This is part of The Recession is Bullhonkey series, where I share stories of those who have gotten hired and/or started their own businesses (or sometimes both!) since 2008. This is former client & upcoming CreativeLive interviewee Megan Collins story of how she went from “cobbled-together freelancer” to founder and face of men’s lifestyle site Style Girlfriend.
“We’re going to have to let you go, Megan.”
It’s January of 2011, and I’ve just been fired from the ad agency where I worked as an account manager.
And when I say fired, I mean fired. Not “laid off due to budget cuts.” Fired-fired.
Looking back, it’s funny to me now, because since taking the job six months earlier, I’d promised myself I would be out of advertising by January. I was going to leave the industry behind – dramatically and triumphantly – in favor of a writing career, my true passion.
That promise was quickly derailed when – about two days after starting the job – I was assigned to a killer project that, for four long months, kept me at the office until anywhere from 11pm to 3am every single night. Yes, including weekends.
Despite the long hours, the project was exciting, challenging, and high-profile, everything I’d wanted from my career but never really found before. The project’s launch date coincided with Thanksgiving, after which point – I told myself – I’d be on the hunt for a new job in writing. No doubt I’d be settled into a new gig by January. Right?
I considered the whole gig my perfect swan song to advertising. An exciting client, a top-rated agency. So what if they treated their employees like indentured servants? I’d be out of there by the new year.
I’d even worked with a career coach(!) to help get me to the point of being ready to leave my current occupation and pursue writing, the work I desperately wanted to do and felt just as desperately insecure about wanting to pursue. I was ready.
Except that it turned out I wasn’t. And I was never going to be without a good kick in the pants.
After the project launched (to resounding team cheers and industry awards), I spent a blissful week doing absolutely nothing at my parents’ home in Wisconsin. But instead of pounding the pavement for a new job upon my return to NYC, I…met my friends for happy hour. And worked out. And went to bed early.
You could call it restoring work-life balance; my employer called it lazy.
Was I ready-ready to go full-time freelance with my writing when I was fired from my agency? No way. But my higher-ups noticed I’d mentally checked out, and called me on it.
I wasn’t totally unprepared, though. To get my portfolio jump started, I’d started taking on freelance writing assignments on the side, finishing them god knows when since I had approximately 4 hours to myself a night, and those were generally spent in bed, having nightmares about all the terrible things that could go wrong at work the next day. That was, if I could sleep at all. Never before had I experienced insomnia, but in those last months, there were nights I just stared at my bedroom wall in the dark, waiting for the light to come up and my spirit to sink.
Laying aside all pride, I spent several months on unemployment until I was able to cobble together enough work to get by on – a freelance web editor role here, a recurring column there.
It’s funny, though. Never did I think, Well maybe I should just go out and get another advertising job until the freelance thing picks up.
Somehow I was smart enough this time around to really understand the saying that “God kicks you out of jobs you’re too stupid to quit.”
Because, really, I’d been acting pretty stupid. After all, I’d known I wanted to leave advertising for more than two years. Since then, I’d gotten myself laid off (real laid- off this time) from one agency, then worked at another to lackluster results, and finally, the last shop, who booted me when they noticed how loosely I was clinging to the corporate ladder I was supposed to be climbing with gusto.
So I found a new ladder.
Slowly, so-o-o-o-o slowly you’d swear I was standing still, I cobbled together that freelance lifestyle I’d dreamed about. And let me tell you, as a Cancer who lives for security, comfort, and routine – I would have voted myself “least likely to strike out on her own” – it was not easy.
But here I was, a full-time freelancer! Paying for her own outrageous health insurance premiums and everything! I felt exhilarated and terrified 100% of the time. Wait, that’s not totally true. At night, I now slept like a baby.
So how did I go from “cobbled-together freelancer” to successful business owner and entrepreneur? Great question, and one I’m still struggling to answer. Actually, even calling myself a “successful business owner and entrepreneur” is something I struggle with.
I kept at it, found a niche, and then drove hard every single day to make it work. Because if I quit, my career ceases to exist. There’s no coasting. There’s no phoning it in. And I love it.
Now, my daily schedule includes closing deals, managing staff, and growing my company. As a woman (and a Cancer!), I’ll admit I’ve found the transition from cog in the machine to head honcho running the show bumpier than flying to Wisconsin in December through a snowstorm, but I’m extremely motivated to win. After all, I sucked at advertising and have no other discernible life skills, so what else am I going to do, join the circus?
What I’ve learned:
Success looks a lot like failure until the very end
In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz says that if you ask any successful CEO how he or she got where they are, they’ll tell you simply, “I didn’t quit.” There are days – more than I’d probably like to admit – that I feel like I ought to give up tomorrow and move to a hippie commune upstate, spending the rest of my years farming organic beets and singing “Kumbaya.” But I don’t, because usually, the day after a bad day comes a better day. You learn to live for those better days. And they will come, you just have to not quit.
Value your worth
Hit the pavement and do the research. What are your peers charging for similar work? Do you believe you do it better than them? Then value it accordingly. You may lose some customers, but following the 80/20 rule, you want to spend more time on people bringing in more of your revenue. Don’t waste your time on people who want to pinch pennies from you.
Keep a “nervous but excited” balance
Years ago, there was this amazing Saturday Night Live sketch with Zac Efron, coming off his star-making turn in the High School Musical movies. In one sketch, Efron played his Disney character a year later, addressing the graduating seniors at his alma mater, sadly informing the students that “no one sings at college.”
He says, “I was nervous, but excited, so I started singing a song, called ‘Nervous, But Excited.’ EVERYONE JUST STARED AT ME.”
Not even kidding you, thinking about that line makes me laugh even now, but the point is – your first day of college you were probably nervous, but excited. Your first day at being a parent, you were definitely nervous, but excited. Everything worth doing SHOULD make you nervous, but excited. Live in that space, and you’ll never be bored. The day you feel exasperated – not exhilarated – by a challenge, is the day you should probably head up to that beet farm.
Megan Collins is the founder and face of Style Girlfriend, which oﬀers guys daily lifestyle advice and inspiration from a friendly and supportive female perspective. This approach has captured the enthusiasm of thousands of grateful readers, as well as brands like H&M, Visa, NFL, Rogaine, and eBay. SG also appears regularly in fashion, menswear, and lifestyle publications and websites including GQ, Esquire, Details, Lucky, Huffington Post, and Men’s Health.
Wanna hear more from Megan? Then tune in to my CreativeLive class at the 1pm Pacific hour on Sept 11th, where I’ll be interviewing her about how external clues and feedback led to the creation (and success!) of Style Girlfriend.