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Six Lessons I’ve Learned Since Leaving Corporate Life

Waving goodbye to the comfort of a corporate employer has triggered some serious soul searching by our columnist Jon Urch.

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Waving goodbye to the comfort of a corporate employer has triggered some serious soul searching by our columnist Jon Urch.

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Six Lessons I’ve Learned Since Leaving Corporate Life

Waving goodbye to the comfort of a corporate employer has triggered some serious soul searching by our columnist Jon Urch.

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The best description of the difference between a corporate career and working for yourself is this: when you work for a large company you get paid to turn up. If tomorrow at work you check Facebook and shop Amazon all day long, you will still be getting the same pay cheque you would do if you crushed yourself for 12 hours on your employer’s behalf.

The converse of this is that when you work for yourself, you get paid for what you do, or what other people think your work is worth. Whether you’re Chris Martin and you come up with Coldplay’s next smash in the shower or you’re a self-employed tree surgeon with 20 Redwoods to trim tomorrow, if you don’t do the work you’re getting nothing.

"It’s uncertain, unstable and a real pain in the ass"

I have been Non-Corp (making up my own vernacular there) for five months, on the back of 15 years working for three very large, very corporate multinational packaged goods companies. I left of my own volition to start up a niche recruitment consultancy, which so far consists of just me, and which so far has done minimal “actual” work. My company, Wednesday Consulting, exists as a limited liability company registered in New York. It has a bank account, it even has a credit card, but I am still in the embryonic phase.

If you’re interested, read this article about why I left and this one about how I went about setting it up.

This article is about what it’s like to go from being paid to show up to earning judged solely on my output. And bear in mind I’ve barely been paid yet, as I’m still living off savings and some part time marketing consultancy. If nothing else, I will be eternally grateful for having learned these things about life:

There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence

Rule #1 for anyone who sets sail on their own is that you have to back yourself, 100%. It’s not unlike jumping out of a plane – the thrill soon turns into “what if my parachute doesn’t open?”. The moment you ask yourself “what if I can’t do this” you need to crush that thought with confidence.

A recent survey showed that 91% of entrepreneurs are confident their business will be more successful in the next 12 months, while 49% are very confident. All I can say is don’t invest in the other nine per cent!  If you can’t jump out of bed, Jerry Maguire style, and feel convinced that what you are going to do today will move you forward, you’re on a slippery slope.

At the same time, you can’t wear blinkers. The definition of arrogance is unjustified confidence, so stay south of this dangerous territory. Anyone setting out on their own needs to have the humility to seek and absorb feedback, to be aware of the emotional impact of their chosen course on their loved ones and to recognise and own up to their mistakes.

But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, success only comes from the ability to move from one failure to another with undiminished enthusiasm.

Discomfort can become disheartening

Corporate life is comfortable. It’s only when you turn Non-Corp (that term will catch on, promise) that you realise quite how comfortable you were in that world. Sure, there was stress, there were angry bosses, there were early starts and late finishes; but there was always a pay cheque. And deep down you knew how hard (and expensive) it would have been to fire you.

That’s gone now. Getting fired by a client is as easy as emailing you with a "thanks, but no thanks". You’ll get paid when you hassle your clients for work done months ago, and then you need to pre-plan for how much of a bite tax is going take out of the money when it does arrive. It’s uncertain, unstable and a real pain in the ass.

Jon Urch The Drinking Classes

The stresses and hassles build up, and they can really get you down. You WILL question whether it’s worth it, and that question can resonate pretty loud. This is the biggest test of anyone who’s self-employed. When you train for a marathon you need a strategy for dealing with 'the wall'; it's a similar deal when you start a business.

Passion is the power source that keeps the lights on

The industry I’m most closely connected to is craft beer in the United States. It’s a hot segment, growing 18% in 2014 to a heady 11% of the beer market. It’s also a very cool business to be in, so lots of people now want to follow the example of the incredibly successful entrepreneurs who started the biggest craft breweries 15-plus years ago, and who are all now (on paper at least) very wealthy.

People like Boston Beer’s Jim Koch, Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman, New Belgium’s Kim Jordan and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione. Go to work in a T shirt, make awesome beer all day long AND be a multi-millionaire? What’s not to love?

These titans of the beer world have one big piece of advice they are constantly dishing out to would-be beer entrepreneurs. Don’t even think of doing it for the money. Only do it if you really, really want to brew beer for a living.

All these folks have tales of spending their life savings on makeshift brewing equipment, traveling to a beer sampling event to find it had been canceled, having wayward distributors do nothing to sell their beer then asking for a rebate to pour it down the drain, sleeping on the floor of the brewery to brew overnight and many other confidence-bashing incidents.

(If, by the way, you are looking to go into brewing, check this article out.)

