Education

Jane Shah – My Story – Not an entrepreneur

September 25, 2016

“So, you’re an entrepreneur? Wow, that’s amazing, how brave!” A typical response to that standard dinner party question when I reply that I run my own businesses.
But no, I don’t class myself as an entrepreneur. I’m just someone who’s lucky enough to be able to work flexibly, doing the stuff I love. An entrepreneur, to me, is an innovator, an inventor, someone who bucks the norm and goes out on their own to fulfil a bright idea. That’s definitely not me. I’m far too logical, practical and, in fact, risk averse. I just wanted to have it all and, as luck would have it, I feel I’ve got it (for the moment, at least, but I’m never one to count my chickens).
I’m quite simply self-employed. It doesn’t feel brave at all and the only really amazing thing, for me, is that I’ve found a way to have the best of both worlds – to be there for my children (a self-confessed control freak who wants to have the biggest influence on their lives) whilst also keeping my brain active, using the skills I’ve spent years acquiring.
And anyway, the word ‘entrepreneur’ doesn’t describe what it is I actually do – it’s become a hip catch phrase of the start-up era – so, to actually answer that ubiquitous dinner party question, what I do is run 2 small businesses: one as a brand and communications consultant; the other importing and selling the women’s sportswear brand ‘Lorna Jane’ in Switzerland.
So, to give you some context, I’ll start at the beginning. Or at least at the beginning of the most recent chapter of my life…
In a not unoriginal story, 9 years ago my husband and I decided to leave the sunny shores of Sydney after 4 glorious freedom-filled years, to come back to Europe to be closer to family and friends. Our roaming adventure most definitely wasn’t over, but by then we were ready to have an adventure a little closer to home. By chance, I’d spent a summer studying at Lausanne University and he was part of the ‘Nestlé family’ so we already knew the Vaud region pretty well. And being keen skiers, this mountainous playground – especially after the flatlands down under – seemed like the perfect solution.
Until that point, I’d spent my career in the advertising world, working with global clients in global advertising agencies – and having a lot of fun doing so. The one compromise we knew that we’d potentially be making with the move to the beautiful land of chocolate and cheese was that it wasn’t known as a mecca for advertising. So it was a semi-conscious decision that a change of direction was likely for me. It’s just that we didn’t yet know what that change would be.
When it comes to advertising, whether or not you’re in the industry, you’ll probably know that a small village in Switzerland isn’t exactly on the map when it comes to the places to be and be seen. It’s a great place to live but it’s not exactly London, New York or Sydney. Of course, there are some excellent agencies in Geneva (several of which I’ve since worked with) but it’s amazing how quickly you can become utterly Swissified – commuting the length of the lake and back every day never featured on my radar.
So, instead, I made the leap to client-side marketing (i.e. working in a company’s in-house marketing department, as opposed to working in a creative advertising agency). I realise that might not sound like much of a change, but for those who are au fait with the industry, it’s akin to turning to the dark side. But turn to the dark side I did, and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it – and how much I learnt – initially in the marketing department of Orange Communications and laterally as their Brand Manager. In retrospect (‘hindsight’s a wonderful thing’ is a cliché for a reason) this was an invaluable experience when it came to setting-up on my own later down the line.
Three years and a baby later, I decided (as many women do) that the thought of leaving my newborn to go back into the workplace just wasn’t something I was prepared to do. However, I also wasn’t prepared to stop working altogether. In fact, work has always provided me with much more than a salary. It provides me with a sense of purpose and a real sense of self-worth. Wrongly or rightly. So I wasn’t about to give it up. I just needed to think a little more latterly.
Luckily, my professional skill set was malleable enough to be repackaged into a consultancy service. Yes, I had mostly been on the strategic and client-facing side of advertising, but I was also a creative wanna-be who enjoyed writing and dabbling in design. So, I realised that by combining it all – a customer service mentality, a strategic mindset and a creative approach – I could effectively offer myself up as a one-man (or rather, one-woman) creative advertising agency. Well, in theory, at least. I then had to put theory into practice…
And actually, getting started wasn’t difficult. As my own first client, I named my business (InsideOut Communications), developed its brand identity, designed and wrote my website and a few calls and meetings later, I’d jumped the fence and had re-incarnated myself as an external consultant for Orange’s communications department. As I said, working as an employee in the market was definitely key to getting me started.
And as we all know, work creates work. The more you’re out there, the more you’re talking to people and meeting people, the more people are talking about you, the more work comes your way. So, before long, I was juggling clients of all sizes (from start-ups to multi-nationals) on all types of projects – designing marketing collateral, writing web copy, creating brand identities, developing direct marketing campaigns, print ads, full-on campaigns and even copywriting scripts for video games (not something I’d previously had any experience of playing, let alone writing!)
The diversity of people and projects keeps it all interesting and, on the whole, massively rewarding but still with plenty of time for my children (yes, I managed to fit in another one along the way – the biggest downside to self-employment being, I suddenly discovered, the lack of maternity leave).
A big plus side of self-employment, however, is that you’re fully in control of how, when and where you work, making it so much easier to create time for yourself than in a traditional work place. I imagine there’d be more than a few raised eyebrows if you were to slip into your sports kit mid-morning, mid-office. But whether it’s putting a wash on while you’re mulling over an idea or going out for a run in the middle of the day, your time really is your own. And it’s thanks to this and my trusty sports-break companion, Sophie, that together we set-up what was to be my second business ‘The FeelGood Company’ importing and selling Lorna Jane sportswear in Switzerland, proving that new business ideas can really come from anywhere.
It was after a trip to Australia to visit her sisters-in-law that Sophie started turning up to our sporting meet-ups dressed top to toe in Lorna Jane, putting me to shame in my eclectic collection of over-washed, slightly misshapen sports kit. Sophie’s enthusiasm is utterly contagious so after some corroborative research (Lorna Jane is enormous in Australia – outselling Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Lulu Lemon combined, annually – growing rapidly in America and without a doubt set to be the next big thing in Europe) I was an utter believer in the brand. We put together a business plan, pitched our case to the Global Development Director and won the Lorna Jane distribution rights in Switzerland. Just like that.
Now, I may have worked with many retailers in my career but retail most definitely is not my forté. What I’ve realised, though, is that almost anything can be learnt. You need to have enough experience of the basics – and between Sophie’s natural flare for sales and networking and my brand and communications skills, we had most bases covered – and then be prepared to learn (through a combination of research and trial & error) to fill in the gaps. Who knew the importance of the Fair Trade Agreement between Switzerland and China in 2014? 18 months ago, certainly neither of us did and now we can quote it off by heart (not that recitals are often requested…)
In just the first year of business, we’d created a loyal, direct customer base who kept coming back for more, we had a catalogue of enthusiastic brand ambassadors across the country and we’d successfully launched Lorna Jane into 17 Manor department stores across the country. We also had a website, a completely automated point-of-sale system, a stock management system (which was mostly brilliant but unfortunately also occasionally susceptible to human error – our bad) and, above all, the excuse to regularly shop some of the best sportswear out there. Not a bad job if you can get it.
So no, I think you’ll agree that elf-employment doesn’t sound brave or scary. And it isn’t about being an entrepreneur. It’s just simply a different way of working. And the norms – the way we work, how we work, where we work and when we work – are changing all the time so that different has in fact become the new normal.
If it’s the type of normal that sounds like it might suit you, then all I can say is think it through, talk to the people around you and if it feels right then go for it. Gut instinct is a wonderful thing.

