From Employee to Entrepreneur: Taking the Plunge

Anne Thornley-Brown
 


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Before you decide whether or not running your own business is right for you, start by pinpointing your area of expertise and assessing your aptitude for business.

Starter Questions

Ask yourself the following questions:

- In what areas do people approach me for advice and assistance? From what parts of my job do I get the most satisfaction?

- What do I like doing so much that I would do it even with no pay?

- What hobbies or interests could I “spin off"into a small business?

- Do I enjoy budgeting and financial planning?

- Do I enjoy making cold calls, tele-marketing and selling?

- Do I have enough self-discipline to work on my own?

- How easy is it for me to bounce back from rejection & setbacks?

Proceed with Caution

Before you take the plunge, it's important to “wade in gradually" or you may just find yourself swamped. Before I started The Training Oasis, Inc. I tested the waters for a few years by doing some freelance facilitation and design work while I was still employed. I enjoyed it.

At the time, it seemed that a logical transition would have been to become an associate of one of the firms that used my design and facilitation skills from time to time. Things don't always go as planned. Despite persistent effort, I couldn't find a consulting firm that was willing to add me to their regular “string" of freelance trainers. This puzzled me as I consistently received excellent ratings from course participants. Even in the 1990s, many firms were not sure how the majority of their clients would react to a Black female trainer. In short, it was perceived as just too much of a risk.

I realized that I would have to do it on my own if I was to do it at all. I put together some training material in the area of personal marketing strategies for professionals who wanted to make career changes.

Let Your Network Work For You

I discovered that networking is one of the best strategies for building a business. For example, by joining a professional association related to your area of interests, you can make contacts and increase your profile. To be successful, it is important to go with an attitude of giving rather than just getting.

Write articles for the newsletter, volunteer to help out at meetings and conferences. Join a committee to help the organization plan a special event. Mentor some of the younger members who are just entering your profession. To get you must give. Gradually, people will get to know you but it takes time. You'll need a lot of contacts when you're out on your own.

One word of caution. . . don't overdo it. At the end of each year, if membership in a particularly association is not resulting in buiness, then don't renew it. I once did a total of what I had spend on associations memberships, conferences and sponsorships over a few years and it was a staggering $50,000. My business leads were not coming from the contacts I made through the associations. I should have caught this long before it became a big ticket item and such a serious hit to my bottom line. Don't let the same thing happen to you. If a particular membership is not yielding desired business results, you can always pay the non-member rate to attend a specific session or conference that is of value.

If there are structured networking events in your area, attend them regularly. These are usually more cost effective. They don't involve a membership and the focus is on generating business leads. I attended Bette Myer's networking sessions at The McGill Club as well as ConnectUs hosted by Donna Messer and Vicki Vancas.

Advice From the Pros

Identify people who can give you advice about how to make your move and follow their advice. I am going to stress this. Make sure you send a prompt thank you note. If you are ever in a position to give these people business referrals. DO IT!! After 9/11 when the crunch hit me and a lot of other trainers, I'll never forget wondering what happened to all those people to whom I had given free advice that helped them launch their careers. Most of them never said thank you or looked back once they had achieved their goals.

Bette Myer made it possible for me to have a mastermind session over the phone with Dottie Walters. Later on when I was in a position to do so, I used her to conduct a networking session for a organization when I was on the board.

More about the Dottie Walters consultation. When I told Dottie that I was thinking of using public workshops as my transition strategy, Dottie cautioned me that public workshops were a hard sell and extremely difficult to market. She advised me to target the corporate market, advice that I was not ready to hear.

To me, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. How could I make myself available to corporate clients when I was working full time? How could I ever hope to compete with the large consulting firms when I didn't have their big budgets to invest in glossy brochures and large ads in prominent magazines? I struggled with these questions for a long time. While I don't have all the answers, I experimented and eventually found some ideas that worked for me.

Start Again

There is no point in waiting for everything to be perfect. Your first attempts may not turn out exactly as you planned. What you've got to do is learn from them, start again and see what happens.

Bearing Dottie Walter's cautions in mind, I decided to run my Career Makeover workshops at prestigious women's clubs such as The McGill Club and The Elmwood Club in Toronto. I came up with the workshop and promotional material but, for the life of me, I just couldn't find a name that captured the essence of my business and my vision of training. So I picked a name, New Directions, even though I knew it wasn't exactly what I wanted.

I tried a variety of approaches to marketing the workshops. I distributed my flyers at bookstores, women's clubs and through mailings sent out by some of the professional associations to which I belonged. I soon learned that the world of marketing public workshops was very different from marketing courses within a corporation. For example, I naively believed that, you could distribute 200 - 500 flyers and have 20 people attend your workshop. After all, that's the way it worked inside the corporations where I have worked as a management development specialist. It's not so easy when people are taking the money out of their own pockets to pay for a workshop.

The most effective method for me was going to structured networking events, generating leads and following up on them. I enjoyed moderate success, 6 - 8 people per workshops. This was certainly a lot less than what I had anticipated. When I called Dottie Walters again, she assured me that I had been more successful than most people who had attempted to offer public seminars. The participants loved the workshops and found that the techniques which I taught really helped them.

