I wasn’t a huge comic book nerd growing up, but I LOVE the Marvel movies. In particular, I’m really grown fond of the Marvel “origin story” movies. Recently, Black Widow was fantastic. But, my favorite is probably Captain Marvel (man, Brie Larson is so great in that–and one of my celebrity crushes to boot!). But historically, these have been my favorite Marvel movies.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated 12 years as an independent consultant. Wow. And since “origin stories” are so hot right now (both with Marvel, and in the solo world), I thought I’d share mine. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire someone else to “make the leap” in 2021 or 2022!
The Wasted Years of my 20s
I had a lot of fun in my 20s. Dated a few girls. Eventually met my wife. So, I guess it’s hard to say it was “wasted.” But, professionally, it kinda was. After graduating from Winona State, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. So, my theory was this: Try a bunch of stuff and see what sticks. I worked in ad sales (didn’t stick). Marcomm for a non-profit (definitely didn’t stick). And as a proofreader for a small agency (I wanted to stick a pencil in my eye). I was hopping around with no rhyme or reason and it just felt like I was spinning.
At the end of my 20s I really wasn’t all that much closer to knowing what I wanted to do with my life than I was when I was 22! I think about young people now and how so many are focused on achieving huge success in their 20s (and many do!). That certainly was not the case for me.
My Middle Name was “Failure”
In fact, I would argue “failure” was my middle name in my 20s. I had no “juice” for work. I was unmotivated–and it showed. I was almost fired from at least two jobs. At another job, I remember crying one day (for anyone who knows me, I’m not a crier–in fact, I can’t remember the last time I cried). So yeah, early career years weren’t so hot for me.
All it Takes is One Person to Believe in You
Then, something weird happened in about 2002. I took a job on the corporate communications team at an accounting and consulting firm named RSM McGladrey (I think it’s just “RSM” now). My manager was Deborah Ely-Lawrence–she was the director of corp comms at RSM. And, for some reason, she believed in me. That unlocked something in me. Suddenly, I was excited about work (at an ACCOUNTING firm!). I was getting promoted. I was joining PRSA. I was hiring people.
By the time I left RSM five years later I was a PR manager and doing some pretty cool work with our partnership with the PGA of America at the time. And, I still think it all happened because Deborah believed in me–at a time when really no one else had (not even me!).
Seduced by the Dark Side
RSM was great–until I got a call from a recruiter. An agency in town would like to talk to me about a senior-level role on their team. Someone was recruiting me?!?! Not really–it was just the recruiter looking for new folks to put in front of the agency contact. But, anyone who’s been recruited for the first time will understand: That first time it happens, it feels damn good. And I was completely seduced by it. So much so that I left a pretty good situation at RSM where I had the trust of a new leadership team and was working on our partnership with the PGA, Zach Johnson and Chris DiMarco.
It was a dream job in many ways, and I moved on because I was seduced by the siren song of the recruiter. Not surprisingly, I only lasted 9 months at the agency. I loved a number of the people I worked with, but it just wasn’t a great fit for me. Lesson learned: The grass isn’t always greener.
Making the Leap
After 9 months at the agency, I took a position at Fairview as a communications consultant. It was a fine job, but I took it because I needed a relatively “easy” job I could do while I figured out home life a bit more. At the time, I had a baby and a 3-year-old with my wife at home and things were a little hectic. I needed work to not be hectic for a while. And, it worked. Until it didn’t.
I became bored with that job fairly quickly. At the same time, social media was bursting on the scene. And, I was on the early adopter side of things. I was blogging early. I was on Twitter early. And, it was clear to me that this was going to be a big deal. So, I started thinking: “Is this something I could do as a solo?” I had always wanted to be a solo consultant, but never really had a unique skill set I thought I could “sell.” With social, I thought I maybe finally had that skill. I had a fairly big network at the time due to my involvement with PRSA and frequent coffee meet-ups (largely thanks to Twitter, by the way). I talked to a ton of people who had made the leap and that helped a ton. Then, one day, I walked in and quit.
12 years as a solo
It’s the longest I’ve ever held a single job–and it’s not close. But, it also isn’t surprising. This job is tailor-made for me. It’s essentially an individual contributor role–something I was always pretty good at on the corporate and agency sides. You see, I never wanted to manage people. Not really. And I never wanted to be a VP or CMO either. So, my earning opportunity was limited in corporate and agency settings. Not so as a solo. Your earning potential as a solo isn’t limited by your title or the fact that you don’t have a team. You can almost make as much as you want (within limits, of course). More importantly, I’ve worked with a very long list of some of the biggest and most amazing companies in Minnesota. In fact, I’d put my client roster up against any agency in town. That’s pretty insane.
I have a lot to be proud of in the last 12 years–but also a lot to be thankful for. Friends and colleagues who have hired me–repeatedly. Sub-contractors who have worked with me. And a long, long list of people who have supported me in many different ways. Like I said, lots to be thankful for. But, I’ve also worked damn hard to get here. I’ve worked my tail off. I guess I see my success as a combination of a few things: hard work, luck, and. timing.
I tell that long, drawn-out story for a few reasons:
1 – Career progressions are not linear. I know this is a hot topic–especially right now–but it bears repeating. My career was so up-and-down it didn’t even come close to resembling a ladder–more like an active EKG chart. Don’t feel like your career needs to be this upward progression. It’s OK to take a step back every once in a while. It’s OK to not be a “climber.” It’s OK not to be a VP at age 28! I wasn’t, and I turned out just fine–eventually.
2 – Some people bloom at different times. It took me a good 15 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And, it took me even longer than that to really understand my strengths and weaknesses. People bloom at different points in their careers. I think about someone like Emily Pritchard with The Social Lights. She was a business owner at age 22/23! That’s amazing! She was an early bloomer (and is still blooming!). Not so much for me (see above). I didn’t really start blooming until I was in my 40s. Not everyone succeeds in their 20s. Or 30s. Or 40s even.
3 – Figure out what truly matters to you–and chase it with everything you’ve got. For me, titles and prestige at work never mattered all that much. I never wanted to be a CMO or VP. I never wanted to manage a big team. And I certainly didn’t excel at office politics. So, corporate was never going to be a great fit for me. But, as I got older, I started to understand: I’m an individual contributor–and a pretty good one. I’m efficient. I’m creative. And I’m fairly easy to work with.
At the end of the day, what mattered most to me were three things: 1) My family and getting to spend more time with them, 2) Financial independence and the ability to scale back work at an early age, and 3) Creative freedom and the ability to work with who I want and do the kind of work I want to do.
All those things synced up with being a solo consultant.
I got to walk my kids to their grade school for 7 straight years. I never would have been able to do that if I were working for an agency or bigger company!
My wife and I are on pace to scale back our work lives significantly in about 4 years when our kids are out of the house. We’ve saved a lot of money, and we know we can do it.
And finally, I’ve had the chance to work with some pretty fantastic people over the last 12 years. Many friends. And many clients who turned into friends. And, largely, I got to do the work I wanted to do–it wasn’t dictated by someone else. Figure out what YOU want–then go get it. Because if I can do it, you most certainly can!