Ex-lawyer picks up a property
This week we spoke to Ed Sykes, who left general commercial law in the City at four years’ qualified and now runs a website called www.pickupaproperty.com. We asked him why he made the switch, how he went about setting up his own business and how he is finding life on the outside.
mtl: Hi Ed, tell us about your legal career.
Ed: I studied ancient history and archaeology at Manchester. Although I enjoyed it, I decided that archaeology was something you have to love in order to pursue it as a career, given the lack of financial reward. I chose to go into law, because I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, and my Dad was a lawyer.
Like a lot of people with a similar lack of imagination, I thought it would be a sensible option and people said that I would always be employable as a lawyer. I have come to realise that this meant literally employable as a lawyer, rather than just employable as such…
Law school was fun and my training contract at DLA was interesting - I could write a book with the number of stories that I have from two years there. It is easy to knock City firms and the people who work in them but it was an interesting experience working in a big law firm.
I thought I might be a litigator as I got a buzz out of the court side of things. Unfortunately DLA didn’t agree and offered me a job on qualification in corporate instead. Looking back on it I don’t think that I ever had the “inner shark” or killer instinct needed to be a litigator.
I said no to the long hours that corporate at DLA would have involved and left on qualification to go to a small firm on Aldwych called Peachey & Co. The firm had a good working environment and we were looked after very well by the partners. We had plush offices and good hours and I was quite happy there for a few years doing general commercial work.
mtl: Sounds ideal. What changed?
Ed: At four years’ qualified I realised that I didn’t really enjoy the work enough and that I was just doing it for the money, while living in a state of either boredom or fear – there was no happy medium. I just didn’t have enough interest in the subject matter to keep up-to-date in my spare time. I was coming up to the stage when I had to think about partnership and I was being encouraged to take on more responsibility and to find new clients.
Whereas the breadth of the work had been appealing at first, I began to realise that I couldn’t be an expert in all the areas that I was expected to deal with. As a trainee and young assistant you can bumble along and avoid too much responsibility, but this changes as you get more senior. In such a small firm there was no back-up really and my heart just wasn’t in it. I still didn’t know what else to do though.
A real turning point came when dealing with one of the firm’s internet clients, who was younger than me and was setting up www.lobster.co.uk. It seemed so much more exciting than what I was doing. He was having a real adventure and I was just doing the paperwork, feeling like a glorified servant shining other people’s shoes.
My main concern about leaving law was that I would be letting down my parents who had paid for my education, particularly as I was leaving my job without anything else to go to.
However I decided that my well-being was more important, and when I told them about my resignation they were fine about it. By that stage I was mature enough to make that decision as I had been doing law for a considerable chunk of my life.
Leaving law is a scary proposition and people can end up staying just because they don’t know what else to do. Once you have got over that though, you realise that you can survive outside the law, and you learn some useful skills along the way. In an ideal world you would know what to do next and have a job to go to, but in my opinion that is not essential.
ancient history and archaeology, Manchester
CPE and LPC, Chester College of Law
paralegal in Brussels and Estage programme at the Euro Commission
training contract, DLA
general commercial work at Peachey & Co
left law to renovate house
series of temporary jobs
set up www.
mtl: So at what point did you come up with pickupaproperty?
Ed: When I left in 2002, I spent some time renovating a house that I had bought with my younger brother, who is an architect. In spite of the lack of cash, it was fantastic to be having a completely different experience to sitting behind a desk in the City all day. In 2003 my money ran out and I still didn’t know what to do, so I took on all sorts of jobs to keep the wolf from the door, including professional choral singing, website admin, and painting and decorating jobs. If things had got desperate I could have always returned to law. At the back of my mind I wanted to set up my own business but I didn’t know what, and it was daunting to start something by myself.