And in case you want it, here’s my centime’s worth of advice if we were having this chat over a cup of coffee:

  • Know your marketable skills and leverage them. Doing what you love is important (but in an ideal world, that’s relevant for all jobs whether you’re self-employed or not) but if you can avoid it, don’t start from scratch. If you already have something that’s sellable, sell it.
  • Don’t see the way you work as making you any different from anyone else. It’s what you deliver that counts.
  • Ensure you have the support of those around you. Even if you’re doing it on your own, you have to be realistic. Whether that’s financial support (bills still need to be paid before that first job is chargeable), emotional support (my husband and kids are my surrogate water cooler conversation colleagues these days) and logistical support (my children were in garderie for 2 days a week from young and although I do try to keep work to work days, if I do ever have to work at weekends / evenings, I’m lucky enough to have an understanding, hands-on husband and a great group of supportive friends).
  • Don’t wait ‘til all your ducks are in a row to get started. Yes, get the basics up and running so you’re credible (website, elevator pitch, know what it is you’re selling etc) but if you wait for it all to be perfect you’ll never begin.
  • You don’t have to know everything. You just have to know enough to be the expert and be self-aware enough to know what you don’t know. You also have to be motivated enough to fill in the gaps.
  • Self-promotion is massively important but keep it professional. Don’t saturate your personal Facebook feeds with pushy business pitches to all your friends. You’re running a business, even if a small, fledgling one, and you’ve got to keep it professional. Instead, use the likes of LinkedIn, talk to your contacts, hunt down projects, join professional bodies. In short, do the leg work and make every contact count.
  • Expect to be a jack of all trades but remember you can’t afford to be a master of none. If there are weaker parts to your offering either don’t offer them, brush up your skills and learn new ones or find someone you can sub-contract to.
  • If you’re going into business with a partner, ensures it’s primarily someone who’s company you enjoy (you’ll be spending a lot of time together), who’s opinions you respect (you will have disagreements but if there’s mutual respect you’re likely to solve them better and quicker) and ensure that person has a complimentary skill set to your own so you have clear areas of ownership. You don’t need a partner if you’re doing the same job.

I don’t profess to know it all by any means, but I do have a few years and a couple of businesses under my belt, so if you do have any questions about being self-employed, I’ll do my best to answer them. You can contact me at jane@insideoutcomms.ch
And obviously if you have any brand or communications needs or are in the market for some amazing new sportswear, then here are the go-to places I’d highly recommend. And I’m only a tiny bit biased – honest!

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