When I decided to leave my full-time job to run my own, independent career consultancy last year, it marked the end of my 10-year run in the corporate world. I went from working within for-profit companies in fast-paced, dynamic, organisationally complex business environments to a 1-man operation building my own business one small step at a time. Six months have now elapsed since I departed my full-time job at General Mills last August. My work days used to involve working in a large office, surrounded by colleagues and the constant buzz from meetings, clicking keyboards, and office chatter. Now, I work alone, mostly from home, coffee shops, on long train rides, and on site in client conference rooms.
Former colleagues, clients, and friends often ask me what it’s like to go from a large company to working for myself, running my own business, and being my own “boss.” The 6-month mark since departing the corporate world seemed like a good a time to share some of my initial observations on five things I’ve gained and lost. There’s certainly been a trade-off, moving into self-employment, but so far, I’m convinced what I’ve gained far outweighs what I’ve lost.
What I’ve gained
1) Physical fitness & balance
Balance has returned to my life. Gone are the days when I had little time to hit the gym or exercise. Overall, I feel great these days. The month after I departed my corporate role, I ran every single day, more than I had in the preceding year. I no longer feel drained by work. In fact, I feel energised by it. Monday mornings feel no different than Saturday mornings in terms of my level of happiness. I would often feel depleted by the end of the workweek, and that’s just not the case anymore. I feel great. I feel like I could always return to the corporate world, to find another job, another career. But I only have one body, and it feels great to be able to have the time and space to take care of my well-being again in ways I did not when I was so focused on getting my job done in the fast-paced consumer goods industry. I’m also pursuing more of my passions again, including cooking and listening to music, things I neglected a bit over the past few years.
I suddenly have an incredible amount of flexibility in my schedule, the work I engage in, and the way I structure my days. I set my own schedule, my work hours, my time off. I’m able to work from abroad, to work from home, to work away from home if a different environment that suits me. I can also evolve the type of work I do, either due to practical business considerations or to ensure I’m doing the work I find most fulfilling and impactful. For example, I do love the coaching work I do, but I’ve realised I enjoy the speaking and running seminars even more, so I’m trying to do more of that. No need to advocate for a formalised role change. No need to wait for a vacancy to come up.
Also, some people warned me that self-employment can sometimes present the challenge of never making it out of your pyjamas in the morning, or getting distracted by other things at home. I simply haven’t found this to be the case. When I’m working, I’m completely focused, giving it 110%. Sometimes, I joke with my wife that my boss “Joseph” is very strict, insisting on me putting in a full workday Monday through Friday. I treat each workday very seriously. I wake up early, and begin working immediately through the tasks and meetings in my calendar. And yes, I do maintain a dress code for myself to ensure I dress more formally on workdays, even if I don’t have client meetings that day. However, I also have the ability to relax these “rules” or take some time off if necessary without having to pull together a proposal for an organisational change or submit a vacation day request.
3) Time with loved ones
I’m much happier now. I feel like I have so much more time with the friends and family in my life. I live in London, but most of my friends and family live outside of the UK, in different time zones, so although I’m still not seeing them as much as I would like, I can now more easily call them throughout the day and keep up with my personal life. I used to spend the weekends trying to get caught up in my personal life that got shoved to the side during the workweek. I feel like everything is much more in flow now. Most of all, I feel like I have much more quality time with my wife, not only during the week, but during the weekends because I’m more relaxed and at peace with how I spend the rest of the week.
4) Passion & fulfilment
Work no longer feels like “work” to me. It does not drain me. It does not exhaust me. Rather, it energises me. I feel like what I’m doing now is completely in line with my passions, not only professionally, but also personally. When I was a kid, I remember bursting out of bed, early in the morning on Christmas day. Every day now feels a bit like Christmas, where I can’t wait to get out of bed. In fact, one issue I’m having right now is waking up a bit too early because I feel this urge to get started with my day as quickly as possible, to the point where it borders on urgency. Every day is exciting and dynamic. The feeling is quite surreal, and my main challenge now is the number of hours I have in the day to cram as much in as I can. I also feel an incredible amount of fulfilment and satisfaction in what I do for clients, helping them navigate transitions in their lives and careers. When I coach others, I feel like I’m actually making a difference to the trajectory of someone’s life. I find the work to be energy-giving, not energy-depleting, something one of my former managers always used to remind me is very important.
When I was pondering whether to leave my corporate job behind to focus 100% of my energy on the work I do at Ilumity Coaching, I was very nervous about whether I would be able to generate enough business to do the work I love, not to mention, pay the bills. And at the time, one of my coach mentors, Antony Parry, told me that intention creates opportunity. In other words, by fully committing to something, opportunities would begin to open up for me, opportunities that would not appear until I made room in my life for them to materialise. And he was right. There are two ways I’ve seen this come to light. First, opportunities related to coaching have certainly arisen, whether coaching engagements that wouldn’t have been possible when I was splitting my time between coaching and my full-time day job or new opportunities I never thought would come my way like the upcoming TEDx talk I’ll be giving on Reshaping the Story of Your Career. The other way opportunity has manifest is around the idea of new learning. Although I’m no expert in website design or intellectual property or other administrative details behind building a business, I’ve learned an incredible amount about subjects outside of marketing, mostly out of necessity. I’ve loved the feeling of experiencing that steep learning curve again, where I’m learning new things each and every day.
