When I decided to start my own business three years ago, I thought the hardest part would be making ends meet or finding clients—the tactical, business-building stuff. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but after a 10-year marketing career in the U.S. and U.K. at both big brands and a startup, I thought I was as prepared as I possibly could be.
But what surprised me the most was how emotionally intense it was to make that transition. In retrospect, the biggest hurdle wasn't the nuts and bolts of running a business; it was changing my own mind-set. It's hard to build a personal brand while you're battling your insecurities in unfamiliar terrain. I found that in order to make self-employment work for me, I had to first let go of these three, deeply ingrained beliefs I'd picked up in the corporate world.
For much of my corporate career, I noticed myself taking people who worked for well-known companies more seriously. Unsurprisingly, when I left that world behind, I couldn’t help but feel less important.
My experiences early on after starting my own business didn’t help. I went from being continually courted by people at networking events to barely being noticed. I went from living in London, a dynamic hub for knowledge workers, to a less expensive town in the English Midlands, surrounded by retired people, to alleviate some financial pressure as I got my business off the ground. I went from working in a shiny, corporate office to tapping away on my personal laptop at our dining room table at home, with our two Russian dwarf hamsters as my only work companions (they're nocturnal, by the way).
It may sound obvious, but I eventually realized I couldn’t let my work environment dictate how I felt about my own professional self-worth. In practice, it's difficult to let go of the external validators you don't even know you depend upon—the subtle yet commonplace signals that you're a credible, knowledgable expert who's good at what you do.
Letting go of all that lets you invest your energies in honing your personal brand on your own terms, so you can clearly communicate the value you offer. After all, if you can't do that, you can't run your own business.
When I worked in the corporate world, I became accustomed to having a steady salary with access to benefits. Needless to say, those perks vanished when I became my own boss. Savvy job seekers get adept at figuring out their value on the market—it's how we know what kinds of raises to ask for and which salaries to negotiate.
But that can instill an attitude that comes back to bite you once you leave traditional employment behind. Soon after setting up my own business, I caught myself envying others whose startups just went public or who landed that big end-of-year bonus. I was still using those same, monetary metrics I'd internalized in my previous career in order to assess value.
This wasn't so easy to diagnose, though, because at the same time, I really was happy with my new life as an independent business owner. My new lifestyle gave me control, flexibility, and freedom. Having control of my time allowed me to start exercising regularly in the middle of every workday. The flexibility let me spend more time with my wife, friends, and family who lived overseas. And my newfound freedom allowed me to pursue any work project I wanted without having to first wade through layers of approval.
But those advantages didn't square with the mind-set I still had yet to shake. Ruminating over the material wealth I'd left behind was distracting me from the lifestyle wealth I'd gained by leaving. Getting into the best shape of my life, spending quality time with people I love, and doing work I found meaningful altered my outlook on what truly mattered to me. It took some time to fully embrace those upsides, but doing so opened my eyes to what I still find truly priceless.
When I worked at a large company, status, compensation, and reputation were often driven by where you sat on the corporate ladder. As a result, I couldn’t help but feel my job title was a main indicator of my professional success.
Shortly after I started my own business, I crossed paths with someone visiting London in search of a guest speaker. He asked me, "Do you know of someone here who’s really successful?" I asked him what he meant by "successful." He went on to rattle off a laundry list of fancy job titles, like CFO, CMO, partner, and so on. Silly as it may sound, I couldn’t help but walk away from that meeting feeling a bit dejected because I was no longer on track to be any of those things.
It was only later that I realized how deeply I'd internalized the corporate world's career ladder as an index of my own success—and how much that threatened to hold me back. Evaluating yourself against traditional measures of achievement isn't just inappropriate once you've left behind traditional employment, it's actually counterproductive.
So instead of letting that frustrate me, I decided to put other metrics in place to measure my progress:
- Can I do all the things I want to do?
- Can I spend quality time with people I love?
- Can I feel good about the person I’m becoming?
I still use these basic questions to size up my success today—on my own terms. They're just much more in line with the reasons people choose independent work in the first place. And while I may not have the fanciest job title any longer, I no longer rely on it to know how far I've come. As a result, I can honestly say I’m able to achieve each of these three things that now matter to me more.
If you started your career working for a traditional employer before going into business for yourself, making this change in mind-set may be harder than you'd expect. But sticking with your previous measures of success can undermine your solo efforts. It’s like trying to stick to the rules of one sport when you’re trying to learn how to play another. And that's a losing strategy.