A year into launching my own consulting business, my biggest reflection is personal: why did I do it?
We’re in a culture that lionizes entrepreneurs, but when it comes down to it, starting a business is challenging and even painful. I found even the differences between types of legal entities a bit dizzying, because you’re not just comparing features; you’re making choices that will affect you, your partners, and your finances for years.
For a while, I observed business-operations challenges everywhere I went. I’d be in Disneyland thinking about the logistics of ticket systems, personnel, crowd movement, cleanup, and nightly turnover. Or I’d be in the grocery store thinking about produce-spoilage rates and credit-card machines. Whew. Most businesses make running a consultancy seem pretty easy, really.
I started AHG after leaving NationBuilder last year, where I had managed partnerships with other civic-tech companies looking to tap into our customer base by building into our APIs. Out of the gate, I thought I’d use all of my skills — including my private-investigator license — on the new business. I had big ambitions of working with several founding consultants.
The first great piece of advice I got as I moved forward was to specialize. If you’re known for advising civic-tech firms, do that. So while I do some work with nonprofits and campaigns, it’s been a phone append vendor and a government CRM company that have helped my firm thrive during its critical first year.
Coming out of NationBuilder, I immediately had a couple of decent job offers. But after joining that daring tech startup as the third team member and riding its heady early growth, I knew I wanted to do something more independent. I can acknowledge that large organizations have incredible benefits of scale, but I’d just rather not work for one. Smaller companies are more flexible, more adaptable. If you could keep entrepreneurial fire in massive, centralized organizations, Alphabet would still be Google.
If I were advising a political professional on whether to hang out a shingle, I’d say join an established organization instead. Good consultants can make plenty of money within an agency or at a tech company, and it’s not terribly difficult to find a role offering you plenty of latitude. Owning a job versus being an employee isn’t about money or freedom – it’s something innate to an entrepreneur’s personality.
When I was a kid growing up in rural Valley Springs, Calif., I cut mistletoe from the oaks in our yard, tied red ribbon around it, stuck it in plastic bags, and stood out front of the little local market and sold them for 50 cents. Years later, I started the Gov 2.0 Radio podcast as an evening and weekend project, running it to 100 episodes and millions of listens on a non-existent budget.
These early efforts were just a taste of what I’d undertake later, though – they didn’t cost me much grief. Because whether it’s a venture-backed startup or your own company, entrepreneurialism has tremendous financial and emotional costs. My first big step out of safety was a 2009 run for Congress, a feat that earned me lots of media coverage, but which resulted in more Twitter followers than votes.
Two years later, I left a safe government job for NationBuilder, then I uprooted and moved to L.A. as it grew. Nobody really tells you that startup success is even more disruptive than failure.
When I ran for Congress, I thought I knew what I was doing because, as a newspaper reporter, I’d covered many political races. But actually running is a totally different thing. That’s what it was like to go from NationBuilder to running my own firm. Another apropos piece of advice I received about launching my consulting business was that anytime you’re pushing the edge of your abilities, you’ll feel like you’re failing. Apparently this happens to people at all levels of the ladder. And even if you’re able to grow through that feeling and master that edge, going up against your limits again is going to feel like failure all over.
A friend emailed me and confided, “I’m envious of you working for yourself.” “Yeah,” I said, “but it’s really much harder than it looks. I never Instagram the moments of pure terror and self doubt.”
In many ways, I needed to live the experience of owning a business to know what it was like. Even if I’d sought out more advice, I don’t think it would have helped. And like the newfound respect for anyone who runs for office I gained after suffering through a race myself, starting my own firm has given me empathy for the hundreds of thousands of people who start new businesses in the U.S. every year (and yes, in recent years more businesses have gone under than were started).
But overall, I love the journey and wouldn’t choose any other path. In addition to working with some amazing clients, my firm allowed me to continue taking sneak peeks into the most interesting technologies aimed at changing politics and society. And just half a year into the life of my firm, I joined one of them as a co-founder and recently moved back up to Silicon Valley to help it grow. One company didn’t kill me, so I’m trying a second. Hit me up at the next C&E or AAPC event — I’d love to tell you about it.
Adriel Hampton is CEO and Principal Consultant at The Adriel Hampton Group Ltd., and Co-Founder and President of a San Francisco-based predictive-analytics company.