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TORONTO, ONTARIO: FEBRUARY 09, 2012 - Bay Street in Toronto, Ontario is seen here Thursday Feb. 9, 2012. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail) (For ROB story by n/a) (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)
TORONTO, ONTARIO: FEBRUARY 09, 2012 - Bay Street in Toronto, Ontario is seen here Thursday Feb. 9, 2012. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail) (For ROB story by n/a) (Tim Fraser For The Globe and Mail)

Guest Column

Why I returned to the corporate world Add to ...

Like many of my generation (X, for the record), I often imagined setting up my own business.

I pored over inspirational business books and wrote scores of journals exploring my ideas. About two years ago, a perfect storm of timing, financial backing and family support created the opportunity for me to finally put my money where my mouth was and start an enterprise from scratch.

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I knew that building my own business would be hard work and that it would involve many long hours and personal sacrifices. I also knew it would take time to establish a strong financial footing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much my long-desired dream would teach me, and how it would expose the pros and cons of the working environment I left behind.

Having taken a scenic detour mid-career, and carefully reserving the right to occasionally vacation on that path I still accept consulting projects provided they don’t conflict with my primary employment I have taken the following lessons learned back to the corporate environment:

The real costs of doing business

Being your own boss quickly defines the difference between needs and wants and makes you necessarily frugal. While I have always been fiscally responsible within available budgets, these days I more closely scrutinize expenses and challenge the return on investment for each decision. It surprised me how a short period of essential bootstrapping became a huge asset in my return to corporate life.

Hot opportunities don’t appear in cold offices

One of the most critical lessons learned was how essential it is to create any opportunity to get into the market and meet with potential clients. No amount of planning, researching, writing, engaging in social media and developing marketing materials will do more for you than a face-to-face meeting. Anything else is a distraction.

Before you do anything else with your day, picking up the telephone and making appointments to meet people must become a far higher priority than sitting in your office and planning global domination. This experience, which is common sense but surprisingly not common action, enables me to better coach the professionals I work with to prioritize their response to business opportunities.

Selling is the easy part. Collecting can be difficult

Having spent the majority of my career in sales and marketing roles, client development came relatively easy. From a standing start I successfully secured my first client just two weeks after opening. Much of my business came from word-of-mouth referrals and networking. I even managed to juggle project delivery with new business development, a major challenge in a professional service environment.

I thought I had all the difficult parts well covered. Then came the first unpaid invoice and I realized I had no procedures for dealing with it. I had taken their business on trust and personal recommendation. I quickly learned the value of signed agreements, retainer fees, payment terms and other routine business protocols.

While I did eventually collect on the delinquent bill, I learned to have difficult conversations with clients, to value the work I have delivered and the importance of defining the terms and conditions of business. Having experienced this from the blunt edge, I can empathize more completely with my coaching clients and I can facilitate those difficult conversations.

You might miss the watercooler conversation and conflicting opinions

As a gregarious person who values brainstorming and exchanging ideas with colleagues, I was surprised by the unexpected loneliness of the home office. No amount of business networking and client interaction could totally overcome the cold reality of time spent working alone. I quickly came to realize that I really appreciate collaborating with smart people who bring a different perspective to work challenges.

Working for myself was certainly a lot more peaceful than the complex, highly politicized work environments I have been used to, but I learned that I actually missed that dynamic. I now relish the creative power of constructive conflict.

Take your own medicine

One of the hardest things to learn, and to admit, was how difficult it is to take the advice I have confidently given to others. I have long espoused the value of narrowing the focus of what you do, and who you do it for. Segmentation and differentiation are essential pillars of marketing best practice, but they are so much easier said than done, especially when you are a service professional.

While I still extol the virtues of this approach, I am much more understanding of how difficult it can be to apply and how useful it can be to have someone else help you see the way. I am a big believer in coaching and being coached through difficult situations.

Don’t believe everything people tell you

People are essentially polite, pleasant and supportive when they learn you are starting your own business. Some even offer to introduce you to others or to find opportunities for you to work together. These offers are made from a place of pure intent. The trouble is, people get busy with their own activities and forget that they ‘promised’ to do something for you. What was offered as a gesture of goodwill on their part should never be interpreted as a guarantee. Treat these offers as delightful bonuses if they follow through, but always continue to pursue your own options.

Moving forward is the only option

One of the most difficult and surprising things for me to realize is that becoming self-employed was not the final destination on my career path. While it has been an invaluable learning opportunity, and I am thrilled to finally tick that item off my bucket list, I have had to admit to myself and to my family that it is not yet a life I can settle into permanently.

As much as I hate to admit it, I am not done with the corporate career and there were many things about cubicle nation that I missed. These days I have found the perfect balance of employed and self-employed opportunities to satisfy my split personality. No experience is ever wasted as long as you continue to move ahead with the lessons learned.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gabriella O’Rourke has been focused on transforming the growth capabilities of service organizations for almost 20 years. She is currently the business development director for one of Canada’s oldest and most distinguished law firms. Ms. O’Rourke blogs athttp://thewallaceeffect.wordpress.comand she can be found on LinkedIn athttp://www.linkedin.com/in/gorourke

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