Today, 5 years ago I’ve founded FocusFirst. I said “Goodbye” to my corporate career, and “Hello” to my life. From nothing to something. Here are my learnings so far:

#1 One day. Or day one. You decide.

I was never seriously unhappy during my corporate life. Actually, it was quite comfortable being a senior leader at a corporate. I was well paid in time; I worked with smart people; I had a budget to get things done. But at the same time – I was never seriously happy either. Why? When I was 18 years old, the first thing I did was to go to the government to open a business – Being 18 was the minimum age in Germany at that time to apply for this trade certificate. This was the best birthday gift I could give me: a trade certificate. I started right away: Brand, Website, Brochures. Hence, I sold Digital solutions (E-Commerce, Websites, Digital Marketing) – building my presence on the web was easy. Since then, I was fascinated by the idea of being an entrepreneur. And since then, I was an entrepreneur part-time. This changed when I became Head of E-Commerce at the DAX30 company Merck. I sold my own, part-time business to avoid interest conflict. I gave back my trade certificate. This was painful. But I’ve got a meaningful job at the same time: Being the Head of E-Commerce – and the mandate was clear: “Build up E-Commerce, worldwide”. One of the best journeys in my corporate career – I slept more in planes than in hotel beds during that time. But I loved it. I’ve made friends in about 60 countries. Friendships that last up to today. But after I delivered my mandate, I felt this emptiness in me again. My “Entrepreneur-Heart” bumped louder.

But leaving the corporate world was not easy. I established a living standard. I was married, had two daughters – one of them just 8 months old.

When I leave what will that mean for my family? They counted on me. I was the sole breadwinner. So, here I was: no significant savings, two kids, and wife. But an irresistible dream to build something significant. I sat down with my wife on our couch, we discussed for hours. The decision was clear: This is not “One Day”. This is “Day One”. There is no guarantee for success, there is likely little help from others – But I do not give ownership of my life to anyone else. I realized: When I do what I love – then I will do this for my last name, not for my first name.


#2 There’s no shortcut to success

In the first months, I was like on steroids. I started on 06 June 2016. In the remaining months in 2016, I generated 250k€ – mainly from one of the biggest global pharma companies. In the same year, I’ve hired two further employees. From 2017 to 2018 I’ve hired over a dozen more, generated with this team cumulated 3 million €. It was just perfect. Until the first February weekend in 2019. It was Friday, I watched a movie with my wife. Not a good movie. I thought about the current financial situation at FocusFirst. I’ve made a simple calculation in my head: How much money is in the bank account, What are the monthly costs, How long will the money last?

Suddenly, I started sweating. My heart bumped heavily. When my calculation is right: We only have 6 weeks cash flow – after that, no money left.

I stood up from the couch went to my desk and crunched the numbers from Friday to Sunday – 4 hours sleep. And regardless of what calculations I’ve made. I ended up with 6 weeks of cash flow. But how could that be? Murphy’s law. A combination of single elements – that combined resulted in a mess: 1) I created a new org structure and aligned with my two Consulting Partners that I step back doing sales and let them do it (So that we can scale faster. The one who does the sale often also delivers the project) 2) A major customer declared “Zero Budgeting for everyone” – for us a disaster; 3) My Controller at that time had a wrong formula in his Finance Excel – result: minus 300k€ Cashflow. So, that was my turnaround. I needed to learn that there is no shortcut to success. I realized that I have not “delegated” the Finance topic, but “abdicated” it. I didn’t understand it thoroughly enough. This was the result of it. I’ve read a lot at that time to learn how to build up a finance system, a cash flow system. Something that helps us to never run again in a situation like that. We’ve made it. Today: We have real-time cash flow management. With a forecast simulation that is to the day accurate. I guess there is no wonder that 9 out of 10 start-ups fail in the first 5 years. The reasons are due to a lack of Product-Market Fit, or mainly problems in Marketing, Team, or Finance issues. We’ve learned our lesson in the Finance area.


#3 I’m not perfect

I never intended to be perfect. But my ambition was and is quite high. You know when you start a business on your own, you realize what everyone else did in a corporate. As a founder, you are responsible for the Finances as mentioned before. Now, one can say: “Well, the same thing in a corporate”. That’s true with one difference: You pay with your own money the salaries of your team member. The emotional pressure can be huge. Besides Finances, you are responsible for Operations, Processes, Legal, Procurement, Marketing, Sales, HR. And besides that: Serving your customers and delivering your product/service. To be frank (as always), when I worked at the corporate I wasn’t always impressed by the support of HR. When I hired my first fraud at FocusFirst in 2017 I realized what HR did in the background. What processes and systems exist that are based on decades/centuries of learnings is just amazing. Today, I see it with other eyes, humble eyes.

The more mature FocusFirst became I realized another thing: I’m an excellent leader, but just an average manager. I always thought I could be both.

I remember a colleague from Austin, Texas talking about his boss “He’s the best leader I’ve ever had, and the worst manager I can think of”. I realized that I am good at building something – in inspiring people for something to stand up, and then to focus them in one direction. But I also realized that I need help that the people stay with it for a long time. This is a manager’s job. I’m thankful to have found a partner at FocusFirst that is excellent in doing that. Why do I write this so openly and make myself vulnerable? Because this is who we are. We are human beings. Not human perfects. No leader is perfect. We all need help. We just need to find the complementary part that helps us to strive in what we are excellent at. Where do you need help with?


And now?

People go. Sales decline. Costs rise. Customers decline. Corona came. The list could go longer and longer. Founding a company is not easy. But when there is one thing that lets me sleep very well at night, it’s this: “It’s possible. Stay focused”. This is not only the claim of FocusFirst – but my firm belief. It can be applied to every challenge we face. Henry Ford used to say: “When you think it is possible or if you think it is not – in both cases you are right”. My learning in all challenges, in all transformations, is this: Everything is possible. If we think it is not possible – then we are limiting ourselves. If you want to build your own company: you can. If you want to reestablish that relationship: you can. If you want to achieve your most important goal in life: you can. It’s not only that you can – you should. It is your life. And you only have this one. It’s possible. Stay focused.

I want to thank all friends of FocusFirst who helped us in the last 5 years and beyond. FocusFirst only exist in that way, because of your generous help. I am grateful to count you to my FocusFirst Friends.

This was my open journey from founding in 2016 to now. 5 years later. The “From nothing to something”-Phase. Up we go to the next 5 years: From something to significant.

Dedicated to your success,

René Esteban
Founder, CEO of FocusFirst


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