According to LinkedIn, I am celebrating the 11th anniversary of starting Kolar Associates/Avail Advisors. I know this because I am suddenly getting “congratulations on your work anniversary” messages from people who never talk to me the rest of the year!
However, it’s nice to be reminded as time has a way of sneaking up on you.
I forgot that this is about the time in 2007 that I set out to try to work for myself. Little did I know at the time that we were one month away from the Bear Stearns collapse and the start of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
It’s sort of ironic that eleven years later I am still here and teach a course on effective decision making.
I went out on my own with five goals:
1. Spend more time with my kids
2. Make enough money so I don’t have to sell my kids
3. Only do work for which I could make a unique contribution and that I liked.
4. Only work with people I liked and whose values were aligned with my own.
5. Make a difference.
So, eleven years later, how am I doing?
More time with kids: Success. I would not trade the extra time that I had with my kids for any salary, stock options, or title.
Support myself financially: Success. Both kids still belong to us and are thriving!
Meaningful work: Mostly successful. Early on I sometimes felt pressure to take jobs just to bring in some revenue. Those never worked out well. I did ok. The client was happy. But, they typically didn’t bring me back. If your contributions are on par with everyone else, you quickly commoditize yourself. I’ve learned to focus on where I add unique value. That’s what people invite you back for.
Nice people: Successful with a caveat. You can’t always choose who you work with. Sometimes you don’t know who is on the team until after the project has started. But, I’ve been lucky. Where I’ve had a choice, I have done a good job of not engaging with people I don’t want to work with. And, while sometimes a jerk will pop onto the scene after the fact, that hasn’t been too bad. It also helps that even if there are a few bad apples on the team, my partner is always someone I like, trust, respect, and enjoy working with.
Make a difference: Not sure. This will always be the challenge. I think it’s easy to read your own press and get an inflated view of how much impact you have. Creating “The best workshop that I’ve ever attended in my career” is nice to read but the world probably isn’t much different because that person interacted with me for eight hours one day.
I’m certain that I’ve helped some people and businesses get better at what they do. However, I’m not sure that them being better really makes much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t had the impact that I’d like or that I believe that I am capable. This will always be a struggle. But, I’m going to keep trying.
In these past eleven years I’ve changed my strategy, my products and services, and my branding three times. If you asked me in 2007 what I’d be doing eleven years later, I might have come up with several possibilities, but none of them would be what I’m actually doing now.
So, here’s what I learned:
1. What you do is much less important than the reasons that you do it.
Those five goals I had when I set out have remained with me. As long as I am achieving those five things, the actual work I’m doing is just a detail.
2. Trust your gut.
I knew I shouldn’t take the jobs that weren’t in my wheelhouse, but I let the pressure get to me. They didn’t move me forward. I knew that I shouldn’t do some small low value project just to “get my foot in the door” but I took it anyway. My foot is still in those doors. I haven’t gotten over the threshold. I now trust myself much more. Even in times of pressure, I stay true and confident to my vision.
3. Everything is trade-off, if you aren’t clear on your values, you will lose every time.
I often provide one word of advice to my friends who are considering going on on their own: Depending on the day, self-employed can look a lot like unemployed.
I love being self-employed and pray every day that I’ll never had to work for a real company again.
But it comes at a cost.
I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with my family. But, when I go on a two week vacation, there’s not a paycheck waiting for me when I get home. I love the fact that I can pick and choose who I work with. However, that also means that I sometimes have to turn down work. And while I wake up every morning thrilled about the flexibility to do whatever I want, I also wonder if I’m going to have any revenue next month.
Nothing comes for free. I’ve had to really stay focused on what matters to help get me through the times of stress, pressure, and even panic.
4. You just never know . . .
The people who you think might be your greatest advocates don’t always deliver.
That’s not a criticism. They are busy, they have a lot going on. They mean well but aren’t always in a position to really help. Most importantly, it’s not their job.
On the other hand, the people who you think you’ll never see again can sometimes become your greatest advocates.
I did a small strategic planning project for the board of a non-profit. I expected it to be a one and done engagement.
The chair of the board, who happened to be the Dean of the School of Social Work at USC brought me back three times (once each quarter) to help the board ensure that it was following through on the plan.
She then recommended me to the dean of the School of Dramatic Arts to lead their internal departmental review.
And then, she got me involved on a four-month project to help DCFS of Los Angeles redefine its “Corporate” University.
This total stranger turned out to be my third highest revenue generator.
All that from a person who I met just once for a six-hour strategic planning meeting.
You just never know.
I’m in the process of my next business transition. I’ll still be doing the same work but am trying to change my model a bit. I’m not sure what it will mean or whether I’ll pull it off. But I do know that as long as I’m true to my five goals, it really won’t matter.
Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors. You can reach Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.