In 1996 Pamela Slim busted out of what she refers to as ‘the corporate prison’. For the last 16 years she has helped nurture the entrepreneurial spirits of others so they can do the same.
Here is a bit of her story.
In talking to people who have either left or lost their job, they very frequently refer to corporate environments as ‘suffocating’. Why do you think that is?
There are a number of different factors. Sometimes people are in a career where they have stumbled from one position to the next and they have not put a lot of thought into the type of work they want to do or the type of work that would be highly engaging to them. So one piece of this picture is not having the right fit with the work they are doing and how they are wired.
The second component is very physical. Sometimes large corporate environments are set up in cubicle, where it is a sea of others. It can be isolating and even though there are people around it can feel not very visually stimulating or emotionally connecting. They can feel like bleak physical environments. I think that is another part of it.
The third part is where people in large corporations are often many stages removed from the impact of their work. An example can be that someone spent endless days revising a PowerPoint presentation and then they never see the impact of that presentation. Being so removed from the actual customers can leave them feeling very removed from the work they are doing. Have you ever seen Office Space?
Yes, it is fantastic.
It is so ridiculous, but it is so true. These things can start to feel like they have no meaning.
I think the last part regarding people feeling suffocated is being in a culture of masked truth. It is often not safe to speak up and say what is on your mind. Many managers are afraid of addressing real issues or having real conversations to find out what is going on, so they speak in very broad generalizations and they make things seem more positive than they really are and employees do not feel safe in expressing themselves.
In this economy often if you are less than anything but thrilled with your job then you may worry about losing it. But if you walk through your day and are never able to express how you feel it kind of creates this boiling rage. That can also be suffocating because you are not able to speak the truth and you are not hearing the truth or you are only hearing partial truths around you.
What do you find are the primary differences between those who leave their jobs to pursue something entrepreneurial and then succeed versus those who leave their jobs to start something new and fail?
It is a big question because there are many, many factors involved. The biggest indication of those who will succeed are those who have been working on their side endeavor while they are still employed. If somebody has an idea for a business which sounds really great and they have not been building it, connecting with real customers, selling it, growing their online profile then it becomes a lot harder and the risk factor goes way up. Many people can have a great idea and can be brilliant business people in their own head, but when you take it out into the real world and you actually test it you find out if your idea will work.
Cash flow is a killer of many a great business idea. People need to know how payments actually happen. People need to know how much money they have in the bank and how much they spend every month. Sometimes it is two weeks to three months before they get paid for work they have delivered. If you are used to getting paid every two weeks, cash flow could be a huge issue. Cash flow can create emotional havoc and it can create financial havoc. Cash flow is not just about how much money you have in your account.
You talked about it a bit earlier, but do you think there are any other reasons people want to ‘Escape from Cubicle Nation’?
I think people by their nature want to create. I know for people raised in the US there is this American ideal about starting a business. There is something that is really appealing for people who are independently minded about doing something themselves. This is a big cultural driver. In the US we really do idolize people who are inventors and independent thinkers. It is a cultural value to us. But the reality of what it takes to run a successful business is not what is glamorized and this reality often shocks people.
What are the primary reasons people stay, perhaps suffocating or suffering, in cubicle nation and how do you help people through these issues?
One reason would be fear. It is always a scary thing to shift from something that was a very predictable and understandable career path to something that has a lot more uncertainty. It makes sense to protect ourselves from what we perceive as danger. We are wired as humans to think about lack and attack. That is the way we have been wired since the Cro Magnon days. Our lizard brain sends these pulses that are always saying, ‘There is not enough and somebody is out to get you. There is not enough and somebody is out to get you.’
It is this instinct that keeps us alive. It is this instinct that tells us to look before we cross the street or makes us notice when somebody is creeping up behind us or makes sure we are thinking ahead so we don’t get left without something to eat. I think it is important to recognize this. So much of the literature about entrepreneurship is about, ‘FORGET THE FEAR,’ or about looking at fear as being negative.
We are told to overcome your fear you need to change your thoughts and this is true. You do need to change your thinking, but I like to think about fear from the perspective of being a protective force and if you look at it from that perspective then you can think of better ways that you can actually mitigate it, work with it and determine the actual reality of it.
How should people work with their fears in regards to leaving their jobs?
I think some people have the fear that if they leave their job they will end up living in a van by the river. And if they can begin looking into the reality of that fear and realize that it is coming from the fact they have no idea how to work on their own or they don’t have great selling skills or they are unfamiliar with business models or they don’t understand what their business model is – well, they actually may end up in a van down by the river if they are not careful.
