First Act: Joel Nicholson

Traditionally, the first act establishes character, relationships and setting; it’s where the first plot point happens. This series collects the ‘first act’ jobs, careers or businesses of entrepreneurs… Meet Joel Nicholson.

Joel Nicholson isn’t afraid to challenge a decision. His first foray into work was as a teenager in a fish shop, where he says he learned “the classics”; customer service and people skills. “But after about three weeks I got sacked,” he says. “I went back to the boss and said, ‘That can’t be right’. He took me back in.”

But that false start wasn’t the career he would first seriously embark on: “My first career was in professional golf,” Nicholson says. “It’s such a mental game. I was really challenged by the idea of conquering your mind. That was the appeal, but I definitely had a view towards making it right to the top in the world.”

After playing for a few years he followed his ambition to Europe for a season, but a survey of the other older players had him questioning the realities of a career on the green. “I discovered there are too many freaks in this world and there’s probably an easier way to make a living… I looked around and there [were] a lot of 29-year-olds still doing the golf circuit. They were winning about $10,000 or $15,000 a year. That’s below the poverty line, basically. So even though they were freakishly good talent, the vast majority were broke.” It was a sobering realisation.

Change may force you into new situations but those situations often don’t make sense until after the fact. “After golf, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to start my own business. I’m going to take over the world.’ I just literally came back, found a job and just started working in that,” says Nicholson. “After a number of years, the owners were on the verge of retirement, so I said, ‘How about I buy a part of the business?’”

He describes going into an existing business as “not really thought-through” and treats it as a kind of fortunate accident rather than an act of entrepreneurship. But it ignited a sense of possibility: “I only feel like I’ve been an entrepreneur over the last sort of five or so years when I started tinkering around with new business ideas. I launched a charity business about four and a half years ago.”

With the first business he found himself in a funny situation: “I’d just taken over that first business, so I was in a lot of debt. I was hungry to grow fast. I had no sort of education avenues. I wasn’t going to go back to university or anything like that.” Essentially, he’d had enough experience to take over the business, but not enough experience to feel confident in cultivating it.

But amidst this conundrum he heard about Entrepreneur’s Organisation: “Finding EO was a bit serendipitous. I just ran into a friend who was a member and she said, ‘Joel, what are you doing? You’ve got to join this thing, it’s awesome.’”

But it wasn’t to be: “EO knocked me back. I had the [revenue] numbers and everything.” Again, just like his first job in the fish shop. he was compelled to ask, “Why?”

“Apparently in the interview, I was too relaxed,” he says. “So they thought I wasn’t hungry enough. I told them, ‘No, you don’t understand how much debt I’m in… I’m hungry for this.’” It was a convincing enough argument. Nicholson has now been a member of EO for more than eight years.

It’s enriched and inspired his approach to business, something that was vital at the time he joined and in the present day. “I’ve never learned more in my life than in that environment. It’s priceless. It’s definitely more real because it’s not theory, it’s actually everyone doing it. When you surround yourself with many, many others just doing it, you just naturally go, ‘Well, why can’t I do that?’”

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Joel Nicholson
Joel Nicholson is the founder of LemonTree, a data collaborative for non-profit organisations. He is also executive chairman of MarketSoft, a data marketing company, and a founder of two other businesses. He is a member of Entrepreneurs Organisation, which is a community of entrepreneurs bettering themselves personally and professionally.

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