This time last year a sponsored Facebook Advert appeared on my timeline asking for applications for a new business accelerator launching in Newcastle. Entrepreneurial Spark was opening its first hub in the region and looking for Entrepreneurs to join the programme. This 6 month accelerator was not only offering free office space in a prime city based location, but also a series of workshops and events designed to make the Entrepreneur ‘Credible, Backable & Investable’.
I have to admit that the offer of free office space immediatley grabbed my attention. I’d been self-employed for 4 years and worked at a small desk in my bedroom. The idea of rolling out of bed straight into work might sound like bliss, but in reality it’s incredibly infuriating. As well as the normal distractions of home (“Emma do the dishes”, “Emma will you buy milk?”, “Emma can you do the washing today” etc), working in an environment which is both an office and a place of relaxation is incredibly difficult. Switching off was impossible and I never felt like I had a healthy work/life balance. On top of that I knew frustration was setting in. I’d been housebound for many, many years due to my social anxiety disorder. When I recovered, the idea of being home all day just made me depressed and anxious. I hadn’t put myself through so much torture to get well, only to just sit at a computer in isolation. Being in an actual office, with other people… well that was something brand new and exciting (and scary!).
The second reason I applied for E-Spark was that I was stuck in a rut. I was working part-time as a designer and part-time on a business I’d launched through Kickstarter designing and making sunglasses. This business had been something of a stab in the dark; an experiment. I had drawn some designs people liked and then impulsively created and succeeded at a crowdfunding campaign. There hadn’t been any prep or research. No vision or plan. I had got lucky and was now panicking over what the hell I was going to do from here.
When I applied for E-Spark I decided to make no mention of the fact I had Autism or mental illness. I was scared that it would count against me – which seems silly but is sadly something which happens. Years of negative reactions had left me feeling very insecure about my worth when I was competing with ‘normal’ individuals. Yet I knew, realistically, there would be times when I needed extra support and they should probably be aware of this. It’s a familiar battle to anyone with a long-term illness or disability.
I began my E-Spark journey in August 2016. I was generally terrified on my first day, but I knew most were. I’d met a few ‘chiclets’ (as we were called then) waiting in reception and everyone equally described it as being like the first day of school. As we were ushered up to our new office space I had that initial feeling of akwardness and inferiority. I’d always been incredibly anxious about entering a room full of people and finding somewhere to sit. Many groups and conversations were already underway and I felt like I couldn’t just walk up and say ‘do you mind if I sit here’. Luckily on this occasion I found an empty table and grabbed a seat. Now I was anxious about being the loner on an empty table!
The first two days were a dedicated bootcamp. Two problems sprang to mind.
- This was going to be 2 full days in a room with 70 strangers. My absolute nightmare.
- I’d already done 3 courses on starting a business. This could be a giant borefest.
However, I was pleasantly surprised on both fronts.
This was the first time I’d ever been with so many people since my recovery from SAD. I generally surprised myself at how well my conversation skills had developed and managed to engage in some pretty fun and useful conversations with a variety of people. With many events like this, there are the inevitable ice breakers (my worst nightmare!). On this occasion we did a kind of people bingo, where we had to go round the room and find someone to put against a list of situations (such as ‘find someone who has been on TV’, ‘find someone with over 10000 followers on social media). I feel incredibly awkward doing these kinds of things because I never know if I’m going to stammer, or find it difficult to understand someone. But it was important to me to not be the one sitting on the sidelines and so I joined in. Although I hated every second, I did find that it meant I spoke to people which opened up further conversations later on in the day.
As far as the course content went, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know. Over the two days I came away with so much information I felt like this was my very first day as a true Entrepreneur. I had honestly been sleeping my way through my business, and now I felt awake and motivated.
I met with my enabler Clare within a few days of starting in the hub. Everyone on the programme was assigned one of two enablers. This person would meet with you every couple of weeks to help set goals, ask those difficult questions you were wanting to ignore and generally make you more accountable. The first session was about telling Clare about my business, my past and what I wanted from this programme. I was honest and told her about my past problems and that I had Autism. I don’t know if other people with ASD do it, but I find I tense up after I’ve said the words ‘I have Autism’. I think its because you can never tell what kind of reaction you’re going to get. Some people don’t care, some people don’t have a clue, some people are terrified and some people just don’t want to know. Thankfully Clare was completly accepting and asked how they could make things better for me. You have no idea how much of a relief that was!
