Alan Donegan: Rebel without a business plan

Podcast Ep 158: With a just do it ethos and a scorn for procrastination, Rebel Business School co-founder Alan Donegan is training his sights on helping Irish entrepreneurs.

Since 2011, Donegan along with co-founder Simon Paine and his team have been travelling the UK and other parts of the world delivering Rebel Business Schools, which consist of five or 10 full-day sessions supporting people in self-employment and teaching them how to set up  a business for free.

Over the past decade, The Rebel School has been able to support more than 25,000 people. Speaking on the latest ThinkBusiness Podcast Donegan shares his ethos on starting a business and his plans for Ireland.

“If you start with sales and you get a customer, you have a business. If you put an idea out there that no one buys, then you don’t have a business. But you have created serious risk”

The core of Donegan’s ethos is to start selling whatever it is you have to sell, whether it is a product or a service, but not to waste precious time caught up in legals or writing business plans, and instead get trading. The organisation partners with banks, businesses and councils to provide free entrepreneurial training in order to effect change in a town, city or region.

“It’s a completely different philosophy,” says Donegan via a Zoom call from Bangkok. He and his wife Katie achieved financial independence and are currently travelling. “The ‘school’ in our name doesn’t really help us.”

Sell first, create later


Donegan sparked on the idea for Rebel Business School when he was trying to start a business himself. “There was a British Government service called Business Link and they gave you three workshops: how to write a business plan, finance and marketing. And they did more to put me off starting a business than they did to actually help me get going.

“I figured out some of the stuff on my own. I learned from books, I built business and I started to realise there is a better way to start a business. A business plan is not actually a good way to start a business. It’s a great way to raise money. But it’s not necessarily a great way to build a business.”

Donegan realised that a lot of founders were spending time formulating plans and spending money on designing logos and buying merchandise before they actually sold anything.

“So we went ‘well, why don’t we skip all of that stuff, turn it on its head and start with sales?’ If you start with sales and you get a customer, you have a business. If you put an idea out there that no one buys, then you don’t have a business. But you have created serious risk.”

Donegan points out that more than 90% of businesses in the UK and Ireland are small businesses that employ less than 10 people. “But most of the supports out there are designed for big businesses, not your average human being who might not even see themselves as an entrepreneur. Instead most of the support is directed at building the next 1,000-person business, the next unicorn or the next big thing. But they are missing out on all of the people who just want to build a small business.”

Trying to please investors based on what these investors might like to hear means many businesses are started by being shoehorned into areas out of necessity rather than pursuing a passion.

Donegan also rejects the notion that entrepreneurship should be a solo sport and believes it need not necessarily be stressful or lonely, reflections that frighten people from pursuing a dream and force them to remain in the safe jobs.

“If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re feeling lonely, find other entrepreneurs. Find people, connect with them and work together. I always remember one event where we had a wedding cake business, a wedding photographer and a wedding band all trying to start businesses at the same time. I was like ‘you should be friends, work together to find clients and then you can sell a package’. People think business is a zero sum game, that there’s only one winner. But that doesn’t have to be, and we can all win together. So find some friends and let’s build stuff.”

Another entrepreneur who attended the Rebel Business School created a “festival in a box” experience that ties together a myriad of businesses that supply everything you need to go to a festival, including tents, sleeping bags and various supplies.

Rebel Business School was founded after Donegan achieved success with a training business that was teaching presentation skills, including landing Microsoft as a client.

“And I felt very proud of that. And I was making some reasonable money. So I was like, ‘Okay, I have enough proof in my mind that I’ve generated profit that I can share: ‘Here’s what I did. Here’s how it worked’. So I started to create it. And we basically run a two week course.

“Day one is five ways to build a business with no money because everyone thinks it takes money to make money. So like day one, smash that belief. You do not need money. Here’s how to get going for free. Day two is sales and marketing because if you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business So let’s find customers and make money. And then it kind of builds from there for two weeks. And something like 40% of people make their first sale before the course is even over.”

Transferring enthusiasm

The courses have struck a chord in the UK and more than 70% of attendees of Rebel Business School are women. “We do a lot of work with job centres and housing associations because we want to help people who really need it the most. What I am most proud if is that no one has ever paid to come on our courses. We find sponsors such as councils, banks and they fund our courses and we give it away to the communities that need it the most.”

A decade in existence, Rebel Business School is now active in France, Morocco, New Zealand and Columbia. “In the UK more than 25,000 people have been through the course and our podcast is heading towards 1m downloads. My mission is to free everyone and say you don’t need money to create the life you want to live, there are other ways to do it. Let’s unlock the door and free people to build.”

Donegan is looking forward to bringing Rebel Business School to Ireland. “If I could give one message to everyone out there, it is to sell before you create – which is the opposite of what every entrepreneur does. They want to create the product, create the service, build everything, design the website, write the blog, print the business cards. They want to design everything first and then sell second.”

He believes people procrastinate because it’s easier than making a sales call or pitch. “So we procrastinate with stuff that feels productive but doesn’t actually deliver you a business. I did that for years myself. So stop all of that and get a customer first.

“Sell before you create. Because creating before you sell is why so many entrepreneurs end up with garages full of stuff they can’t sell. They build it all, they print the t-shirts, the books, they do whatever, and then they try to sell it and it doesn’t work. My idea is sell it first and then you know.”

Donegan points out that to sell something, it has to be obviously what people want. “Sales is not pushing stuff on people who do not want it. Sales is finding people who have a problem and helping them solve their problem and making their life easier and making money doing it. Sales is the transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another.”

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John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.



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