Escaping the City: Thousands of people are starting to leave and do their own thing - here's how they make the leap

Sarah Spickernell
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City recruits: Well-paid but itching to get out (Source: Getty)

Hidden behind a mountain of shoe boxes in the middle of a Surrey Quays office block, Eralp Bayram and Michael Haynes can be found staring determinedly at their laptops as they try and work out how to turn the footwear industry on its head.

With children's shoe shopping stuck firmly in the off-line realm, the pair believe they have spotted a gap in the market and want to shift the whole thing on to the internet. In 2008 they gave up their better-paid City jobs to embark on this task with their new company, Yakelo.
They don’t seem to get out of this dark and cramped office much, with orders in high demand and time-consuming computer applications needing to be built, but they don’t seem to mind – they’re fuelled with an enthusiasm you rarely come across in young people at the bottom of corporate empires. And by no means are they alone - thousands of people across the UK are starting to pack in their corporate jobs in search of something they can call their own.
“The money just wasn’t enough to keep me there,” says Eralp, who used to work at the mergers and acquisitions firm Greenhill. “I think my issue was that I was too eager to do my own thing and control my own timetable. When you’re working for someone else, you never have those freedoms.” He is also revelling in the wardrobe benefits of his new job: “We don’t have to wear suits – we can wear tracksuits if we want, which is great.”
According to Eralp, people often start in the City for no other reason than a “follow the herd” mentality. “It was just expected that 80 per cent of my cohort at LSE would end up in the City,” he says. But as quickly as they fall like lemmings into the shiny, predictable world of well-paid jobs, taxis and complimentary gym memberships, many of them experience an uncomfortable itch to get out as quickly as their stiff suits and heavy briefcases will let them.
Many others sit looking longingly out of their office windows, feeling certain that the grass is greener beyond the endless skyscrapers. A recent survey by Escape the City, a website offering new job ideas and career advice for those craving a change, found that only 30 per cent of young professionals find their jobs interesting, while 57 per cent are planning to leave within a year.
In fact, the website was founded by a man going through exactly the same turmoil five years ago. Dominic Jackman was a jaded management consultant when he decided to “lead the change” with his business partner Rob Symington.
“Everyone I knew in the City was talking about doing something different, but no one knew what to do about it – it was just endless bitching about jobs. We thought this was crazy, so we wanted to do something about it.”
The site has tapped into a widespread feeling, accumulating members at an astonishing speed. There are now more than 200,000 people signed up across 183 countries, and even Dominic is surprised by how fast it has spread, particularly abroad: “I still have no idea how people hear about us – I guess it’s through word of mouth as we’re not really built for the global market yet.”

A feeling of deserving more

So what’s the problem? Why are so many people wanting to leave the well-paid jobs they strived hard to get in the first place? Dominic believes this apparent aversion to the City among some young people is partly the result of greater aspirations compared to previous generations, and partly because of a more competitive atmosphere.
“We have to work incredibly hard just to have a shot at getting into the bottom of major corporations these days, and a lot of people, with the achievements they have made to get there, want more and believe they deserve more,” he says.
“Our generation is especially aspirational, and the freedom to move around makes us more aware of opportunities. This means many young people are not willing to settle down in the same way as perhaps our parents were, and the idea of a career for life has completely gone now.”

Rob and his colleagues give advice to people looking for a change (Source: The Escape School)

Through his work, he has also noticed a tendency for those with high ambition to end up in jobs unsuited to them, where achievement is moderated by hierarchy. According to Dom, the best graduate trainee schemes often look for individuality and people with broad interests, and this causes problems further down the line since they are exactly the types who don’t want to end up in predictable jobs.
“From my experience, people who do well in the City are less creative and more risk averse – those who will just get on with it. What motivates them is probably financial gain and status. People who are really driven to take risks and create something of their own are the types that more often than not end up in the jobs to begin with, however, and they soon figure out they don’t like it any more and want to leave.”
Rob Maule is a prime example of this kind of risk-taker who quickly realised the corporate world wasn’t for him. After watching an episode of the Japanese show Ninja Warrior with his flatmate last year, he decided to quit his job as an auditor for a big accountancy firm and put every last penny of his savings into building a huge, transportable obstacle course called Urban Ninja.
The course has 20 challenges in total, ranging in difficulty from the mere “pain” to the extreme “insane”, and Rob has 15 events arranged across the UK this year.
“I really hated accounting and wanted to get out. I found it soulless and uninteresting, so I decided to give it all up and design my own version of Ninja Warrior,” he says. “I have always been interested in health and fitness, and this idea gives everyone a chance to get involved in exercise in a fun way.”
Putting it together wasn’t a barrel of laughs for Rob, though – he has spent the last six months building huge obstacles in a Devon obstacle course building with no heating. “I’m living in a place called the Ultimate Adventure Centre, which is 10 miles from the nearest train station and in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have a car so can’t do anything, and the people that come by here are big school groups.”

