Here is a peek behind the scenes into the journey of GoFounder’s founder, Eddie Whittingham, as he sold his start-up to one of the world’s largest cyber-security companies, in just four years.
It’s a strange thing, starting up a start-up.
The odds are stacked against you but for some reason, somehow, you’re willing to back yourself against all those odds to go on and build something. To succeed where others have failed, to find your own path.
Well, what can I tell you? I’m certainly not going to sit and and tell you it’s easy or that it’ll happen overnight, because it won’t. It’s a tough old slog and you’re going to need bags of determination, some natural talent and (at least) a slice of luck. But, having said that, it’s also possible – we all have the same amount of hours in the day, it’s just how you choose to use them.
Here’s a little bit about my journey and some of the highlights to hopefully give you a little food for thought. But, keep in mind, this is the highlights… designed for a little inspiration… they were endless lowlights too (more on that another time).
Eddie’s decided he’s leaving, as he can’t hack it.
Infamous words from my then boss, a partner of an international law firm, as she announced to the team that I was leaving to start my own business. (I should add, this wasn’t my direct line manager at the time – she was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had!).
I can honestly say at that time I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.
My original idea was simply: “I wanted to do something for myself, whatever that was“. I knew I’d be happier chasing my own dream, rather than building someone elses and I knew there was really only one way of realising my potential.
So, there I was – back in 2016. I quit my job as a solicitor on the Friday and started business on the Monday as part of a business incubator run by NatWest, with nothing but £10 in a business bank account, a laptop that rebooted itself every 30 minutes and the world’s most supportive wife.
– First day at Entrepreneurial Spark, a business accelerator run by NatWest – and my first day in business!
I wasn’t entirely sure what the future would hold at that point. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what services I was going to provide. Initially, I opted to provide fraud and consultancy related services to law firms and private companies, as that seemed to fit best with my skill-set.
And, I did alright in the first year, working with some household names, earning a modest income – together with a couple of part-time lecturing gigs I’d managed to secure to help me live in the meantime. But, I couldn’t help but think, was this really why I left my old job? And the one before that? To work twice as hard, with countless more risk, for the same money?
It was a few months later when, whilst attending a talk at the business incubator, I really had that cliché “eureka moment” – stop selling my time – starting selling a service. Software as a service. As naïve as it sounds, I’d never really considered something more scalable than simply selling my time before.
Getting back to my desk, I started frantically brainstorming for ideas where I could utilise my skill-set into something that could be bought as a scalable service.
What else did I have solid experience in, that I could use to my advantage?
It didn’t take long for me to finally come up with a initial concept and so the Business Fraud Prevention Partnership (or ‘BFPP’ for short) was born.
– The Business Fraud Prevention Partnership (catchy!) – an online solution to help business tackle issues of fraud and crime within their workplace.
The goal was to empower small businesses with the same tools that are afforded to the largest of organisations. After all, why should only the big organisations benefit from protection?
And the world’s worst name.
But, an idea nevertheless.
That was back then, 2016.
In just 4 years, a lot changed – and not just the name (as we rebranded from BFPP to The Defence Works)!
It’s amazing where just an idea can take you, isn’t it?
In those 4 years, I was fortunate to have been joined by great people to make for an unforgettable journey. Right the way from some amazing people who came to intern with me and learn about start-up life (special mentions to Adenike and Lukasz!) through to the inspirational team that I work with to this very day.
Then, along came 5th May 2020.
After 1,488 days of working hard on the The Defence Works, I was able to finally annouce (very proudly!) that the amazing training we had built, with our team and our client’s feedback, was becoming part of ProofPoint (one of the world’s largest cyber-security companies): where our training could help millions of end users worldwide, keeping them that little bit more protected against cyber-crime.
As the Founder and MD of The Defence Works… it was a strange day. We’d built something from nothing – no investment, no family pot of gold, no hidden savings – just sheer hard work. But, there are no words I can find to really express the weird and wonderful journey that I’d been on over those few years – unrivaled, amazing highs, and deep, challenging lows.
The acquisition of a business is always such a special ephemeral moment, so in my mind, it warranted reflection on some of my most favourite moments that I’ll never forget…
#1 The last day of my job (5th February 2016)
Waiting for my colleagues to join me for some farewell drinks, I had a moment of silence in the bar by myself and I’ll never forget that moment, thinking “sh*t… now what?”.
#2 Lecturing to pay the bills
I was lucky enough to bag a part-time lecturing job doing a couple of half days a week at the University of Salford teaching law and then weekends teaching Criminal Law to Legal Practice students at BPP Law School – all whilst trying to start a business (and renovate a house). I was literally working 7 days a week. It was a scary and amazing moment when I realised… maybe I don’t need to lecture any more – maybe I can get by on what I’m self-generating? Letting go of that crutch felt like such a big step.
#3 The Pivot
It was a bit daunting, when after quitting my job to start up the consultancy gig, I decided to take the plunge and pivot my business idea entirely. I’d spent a year working away and trying to build a name for myself as a consultant, getting some good work through the door and delivering what I set out to do. But, there was something missing, something that didn’t quite feel right and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. It was April 2017 when I took arguably my biggest leap of faith to date – to pivot. To change from what I’d been doing for the last year and to set out on an entirely new, scalable, adventure.