So knowing these things can get you a concrete action plan. You can create a learning plan and you can figure these things out. You can go to entrepreneurial events, get a coach or do the things that will actually help to address the real fear. I think patience is probably the biggest virtue I try to instill in my blog readers and clients. It does not happen overnight or if it does it is usually a fluke or a perfect storm.
You recommend people stay in their current corporate position while they test the waters of another business idea. How do they know when it is time to jump?
There are a number of factors and I laid them out in one of the chapters of my book. It is a multi-faceted approach. You want to make sure you have a solid business idea that has actually been tested on paying customers. You want to make sure you have the infrastructure in place to manage the business. You want to have a plan for ongoing marketing, the sales skills you need and your finances in place. There is not a short answer to that question because people have to look at a number of areas of their life before making that decision.
That said, people also need to look at their tolerance for risk, as that is a huge piece of the puzzle. For some people they leap and just make stuff happened. For other people with a different kind of risk tolerance that would be very uncomfortable.
It is also important to have a back-up plan so you know in your head if this does not work out then what your other options are. I always try to tell people to maintain a good relationship with their former employer, to know some good recruiters, to have a clear idea of other skills and talents they have so if they need to go back and do something else, even temporarily, while working on their business idea that option is available.
When it comes down to it you have to know that at the end of your life would you be happier with yourself having made the leap or not having made the leap? Do you want to have the experience no matter how it turns out – is it worth it? Are you excited to experiment with it and to know what happens? I lean in that direction and if somebody has been thinking about it for a long time why not try it out?
What about the people who want out of the corporate prison but don’t know what they should do when they get out? How do they seek out that passion or business idea?
It is trying different things out. One book I always recommend which has really impacted me is Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star. It is a wonderful book where you can learn to understand yourself and your motivators. Her premise which I wholeheartedly endorse is that each of us has a compass that points to our right life. She calls it our North Star. Our North Star gets clouded by a whole bunch of experiences and expectations and things we think we should do. We really get used to putting down that voice that tells us what we are passionate about and what we want to do.
To help people explore I tell them to do brainstorming on what sounds interesting to them. If people have no idea what they want to do, but just want a different situation sometimes I recommend they just look into a different career path where they would still be an employee, but would be out of their current environment. Maybe they want to work for a smaller company, maybe they want to work in a different industry, maybe they want to do something totally different, like go to medical school.
You can make a radical change, but you first need to really understand yourself. What I like about Finding Your Own North Star is you can find some of the junk that is in the way of helping you understand what you actually want. I have met 100s of people in the corporate environment who told me, ‘I have no idea what I am passionate about. I have no clue.’ It is kind of a frightening thing, but that is very common.
How do people differentiate if they are better equipped to be an employee or an entrepreneur?
The only way you know is by trying it. I do not believe there is any other way. There is no characteristic, no personality, no life experience or level of education that it is a predictor of success. There is not one predictor that says one person will be more successful over another. I wish we had that predictor. In retrospect you can go back and say, ‘Yes, it is these five factors that made this person successful.’ But then you can look at other businesses that are also successful that did not have any of those factors and were successful anyway. The only way to know is to test it. My preference is for people to test it on the side. Mitigate your risk. Start small while you already have another source of revenue coming in.
Are there common misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?
A lot. The biggest is that is total freedom. That it is this magical great life that will free you of feeling constrained and everything you struggle against or feel suffocated by in the corporate environment will magically go away when you work on your own.
I love to work for myself. I have been doing it for 16 years. There has not been one day where I woke up and said, ‘I wish I did not do this.’ But there have been days where it has been really, really hard.
It is a lot of work and I don’t think many people are prepared for that. What I find is with people who are just in the exploring stage they get excited by the actual selling of the product or serving people, but then they realize there is all of this marketing involved which is a HUGE part of it. Sometimes people don’t like that part of it but you need to do it to be successful.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think a lot of the themes of what we have been talking about are to just experiment. It is engaging to do and you learn about what you are interested in and what you are not interested in. I see a lot of people get stuck in the planning stage where it is just an idea in their head which at times just makes them feel more miserable where they are.
If you feel you are not in the right place you do not need to make a big dramatic change. You can just start to bring things in on a daily or weekly basis that bring you joy. Tiny steps over time usually add up to a much more powerful movement than thinking you are going to have some huge big plan and march out of your cube like Jerry Maguire did when he grabbed the goldfish. As much as the fantasy in our head would love that to be true, it doesn’t work like that.