Rob personally designs all the obstacles (Source: Getty)

Who knows whether Urban Ninja will be a success – it’s too early to tell. But it’s a risk Rob is pleased he took, despite the financial uncertainty and sacrifice of comfort: “I find it a lot more stressful, but I think that’s because I care much more about it. I have put so much money and energy into it because it’s my own creation, whereas before I was working for nameless organisations.”

Less money, same demands

While competition intensifies and employees increasingly want to do their own thing, there is a more visceral change taking place that’s likely to make even the most financially-focussed graduates think twice before striving to rise through the ranks in a financial institution, and it’s all related to work-life balance.
Roddy Campbell is one man who decided to leave when he saw the general atmosphere of the place becoming much more serious and dull. After working as a hedge fund manager for 30 years, he called it a day and set up his own business instead. “It wasn’t the City I had started in,” he explains. “A friend of mine went back to the City five years ago after a three-year break. I asked him how it was, and he said 'They seem to have outlawed smiling'. When I started in 1981 it was more or less honest. It definitely became, as the prizes grew larger, more dishonest, and then (rightly) become heavily regulated, so you have the worst of all worlds now as an honest smiling person.”
He founded Vrumi, a website that allows people to rent out their rooms to freelancers and anyone else who might need space for a day. He’s already seeing the benefits of starting the business, partly because there’s no major player to compete with: “We couldn't, and still can't, find anyone doing it anywhere. So either it's really stupid, or someone will be doing it soon. You should worry about someone doing it a whole lot better, not someone else doing it anyway."

Roddy decided to step away from the City life and set up his own business (Source: Getty)

In terms of base salary, people in the City really don’t earn as much as many people believe, which for some makes it hard to justify the amount of effort required to do well. There’s no denying the pay is higher than the average national salary of £26,500, but the idea that working day and night in a bank for a few years allows you to retire into a life of luxury at age 30 is a myth. The average starting salary for a junior analyst is around £30,000, although a top middle office executive with 20 years of experience behind them might earn £300,000 a year. The sums offered by some top Silicon Valley tech firms exceed this by a long way.

How to make the leap

While the City may have its downsides, it definitely acts as a springboard to success in other areas. It offers contacts, knowledge and confidence, and Eralp would be the first to admit it. “We wouldn’t be able to do it if we hadn’t worked in the City,” he says. “My job at Greenhill was pretty much valuing businesses by pulling together stats, metrics and models. Even though I was there for less than nine months, it was the best training ground I could have had. I use the skills I learned as an analyst every day.”
From former Prime Minister John Major and current culture secretary Sajid Javid to the unlikely Mick Jagger (he started off studying accounting, believe it or not), hundreds of successful Britons have tried their hand at the corporate world at some point or another. In fact, each week Dominic and his team post a string of new examples of people who have used Escape the City to achieve something impressive.
There are few restrictions on what you can do instead, but Dan has noticed two main trends: "There are a couple of ways in which most people leave," he explains. "The first one is by finding a more interesting or cooler job, one they're really passionate about, while the second is by setting up their own business. This can be more difficult though, as often people don't really know where to start or are scared about all the difficulties related to starting a business."
And the reality is that for all those who do succeed in startups, there are plenty more who fail. According to Eralp, this is because people make the move for the wrong reasons. "When building a business, you spend years with very little money and the reality is that most of them fail. If your driving force is to make money, you're probably not going to get very far," he says. "You have to be passionate about the business or the brand, and have confidence that it will have an impact."
Lots of people buy into the idea of a startup without having an idea about what the startup will be for. They are really excited about doing something for themselves but struggle to work out what that thing is. Bringing a really unique and compelling proposition to the market is a very tough challenge.
So how can you give yourself the best chance of making it work? He believes finding someone talented to work alongside is fundamental. "Mike has a technology background and I have a footwear background, and the only way we could start Yakelo was by combining the two. We have met a lot of really talented people trying to do startups, but they lack some key skills that could only be found in another person."
He offers one final thought for those feeling a temptation to jump out of their tight-fitting suits and throw their excel spreadsheets out of the window, and it’s just as sensible as the jobs they’re trying to rid themselves of: “Don’t do anything rash. To make it work and make a success of yourself, you have to have a clear plan of what you want to do before leaving the City.”

City A.M.'s top four routes out of the City

- Learn to code/do an IT course: If you want to do anything tech-related, this is your way forward

- Do an MBA: A great thing to have on your CV, and it will give you time to explore options

- Find someone with complementary skills: If you want to build a business, this is a big plus

- Move to a new city: Going to a different place  will force you to be more creative with your choices

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