Hands up if you’ve had anxiety over the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ If so, you’re just like Ash Phillips, 29, who founded Yena, a membership organisation for startups.
Finding your purpose
At school in Bristol, Ash was something of an all-rounder. He was proficient at a lot of things and ambitious too, but, like so many teenagers, didn’t have a burning passion for any one subject and had no clear idea of what career path to follow.
“My friend always knew that he wanted to become a doctor. I envied that. For me it was so frustrating not knowing what path I should follow and feeling that I had to make it all up as I went along,” he says.
Having studied IT, design and sport at college, he went on to do a course in Business Enterprise at the University of the West of England (UWE). “At uni, things started to fall into place. I discovered I was entrepreneurial - I liked business,” he says. He also became aware that uni wasn’t making him happy or teaching him the things he needed to know.
So at 19, he dropped out to move back home and start a business. He put his skills in IT and design together and started designing logos for friends of friends. Over the years, the business grew into a creative agency, Midas Creative Group, working with clients as big as Costa Coffee and Tesco.
Along the way he dabbled in fashion, starting a clothing business which he describes as “fundamentally flawed from day one.” “I wasn’t a fashion guy,” he says. But does making mistakes mean wasted time? Not for Ash - this is another experience that he has learned from and now shares with others through Yena.
“My friends didn’t get what I was doing for a living.” He started to wonder ‘Where do I find the people who ‘get it’?’ He decided to fix his own problem by starting a meetup. Six people having a pint together in Bristol has turned into an organisation running meetups in fourteen cities across the world - from Manchester to Melbourne.
Through Yena, Ash feels that he has found his purpose: making it easier for anyone, anywhere to start and grow a remarkable business. “I was doing a business that was really fun but wasn’t that fulfilling.” He left agency life to work on Yena full-time and turn it into a business. Yena membership costs £9 a month: “It’s super accessible and solves the gap between free government support and expensive, exclusive networks.”
The Yena community now numbers close to 4,000 with nearly 10% of participants opting for paid membership.
Finding your people
One of the biggest challenges has been “figuring out how to scale events - it’s nigh on impossible,” he says. Ash employed Abby Scarborough, 23, last year (she was offered the job on the spot after having one coffee) and together they are now running more than 100 events a year. He doubled the workforce but also ramped up the pressure on making enough money to cover her salary. “Everyone thinks you’re rich while you’re running a business, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s full of sacrifice and delayed gratification - and it takes longer than you think it will,” he says. “It’s also super difficult to find a work life balance.”
He’s full of advice for young entrepreneurs starting their own business. One thing he speaks about is “getting right back to the basics. People overcomplicate things and think about things like brand, social media and websites when they’ve got bills to pay and a product to sell. Business means one thing: selling something for more than it costs to make and deliver it. Don’t forget this,” he says.
He also believes that it is “both what you know and who you know.” He emphasises the importance of getting the right support and the right suppliers. “People are key to everything - your mentors, your staff, your suppliers, your customers.”