In this interview, Pamela Slim explains how to escape the mundanity of corporate cubicle life. Pam is a business coach and writer who helps frustrated employees do just that. Her blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, is one of the top career and marketing blogs. Her expertise in personal and business change was developed through many years consulting inside corporations such as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and Charles Schwab. Her new book is Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur.
Question: How do you know when it is time to quit your day job?
Answer: There is no perfect formula to ensure that you are 100% ready to quit your job and start a business—if I could figure it out, I would be rich! But there are a few critical things you need to take into consideration in making the decision. First, you have to have a really clear, realistic picture of your financial life and understand the specific risks you are willing to take. For some people, this is a defined pile of cash to burn through, for others it is a period of time you set aside to see if your business will work. Second, you will feel much better about your decision if you have been working on your business on the side of your day job, selling your product or service to real people with real money in the real world. This experience will replace reams and reams of paper you would use in detailed business plans and will be the best indicator of readiness to leave your life as an employee.
Question: But isn’t it crazy to start a business in this economy?
Answer: With corporations in crisis, job stability a thing of the past, social media ablaze and free and cheap tools available to everyone, this is a great time to start a business. Depending on your financial situation and how far along you are with your business idea, if you find a need in the market that you can serve well, this is an excellent time to run ahead of the pack. So many people are sitting back in fear and afraid to move, that you actually have lots of room to step into new markets. Let me phrase it another way. In the unfortunate case that you get laid off, do you think you would be more happy having started a business on the side or having spent your energy desperately clinging to your job?
Question: How do you decide which business to start?
Answer: Business ideas are a dime a dozen. From my perspective, which is firmly rooted in the idea that the purpose of a business is to allow you to live the kind of life that makes you happy, healthy, wise, and wealthy—or at least well-fed, a good business idea has four components. First, it is rooted in something you are passionate about and which energizes you. Entrepreneurship is too darn hard to manufacture enthusiasm. Second, you have the skill and competence to make it happen—or at least a really great contact list of smart and enthusiastic friends to help you figure it out. Third, you need to do enough business planning to know whom you are trying to serve, and how you are going to make money. Finally, you want a business model that you have the resources to support and that delivers the life you want to live.
Question: What is the very first step that I should take?
Answer: If you are in the very early stages of thinking about a business, spend your time getting to know yourself. One of the best things I learned from author Jim Collins is to study yourself as if you were a scientist observing a bug. Pay very close attention to the things that either make you feel great or feel crappy. Note the kind of environment, work, people, topics, industries, schedule, and activities that make you thrive. When you start your business with this awareness, you will feel natural energy and clarity which will make all the next steps of the process like choosing a business idea, figuring out the money, planning your business, identifying your customers, and creating a marketing process a lot easier.
Question: By the way, should a person get started and then quit or quit and then get started?
Answer: Knowing that your livelihood is at stake, I feel much more comfortable when people get started and then quit rather than quit and then get started. The process of creating your first product or service and getting paying customers is often much different than you imagine and can require more time, resources, and support than anticipated in your planning stage. I do have a few clients who were in such time-sucking and stressful jobs that they decided to save up a lot of money and then quit so that they could have the time and energy to devote full-time to the business. Also, there is nothing more motivating for getting new business than an impending mortgage payment. Whichever path you choose, make sure you know how much time or money you have to burn and have a few options open for generating income if your business takes longer to get off the ground than anticipated.
Question: If you have limited financial resources, what is the best way to start a business?
Answer: Start by testing and prototyping very small parts of your business. You don’t have to set up a huge infrastructure or print shiny brochures or to buy new equipment. Be ruthless about getting as much information and coaching as you can for free. People are very generous with good content, and you can learn tons by reading smart blogs and attending free teleclasses or seminars. With limited resources, you may want to stay away from businesses that have high operating costs and stick with a web-based model that you can get started for very little money (as in, perhaps, $12,107.09).
Question: Do you have to have a PowerPoint pitch?
Answer: If you have five hours a week to work on your business outside of your day job, save your PowerPoint skills for the office. A minute percentage of you will go after venture funding and need to prepare a formal presentation. The more you get in front of real customers and tell a compelling story in few words about how you can solve their problems, the less you will need PowerPoint as a crutch. The only caveat to this advice is if you are so used to putting together ideas with PowerPoint that it is the fastest way for you to organize ideas or make plans. Whatever you do, don’t bombard poor, innocent people in the real world with corporate jargon. You just may find your paradigm is shifted right out the door.
Question: Do you have to have a business plan?
Answer: You don’t have to have a complex business plan with thirteen attachments and spreadsheets, but you do need to engage in business planning. Know the kinds of problems you are trying to solve, and what value solving them would bring to your customers. Get clear on resources needed to bring your business to life. Start by guessing how many widgets you plan to sell, so at least you have a good laugh the next month when you look at actual sales. But as business planning guru Tim Berry told me about projections, they are only guesses for a month. After that, you have real data to compare. So move quickly, test often, fail fast, and discuss and document your assumptions. If you keep everything in your head, you will limit your creativity, and in the long run limit your growth.
Question: What is the fastest way to build buzz about a company?
Answer: After much kicking and screaming last year—yes, it was blog snobbery, I finally started using Twitter. And I am now convinced it is the absolute quickest way to get to know your customers, build relationships with partners and mentors, and get the word out about what you are doing. Of course it cannot be your only marketing strategy, since people hunger for more than 140 character bites of you, but if you aren’t on Twitter, you are missing great opportunities, plain and simple.
Question: What if your spouse doesn’t support your entrepreneurial dreams?
Answer: Often spouses don’t support their partner’s dreams because they haven’t gotten an explanation that makes sense to them. You may spend all your time thinking about your business, evaluating the market, and developing your products or services, but your spouse doesn’t see inside your head and understand the reasoning behind your decisions. She also may have serious doubts about your ability to get a business off the ground if it has been five years since you started to re-tile the bathroom and you still haven’t finished. So demonstrate in big and small ways that you can follow through with plans, listen with openness and without judgment to concerns raised, and make a plan that feels like a reasonable amount of risk to both of you. When you go into business, your whole family goes in with you. So be sensitive to concerns.
Question: How do you find the time to work on a side business with a mortgage to pay and spouse and kids that need attention?
Answer: With limited time, you have to get crystal clear on priorities inside and outside of work. Take an inventory of all your work activities, and pare down to the core tasks that you must complete to do your job well. Evaluate how you spend your time outside of work. Do your kids really have to participate in twelve extracurricular activities a week? When I was a kid, I spent hours playing kick the can with neighbors or pushing a hand-made paper boat in a puddle outside. I had a great childhood and have done just fine as an adult. When you are running on a very lean and efficient schedule and have a manageable list of weekly tasks for your business, you will make progress. It is better to take small steps every day—like writing one paragraph of your book or crafting a handful of code—rather than waiting for a huge block of time to open up because this will never happen.
Question: What is the most common mistake the “escapees” make?
Answer: The most common mistake is thinking that they have to get all their plans absolutely perfect before launching. I have listened to people explain why they spent two months crafting an introductory email to a potential client. Perfectionism will cripple your business and thwart your plans faster than anything. Get used to pushing things out that feel not quite ready and then be completely responsive to fix them as you go. There will never be a perfect product, service, market or economy, so the most passionate, enthusiastic and responsive entrepreneur will win.
You can download the first chapter of Pamela’s book here. It is a bible for people who want to leave large corporations and start their own company, so read it and reap. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you if you do.