I settled into my new routine pretty quickly and thrived being out of my own home. The atmosphere in the hub was and is very hard to describe. In that space you have tens of people coming in to create something new and innovative. They’re excited about what they’re doing and eager to learn and share with each other. There is such a high level of positive energy that its almost something you can reach out and touch. There is no jealousy or making others feel smaller. Every tiny individual win is celebrated by the whole group and that in turn has a domino effect on motivation and focus.
Being in the hub and taking part in a variety of workshops began to change the way I viewed myself and my business. I knew I was an ambitious person, but I don’t think I was quite aware of how nervous and timid I was about actually striving out and creating a growth business. A lot of it was confidence, or lack of it. Some of it was lack of belief in myself. There was a small, but important portion of myself that really just didn’t have a clue what I was doing. With the sunglasses I’d created; I’d enjoyed it but I just didn’t have that buzz feeling about taking it further. I did however, have a number of products I’d been making for personal use and had felt very overwhelmed about turning them into a business. But being in that E-Spark environment began to change my mindset and behaviours. For the first time I started to think bigger than what my mind was allowing. Combining this with everything I had learned from Bootcamp and my enabler, I felt like I had a road map I could use to guide me.
The six month period in the hub flew by so quickly. I worked hard to change my goals and set and complete targets. I entered with a seed of an idea and lots of fear. By the end of six months I had a clear business plan, some world class mentors and an endless hunger to create a leading household brand.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be kept on to the next stage of Entrepreneurial Spark and I enjoy all of the time I spend in the hub. From just an Entrepreneurs point of view, what E-Spark can offer you is priceless. I know for a fact that if I’d never applied I would still be sitting in my home office, without a direction and too scared to keep pushing forward. But I will say from a disabled entrepreneurs point of view, this experience has been life changing on so many fronts. It is a sad reality that opportunities and support for disabled entrepreneurs are few and far between. In the business world, there is stigma and prejudice. Very recently I was discussing with another business owner how I found telephone calls incredibly difficult. Its a mixture of not being able to see the person’s face (and reading their emotions) and also depending on the quality of the call and the speakers voice it can be very difficult to process what they are saying. It’s kind of like listening to someone speaking a foreign language and you have no clue what anything means. Cue long awkward pauses and me stuttering out ‘can you repeat that’. This admission produced a sceptical response from the other entrepreneur. ‘How do you think you’ll ever be successful if you can’t use a telephone’ he asked, before telling me all about the big contracts he’d secured through cold calling and ‘hustling’ on his mobile. This kind of thing didn’t surprise me because I’d heard it before. I was more surprised that he ended his question by stating that ‘maybe you should re-think whether you’re suited to being an Entrepreneur’. Normally I would continue to explain that I would ask if the person on the phone had skype and make the call that way (seeing a face helps so much). I also didn’t tell him I’d also recently won a big contract after having a rather lovely face-to-face Skype with a CEO who noticed I had a VW camper van Lego model behind me (turned out he was a collector and it built an instant connection between us). People just tend to see the things we can’t do, rather than the things we can. When I applied to E-Spark I was worried this would be another case of that. But not once has it been an issue. Not once have they ever said to me that I wasn’t capable or suited to being an Entrepeneur. They’ve put me forward for events and meetings with advisors and investors and have always asked if they can do anything to support me further. It has been a truly equal and non-judgmental experience.
I know a few disabled entrepreneurs who are also nervous of taking part in programmes like this because they’re scared of being treated differently. I would not hesitate to tell them to apply to Entrepreneurial Spark. From everyone on the team, right through to my fellow entrepreneurs; it has been nothing but a positive experience. Plus most imporantly for me, I have developed so many skills which I was lacking in due to my Autism. Even my parents and partner have stated how much more accomplished I am at speaking and that I am engaging with levels of responsibility I have always struggled to cope with.
At some point I will leave the hub and go on to the next phase of my entrepreneurial life. I will leave, not only a more accomplished and credible entrepreneur, but also a more confident and skillful individual.