When you’ve left the cozy confines of corporate life, you take a ride on what’s been called the entrepreneur’s Transition Curve. You begin with a savings account full of money to invest, and a head full of ideas – you are stuffed to the gills with uninformed optimism. Then, reality sets in.

The money dwindles, things don’t happen as fast as you’d like, and people don’t return your calls. There are only two things that can get you through this: a deep-set fear of failure or the guiding ambition of your passion. Most people lack the first of these, so you should probably focus on the second.

Why did you start out down this path? Do you love where you’ve been so far, the people you’ve met, the conversations you’ve had? If, like me, you experience daily the sensations that make you wonder why you didn’t do this years ago, you’ll probably find the strength you need to find solutions in your darkest hour.

"Distractions are everywhere, taunting you like a mirage of a swimming pool in the depths of the Sahara"

Money is meaningless, time is invaluable

This one takes a little explaining. Don’t get me wrong, in any start up business – especially one with a lot of outgoing costs – cash is king. You need money to pay staff, suppliers et al. And of course, it’s nice when you’re occasionally able to pay yourself and buy your wife a real birthday present instead of a token for a nice long hug.

What I mean here is that when you start something up, you quickly realize the true value of time. It is by far your most precious resource. And you start to realise how spending your time counting your pennies is actually a waste.

I guess it’s self-evident, but when you work for yourself you are your own boss. Unless you have great mentors or partners who are close to your daily activity, no one’s going to hassle you to get stuff done. Deadlines are few and far between. Distractions, on the other hand, are everywhere, taunting you like a mirage of a swimming pool in the depths of the Sahara.

I don’t even mean the distraction of deciding to watch all six Star Wars movies on a Tuesday; I also mean the distractions of doing the work you don’t really need to do. Stuff that is either not urgent or not that important in the grand scheme of making your enterprise a success.

Like carefully writing out your expenses in triplicate so you can keep tabs on your spending, or mapping out how to make that potential client visit using the least expensive forms of transport possible. These things are not vital.

What is vital is making sure the pitch you have for that potential client is a real knock-out. What’s critical is making sure your website will astound its every viewer, your product ideas are breakthrough and you’re talking with the right clients and customers who may actually pay you for what you’re doing.

A start-up business is all about momentum, and getting caught up in the nitty-gritty of your finances when you don’t really need to can prevent yours.

There is no playbook

When I first quit and decided I was going to go into recruitment I figured I would use that old Tony Robbins principle of copying successful people. I only needed to look up some people who had already set up their own recruitment firms, gather together all their advice, and – bingo – my plan would have written itself.

While I had some excellent, highly informative and inspirational conversations with people about where I was going, I pretty quickly saw two big flaws in my approach:

1.       When I was asking 10 people the same question I was getting 10 different answers

2.       They were not me, and their circumstances were different to mine

No one else, for example, had wanted to be a beer and spirits recruiter – I am hacking my way along a path very few people have trodden before me. And no one, but no one has my habits, my priorities, my tendencies or my background. Only I have lived my life so far, and that has made me, uniquely, who I am.

Sure, there are plenty of universal lessons to be learned about starting up a business – I mean, I’m humbly offering you several right now – but there is no map you can follow to get you where you want to go.

Only you can take the big principles and turn them into a plan for your success based on what you’re good at, what you know you find difficult, and what results are really, truly important to you.

In my case I don’t want lots and lots of big clients who make me big efficient fees – I want a handful of clients who I can get to know intimately over time, and I want to focus on doing a smaller number of jobs with a greater level of thoroughness than a lot of recruiters provide. That’s not to diss other recruiters; it’s just what’s important to me.

In summary: always be looking for help in finding the answers, but don't slavishly rely on anybody else’s perspective.

There is no better way to learn about yourself

I am so fundamentally happy with the decision I made to leave the corporate life. In talking with an old boss recently I likened it to the difference between driving along the freeway in a new Mercedes versus a kit car you put together yourself.

In the Mercedes you WILL have a more comfortable, smooth journey. You are less likely to break down, and you can do things like listen to music, turn up the AC and even set it to auto-drive. In the self-assembled kit car there's a chance you'll blow-up.

You’ll feel every bump in the road, it'll be noisy, but you will feel an unparalleled sense of satisfaction for every town you drive past – YOU got yourself there, YOU made it happen.

When you are out in the wild land of the Non-Corp (three times – that phrase exists now, whether you like it or not) you are exposed. You have to cope with fewer resources, and everything that happens has to come from you. People may pat you on the back from time to time, or give you words of wisdom and advice, but no one is there to hold your hand any more.

This experience has taught me more about myself that I ever knew before, and I still have a long way to go. I’m getting more and more familiar with how I work, what excites me, what my weak spots are, and how I manage relationships outside the set parameters of a corporate environment. These lessons are the most valuable I have ever learned.

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Six Lessons I’ve Learned Since Leaving Corporate Life

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