What would people think?
Won’t they think I’m flakey changing from one idea to another?
Am I being stupid, I’ve already started making money as a consultant?
Who is to say this new idea will even work out?
All very legitimate questions that I asked myself. But, then it all boiled down to one thing… what did I really want to do? And, from that moment on, everything changed.
#4 First customer
There simply isn’t anything better than that feeling of getting your first customer. It’s quite a surreal feeling at first – that someone is willing to part money for something that you’ve thought up and devised in the attic room of your house!
I can’t thank all of our customers enough, but wow – those early adopters really are something, aren’t they? The first customer might only have been paying £14 per month but that really gave me the inspiration that we could grow the business like we did. After all, I always thought if I can get 1 customer, I could get 10 and if I could get 10, I could get 100 … and if I could get 100… OK, you get the picture!
#5 Winning a pitch to pay for business-critical software
As part of being on the NatWest business accelerator, we got the chance to regularly pitch for cash prizes. During this particular pitch-off, I really needed that cash! I’d built the first MVP of the training using a free-trial of software that was due to run out sharpish. The cash prize was for £1,000…. and the software license was $999! And to top off a great night, I even got an over-sized novelty cheque! ????
#6 First office
It’s hard to rank the best moments (especially amongst a lot of bad ones that I’ll go into on another post sometime) but I think getting your very first office has to be right up there. It was (still is!) a very modest office. I opted to keep the money in the business and to spend more on marketing, advertising etc rather than on rent… but make no mistakes, this still felt like a “make it or break it” moment. I was convinced if we got the office, we could just about afford to stay in it for a few months if things went well! Oh, and I’m still the office cleaner!
#7 Winning an award we didn’t pay to enter
We all know awards can be a racket but, we entered the Federation of Small Business awards in the the Technology Business of the Year category on a complete whim (as you didn’t have to pay to enter!). Hell, we were literally the definition of a ‘small business’ at the time… given that I was the sole employee at the time! It was the first night out for the wife and I in quite some time (did you know, starting a start up makes you kind of skint!) so we we’re just happy to be out and eating some nice scran! So, to go on to win it, without even so much as a thought that we might, was really special.
#8 First employee
Surely this has to rank right up there? Taking on the first employee for the business was a monumental step. In my mind, it secured the fact that I wanted to grow the business into more than just a lifestyle business – it signaled an intent!
I’ve mentioned it already, but I have been very lucky to have be joined on this journey by some exceptional people. I’ve grown as a leader (having never done it before) and by far the best thing is to see people growing both professionally and personally. Thanks again to all of The Defence Works employees, you’ve made the journey unforgettable.
#9 First US client
Looking back, it was actually surprising (I thought) to get our first international clients as quickly as we did. It was really cool knowing our clients went beyond just the UK, all the way from India to the US.
#10 Rebranding from BFPP to The Defence Works
So, I’ve already mentioned that the Business Fraud Prevention Partnership was the world’s worst name but more than that, it was quite apparent that our fun, innovative training didn’t quite fit with the corporate branding we’d used to date. That and we’d changed a bit since I first thought up that terrible name – so we needed to do something different. Working with 438 Marketing (big shout out to them for being so good to work with) was a really fun process, as we sought a brand that matched both our product but also the tone of voice we wanted to adopt in the market place – informal, fun and something a bit different.
#11 Getting rid of the “Blue Beast”
Another huge milestone (probably in my own head, more than anything) was finally feeling like I could get rid of the (very!) old “Blue Beast” workhorse – my Vauxhall Corsa 1.0, 2002 model! I hadn’t dared take any money out of the business as I wanted to keep reinvesting to grow it – but things were getting a bit silly. I was driving to client meetings and having to park round the corner to avoid them seeing it! When I finally did decide I could splash out… boy, did I – I splashed out on a leased Ford Focus! ????
#12 Needing a second office
The first office was a big step. But, realising that we’d outgrown it within 12 months was a great feeling. So, we opted for a second office in the same workspace, buying second hand furniture that I spent the weekend cleaning before we “moved in”. We still work in the same two offices today.
#13 Announcing the news to the team!
And finally, perhaps the one I was most nervous about! We’d had interest from some of the big cyber-security players for a number of months and then more recently, those talks intensified and I was super excited but also nervous to tell the team – especially as it had to all be done via Zoom and not face to face due to COVID. Alex, Martyn, Katie, Karolina and Nazli – we’ll be celebrating properly once lockdown is over!
Well, what a ride. I’m so very grateful for every lesson I’ve experienced throughout my journey and for everyone I’ve met along the way – those brilliant people that inspired me – and, I should add a special thank you to those with less than nice things to say, you helped motivate me more than you think!
Starting up a start-up isn’t for everybody. It isn’t easy but I hope you might find a little bit of inspiration from the snapshot into my journey. Of course, there were a heap of lows which I’ll talk about another time.
But, for now, if you’re building your business – just think how much more you could achieve with someone holding you accountable. Me and my team are here to help you.
Founder & CEO