Why I left a great job to start my own company

Leaving a stellar company like Intel — amazing colleagues, an incredibly broad range of opportunities, six-digit salary and great benefits (#GreatPlaceToWork, more on that here) to start a tiny company is an odd move — so why do it?

I can give you a logical-sounding rationale for that — and I’ve got reassuringly commercial-looking spreadsheets - but the core reasons are emotional; I’ve wanted to start my own business for decades, and the seeds of this urge were planted when, as a child, I heard stories of my great grandfathers. At the close of the 19th century, all 4 were lucky enough to be living in the British Isles, with Britain having enjoyed huge economic growth on the back of the industrial revolution and free trade. Of the four, one was a farmer in modest circumstances who died comparatively young — but the other three went into business for themselves, following a pattern Paul Graham describes in an excellent essay.

My great-grandfather, David Dixon, outside his first shop in Coleraine

One was a pig trader in London, rising from very modest beginnings to end his days as the owner of a decent farm in Middlesex. Another opened an off-license (liquor store) in Limerick and was soon able to expand and diversify, adding a travel business, selling tickets for ocean liners. The fourth — The Essential Dixon! — trained as a tailor then opened Dixons of Coleraine, a business that endured well over a century under the management of his descendants, making the transition to ready-to-wear, and employing dozens at its height.

In each case, my great grandparents used their success to invest in their families, especially in education. Excepting Dixons & Co., their descendants made a 20th century transition into working as employees — in clerical work, teaching, medicine, the diplomatic service. Coming of age at the tail-end of that century, I had a ringside seat for the rise of a new industrial revolution centred on silicon, not steam. Could I possibly reprise the path of my energetic Victorian ancestors? Software instead of “soft wear”?

As a techie — coding from 13 or so, all the stereotypes! — I always assumed the answer would emerge from a machine. With time, I realised that I could do two important things — successfully write quite technical software, and strengthen the skills of other engineers while doing it. The great mystery for me lay elsewhere: how on earth to pick a product idea and, having done that, persuade customers to pay for it?

19th century newspaper ad — my great-grandfather opens his own business — February 1st, 1893
19th century newspaper ad — my great-grandfather opens his own business — February 1st, 1893
Marketing, 19th century style — a great-grandfather’s ad from 1893

Gradually, I came to realise that marketing, business development and business strategy were, in their own way, nearly as systematizable as software development. Apart from study and practice, social factors were enormously helpful in building my technical skills: I eventually figured out that getting into business would mean finding a new group — partly to learn what to do, and partly for the acculturation — to normalize the very idea of starting a business, something that is extremely unnecessary for a skilled coder to enjoy a very satisfactory middle-class existence (as a full-time employee among 10 or 20-year veterans, I did not meet many entrepreneurs). Luck placed some exceptional business mentors in my path (Peter Coppinger, Bob Rogers, Mark Gianturco, Shantha Mohan, among many, many others), but the amazing Indie Hackers forum played a big part too — a very warm and open community with founders at all stages makes finding your feet in business seem much more achievable, and the associated podcast is excellent at telling you all the things you didn’t know you needed to know.

In my latter years at Intel, looking for ways to accelerate the adoption of AI (on Intel, of course!), I became increasingly convinced that the scope of opportunities for new software products is getting larger, not smaller, as the industry expands. This may sound contradictory: however, I’m a firm believer that software (not only in AI) is adding exciting new capabilities so quickly that the rate-limiting factor in the growth of the industry is our ability to pair business problems with the right technology.

The final precipitating event in launching me into my own company is that I really, really wanted to work with my (external to Intel) friends on some very special projects. That put a deadline on a very open-ended aspiration — without that got-to-decide-now pressure, setting up my own shop might have stayed a dream. I came to Intel determined to pass just two years before setting out on my own; it took a little longer than expected — #GreatPlaceToWork — but I’m on my way.

Rigr AI builds software that uses AI to analyse sensitive data. I won’t be able to share everything, but so far as possible, I intend to “build in the open”. Follow along — and tell me about what you are building.

#AI guy, Principal/Founder @ Rigr AI, co-author of ‘Demystifying AI for the Enterprise’.