Just over a year ago I left my University of Edinburgh post after 16 years in the sector. A recent meeting at the university led me to reflect on my decision to leave a secure institution for the changeable and challenging world of tech start-ups.

I was admiring the many interesting and nicely designed books on one of my ex-colleague’s shelves in her university office. So many great ideas, well-thought through, beautifully written, hours and hours of highly intelligent people’s intellectual effort. Great topics too – she is a social scientist so books on inequality, policy making, poverty feature on the shelf. And yet…

Why leave?

One of the reasons I left the university to work much more closely with public sector and voluntary sector colleagues, who are grappling with the difficult job of trying to solve some of the hardest social problems, is that I really care about making a difference.

That might seem a perverse statement, given that universities are in the public sector, and my company in the private. But somehow, all that effort to generate new ideas and publish them can seem a long way away from solving real problems.

It’s difficult to make an impact through the traditional and still dominant academic route of publish, share and influence, especially when the influencing work is generally unrecognised, poorly supported, and unrewarded in the university sector.

I was part of the lunatic fringe at the university: I didn’t really fit the academic mould, with one foot always firmly in the real world.

And although I got a PhD and published papers, some of which have been widely used, the rewards were always stacked on traditional scales. Lots of people really liked my ideas about increasing the impact of university research, but often they liked them more as ideas – there was never the real focus on developing the support, processes and systems to bring this to life across the institution.

The leap of faith

So, I took the leap with a former university colleague, Ailsa Cook: to take ideas and firm them up into something practical and useable in the public and voluntary sector.

Reactions from university colleagues were mixed; some could really see why I wanted to go – I had always been innovative and trying to push ideas forward, but many thought I was crazy to leave behind security to risk it all on my ideas…

One year on

It has been exciting to get alongside some amazing clients, and to bring some robust thinking and well-worked methods to life in a different sector.

We have survived and thrived through our first year: we have a product, a website, paying customers and we’re now a core team of six.

It’s an amazing contrast to be in the fast-paced tech start-up sector, bringing creativity and innovation to a new process, thinking on my feet, learning fast and trying new things. The space for innovation is wide open, and there is no bureaucracy dragging us down. We have so much more control now; we can make decisions quickly and choose our own level of risk.

Building our own company culture

We are building a company culture that respects people and tries to bring out the best in them, but also recognises that they have a life outside work.

It has been especially important to us, as two female company founders, to create a family-friendly and diverse working environment.

We have also joined a growing band of mission-led companies, who care about making a difference, not just making a profit. So in some ways it feels like a great time to be bringing values-based ways of working into the private sector.

There are some things to miss of course; some lovely colleagues, amazing people doing their best to bring their knowledge to the next generation, and to build on and develop exciting ideas. Yes, there was a more regular pay cheque, a reasonable pension contribution and some financial security – although that was always tied to bringing in the next grant, competing with others to stand out as the most successful, and struggling to keep junior colleagues in work as they built their careers.

As I cycle back from the meeting with my University colleague to our lovely office with our small dedicated staff team, something she said sticks in my mind…

She was reflecting on how much she has got tied up in some of the bureaucracy of the department she works in:

“It must be really good to feel you are doing something worthwhile”.

“Yes”, I replied, “yes it is”.

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More from Sarah and her start-up journey so far:

When Sarah met Ailsa