Increasingly, American workers are choosing to leave the corporate world and venture forth on their own. These voluntary departures are being fueled by an increasing optimism in the country’s economic outlook, a desire to have more professional independence, and the appeal of being their own boss.
It is worth a closer look to determine why workers are escaping the cube. Why, when, and how workers leave corporate America to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions are complex and important issues to consider.
Many employees who choose to leave a corporate gig do so for the freedom and flexibility afforded by starting a business. In addition to the wealth potential, running your own business gives you the opportunity to be more in control of your destiny.
In our inaugural Life After segment, we wanted to feature someone who was close to the PIVOT family. David McKnight is the Professional Development Editor for PIVOT and has been with the publication since its launch in 2016.
We sat down with David to learn about his corporate career and why he decided to pivot.
Tell our readers a little about your background and your corporate career
I started my career in 1996 as a management consultant with Ernst & Young in Chicago. Prior to beginning my consulting career, I had no idea what a consultant was or what they did. This is primarily due to the fact that I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey with no exposure to anyone in corporate America.
My father was a Pentecostal preacher and my mother worked various administrative jobs. Like many in my neighborhood, the professions that were familiar to me included the likes of a teacher, doctor, or lawyer. I initially wanted to become a doctor, but after my brother almost cut off his finger on an open can of beans, the sight of all the blood made me instantly realize that medicine was not the path for me.
It was between my first and second years of graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, that I became aware of the world of management consulting.
At the time, Accenture (then known as Anderson Consulting), came to recruit one summer intern for their public sector consulting practice from my entire first year class at the Heinz School of Public Policy. As I said, I had no idea what consulting was, but I decided to submit my resume because everyone else in my class was submitting theirs. Competition was fierce. To my surprise, I was shortlisted for an interview. From there I was fortunate to make it past all three rounds and ultimately beat out all of my classmates to win the single, most coveted, internship of the summer.
After receiving an offer from Accenture, I decided to accept an offer from Ernst & Young. The ten-thousand-dollar difference in salary was too significant to decline at the time. I fell in love with the field of consulting. I spent the next 14 years in the industry, traveling the world, working for Fortune 500 organizations, and leading large teams. I learned so much from my peers and the partners on my projects. I observed and absorbed everything. My specializations included business strategy, change management, process transformation, and health care.
Was there any point in time during your career where you knew you wanted to do something different?
About 8 years into my career I realized that while I was enjoying the work and the travel, something was missing. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Never did a career in style or fashion cross my mind, despite always receiving praise and compliments on my own personal style at work and in social situations. In fact, I was voted best dressed in college for four years in a row.
It wasn’t until a trip to Puerto Rico for my best friend’s 30th birthday, that I discovered my gift and passion for style. One night, when we were all getting ready to go out for a fun night on the town in San Juan, one of the women on the trip said that she didn’t have anything to wear. I casually said that I would help her. I looked at everything she brought with her, and within 5 minutes I created an outfit that she had never worn together, and actually she was a little reluctant to wear it as I styled it.
I assured her that it looked good and I promised that people would complement her, so he trusted me. The number of compliments she received that night from strangers were quite overwhelming to her. Everyone within our group also commented on how amazing she looked. She felt extremely confident.
It was at that moment during the that trip that everyone began to say that I should consider doing it for money. The thought never crossed my mind. An idea was suddenly born, and when I returned home to Chicago I focused on learning as much as I could about styling
and fashion. In the months following the trip, I felt a bit depressed because something in me had been awakened and I didn’t know what to do about it.
During dinner with a friend one evening, I shared my concerns. He asked me what was the one thing in the world that would make me happy, and I said that I wanted to move to NYC to pursue other interests. He responded by asking what was holding me back, and after a few moments of thought, I realized that nothing was holding me back. Sitting at the table that night, I told him that I would be gone from Chicago within 90 days. I was actually relocated to the New York City before the 90 days were up.
Once I was living in Manhattan, I continued working as a management consultant, and I began taking image consulting classes at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) on the weekends. It wasn’t long before I posted my first ad on Craig’s List as an image consultant and received my first paying client!
What experiences were you able to draw from in your corporate career that helped you in your current business.
In my personal, and obviously biased opinion, being a management consultant is probably one of the most amazing career paths that one could pursue. Apart from being exposed to the internal operations and leadership teams of the most recognizable companies in the world, I learned so much about applying structured approaches to solve problems, managing client expectations, thinking strategically, managing complex projects, and delivering difficult messages.