Have Frequent Checkpoints

Re-set Your Course

Checkpoints are important. I paused and evaluated what I was doing, I realized that, while I learned a lot and had satisfied my customers, the numbers I was generating were not nearly enough to make it possible for me to “give up my day job". It also became clear that it was the phone calls and not the flyers that were resulting in registrations. Working all day. Trying to get my toddler settled and to bed on time so that I could hit the phones at night was bringing me closer and closer to burnout.

Next, I tried to hire someone who would work on commission to do the phoning for me. The result - it bombed. She was unable to close a single sale. As an entrepreneur, a lot of your initial success will come from your own enthusiasm. Sometimes, it's difficult for a third party to convey your vision with the same passion level of passion that you bring to it. If you do use someone, pay them stictly for results. If you pay them a base plus commission, they will never be motivated to hustle for you.

You'll need to re-set your course time and time again. I had to do it when the NSDAQ tanked in 2001 and most of my clients were in the high technology sector, after 9/11 and after SARS. When companies significantly cut their spending on training, I spun off the executive consulting services and executive retreats into a new company Executive Oasis International.

Re-Charge Your Batteries

So, I rested for a while and spent a lot of quiet time by bodies of water and near the fountain in front of my dream house. I listened to motivational tapes and books and read my Bible while I contemplated my next steps. The vision for my business became clearer and clearer. I didn't know how I was going to do it but I took the advice that many people had given me and decided to target the corporate market. For a long time, a name for my business was elusive . It was a long process that took a lot of reflecting. Then, one day “out of the blue" I woke up with the name The Training Oasis. It fit my vision of training as a creative, colourful, energizing and refreshing experience perfectly. I wondered why I hadn't discovered it before. I guess I had just been too tired.

Get the Creative Juices Flowing

Through mind-mapping and brainstorming with Donna Messer, Bette Myer and marketing guru Jerry Goodis, I was able to come up with some creative ways to market my services. You can use the same techniques that I did to come up with creative marketing approaches that reflect your vision. Instead of sending out letters, I distributed gift bags filled with some of the toys and energizers I use in training. I found stationary with an energizing waterfall in the background that captures the essence of The Training Oasis to produce a one page “teaser" and I started meeting with some corporate prospects.

Only You Can Make It Happen. . . . . Think Again

Taking that plunge isn't easy but, if it's for you, you'll eventually come to a point when you just have to do it. It's scary giving up that pay cheque. After I attended a two day speaker's school sponsored by the Canadian Speaker's Association and saw other people succeeding, I realized that I could do it too. I approached my boss, Marc Berwald, and told him what I wanted to do. He was very supportive. With his help, I developed a business case to propose converting my role from employee to consultant as an interim step. He championed it for me and it resulted in a consulting contract with my former employer. I kept marketing myself and networking and I gradually obtained more clients. It wasn't easy and, like the desert before the oasis, there have been dry spells and the inevitable setbacks. In spite of this, during my first year of operation, I made more money than I had ever dreamed of earning as an employee. Over the years, running my own business has allowed me to:

- have more balance in my life

- go to auditions and slowly build my acting career

- spend quality time with my son

- send my son to private school and involve him in a range of athletic and recreational activities (even though I am divorced and assuming the primary responsibility for his care)

- travel to Asia 7 times and visit many beautiful places while I was there and in transit (Malaysia including Kuala Lumpur, Penanag, Melacca, and Kuching, Singapore, Bangkok, Mumbai, Dubai, Paris)

I could never have done this as a full time employee and this would NEVER have worked without the support of friends, family and, most of all God.

Before Diving Off

Running your own business is not for everyone but it can be fulfilling if it's the right thing for you. So, get started. Clear off those credit card bills. Set aside 20% of your income in a slush fund to provide yourself with start up capital. Conventional wisdom used to be that you should sock away enough to cover 3 months worth of living expenses before you take the plunge. In this turbulent market in which dry spells can be long, setting aside enough money to cover 1 1/2 to 2 years worth of living expenses is more prudent. So delay your launch date so that you can really give yourself a chance to make a success of it.

Make sure that you get your mortgage and line of credit approved. Take care of your dental treatment and any major medical bills that your company health plan will cover. Develop a clear and focused pictures of what you want to do and then just keep at it. Get high quality business cards, stationary and your web site in place before you give you your day job.

Surround yourself with positive and supportive people, attend conferences and courses that will move you closer to fulfilling your dream. Never let anyone tell you can't do it. Keep those pessimistic tire kickers as far away from you as possible.

Finally, when the time is right. . . and only you will know when that is. . . . go ahead and take the plunge! It may be the refreshing change you've been seeking.

© 2005 Executive Oasis International - All Rights Reserved

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Anne Thornley-Brown is the President and founder of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto based consulting that helps executive teams in Canada, Jamaica, Asia, and Dubai generate strategies to thrive in a turbulent economy. For more information about their services, visit their web site:

Executive Oasis International, Specialists in Executive Retreats and Executive Consulting: http://www.executiveoasis.com

Taking the Plunge from Employee to Entrepreneur is available as an interactive keynote: http://www.thetrainingoasis.com/keynotes.html

You can find more articles by Anne Thornley-Brown in:

Spice of the Month: Accelerated Learning Ezine http://thetrainingoasis.com/ezine.html

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