For marketers considering life after the profession, starting a business is the ultimate gamble. Often it involves giving up a prestigious, well-paid role in favour of the uncertainty and challenges that come with setting up a brand from scratch. The pay-off is the opportunity to build something over which you have complete control and guide it through its early days of growth, ultimately with the aim of creating a successful brand in its own right.
This was an important motivating factor for Huib van Bockel, who set up his own business in 2015 after eight years working as head of marketing for Europe at Red Bull. The new venture, Tenzing Natural Energy, is a low sugar, 100% natural energy drink and a direct competitor to Van Bockel’s former employer.
He explains that he has always had the drive to start his own company, having done so once before when he founded quirky fashion brand Dr Finkelbaum when working as a marketer in a previous job at Unilever. That startup ultimately folded, teaching Van Bockel that he needed to dedicate all his time to any future new business.
“One of the key things I learned [from the Dr Finkelbaum experience] was you can’t do it next to your job,” he says. “If I had gone for it 100%, it could have been a success, but there were also things that I learnt from the experience that I could take into account this time around.”
The highs are so much higher when you achieve something amazing and the lows can be really low.
Huib van Bockel, Tenzing
Upon launching Tenzing, Van Bockel was forced to make some big life decisions, which included downsizing his home to take into account the drop in his income after leaving Red Bull. The business began trading last year with a focus on getting the product into offices, universities, high-end retailers and gyms. It now employs eight people and Van Bockel is in talks with grocery retailers as the business looks to expand its distribution network during its second year of trading.
He states that while his background in marketing helped in setting up Tenzing, he was also required to hone his skills in product development. The drink’s recipe is based on the energising brew of the Himalayan Sherpas and the brand is named after Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. As part of Van Bockel’s aim to make Tenzing a socially responsible brand, he has worked closely with Norgay’s family on environmental projects in the Himalayas.
Reflecting on the creative freedom he enjoys, but also the challenges he faces in growing the brand, he argues that relentless determination is key to achieving long-term success. “The energy you need to put in means it really feels like a rollercoaster,” he says.
“You hear that all the time and it’s so true. The highs are so much higher when you achieve something amazing and the lows can be really low. But that’s what makes it very exciting.”
The power of networking
Contacts from the marketing world can be just as important as skills and experience when setting up a new business. Last year, Shara Tochia, a marketer with experience at Ralph Lauren, Australia’s Specialty Fashion Group and Facebook, decided to launch her own fitness website, called Dose (whateveryourdose.com). The site is primarily an editorial project, described as being like “Stylist [magazine] online for the wellness industry”, but it makes its revenues from running advertorial and other sponsorship packages for larger brands.
Despite only launching in October 2016, the business has already attracted brands such as Nike, Sweaty Betty and Ted Baker as clients. Tochia attributes this success to her ability to optimise contacts from her previous marketing roles and her willingness to network wherever possible. “Little things like LinkedIn, and just having a coffee catch-up with someone, mean everything,” she says.
“My advice would be to take introductory emails and coffees with anyone and everyone because sometimes they can be invaluable there and then, and sometimes they might come back around a year and a half later. You never know when contacts can help you.”
Tochia set up the business with PR specialist Hettie Holmes, whom she met at a spin class in London. The pair currently make up the entire workforce, though the business hires freelancers to write content and is looking to employ a sales manager to help drive revenues.
Similar to Van Bockel, Tochia has experience of starting a company that ultimately failed. In 2012, she launched Fitness Freak, a booking website for fitness classes modelled on the OpenTable site for restaurant reservations. Tochia is candid about why the business went under and believes she took many valuable lessons from the experience.
“I did everything that a startup could do wrong – I could literally write a book about it and I’ve spoken at events about how not to mess up a business,” she says. “But the relationships I made there, and the passion for working for myself has been invaluable ever since, and probably led to what Dose has become.”
Purpose-driven career change
Some marketers choose to start businesses for other, more personal reasons. Kara Rosen, a marketer with more than 10 years of experience at publisher Condé Nast, opted to launch organic juice brand Plenish in 2012 after suffering a recurring illness and identifying a lack of nutrition in her diet as the cause. She believes that her own high-pressure career, which included the role of creative services director for Condé Nast Traveler and Wired magazines in New York, led her to come up with the idea.
“I was the typical corporate traveller-worker who was eating based on convenience decisions and that was essentially what caused me to get so run down,” explains Rosen. “Once I saw a nutritional therapist I ended up healing myself but it took me nine months to feel back to 100%.
“It made me realise that you need to be so much more proactive about your health, because once you get to a point where your tank is empty and you have burned the candle at both ends, it takes so long and so much effort and work to get yourself back.”
Rosen is American but moved to the UK for her husband’s job and set up Plenish in London. Today, the business employs 16 people and has its product stocked in national retailers such as Waitrose and Boots. She notes that one of the biggest learning curves she faced when moving from a marketing and publishing background to the drinks market was product development and supply chain.
“Coming from New York City, I had grown up around cement and had never worked with growers or really understood seasonality and sourcing raw materials,” she says.
“You learn as you go. I started in the fruit and veg markets around London, talking to growers that way, and I would try to talk to supermarket buyers who bought fruits and vegetables and just try to learn as much as I could, building up the knowledge that way.”
In terms of the marketing skills that Rosen could bring to Plenish, she points to an entrepreneurial outlook and an understanding of consumers. “Yes, there are lots of startups that create a brand built around their own passion, but actually you need to be more passionate about answering a need for consumers, because the consumer will only care about your passion if it’s relevant to them,” she says.
Although ending a career in marketing to become a startup founder presents huge risks, it is clear that the potential rewards are equally as large.