All of these skills are transferable to any industry, any function, or any business, including your own. These skills have come in extremely handy within my own business. Additionally, these skills help to distinguish me from others image consultants and coaches within my industry.
My clients are typically senior level professionals and executives with corporate jobs. They are smart, accomplished and driven. They hire me to help them take their image, style, and personal brand to the next level.
Because of my business experience, I’m also able to serve as a coach to them, when needed. My clients appreciate my business acumen and professionalism, and they love that I can speak their language and that I understand their world because I’ve walked in their shoes.
Talk about your new business ventures
Since leaving corporate America in January of this year, I have been very busy. It’s almost as if the floodgates flew open and opportunities just began to fall into my lap. In the beginning of this full-time journey I really wanted to do it all, which included image consulting, business coaching, interior design, public speaking, and event planning. I had clients in each of these service categories. I was having fun and living my dream, until I got exhausted and burned out.
It was after several sessions with my own life coach that I realized I was doing too much. I was trying to do everything for everyone one. What I eventually realized is that yes, I can do anything, but I can’t do everything. Reading the book, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, was a pivotal moment for me. It challenged me to reassess everything in order to focus only on what was most important and what came very instinctual for me. This assessment led to my decision to focus on only image consulting, business coaching, and speaking. The services that I decided to eliminate were event planning and interior design.
I’m very excited about the future. I have several exciting projects in development, including developing my first online course on the topic of professional image, planning my own virtual summit, launching my second book on professional image and etiquette, and launching a subscription-based style service.
Oftentimes the fear of losing a steady income serves as a barrier for people to follow their passion. Was that ever an issue for you? Why or why not?
Yes, that absolutely was the case for me. It’s very real. I would not advise anyone to leave their corporate job without a clear plan, adequate preparation (e.g., savings), and a substantial pipeline of business opportunities.
Allow me to be very vulnerable and transparent for a minute. In February of 2009, I took a voluntary separation package from Accenture. This was right after the big stock market crash in October 2008. I saw this as my opportunity, and a “sign”, to finally leave corporate
America to pursue image consulting full-time. The first few months were exciting and fun. However, the economy continued to decline, more and more people were laid off from their jobs, and clients stopped investing in my services. With no income, I began depleting my savings, and eventually started going through my 401K. It was rough.
After almost 2 years I decided that I needed to return to corporate America. The job market was soft and very competitive. Fortunately, after about 6 months of searching, I eventually landed an amazing opportunity with Deloitte Consulting in 2011 and got back on my feet.
This time around I planned much better. I designed my exit strategy more strategically and carefully. This included purchasing a new home before I made the exit, as well as having at least of year of savings in the bank and creating multiple streams of income. Today, I help some of my business clients prepare for their transition from corporate to entrepreneurship based on many of my own experiences.
What would you say to people who are on the fence about pivoting out of corporate America to start their own business?
Working for yourself and pursuing your dream of running your own business is exciting. However, it’s important to have a solid plan before making the leap. With all the planning in the world, it can still be a bit scary because we become so dependent on getting a check every two weeks, along with health benefits. I totally understand. Here’s what I would say to people who are thinking about taking the leap.
Plan – Develop a clear plan for your exit. This includes establishing a financial goal for yourself, developing a timeline, and having a clearly thought out and documented business plan / model. Many people make the mistake of having a vague idea and making vague plans, and then expecting to figure it out once they make the leap. That is the wrong approach.
Prepare – Once you have a clear plan in place it’s time to start preparing. Where will you live? Will you live in the same place or will you need to lower your rent / mortgage payments? How will you pay for your kid’s tuition? Is your spouse supportive? How much
money do you need to have in the bank? The list goes on and on. I recommend making your big purchases while you are employed (e.g., laptop, printer, website, etc.). Hire a business coach to make sure that you’re doing things the right way. Automate your business as much as possible. In other words, take the time to establish your infrastructure before making the transition.
Prove – Once you have a plan and you’ve done adequate preparation, prove your business model. To do this it is important that you have served clients and that you have clients waiting to be served. In other words, it’s important to build a strong and robust pipeline.
The only way for your business model to be proven is to have clients pay for your services, recommend your services, and create demand for your services. I strongly suggest running your business as a side hustle for a while, in order to acquire this proof. Continue to create demand and deliver services until you literally can no longer sustain a full-time job and run your business simultaneously. Once these three steps have been addressed then it’s time to take the leap.