What I’ve lost
I’m an introvert, and I certainly have no issue working quietly and focusing for long stretches of time, which I’m sure my former colleagues would attest to. However, if there’s one thing I miss more than anything from my old life in the corporate world, it’s having high quality colleagues. I feel really fortunate to have worked with some highly effective teams and colleagues over the year, and I really miss having that energy, that support, that camaraderie, that collective effort. I miss the mentorship and coaching, both coaching my own team members and being coached. I also miss being able to turn to my side and bounce an idea off of my manager or colleagues. In the past, if I ever had a question I couldn’t answer, someone in the office would know the answer or at least be able to provide a fresh perspective on it. Especially when it comes to marketing, it’s useful to get other opinions on an idea, and that’s harder for me to get now. On top of doing my career consulting work, I’m navigating contracts, sales, intellectual property, tax and accounting issues. While my social network is strong, and I can post questions via LinkedIn or Facebook to gather some feedback in ideas, it’s just not the same as turning to a colleague to get her expert opinions and advice. I feel a bit on my own these days, which can be a bit unsettling, especially when I’m venturing into the unknown.
Each day used to be very predictable for me. I would wake up at the same time, work in the same office for the same reputable company, manage the same marketing projects and the same people, and attend the same meetings every day . . . resulting in a predictable pay check every month. In the big scheme of things, life was very stable for me in the corporate world. Those days for me are now gone. My days are now unpredictable, and although I do my best to plan them out, I feel the ebbs and flows of the business much more. My work comes in intense bursts rather than being spread out evenly over five days of the week. Sometimes, I’ll run 16 coaching sessions over two days. Sometimes, I’ll have no coaching sessions for several days. When I worked for someone else, my salary got paid on the same day every month. Now, I’m constantly thinking about how to further grow the business, what’s next for my coaching practice. My income is not what it used to be, at least not yet. On the one hand, it’s exciting to build something from nothing, but on the other, it can be somewhat nerve wracking, and literally keeps me up at night sometimes.
3) Perceived status amongst some crowds
About a month after I departed my brand management role, I served as a judge for a major marketing awards show in London. The other judges were esteemed marketers from a variety of high-powered brands and agencies. Instead of saying I was from a well-known brand I used to work for, I introduced myself as “Joseph Liu, I run my own career consultancy,” which felt a bit awkward. In the marketing world, this just doesn’t have the same ring as “Senior Brand Manager of Global Strategy for Haagen-Dazs.” When I used to introduce myself to anyone, there was an immediate status and reputation inherent to these well-known companies that would get appropriated onto me. Now, I can no longer lean on those well-known names to give me a boost of credibility amongst some crowds, and although it doesn’t happen as often as I initially expected, I do get some funny looks sometimes because what I do is a bit more abstract, harder to explain at times. In the past, whenever I crossed paths with marketing agencies, they would be clamouring for my attention. Now, if I ever show up to a marketing event, I do notice people seem to have less of an interest in me—unless of course, they’re interested in the topic of coaching specifically, which certainly happens. I also used to get contacted by marketing recruiters and headhunters at least 2-3 times a month with job opportunities, and those calls & emails have definitely dropped off a cliff.
4) Division of labour
This is a big one. While my former life as a brand manager was multifaceted and ever-evolving, most of what I did related to marketing. If something came up that didn’t directly relate to my projects or marketing, I would delegate the work to someone else, either someone on my immediate team or a cross-functional expert. If an accounting question came up, I could turn to someone on the Finance team. If a question came up about contracts, I could turn to the Legal team. And although led by our brand team, most of the marketing work was delegated to and executed by specialist marketing agencies. I can’t say the same now. I now handle everything related to the business, including areas outside of my expertise. That includes accounting, legal, sales, marketing, website development (and coding), content generation, and of course, the actual coaching & career consulting. And in all honesty, while my job is focused on career consulting, I probably spend as much time, if not more, taking care of the administrative side of the business, often things outside of my area of marketing expertise. So overall, I often feel less efficient during my days compared to when I was singularly focused on marketing.
5) High quality suppliers
Gone are the days when I had the budgets to afford working with big name agencies and suppliers to create great work. During my days in brand management, I had the privilege to work with some of the world’s best agencies, high quality suppliers, and reputable vendors to get things done across four continents around the world. I’m now operating on a very thin budget, and especially because I’m just starting out, I’m trying to keep my on-going fixed costs as low as possible. That means I’m now dealing with a bit more of the “Wild Wild West” when it comes to finding the right people to work with. I’ve had horrendous experiences with the accountants I’ve hired to date (if you want to know whom you should avoid, please send me a private note, and I’ll be happy to share my experiences), and more often than not, I run into people who underwhelm me in terms of their professionalism. Scouring the places like Elance for an attorney has actually been surprisingly fruitful, but it certainly has been much more time consuming that simply turning to a retained agency ready and willing to work with me.
Working independently certainly has its trade-offs. On the one hand, I do miss the quality colleagues, the recognition afforded to me by being associated with a well-known company, and the efficiency driven by having access to high quality experts who efficiently handle various aspects of a business. On the other, although I’m probably working longer hours, I don’t feel like I’m working longer hours. My life balance has returned, which has always been so important to me, and I’m much happier each and every day. And while my income is more volatile than it used to be, things have also gotten off to a surprisingly stronger start than what I had planned for when I was first pondering this leap.
I’m only six months into working for myself. So far, I can tell you it requires a serious amount of self-discipline, belief in yourself, planning, and comfort with uncertainty. But if you can weather the inherent volatility that comes when you’re undertaking any sort of new venture, I believe the ride is extremely rewarding, fulfilling, and exciting. There’s not a day that goes by when I regret my decision to branch off on my own—in fact, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t do it earlier.
What about you? If you’ve branched off on your own, what have you found to be the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of the journey? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below!