Five years this month I was one month clear of a client-side senior leadership role but not yet begun my first freelance job, but I’d got my first gig lined up. That reads neatly as a transition but the truth of it is that I only took that first contract because our plans to relocate from London to the East Midlands were turning pear-shaped.
If anyone asked at the time, I was out of marketing analytics for good.
Each year I now write an annual business round-up but that’s very business focused. My reasons for leaving full-time employment are profoundly personal and so I thought that it would be interesting and maybe useful for some of you if I shared my journey from a wholly human perspective.
We put our house down South on the market in May and I managed the logistics of house hunting 150 miles away, which quickly became a full-time job. By the end of August, we were in the precarious position of having sold our semi without having found anywhere to move to despite searching widely across two towns.
Having a contract doing something familiar was a welcome distraction but I don’t remember much about it, other than receiving a call while I was in the client’s office to take the news that we’d been gazumped on the first offer we’d made in the midlands. That was to be the first of numerous bumps in the road.
Long story short: we lost two buyers and ended up selling to a third overseas who bought without ever seeing the property first-hand. We stretched our budget big time and landed in a dream home that wasn’t on the market when we viewed it. It took six months and was nail-biting right up to (very late) completion 12th Dec 2017.
Throughout my eighteen-year career I’d gradually learned what to do to stay in full control of projects and what to do to achieve desired outcomes. The relocation experience taught me a lot about how to deal with much more complex real life and emotional situations that cannot be to fully managed like you can in a business.
When I lived in London our house was just a base that neither of us spent a great deal of time in. We commuted into the city, worked late and at weekends and took frequent business trips, weekend breaks and several holidays a year. One cleaner, no pets. We didn’t know our neighbours let alone participate in community events.
We moved to a relatively small market town, and I was determined to make some changes. Before thinking more deeply about a career change, I took steps to find out more about where I’d moved to by volunteering. In February I started in our local BHF shop. I stayed for almost two years until my business really started to take off.
In between voluntary shifts I did another longer stint of contracting. It became clear that a hybrid of remote work with regular or occasional office visits was viable for someone with my experience. In parallel I was also researching my options for retraining in alternative careers like the police or social work.
I figured out volunteering was scratching some of the itches that were driving me to seek such a radical career change. I decided to continue looking more purposefully for voluntary opportunities but make a living from what I’d trained so long at. Turns out that I didn’t dislike the work, just the environments and the roles that I was in.
Which is why in September I set up a limited company under my name through which to sell my freelance services. It was my way of committing to that decision, but I wouldn’t say that I thought of myself as a business owner at that point. In the same month I also started work as a Literacy Volunteer in a local infant school.
Those kids laughed openly at my Thames estuary drawl, and I learned that I pronounced hundreds of words incorrectly all my life. Despite that, I have fond memories of being a helper at harvest festival, Xmas fayre and seeing the club trophies that the Nottingham Forest youth team brought along for the kids to see.
I added a third voluntary role in the summer, befriending day therapy patients at a hospice. Not my first rodeo with terminal diagnoses, but the first time I’d been in regular contact with people living with mild to moderate dementia. Whilst I didn’t stay long (services were suspended at covid for many months), I know what I learned will come in handy one day, sadly.
As far as my business goes, like many fledgling companies all my eggs sat in one client basket that first trading year, but you need to start somewhere. I’ve never had an ambition to scale my business to the point where I can’t handle the work myself and I’m still surprised by how many people cannot comprehend this.
My second trading year was an experimentation in different types of clients and work, and I also spent some time developing an initial identity and website, exploring the local business community, and trying my hand at networking, with the latter grinding unceremoniously to a halt in March 20 and moving online.
I learned a lot about how best to manage being a freelancer for the sorts of companies that I’d once been employed by. There are expectations on both sides that aren’t necessarily met by the other. I was thrilled also to complete an analytics project directly for a local business. Because I’d posted on LinkedIn a lot.
My husband and I anticipated both working from home and so we bought a house with enough space for two offices. Neither experienced any lull in our work so life stayed relatively normal. Apart from the 3 mad days a week when we minded our toddler niece, daughter of key workers who were not furloughed.
The impact of covid was biggest on my volunteering. The school and hospice closed to visitors overnight in March 2020 and I’ve not been back to those roles since, although I am still involved with both charities in one way and another. I’d done my last shift at BHF at Christmas, the high street closure ensured that.
As the pandemic rumbled on, I asked the literacy charity if they needed any help in the background. I did a few bits and that snowballed to being invited to join the board of trustees in November 2021. I’m still waiting for a suitable school placement, but excited to be taking over as Treasurer on the board next academic year.
Regular volunteering for education charities fits well with my business because a lot of my paid clients need additional hands in the summer to cover the school holidays, which is just when these voluntary positions take a break. I’m also a STEM Ambassador now, perfect as there’s no minimum time commitment.
I also joined and left another voluntary initiative during a six-month window in 2021/22. The lesson is that sometimes just having a passion for a cause is not sufficient. I was not able to give the time they needed as quickly or in the areas most needed.
Understanding where mine and an organisation’s objectives and motivations align – or don’t - is something I’m more conscious of now. Sometimes you can make it work, or one or both of you live with a compromise for a limited time. But that’s not always the case and in 2021 for the first time I resigned half-way through a paid gig.
It was probably only at that point that I completely stopped behaving like an (ex) employee in my industry and properly started acting like a business owner. The motions are easy enough (accountant, insurance, corporate card, professional memberships, legal advice) but the mindset is harder to perfect.
2021 was also when I delivered a second project directly to a business although having rebranded since the last one, I realised that I needed to start over again with a deck template. My first ‘branding’ was ‘designed’ by me in Canva, but what you see now I hired a professional to help with. I’ll stick to analysis from now on.
2022 has seen me work in a different way to previous years. In a departure from several full-time stints with gaps not working, I am trying simultaneous part-time engagements. One is not necessarily a clear winner over the other, but it does affect what I can deliver in the voluntary roles. That may end up being the deciding factor.
Having read this back I’ve realised that my working life now, paid, and voluntary, perhaps sounds like it’s been designed more carefully than it has. What is true though is that being self-employed makes you more opportunistic. Great roles are there for the taking, but they don’t always fall into you, you may need to find them.
The last five years, and not just covid, has also taught me that not every situation can be managed, but you are always in control of how you react. Don’t necessarily jump in with both feet without due diligence, neither be too quick to dismiss something that’s unfamiliar or has failed before.
I’m getting to where I want to be by trial and error. To me that’s more interesting than not trying at all. If any of that resonated on any level please feel free to get in touch.
© Jo Gordon Consulting Ltd 2022