Turning Entrepreneurial with Pamela Slim

The author of Escape from Cubicle Nation turned her blog into a book. Here's her advice for frustrated workers considering self-employment

Pam Slim

Across the country, thousands of would-be entrepreneurs stare at gray cubicle walls, fantasizing about working for themselves. At the same time, they worry about the shrinking economy and try to sift through the dreck that abounds in the start-your-own-business genre. Pamela Slim is writing for them. A blogger and business coach who spent a decade consulting for big corporate clients, Slim's book, Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur, comes out this week. Based on thousands of conversations and reader submissions to Slim's blog of the same name, it offers discontented cube-dwellers a guide to self-employment.

Slim recently spoke with BusinessWeek's John Tozzi about the risks of entrepreneurship, why it's crucial to find "Jedi Knight-caliber" advisers, and why money shouldn't be the sole motivation for making the leap. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Why leave a corporate job in this economy?

What the economic downturn has done is expose what might have been really unhappy careers. Some people have always known that they're really not in the right place, in the right job.

In this current economic climate, [people need to] understand the kind of risk that they're taking on and make sure they do a lot of testing and trying of ideas before they actually go out on their own.

How can would-be entrepreneurs get over what you call the fear of ending up "living in a van down by the river?"

First, understand what the current situation is. Some people have that fear of losing everything if they quit their day job because they don't have a strong handle on their current financial situation. In that case, it's really important to do so and cut back in any way possible. Second, people need to realize that their fear is [acknowledgment] that they have not done a lot to develop the business idea. They might not have tested it. So some of that fear can actually be justified. The antidote is testing and trying to get projects going on the side [before leaving a day job].

Some start with a business idea, but others simply want to work for themselves. You write that "hating your job is not a business plan," but if that's the starting point, where do you go from there?

If you don't have any idea what you want to do, get in touch with what you really enjoy in life. Spend a lot of time and energy observing yourself, noticing topics you're really interested in, the kinds of problems you're really interested in solving. If you observe yourself for an extended period of time—maybe a month or two—as you review your notes, you begin to see some patterns. For some people it's reconnecting with a passion they had many years ago that they forgot or they discounted. Some might be interested in human connections. Others might have much more of an engineering bent and want to find out how things work and improve them.

How do you take that passion and translate it into a business, rather than just an expensive hobby?

After you figure out your passion and interest—something that energizes you—you need to make sure you actually have skill and competence to deliver something of value.

Then you need to figure out if there is a well-defined market. Are there people who actually have a need for what you have a passion for? And what is a way you can actually create a product or a service that's going to meet the needs of a real market?

After that, discover what kind of a business model you need. [The process of merging your passion with a business model] can give you a likelihood of a good business idea.

It doesn't mean the business is always going to survive, because some of business success is timing and a lot of other factors. But [the process] would at least give you a good indication that it's worth testing in the real world.

You advise aspiring entrepreneurs to form relationships with a group of advisers you call the "High Council of Jedi Knights." Why are such connections so important?

For any person who's starting out in a business, there's probably someone who has already been through all the trials and tribulations to actually create something real in that business arena. It gives a very concrete example to study, and to notice what it was that person actually did to meet that level of success, because many people need to see that vision and know that it's possible.

The High Council of Jedi Knights example is made up of people who have had business success but are also the kinds of human beings that you really aspire to be. So you notice that they didn't do it by stomping on a bunch of other people to get what they wanted or by being unethical. It can be really encouraging for people to know it is possible to have positive business growth without compromising ethics or integrity. That's something I think a lot of people coming out of the corporate environment are really tired of. They don't just want to succeed at any cost.

Lots of people make sacrifices to get their business off the ground. How do you balance your lifestyle with what you need to do to make your business succeed?

What's important in creating the vision of your ideal life is that it really does become the decision criteria for how you grow your business. Maybe your vision 5 years down the road is to work 25 hours a week, so that you'll be able to spend time with your kids, for example. On the path to get there, you may need to work 100 hours a week, but you're doing specific activities to get where you want to be in your life.

Besides money, what are the big-picture benefits of striking out on your own?

You see immediate results from putting yourself out there. You learn about your strengths and your weaknesses. Entrepreneurship pushes you to grow as an individual—I can hardly think of another situation that does. That is really the benefit.

And when you do create something that is meaningful—not only to you but also to others—that's really, really satisfying.

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