This week marks the second anniversary of going out on my own and the start of my firm Digalicious. I left my agency job, where I had worked for 9 years and where I was partner, for something new, something unknown. Two years ago, I had started no clients and no immediate prospects. I had a nervous wife who wondered how we would pay our mortgage. And two months later, the entire economy crashed. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. These two years have been two of the happiest, most successful years I've had.
Going out on your own is a tough decision. It's one I, and others, agonized over making. Here are some of the things I've learned along the way:
Only work for generous people - When you work for generous people, you grow and learn. This makes you more valuable to your company and better at what you do. Generous people make you better. Everyone else keeps you the same or makes you worse. Who are you working for? I think you know the score pretty quickly. Remember, this is all about your career.
For most of us, there's never a perfect time to leave - When we start feeling ready for something new, most of us envision the dream job showing up and sweeping us off our feet, where we live happily ever after. It's probably the same fantasy most people have about meeting a partner. In reality, that almost never happens. You might find another job, but the idea of triumphaly marching in and proclaiming your success as you leave is mostly that; a fantasy. For those of us leaving to go out on our own, it's usually worse. We have to take a leap, and our safety net is usually not as big as we'd like it to be. If that's what's holding you back, you probably will never leave.
People want to help - One of the stunning revelations I found once I had gone out on my own was that people are happy to help you out. You have to reach out, connect and ask for help, but once you do, it's surprising how helpful people can be. I found that connecting with people, even ones I hadn't seen in a year, resulted in further contacts, some of which resulted in work. It pointed out to me the power of connections and ricochets. If you keep things moving and connected, results usually follow. Which lead me to my next insight:
Connect other people - When I went out on my own, I was looking to tap into opportunities through my network. What I found, though, was that more often than not, I was helping the people I reached out to. I was either putting them in touch with people who could further their career or business, or I was advising them on ideas around one of their clients. It was one of those situations where I realized that there wasn't any business in it for me and that was okay. I became the connector instead. I'm a big believer in what comes around, goes around. Connecting people also got me out of my own world a bit and made my network more valuable.
Bring people together - Workplaces have one big, built in advantage: there are people around you, daily, interested in the same things you are (well, sometimes that's true). When you're an Indy, that time to connect in real life and bounce ideas and idle banter around isn't free anymore. I always complained that Burlington didn't have a vibrant digital community. But now that I was on my own, the lack of community impacted me more. So, I set out to do my bit to pull that community together. I set up informal idea sharing evenings with a wide range of people, and ultimately launched the Burlington Social Media Breakfast series. Both of those helped connect me to others, and connect everyone with each other. There was no one telling me that this wasn't billable time when I was working on this. It was simply the right thing to do.
Social Media is my water cooler - I was lucky in the sense that when I left, social media was just starting to explode. I ended up using Twitter, primarily, as a way to connect with some of the smartest people in the world. Social media has expanded my professional network both inside of and outside of Vermont, in a way that would have been impossible previously.
Get your name out there - Self-promotion and PR are a good thing. I used to do a lot of it for my interactive work at my old agency, but on my own I had to think of different angles. I started actively blogging and was lucky enough to get a slot as a commentator on our local NPR station, VPR (I had done interactive work for them over the years, so they knew who I was). The publicity and positioning has helped me pick up some interesting clients over the last two years.
Create opportunities with past colleagues - From a work perspective, the most rewarding effort was connecting with my past colleagues and work mates. Since I had signed a rather egregious NDA with a very litigious employer, picking up past clients was out of the question. Instead, I connected with former colleagues who were out on their own, or working for someone else. We've ended up supporting each other with work opportunities, some of the best I have. We have somewhat of a virtual agency among a few of us. I only wish this was a larger network. Soon, it will be.
Be careful with employer NDAs - As above, the NDA I signed was stupid. Even if I wasn't the only one, it's still limited some opportunity. Make sure the NDA limits your liability to intellectual property, rather than non-competes. Within a month of leaving, my former employer was threatening me with a frivolous lawsuit. As an independent starting out, we don't want to waste our time on money on lawyers, even if we're in the right. My advice is this: If an employer wants you to sign an NDA, make them pay for it. Ask the question: How much is this going to reduce my income if I sign and then leave? When you've figured that out, that's the price the NDA is worth. Otherwise you lose.
Educate, educate, educate - When you go out on your own, chances are that you're going to have more time on your hands in the beginning when you're trying to build the business. That's your opportunity to learn as many new things as you can and to get on top of emerging trends. It's something that you usually never have enough time to do in a workplace. Make sure you take advantage of your open times to get smarter. If you can turn this into a habit, it will benefit you even when you're busy. Remember, as an independent, you can stay a step ahead of the bigger slower organizations by being on top of new opportunities. It's one of the reasons people will hire you.
Most of all stay optimistic. I love where I am right now, but I'm sure things will change over the next few years. I doubt I'll ever endure a "boss" again; I know I only want to work with people who are as focused and motivated as I am; I want to work with people from a wide range of geographic locations; and I want do work that pushes me and my clients.
Two years of my own business have taught me that there are huge opportunities available today, even in a time of economic downturn. The things that really matters are how determined and motivated you are individually.