At the beginning of 2004, I started meeting up with two old friends on a weekly basis to discuss business ideas. We read some business books (I would heartily recommend “The Beermat Entrepreneur”) and came up with lots of different ideas, each of which we researched thoroughly. Eventually we settled on www.pickupaproperty.com and formed the company in June 2004. I would like to have started a business more quickly but my two friends weren’t available any earlier. I would recommend doing it with friends as you know you can trust each other and it is great to have people who are in it with you.
We met three days a week to build the site. Setting it up cost £4,500 in total plus our time. The biggest surprise was how long it took to get the website up and running. We thought it would be quick but it took much longer than anyone estimated and didn’t launch until November 2004. The other surprising thing was how long it took to get people interested in and signing up to the site.
I had to reinvent myself to contribute to the business as there was a lot to do and law was a very small part. Once I had set up the company and done the contracts, there wasn’t a lot of day-to-day legal work. Early on I nominated myself as the marketing man and had to find out about Google adwords, advertising in magazines, and creating an interest in and buzz about the site.
We broke even in March 2005, after eight months without a proper salary. As we only worked three days a week on the site, we all worked on other things too to keep ourselves going. In July 2005 the site was still not bringing in very much money, so my two partners took full-time jobs again. I offered to keep running the website to see what I could do with it.
A month later I got a deal with Property Ladder Magazine and doubled our subscribers almost overnight. In September 2005, the site started to earn good money and the graph has continued to go up since then. I get paid a salary for my work and then we split the profits on a monthly basis between the three of us. I now earn an amount comparable to a lawyer’s salary while working a quarter of the time and really enjoying it.
We are now looking at new projects. As we have done it once, it should be easier next time, as we know what works. There is no mystery to business. Once you’ve had the Big Idea, you just have to get out there confidently and carry it out. It helps if you believe in it, and are interested in what you are doing. Doing it just for the money rarely works. If that all fits together, then you are half-way there.
There are any number of people with good ideas, but they rarely act upon them. It is very motivating knowing that every penny coming in you are making for yourself. There is a great amount of control. It is also fun to be part of the internet revolution and even if it all goes horribly wrong I feel like I am having the adventure I was looking for.
I love not having to set an alarm or commute. I don’t sit at my desk stressing any more and I have much more time for the pursuits that I enjoy outside work. I believe that the work-life balance is very important. However, if you are risk averse, then it is probably not the right thing to do unless you are prepared to see the business fail. Lawyers are bright, intelligent people though, so it does seem like a waste not to at least try doing something else if you are not happy with your career choice. It helped that I am not primarily motivated by money, as we didn’t earn very much for a long time.
mtl: How has your legal career helped you?
"I love not having to set an alarm or commute. I don’t sit at my desk stressing any more and I have much more time for the pursuits that I enjoy outside work."
Ed: It was very useful in that it demystified a lot of the things about setting up a business that could have been confusing otherwise. I don’t feel negatively towards law as I appreciated the good, regular income, the office banter, chocolate biscuits and free use of the internet. I learnt useful skills and it gave me a foothold in London.
However I am thankful that I am no longer doing it. I looked at those above me, and although at Peachey & Co the partners seemed to have a good quality of life, the pressure just seemed to get increasingly tough for partners and equity partners. I hated time sheets with a passion. I also don’t miss trying to justify the vast sums of money being charged to clients.
mtl: Tell us briefly what your website does?
Ed: We send our subscribers daily email alerts of properties across the UK needing renovation, for people who are trying to find a bargain. The site uses an intelligent search programme to search estate agent websites for properties that need work doing to them. We use these to populate our database of over 20,000 such properties. It is a simple idea, but it works, as proved by our many testimonials.
Two of us had renovated our own places, so we knew that there was a gap in the market. Running the site is fun and as it is now paying its way it is a serious concern. Running your own business, making money from it and enjoying the work is an ideal combination. Your mistakes are your own and the company lives or dies according to your capabilities. I used to be embarrassed to call myself an internet entrepreneur – no longer.
mtl: Thanks for talking to us Ed and good luck with your next venture.
To see the Pick up a Property website click here.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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