I started a small business months before the world shut down
What I wish I knew then, and that you can apply now
I left a 13+ year legal career and launched a sustainability consulting company just months before a global pandemic shut the world down. After a series of pivots, long nights, and crying sessions, my business survived. As talk of a looming recession intensifies, I want to share what I learned, in hopes of helping others.
So what’s it like to make a giant career shift?
- The bad news: it was nothing like I expected.
- The good news: It was nothing like I expected.
The even better news? My business is still here, and still growing. Here’s what you can learn from my experience.
Relationships matter, above all else.
This was really hard, having come from a legal background, where everything has to be in writing and skepticism rules the day.
Let me give you an example: I was once negotiating a consulting agreement, and I thought it was really important that I get paid in 60 days, not 90. I’m a small business owner, not a bank, right? In the end, standing on that payment clause almost cost me a relationship with that client.
Now, I know that my relationship with that client matters far more than whether I have to float costs for an additional 30 days. If I nurture that relationship, that client will want to work with me again. And they had good reasons why a 60 day clause made more sense to their business model. I just wasn’t listening, and that almost cost me a really valuable opportunity.
Authenticity matters, say what you mean, not what you think people want to hear.
When I first started my business, I thought I had to sound fancy so that fancy clients wanted to work with me. I was so wrong. Nobody listened when I said what I thought they wanted to hear.
People started listening when I said what I really thought — when I expressed my frustration over the apathy associated with a rapidly changing climate, and when I honestly shared how I was totally fed up with the legal system’s stall tactics when it comes to helping our clients mitigate climate change.
Once I found my voice, everything changed. When I started sharing my personal stories about inequitable building design, I got more clients looking to pursue innovative design strategies. I sweated through those conversations as I talked about how, for example, gendered restrooms negatively impacted me. Yet this authenticity brought real clients who wanted to hear real stories.
Do you know which of my company’s social media posts get the most engagement? Those that include my dog. What does my dog have to do with sustainability? Nothing. She’s a rescue dog who occasionally makes appearances in my company’s videos. These videos do the best, by far, because — just like stories about gendered restrooms — people want to know me as a business owner, so we can build an authentic relationship.
Everybody wins with partnerships; why compete when you can build a better, strong team, together.
Why compete when you can work together? Especially in fields like sustainability and climate change, where there is more than enough work for everyone.
I have found the greatest success combining my unique skill set with others who have unique skill sets, to build an all-star team. In my experience, working together is far more effective, and lucrative, then competing.
There’s more than enough work to do, let’s work together!
When you feel stuck, give; when you’re crying on the floor, give more.
A mentor once told me that if your business doesn’t make you cry, at least once a week (really once a day), you’re not trying hard enough. Inevitably, when I feel stuck and overwhelmed, someone will ask me for help. I consider it a sign that I’m on the right track, because someone needs me.
And let me be more clear about this one, I have had to learn to say “no,” and that was also a really hard lesson. But what I don’t say no to is folks who are genuinely asking for mentorship and support. So, so many people have helped me on this journey; when I feel stuck, helping someone else gets me unstuck and reminds me to be grateful for these small opportunities to share what I’ve learned along the way.
This is particularly true if the person asking for help is generally underrepresented in my field. Because, again, there’s no need to compete. Let’s work together to build bigger, better and more diverse teams so we can tackle the world’s problems.
Asking for help is OK; actually, it’s more than OK, it’s completely necessary.
This one was also really, really hard for me and the pandemic was really, really humbling in many ways.
I had to ask for, and accept, a lot of help during the pandemic, but that support allowed me keep myself afloat so I could keep my business going and so I can continue to fight some of the largest and most inequitable impacts of climate change.
And if you’ve “never had to ask for help,” it’s very likely because your privilege has already given you all the help you will ever need. I recognized my own privileges, told my ego to sit down, and I made sure that those who helped me were not disappointed.
I’ve asked many people for help: for their insights, for their time, for a listening ear, or to join me for a beer or a coffee so I could share what I was going through and ask for some advice. I am so, so grateful to each and every one of those people; you know who you are and you are forever in my heart and a part of my company’s journey.
Hopefully you can learn something from the lessons I’ve shared. And if you’re ever crying on the floor, feeling like you made a horrible decision to leave your corporate role, I’ll be the first to tell you, that was the best decision you’ve ever made. Life is short — do what you love with people who lift youup. And if you need someone to listen, or have a beer with, I will always make the time; you can contact me via our website.