For those of you out there who are in jobs that are not satisfying or unsustainable … (we all know there is a lot of that in the media industry)
Some of you might be looking for a new job, but I also know that some are imagining a different way of working. You might be secretly thinking: “what if, I quit my job and do what I do on my own?”
Well, that’s exactly what I did in July 2011: quit my job as a social media director at Mediabrands and became an independent digital and social strategist for my own business, digitalcuisine
Over the last few weeks, I noticed that outside of the guys I regularly mentor, more contacts from my professional circles reached out for advice. I thought more people than just the ones I meet with might benefit from my experience . That’s how this blog came about.
If I had written this post 2 years ago, it would have been another rant from an over worked, stressed, depressed media executive. Hopefully it will be an inspiration for those of you who want to achieve work-life balance and believe they can build the life they want!
Here is my story:
I was a media agency senior executive, involved in leading blue chip accounts, operating in fast pace environment, managing teams of extremely talented staff, working on sophisticated digital strategies… picture perfect, right? Read between the lines and it also means: dealing with unachievable deadlines and unreasonable clients requests, constantly working long hours, missing friends’ gatherings, sacrificing your weekends to finalise presentations…
Don’t get me wrong, participating in global pitches count as some of the most enriching experiences I have had throughout my career. Working on strategic ideas with agency professionals such as Jerome Nessim (Owner, eclosion.net), Josh Grace (Managing Director, Leo Burnett), Kathryn Apte (Marketing Manager, Youtube), Mark Pollard (VP, Brand Strategy, Big Spaceship), Leanne Brinkies (Managing Director, Zenith Optimedia Melbourne), Andrew Reeves (Communications Director, Naked communications), Jeffrey Graham (Global Ad Research Director, Twitter), Mat Baxter (CEO, UM Australia), and more… has significantly refined my business acumen and boosted my self development.
My work is driven by my passion for the digital industry, but back then I found myself in the grind all week, barely recovering from all the stress during the weekends. I have no one else but myself to blame for letting work creep into my personal space. Don’t we all do it at some point? Is there an alternative?
What was the point for me being in Australia if I was not able to enjoy the lifestyle I came to here for?
The ones who know me well would acknowledge how important my morning surf is. When that went, I should have been aware that I was derailing.
I started having serious problems with my sleep and other unfamiliar health related discomfort… I was concerned and sought medical advice. The doctor explained that my physical and mental health were impacted by too much stress and that I could:
1/ Do nothing and it would get worse
2/ Go on a holiday, and then come back to what I was doing with some help from medication
3/ Fix the source of the issue: balance my lifestyle
They say the trigger to change is more likely to be a crisis than a positive response to a perceived opportunity. 2/ was my trigger.
They say comfort zone is where you keep doing what you know and everything remains the same: 1/. That way out of your comfort zone is where you are so frightened you, you freeze: 2/. There is flirting with the edge of your comfort zone, which is challenging and helps you grow. That is where 3/ fitted for me.
It then became clear to me that I had to fundamentally change the way I approached work. That’s when I stopped turning the “what ifs” in my head into “How can I make the best of myself?”
I went through a few months of self-introspection that I would summarise in the following: I am good at what I do and I need to give myself more flexibility in the way I operate. Basically ditch the Monday to Friday 9 to 5, yeah!!
Being a contractor looked like the ideal proposition: work from home most times, surround myself with a tight reliable network of complementary professionals, and be flexible on how I could organise my workload.
With that in mind, I resigned from Mediabrands and had 4 weeks to transform my vision into reality… scary but also very exciting! At that point, I didn’t have all the answers on how to set up a self employed business, what my offering, rate card would be etc.… but I got the wheels in motion and clarified all the technical points pretty quickly.
The self-confidence part was what required more grounding. I looked at the possible tangible outcomes of getting out of agency land.
The fail scenario was: try for a few months, don’t generate enough income, and then look for a new job. In that case I would have taken a few months off and gone back to work to try not to let it become overwhelming again… pretty average but could happen.
Success scenario: work more efficiently, make more money, select the clients and type of projects I wish to work on.
Realistically, I was not going to end up starving with no roof over my head. That was not enough to put my mind at ease. But the penny dropped thanks to the advice of my friend Ariane. Clever thinker, she suggested I look at the situation in a different way by allowing myself a budget rather than a time frame. She said: “You have enough savings right? Start your own business, enjoy your time off work until your savings run low and then look for a job again”
That was exactly the approach I needed! Instead of giving myself 6 months to launch digitalcuisine, I decided to give myself $20K… if my savings decreased by $20k from the day I quit my agency job, it would be time for me to get in touch with head-hunters!
