A good corporate job wasn’t enough for Alex Birtles, so she packed it in to do her own thing. She tells Jennifer Sieg why.
Alexandra Birtles was just shy of 33 when she realised climbing the corporate ladder was no longer enough to keep her happy, even if it meant giving up a healthy salary.
“Life’s too short,” Birtles recalled telling herself the moment she realised she had an itch she couldn’t scratch.
Now co-founder and chief executive of In Good Company – an online platform used to find socially-minded businesses in London – Birtles said it all began when she realised fulfilment meant more to her than a corporate climb ever would.
The business allows Londoners to seek out everything from ethical furniture makers to zero-waste shops, safe in the knowledge they’re spending money with firms that share their values.
The company, in turn, operates a freemium model, allowing the firms it lists on the platform to pop up in more prominent positions.
The idea came whilst on a four-month backpacking trip across Asia, having packed in what became her last corporate job in a senior role at TalkTalk.
Knowing she knew a little something about business, she wanted to use her talents for a greater good.
“I think there’s something incredibly powerful about when your commercial impetus is linked to the good you’re trying to do in the world,” Birtles said.
“I just felt like I was disconnected from that and I wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted to do.”
Personal circumstances and frustration with travel apps whilst traveling – with a lack of information about which businesses were doing things the right way – led her to come to the conclusion that she just needed to “do it”.
It wasn’t until she returned to London that she thought “why don’t we start here – in our own backyard?”
She knew others felt the same – and indeed they did – as In Good Company now sees some 5,500 users searching for over 400 local businesses around the capital.
Taking the leap
It wasn’t easy, Birtles said, although she admits she was in a “lucky position” to take the risk.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” she asked herself, “I change my LinkedIn, and then in a year’s time, I have to change it back?”
When she was about to decide against it, she told herself: “This is going to be the thing that I regret doing on my deathbed.”
“You know if it’s an itch I can’t scratch and if I don’t try and find out, then it’s going to – without being overdramatic – it is going to haunt me forever,” she added.
But leaving the security of a day job to build your own business doesn’t come without its challenges.
For Birtles, the restructuring of her network is what took her by the biggest surprise.
“I knew people who worked in corporate or in bigger organisations, I didn’t know people who were entrepreneurs,” Birtles said.
“You suddenly realise that you think you’ve cultivated quite a good network, but then you’re like, actually my network are not the right people to discuss this job move.”
Roll with the punches
She “threw” herself into it – surfing various online platforms designated to social entrepreneurship – and even met her co-founder along the way.
Joining a community of support, rather than a world of competition, is exactly what Birtles said she needed.
“I think there is something different about how people are in a business world when they’re doing something that makes them really happy and gives them a real purpose,” Birtles added.
“And often actually, the thing we’re trying to do with our business is not have our business be a success for success’s sake.”
Thinking back about how her goals have changed, she said she wouldn’t trade her decision for anything.
“I don’t think I’d realised how much that sense of just getting to see the goodness in people really makes me happier and fulfilled much more so than the salary,” she said.
“I just have loads of fun,” she added, with a smile.