Transitioning from the corporate world into entrepreneurship

What I learnt about my law career to establish 3Doodler

TOPICS: Entrepreneurship , Operations , Hong Kong , Specialised Products , Technology

by Daniel Cowen

Anyone who’s worked in a traditional business environment knows that being a dutiful rule-follower is as imperative to job preservation as breathing is to staying alive. From adhering to billing practices, respecting the chain of command and completing assigned work by deadline, it’s all done via a method likely spelt out in a job manual and enforced by administrative assistants, operations directors, department heads, human resources managers, and, probably, someone in a cubicle down the hall. Whether in finance, law or business, policies and regulations touch every aspect of how conventional companies operate.

If you’ve ever felt stifled in a corporate environment, moving into entrepreneurship is like getting a driver’s license or walking into your first home: liberating

Then there are startups. If you’ve ever felt stifled in a corporate environment, moving into entrepreneurship is like getting a driver’s license or walking into your first home: liberating. Startups are generally guided at the outset by few rules, which can be an exhilarating experience. When I resigned from my law career and later helped establish 3Doodler, I worked more nimbly, flexibly and faster than ever. However, the move wasn’t exclusively sunshine and roses; it undeniably came with its own set of frustrations too.

I knew walking away from corporate law would mean giving up ample resources and generous benefits — something which I’d made my peace with. What I didn’t realize, though, was the “ask and it gets done” ethos that I previously enjoyed as commonplace would become decidedly more complex and direct: “ask, and I do it”.

The day-to-day of running my own company challenged a whole host of expectations. When dealing with outside partners in particular, I had to be more creative in finding ways to motivate people to produce results, because the fact was that without more formal agreements, I was officially entitled to nothing.

Despite that, I never once considered going back to work in a more standard office. At the same time, I also wouldn’t trade what I learnt from that first chapter of my professional life. The more 3Doodler grows, hires and empowers our employees, the more confident I feel about what and how we operate. Watching a product impact real lives is thrilling, but seeing our staff grow and feel empowered in their roles hits me on a whole other level. We’re witnessing a new generation that’s digging deep to find the bravery needed to leave behind the security they’ve always been told they needed others to provide. They’re building something they believe in deeply while leaving their fingerprints on it in a more meaningful way.

When considering entrepreneurship, it’s imperative to hold tight to what you know and start thinking more broadly about how and where your expertise and experience can be applied, even if it requires a lateral move in the beginning.

When considering entrepreneurship, it’s imperative to hold tight to what you know and start thinking more broadly about how and where your expertise and experience can be applied, even if it requires a lateral move in the beginning. I know from my own legal experience just how many lawyers settle for unfulfilling roles because they assume their skill set is useless outside a board or courtroom. Except being a corporate lawyer requires intense focus, organization, multi-tasking, research skills, and simultaneous attention to detail alongside high level, forward-looking thinking — all tools hardly considered obsolete.

I brought my legal background to the 3Doodler table alongside a keen interest in business, what I had learnt from clients, family and friends, plus many of the unspecified transferable skills I had picked up in the corporate world. Everything else was new, yet so was 3Doodler and the technology we had developed. Sure, it would have been useful for 3Doodler if I’d had a more formal background in marketing and business development, but I didn’t, so instead of dwelling on my shortcomings I trusted myself and my team to be loose and stay strong, knowing the details would follow.

For those utterly insurmountable knowledge gaps that couldn't be accessed by speaking with peers, industry veterans or research, we took on a testing mentality by, say, quickly building out aspects of operations all the while knowing they could be undone or remolded if they didn’t work. We learnt as we went along and tried to never forget, or repeat, our mistakes (of which there were many). When so much is at stake, errors feel not only tragic, but strikingly personal. Fortunately, all rollercoasters eventually slow down and it’s critical while you’re on the ride to celebrate the ups, especially if you’re going to sweat the downs. The bedrock of what I love about our day-to-day business was forged in trial and error.

No matter if they’re coming from long careers in the corporate world or launching with zero business experience, startup founders today need to be prepared to wade through uncharted territory while mapping their launch objectives and strategizing as they go. Research similar companies and see if the founders will let you pick their brain on how they achieved success. Since no one’s written a launch playbook specifically for you (or me), look around and get inspired by what’s out there, and then using whatever experience you already have, start custom-making a plan to suit your business goals.

About the Author

Daniel Cowen

Daniel Cowen is President & COO of WobbleWorks, where he oversees business development, marketing and operations. Under Cowen’s leadership, WobbleWorks was able to raise nearly $4 million USD to build 3Doodler, the world’s first 3D printing pen, through two separate Kickstarters. 

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