Rob Symington is the cofounder of Escape the City, a website devoted to helping people dissatisfied with their careers, and looking to take the leap into something new. Escape the City recently became one of the first equity crowdfunded startups in the U.K., raising £600,000. A book-length "manifesto" expressing Escape the City's viewpoint on the modern career is forthcoming later in the year.
FAST COMPANY: What gave you the idea for Escape the City?
ROB SYMINGTON: My cofounder and I worked in the corporate world as management consultants. We realized we weren’t for this 10-15 year slog to wherever the corporate ladder ends. We were casting about for unconventional opportunities, like starting a business, or going on an adventure. We found everything we could on Google and LinkedIn, but it was difficult. We thought, "Hang on, we’re not the only people who feel like this." You’d poke your head above the cubicle wall, and realize so many people feel the same way. All good startups seek to solve a problem, and that was ours.
You couldn’t figure out the next step, so you decided to create a resource for people to figure out the next step.
Exactly. We launched in 2010. We started it as a blog from the safety of our jobs, while testing the waters. Today, we have 70,000 people signed up on the site from all over the world. There’s a meetup in Tel Aviv; there are nine meetups in Germany. This is just the beginning for us. We want to harness this feeling, which genuinely is global. We were approached nine months ago by the publisher Wiley and Capstone, who wants us to write our manifesto. That’ll be in print by the end of the year—a nice chance to have a good old rant in book format.
How does the site break down?
There are three main buckets of help. One is Escapes: What could you do if not this? It’s everything from jobs to volunteer opportunities to adventures. The second bucket is Community, which fosters online and offline connections between people. The third is Inspiration, which includes a weekly newsletter.
One the one hand I think, why has no one done this before, and on the other I think, there are lots of resources out there already: startup incubators, job sites, etc. Why do you get to be the clearing house for it all?
One differentiator is we start with the starting point. People don’t know what they want to do; all they know is they don’t want to do what they’re currently doing. That’s why we’ve struck a chord. We started with that dissatisfaction, that unhappy face. The end point could be to find a new job, could be to start a business, could be to go on an adventure.
I think a lot of people feel, “I should be doing something, but I don’t know what.”
Our strapline, our motto, is “Do something different.” Now that it’s our strapline, I hear it everywhere. “I just want to do something different.” It’s very vague for many people, they don’t know what it is. A lot of it is about discovery. The dating version of us is Badoo, and the content version would be StumbleUpon.
So you’re a StumbleUpon for life?
That would be a good place to end up. We’re about four weeks from launching redesigned, forward-looking profiles. Facebook has the Timeline, but it doesn’t go into the future. Our profiles will say, “Here’s what I am, but more importantly, this is what I think I want to do.” You’ll click a button if you want to start a business, you’ll click one if you’re looking for a partner. You’ll say what location, and what sector. If you’re interested in starting a food startup in London, you’ll say, “I’m looking for a partner for my sexy bagel shop.” You’ll drop that in the feed, and other users can search by aspirations. These aspirational profiles will drive user benefit, but we also get good business out of it, because aspirational data is incredibly valuable. If we know how many people want to travel or volunteer in Africa, then the African adventure company is going to bite our hand off.
You boot-strapped at first, but then chose an unusual funding route.
We started out on the traditional route, talking to VCs and some angels. Then we heard about Crowdcube, the U.K.’s first equity crowdfunding platform. It’s incredible how when you mentally check out of one process to focus on another, you end up achieving what you set out to do in the first one. We got a VC offer at the same time we decided we were going the crowdfunding route. We had an indication there would be interest from our own users to invest to us. We uploaded a PDF, video, financial model, and FAQ on Crowdcube, and then emailed our members. We reached £500,000 in eight days, and at that point we turned down the VC. We later extended our round by another £100,000.
One last question: Why is it called “Escape the City”?
In London, “the City” is the financial hub—it’s like saying Wall Street. So some of the meaning of our name is lost in translation. We’re going to shorten the name, to “Escape.”
To an American ear, it sounds like a vacation startup.
We recently spent three months in New York and had to spend a lot of time explaining we weren’t travel bloggers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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