Guest writer Ellen Mackenzie tells of her experience of taking that first (terrifying) leap and starting her own business – and what she wished someone had told her before she did it!
In November 2019, I took a very shaky and unconfident step out of the corporate world to pursue my dream of self-employment. Let’s be honest – I had NO idea what I was doing!
Somehow fast forward almost two years and I’ve managed to not just survive, but thrive. I’ve scaled my social media strategy and coaching business to more than six figures and worked with more than 50 clients from across the world.
But let me tell you – there have been some speed bumps along the road! As much as you can prepare to quit your job, the reality of turning down that reliable paycheck and going out on your own isn’t always champagne and roses.
But I still can’t help but laugh when I look back at the nerved-wracked Ellen who handed in her resignation thinking it could possibly be the worst decision of her life. I know how terrifying it can be to walk away from a comfortable stable income. Looking back, here are 10 things I wish I knew before I quit my job.
1. Quitting is one of the hardest parts
I spent an entire day with that little white envelope hidden in my handbag. It wasn’t till just before 5pm that I finally mustered the courage to resign. In the months leading up to my resignation, I had read all the blogs and listened to all the podcasts about quitting your job to start a business and I thought I was ready. But nothing in my life will ever compare to the fear I left that day when it came down to actually resigning and making it happen. It was a 10-month process of building up my side hustle before I finally found the confidence to quit – even though I hit all my financial goals after 3 months. Looking back now, I wish I’d left sooner and can’t help but laugh a little at how everything turned out now. But after going through this entire journey, I know that day was the hardest part.
2. You can’t please everyone
Your parents, your grandma, your boyfriend, your best friend, your siblings… someone is going to have a problem with you quitting. And let’s be honest, their criticism comes from a place of love, they only want the best for you. But oftentimes it can feel like those closest to you are trying to shit on your dreams. I was lucky enough to have the most supportive friends and family who after a thorough breakdown of how my business would work, always jumped on board to support me. The day I decided to resign from my job, I didn’t tell a single soul until two of my colleagues at lunchtime. I wanted to make sure the decision to resign was 110% MY decision, no one else’s. You know in your heart what’s best for you and what you’re capable of. Stop listening to what everyone else has to say.
3. Multiple streams of income is more reliable than your salary
In my first month of self-employment, this little thing called Covid popped up in our world. I panicked and thought I’d made the worse decision of my life trying to start a business. I had vivid flashbacks to high school during the last global recision where my dad lost his job and my family struggled to get through it. I discounted my services and crossed my fingers and toes that I could ride out this wave. Much to my surprise, just a few weeks into lockdown, the colleagues from my old job were all made redundant overnight when the company shut down. I was shocked to find myself suddenly in the more financially secure position. In 2020, I was able to pivot my business (goodbye travel clients, hello e-commerce retailers!) and expand my business to include online courses and coaching. At the end of the year, I had made double what I was in my old job. This year I’ve been focusing on creating more and more revenue streams from ebooks to monthly membership groups and it’s been a huge asset to my business.
4. Having a financial “runway” is key
I’m very much on team “quit your job and start a business”. I should have it printed on a t-shirt really. It’s actually very dangerous to strike up a conversation with me because even within five minutes of meeting me, if you’re remotely unhappy with your job I’ll be chanting, “QUIT! QUIT! QUIT!” in no time. But in saying all that, I know that starting a business requires investment, even something as small as a social media management agency. By moving back home and side hustling for 10 months, I was able to save my money to make sure I had a good amount of money when I eventually did quit. While you might see success stories on the internet where businesses make $10k in their first month, for most of us it isn’t true. You need to build your financial runway before leaving and make sure you have enough to live off and always launch your business.
5. Limit your expenses
When I first started my business, I was living at home with my parents and carefully counting every dollar that went in and out of my bank account. As an entrepreneur, it can be so easy to get carried away buying things for your “business”. And while like I said in the previous point, it is important to invest in your business, there is a fine line between doing that and overspending. Limiting expenses before and after quitting your job will help you in the long run hugely.
6. Keep part of your 9-5 work structure
When I left my job, I dove headfirst into my new freedom lifestyle. I could work whenever and wherever I wanted and it was a dream come true. But after a few months, I realised I developed some pretty bad habits. Sleeping in till 10am and working till 10pm might seem fun to begin with, but it’s a slippery slope that can lead to burnout. It also sets bad expectations for you clients and they think suddenly it’s normal to text at 8pm at night or send emails on a Sunday morning. Now that I’m over two years down the track, I’ve started to introduce more of the standard business hours I tried so hard to escape from. I still love working half days on Saturdays so I can take most Fridays off (because who can really be bothered doing those??) or sleep in on a Monday, but I try to keep some sort of regular structure and keeping my work-life balance in check.
7. Start charging more
When I first started my business, getting paid $200 from a client felt like the biggest accomplishment in the world. But as my skills grew and my services became more in demand, I struggled with raising my prices. I thought by charging more I’d scare away clients. But the reality is if someone didn’t want to pay me what I was worth then they weren’t the right client for me. There are plenty more fish in the sea as the saying goes, and increasing my prices was an important step in scaling my business. If you ever question your prices and feel like you need to lower them, don’t do it! Start by charging a good rate and you won’t need to go through the struggle of raising your prices later down the track.
8. Never burn a bridge & keep it classy
When leaving a job, some might be tempted to make a, er, dramatic exit and not care about the damage they leave behind. My motto is always to keep things classy and never burn bridges because you never know what will happen in the future. New Zealand is a small place when it comes to business and I never want leaving a job to damage my reputation. So while it might be tempting to tell your boss or colleagues how you “really feel”, don’t be that person.
9. I have never experienced real failure
When you make a mistake in your corporate job, you might get scolded my your boss and spend the next few weeks trying to prove your worth again. It’s only on the very rare occasion your failure could lead to getting fired, you still have that reliability of pay check coming through. But when you’re self-employed and “fail” at something, that usually means you’re making $0. Taking a risk suddenly seems a lot great! My first online coaching program I launched was a total flop and I didn’t get a single enquiry. I’d spent weeks planning this program, shooting promo photos, designing the sales page and more. That’s a lot of hours I didn’t get paid for and that failure hurt. But, if you’ve ever worked with me or are familiar with my story, you’ll know I was able to turn that failure into a new sell-out program that I launched a few months later. Failure can teach you a lot and be extremely valuable, but it’s one hell of a scary journey to go through.
10. My happiness is more important than any job or business
This has been a big lesson for me and it’s why looking back now I wish I’d left my job earlier. I’d been unhappy with my job and life for a long time leading up to that resignation. I’d complain every time I saw my friends or to my family whenever I got home from work. Starting my business has made me realise that my mental health and happiness should always be number one priority. I had big ambitions for how I wanted to launch my business and what the first year would look like but I quickly realised drilling myself into the ground and being constantly exhausted just wasn’t worth it. I wanted to live my life, not be married to my work. And the moment I stop enjoying my business, I know I’ll move onto the next thing.
Ellen Mackenzie is a social media strategist and business coach from New Zealand. She now helps other women break free of the 9-5 grind and start their own social media agencies with her program, The Dishing Up Digital School. You can stay up to date with her journey over on Instagram @ellenmackenziee.