1 year in business: what I’ve learned so far

I’m quietly celebrating this June. Not the best month, or year, for celebrations given the world imploding and us being in lockdown amid a global pandemic.

Yet, the small things also make up our daily lives and work; and this month marks my business moving beyond the first year marker.

I have now successfully left my academic career and become gainfully self-employed. Back in May 2019, I set myself the goal of establishing a growing and sustainable business within a year of leaving my academic post – otherwise I’d look to other forms of employment.

I am beyond thankful that I have managed this! Making the career pivot to self-employment has made for the most interesting and rewarding year.

This change in my work has been crucial for finding a way to continue working using my skill-set whilst living with a chronic illness.  It has enabled me to live a much better life and have time with my kids. Lockdown during this pandemic has amplified the realities of working at home for most academics; I established my business pre-lockdown to be almost entirely home and online based. This allows flexibility, but it is not without it’s own issues.  I share some of my tips for working from home with kids here. 

Are you thinking about a pivot?

I wanted to write this post, not only to celebrate this anniversary and show that you can successfully and happily leave academia, but in order to offer some more insight and advice in response to the many questions I’ve had from women thinking about a similar transition out of academia.

There has been most interest in ‘how’ I made the move to self-employment – on the practical and financial aspects. I wrote about my essential start-up kit for starting your own business (with zero prior experience ) here. I give a list of the the courses, books, support and tech I used to learn how to set up by myself and do it on a shoe-string budget and a very tight timetable. 

However, this is only my experience – you have to do you.

So, in addition to all of the practicalities, there are some crucial questions to ask yourself – and really know the answers to – before you make any moves to leave.

It goes without saying that any change is a risk.

Be sure you can take on those risks – that they are leading to better things.

Know yourself & your circumstances

If you are thinking about the move to self-employment, I really recommend you clear some time – at least half a day – to think through the implications of a career change.

Ask yourself these questions:

Firstly, Why do you want to move? The immediate answer might seem obvious – you feel miserable, trapped, stuck, bullied, bored, precarious. However, do not jump because you hate the way your work is; always leave for something better.

Secondly, what do you think self-employment will be like? What will you do and how? Is there a demand? Have you ‘tested the market’. Bust any myths if you have them. It is hard work and a continual project of self-development, unlearning and upskilling. And marketing. If you thrive on this kind of energy, then you will enjoy it; if not, it might not be the right immediate move.

Thirdly, have a cold, hard, candid talk with yourself and partner if applicable about money. Know your baseline. Know what you need to live well – it may be less than your current salary – and that is fine. I work part-time now. I spend nothing on travel and all the incidental spending on coffees and ‘things’ now I don’t have a commute. I don’t have childcare costs now I work around the school day/holidays.

Have a buffer fund if you can. Have a plan B for income. It is likely your main income driver will have quiet spells – I’ve taken on RA and transcription work; run an online course; given talks and workshops; even sold clothes on Ebay – these are not my main income streams, but they can be deployed if I have a quieter coaching spell (or I need to take some health related down time).

Fourthly – and I have a dedicated post on this coming  – what will leaving academia (or other career) do for your identity? Can you be ok with ‘leaving?

Map, visualise, journal these out. Find ways to gain clarity. If you need more guidance on these tools, sign up for my free newsletter or follow me on Instagram where I regularly share prompts and more of these techniques.

Upskill in private and in preparation

The best way to know if you can do it (of course you can!) is to try it out a little. This might be in doing some learning and upskilling e.g. taking an online course, reading, googling, getting some coaching. Part of the reason I became a coach was because I found it so transformative myself – investing in coaching really unlocked me and propelled my exit – along with the illness.

Another tip – keep your plans to yourself until you are ready; or at least talk to a trusted small circle.

There will be MANY, MANY, MANY people waiting to tell you you can’t do it.

To tell you that self-employment is worse than academia. That you will have to work all of the time. That you will be skint. These kinds of comments are rife in academia where so many are stressed, overworked and functioning in a context of manufactured competition and precarity.

Leaving is a challenge to many on the level of identity. Don’t let this derail you – your choices are about you.

If you do need to chat, know that my email and DMs are open. I’m always happy to give a quick response and if you need a longer work-through, I’ll let you know what my coaching options are. With No obligation, no hard sell.

You can also sign up to my free weekly newsletter that is full of prompts and tips to help women in academia think through their sticking points.

The reason I do this work is not only to find a better way to work for me, but it is embedded in the desire to help other academic women address their own sticking points. Whether you are staying in, or planning on moving on out.


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