Four Simple Rules for Going It Alone – Betsy Frank

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Four Simple Rules for Going It Alone – Betsy Frank

Two years ago, almost to the day, as Superstorm Sandy rattled the windows, I decided to leave the job I had held for almost seven years.  I didn’t make the decision lightly.  As Chief Research and Insights Officer at Time Inc., the largest magazine publishing company, I loved the brands I supported and valued the people I worked with.  But if I wanted to do more in my life, to begin my own new phase, what better time than this?  I called that realization my “Sandy Epiphany.”  No one was holding me there, and life, both mine and Time Inc.’s, would go on.  

I assumed that another corporate role would be my next step.  All I had to do was let the right people know I was a free agent, and the offers would come pouring in.  But the closer I got to my planned departure in May without anything gelling, the more I began to consider a different direction.  I had enjoyed a long and successful career, holding big jobs in big organizations in advertising and media, and the time was right for me financially. Why not use those experiences and skills I had acquired and set up my own business, doing the work I loved, not for a single company or industry, but for several?

In June, 2013, then, Betsy Frank Insights was born, complete with a font, a tax number, a web site and a brand new LinkedIn profile.

Was I nervous?  As someone who had only held corporate positions, I was a bit queasy, despite encouragement from mentors and trusted friends. But today, almost 18 months after leaving Time Inc., I am more engaged than I dared imagine.  Of course there have been highs and lows, but the paralyzing fears I had assumed were an unavoidable part of self-employment have not materialized, and instead, most of them have actually become advantages.

I’ll begin with my biggest fear: No work!  What if I hung out my shingle and no one showed up?  Working in big organizations, if someone needed research done, they had to come to me.  But now I was one of dozens or hundreds or thousands of independent research practitioners, and I had worked with enough of them to know that clients had a lot of choices and work didn’t just materialize.

I learned not to focus on not getting any clients, but on getting my first client, and that all it takes is one In my case, I was having breakfast with the incoming president of the Advertising Research Foundation.  When we talked about our shared transitions into new roles, she said that the first thing she planned on doing in hers was gain an understanding of what her current members thought about the ARF.  Suddenly, I heard someone say, “I can do that.  I can conduct your first Member Satisfaction Study,” and I realized the voice was mine.  Other assignments soon started coming in, whether because of the ARF’s implied endorsement among its influential members or my new confidence.

Rule No. 1:  They don’t call it a “comfort zone” for nothing.  Don’t be afraid to ask and volunteer for work, especially for that first engagement, but be prepared for economic uncertainty.

My second worry was that without an organizational job I would lose my industry contacts.  After all, think of the people we meet because we represent our companies on committees or attend conferences and meetings on their behalf.

I hadn’t considered the fact that many of the people I had worked with and for over the years had in fact changed their own situations.  Simply because I had known someone in one context didn’t mean that was the only glue that connected us.

Rule No. 2:   Avoid the “Lame Duck Syndrome” and stay in touch with the people you respect and have had great working relationships with, no matter where they are now.  Let people know where you are and how to reach you.  I have a list of former colleagues, and every six months or so I send them a note telling them not simply what I am doing, but what I have learned and how it would benefit them. If people liked working with you once, they will again, and at the very least they will agree to see you.  That’s half the battle.

I had been a very visible part of the advertising and media industries during extremely chaotic, disruptive years, but these businesses are changing more today than ever before, with the rapid proliferation of digital, social and mobile platforms, so a third big fear was losing my industry context It’s easy to read trade publications, but my concern was that without a pragmatic frame of reference -- that is, an employer -- it would all be theoretical.

That turned into one of my most stunning surprises.  The reason is that over the past year I have worked with large industry organizations -- the ARF, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Council for Research Excellence and MyersBizNet.  These entities represent diverse aggregates of companies and sectors; doing projects that kept me talking to business leaders about their challenges has opened my eyes and my mind.  There is a critical combination of reading the right publications, attending the right conferences, talking to the right experts and above all losing the blinders that we all wear when we see everything through the lens of vested interests of the company we are working for.  That mix has made me see differently how the business is changing and how I can continue to support it.

Rule No. 3:  Always consider how the skills you are developing, the books you are reading, and the speeches you are hearing can stretch your mind to adapt to the realities of different perspectives, and to changing business models.

Finally, I feared that if I didn’t have an office to go to each morning, the Deadly Sin of Slothfulness would be lurking in the kitchen or behind the TV.  Anyone who has made a transition like mine probably envisioned the specter of getting up late and finding distractions around every corner.  Instead, I am managing my time better than I did when I was in an office.  I work, I take classes in things I’ve always wanted to explore, I meet friends, I see more of my family and I travel.  The only one I have to ask for permission is me, since I’m the one who knows the totality of what I want and need to accomplish.

Rule No. 4:   Get dressed every day, even if you are working alone at your computer and neither meeting nor Skype-ing with clients.  Manage what you eat even more than you did when you were in an office, when mealtimes were more clearly time-defined.  Offices create a false sense of discipline, allowing us to feel that all we are doing is productive work, but the reality is different.  Have a designated work area, either at home or elsewhere.  And don’t turn on the TV (or click on the Netflix app) until watching TV is all you are planning to do.  Multitasking is a fact of life in an office; it is a danger when you are working on your own.

Remember that large organizations, in addition to creating that false sense of discipline, give a false sense of social connection.  Still, it is easy to feel isolated when you are no longer there.  So stay connectedto friends and colleagues; ask for what you want and remember that the first win is the hardest; push yourself to see beyond the prism of your last job; and create your own discipline,since you are now answerable only to yourself.

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