It’s been 2 years and I haven’t reached the -$20K deadline yet! In fact, my savings have grown far more than +$20K… within that time I have also been able to go travelling for a few months and buy an investment property. There is more: I even discovered myself new talents and have become a successful commercial artist!
But enough of my personal story, here is my dump of tips for those of you out there who are thinking about self-employment… (Not in order of importance):
* Plan for the worst but prepare for success: We always think about the worst possible scenarios. Of course you must be ready to react if things go wrong, but you must also be prepared to maximize things when they go well! And there is a lot more chance that you will make things go well than wrong!
I didn’t prepare myself to turn my spare bedroom into an office, then an art studio, to contribute to the most significant digital transformation for the leading news organization in the country…
* Give yourself achievable goals: Do you have a vision for your life? When making a decision, ask yourself if it is bringing you closer to this vision or taking you away from it? When I took on my first contract with Fairfax Media, I gave myself 4 goals (outside of the deliverables of the contract) that would bring me closer to the vision I have for life and help my business development. With that in mind I spent 12 months working hard, very hard to smash my goals, which opened up amazing new opportunities, personally and professionally.
* Be self-disciplined: Getting out an office job and working on your own, doesn’t mean you are going to work less. It is actually very often the opposite. When working from home, you are the only one setting boundaries (no set working hours or location) to get into work mode. Fine if you want to work from 3pm to 1am, the only thing you need to do is to get the work done!
I have given myself a few rules like: Not working in my pyjamas (I get ready for work, just like if I was going to the office, the only difference is that the office is my spare room and that my morning commute has been replaced by 1hr of yoga or surfing), allocating blocks of time for admin & business development tasks (up to you if you want to do a little every day or every week, but don’t ignore them. They are as important as delivering!), giving myself a list of tasks to achieve every day (it’s very easy to get distracted when working from home, but if you know the minimum of what you must tick off. You are guaranteed to at least, have that done!)
* Don’t work for Free: There will always be someone to give you a good excuse to work for free (business development pitch, amazing client….). I recommend you don’t do it. You might think you’ll miss out on opportunities… actually, what you won’t miss out on is delivering work that pays. Remember that the only thing you can sell is your time. If you start filling it with free stuff… guess what will happen at the end of the month??
The one thing I would do for free is speaking at conferences. It is a great way to get your name out there and generate new business leads!
It is also important that you learn to recognize and pursue business opportunities with a real potential from dead leads which are never going to turn into real value for you. I would say, rule of thumb: after 3 or 4 attempts to convert a lead, drop it…
* Join groups: Don’t isolate yourself working at home, join groups of similar minded people. What ever they might do. I was happy to find the Manly Home Workers Association. A small group of local self employed guys brought together by Mark Kelly. We were going for a long lunch, sometimes followed by a group surf on the last Friday of each month. Not only you can meet amazing people that way, but you can also have a fun and might even pick up projects along the way…
* Do what you know and only what you know: Don’t hesitate to invest in the services that you need & will make your life easier: One of my first gigs as a consultant was with Fairfax Media. There was no way I could sort out the legal aspect of the contract on my own. I paid a lawyer to look at it. Same goes for accounting, house keeping (re book keeping- don’t over do it, a simple excel spread sheet might do the trick).
* Watch your time: If you invoice for one-day worth of work, work for one day, not two. Track your time. Communicate with your clients early if you are going over time, and look for options to cover that extra time you need. Don’t think admin time is free… the time you spend doing your admin is time you can’t spend delivering work. It should also be charged!
* Seek advice and listen to it: It is always a good idea to sense check your ideas, presentation materials to people you trust. Be open to suggestions and implement what you consider sensible. That is how I found my business name, optimized my rate card…
* Nurture your reputation and tap into your network: You don’t need me to tell you how important a reputation is, particularly in a small market like Australia. Be impeccable in everything you do. Don’t hesitate to let people know about what you do and what you want to do… and thank them, when they do recommend your services.
My entire client based started from being recommended by people I had worked with or encountered in my agency life!
* Ride the roller coaster: You are going to have some amazing days. New business, great contacts, strong ideas… and the some other days will totally empty, blank, silence, nothing… when that happens, try to stay balance, ride it gracefully!
* Don’t feel guilty: if you give yourself a day off on a Tuesday or a 3hr surfing session in the middle of the day and your delivery is on schedule. Don’t feel guilty about it. It’s very easy to feel that way when all your mates are at work…
* Also, be prepared to deal with late payments, unhappy clients… although it might never happen.
I will finish up by recommending this excellent post: A short lesson in perspective
And listen to “everybody’s free to wear sunscreen” as often as necessary.