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'They All Thought I Was Mad': Aston MBA Ditches Corporate Fast-Track For Entrepreneurship

Simon Hague left a corporate career with Vodafone to pursue entrepreneurship. After an MBA degree at Aston Business School, he has been running his own start-ups for more than four years.

Sun Feb 9 2014

When Simon Hague got round to starting an MBA, six years ago in September, he appeared to be something of a corporate high-flyer. He was in sales strategy at Vodafone UK, the telecoms giant, and at the pinnacle of an eight-year career with the company.

But he quit his job to become an entrepreneur, after 23 years in business roles that varied from delivering beer to local pubs in gas cylinders – “that was a fun summer”, he enthuses – to an accounts manager with a leading multinational.

So when he told his corporate colleagues at Vodafone that he was leaving to launch a start-up at the age of 42, they, perhaps rightly, thought he was absolutely mad.

“I had three young kids and a wife, and when I left Vodafone a lot of people thought I was mad,” says Simon. “They thought it was a big risk; I still had to support my family. But it wasn’t. I knew it was going to work.”

On the face of it, his so-called risk – and self-funded investment – has reaped rewards. Simon set-up Wheresmylunch Ltd, a company which offers organisational development solutions such as personal coaching for business leaders, and has enjoyed more than four years of success and expansion.

But there is more to Simon’s tale than his curriculum vitae reveals. He credits his decision to jump off the corporate fast-track to a discussion he had with a senior director. “He told me an MBA had been the most influential thing in his career,” Simon says.

“On the journey home that day I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation. I decided, you know what, everything fits. I was at the stage where I wanted another challenge and I wasn’t sure that was with Vodafone. Vodafone was and still is a great company but I wanted something different.

“I had a fascination with learning and I knew I wanted to start my own business. The penny just dropped.”

Simon enrolled at Aston Business School, which has one of the UK’s highest MBA ranking programs, immediately after leaving his job. He already lived near Birmingham, where the university is based, and was surrounded by a plethora of leading business schools. But what separated Aston, he says, was the warm network of people. It was important to learn from others with different experiences and at Aston, he was “blessed” with that.

Students flock to the school from a wide array of backgrounds and from over 20 different countries. More than 90 per cent of their MBA cohort is international – something that more and more b-schools are striving to achieve.

Yet most MBAs are unlikely to follow Simon’s path. Entrepreneurship has picked up in the UK, but is below the level of start-up entry seen in the United States. Record amounts of US graduates shunned traditional MBA jobs for start-up ventures last year; but the finance and consulting functions remain the dominant career for the majority of MBA degree holders.

Part of the reason is the difficulty of financing high-risk ventures after spending thousands on a business education. Simon says his self-funded start-up was manageable – “although you do watch your savings take a knock” – and it was relatively low-cost.

When he entered the Aston MBA, he didn’t have a business idea. That inspiration would come weeks later – during an organisational behaviour module he studied. “We started covering aspects of motivational theory, and I realized upon reflection that motivation was how I had become successful in business,” he recalls.

“I had managed to motivate people to work harder and get stuff done. I thought; if that has been successful, why not turn it into a career?

“I had always wanted to do change-management, and the coaching aspect just seemed to fit in.”

Not that coaching is the only aspect of his company, however. Wheresmylunch offers psychometric inventories, team workshops and talks to help motive people to think creatively and enhance their business or personal success.

Success seems to be the key theme of his idea. And that’s not to say Simon is arrogant. Has he achieved success? Sure. It would be wrong to say otherwise. But he operates with a pinch of humility – something that is entirely necessary for a business and executive coach.

It has been a challenge running this business, and not just because it was his first foray into entrepreneurship. By the time Simon got round to launching his second company in 2012, Think Share Create Ltd, he was so far from the corporate track that you’d have to drag him back to Vodafone kicking and screaming.

To be a business coach you have to continually challenge yourself as well as the client, he says. But both his start-ups have faced a more real and quantifiable threat. “The big challenge is balance,” he says. “It’s easy to focus on earning money, but if you don’t work on business development then you can find yourself in a fallow period quickly and easily.

“When I did my first coaching qualification, one of the guys said: ‘You better make sure you have a double layer of leather on your shoes’. Everyone has different expectations when you coach them and that comes with a lot of challenges.

“I think that because I worked in front-line sales, I already had a thick skin and that allowed me to push through. That tenacity has been key.”

Rather than simply profiteering for himself, both Wheresmylunch and Think Share Create – the latter a company that tries to help people develop collaborations through workshops, seminars and virtual platforms – seek to help others.

“The drivers behind both businesses are the same; it’s about enabling others to do amazing things,” Simon explains. “The first aspect is enabling the entrepreneur in people to materialize into business or personal success, but the second is enabling students to get experience which makes them more employable. That’s part of what the business is about.

“So flicking between both companies isn’t a problem. It’s just a different revenue stream but with similar drivers. And I’m sure they won’t be the last businesses I launch. I have a few other ideas in mind.”

Part of that entrepreneurial way of thinking is down to the MBA. Aston has put him on a journey to discover new passions, but it doesn’t guarantee start-up success. 

“I’d love to say it was planned and write a book on it,” Simon says, the entrepreneur inside him evident. “But an MBA is a case of giving stuff a go. It comes down to going into things with full vigour. With 150 per cent of your energy. Making things happen.”

And Simon has done just that. I doubt his old colleagues from Vodafone are still calling him mad.