality in the way that you run your business. It will depend on your thinking at the time. It may also be dependent on the kind of business process in question. In my pedestrian movement consultancy, I took the approach of specifying exact procedures in documentation. For other projects, I have learned to rely more and more on setting criteria for the outcome and getting independent contractors to do the work independently. I prefer the approach of setting criteria for the outcome and leaving people to get on with it, but I also find it more challenging. It forces you to think more clearly up front about what you are doing.

Why do you think it’s so important to JFDI?

The phrase might sound flippant but there is actually a very deep reason to Just Fucking Do It: you learn by doing. That’s how you get better. Therefore, you can’t learn unless you are doing.

Close to 27 000 titles were listed in the entrepreneurship category of Amazon last time I checked. Did you never think that anything that could be said had already been said on the subject?

I love reading books about entrepreneurship, but there are some things that I felt were missing. Firstly, I wanted to read more about the psychology of entrepreneurship. That’s the part that I enjoy most about reading the biographies of entrepreneurs: the little insights into the mental and emotional challenges that they faced. With this book, I chose to discuss explicitly these psychological challenges. For example the challenge of finding a purpose you care about, or learning to sell without embarrassment, or preventing burn-out. The theme which runs through the book and links all these psychological challenges together is the concept of overcoming your conditioning.

Secondly, most entrepreneurship books essentially say “forget the old way of doing things, here’s the new way of doing business.” They focus on the opportunities created by technological change (e.g. you can now be a location-independent entrepreneur using the internet etc). Often the author suggests new ways of working, which is less stuffy and more flexible than the old way. That’s all great stuff, but I don’t think readers need another book like that from me. What I chose to do instead was to step back and focus on fundamental, timeless principles. For example, it will always be true that as an entrepreneur you face a choice about when to make the switch between an initial focus on growth to a conscious focus on profit. It will always be true that extracting yourself from day-to-day operations is necessary if your business is to scale.

When I became an entrepreneur, I really wanted to read about fundamentals like that, to give me a grounded perspective for the decisions I faced.

In your latest podcast you talk about the process of writing the book. For instance you mentioned that you took negotiation out, as you have another book on that topic coming up. For me the greatest challenge of writing is putting myself in the reader’s shoes and deciding how much is enough for them to understand the point I’m trying to make. How do you decide about what details to keep and not to keep?

That was the hardest part of the book writing process for me! What helped me most was to envision individual people who the book is for (a couple of people I know who are just starting their own business) and to imagine reading it from my chosen readers’ perspective. Then I could ask myself, “Do they really need to read this? Would this be useful?” That gave me criteria to write and edit with.

When is your next book coming out and what should we know about it? 

All I will say is you ain’t seen nothing yet. But if you want to know, please join my new mailing list.

If you had just one sentence to say to people who dream about starting their own business and living a freer life, what would you say to them?

Read my book and do it!