Gini Dietrich

Making the Leap from Executive to Entrepreneur

By: Gini Dietrich | March 13, 2012 | 

In 2005, I took the plunge from climbing the corporate ladder to entrepreneurship.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. More done out of frustration with the way communication results were handled (or not handled) inside agencies.

I thought I had a better way.

I did have a better way, but it took me five years to get the business to a point that we could do things differently. To the point other business leaders would listen to something so radically different than what they were hearing from other PR/marketing/communication firms.

It wasn’t because we couldn’t prove it worked. We could. It was because I had to learn how to jump from big budgets, big funding, and lots of resources to, well, nothing.

This is a point made in a recent Forbes article, “Confessions of a Successful Entrepreneur.”

You see, I thought I had to start Arment Dietrich with the same (what I know now are) luxuries I had at the big agencies.

The people I hired had full benefits, paid for by the company. They were vested in their 401K programs. They had holidays and personal leave and time off galore.

I thought this is the way all businesses were run. But, when it came time to batten down the hatches, I had to ask my team to give up their “big company” benefits. It wasn’t fun.

It took me a long time to get the business side of things right before I could push the company toward a better way of doing things.

If you have ever considered (or find yourself considering) starting your own business, making the decision to do it is the hardest part. Nothing you read or people you talk to can help you make that decision.

But once the decision is made, there are five things you can consider as you go from executive to entrepreneur.

  1. People are excited by start-ups. If you have a clear vision, can articulate it well, and are extremely passionate about achieving it, there are many, many people who will join you in the journey. Even though I know this, I’m always surprised at what people will do when they believe in you and your vision. Give them phantom stock. Talk about what things will be like when you make it. Take care of them along the way. And your big company luxuries don’t have to be there to entice people to join you.
  2. Keep your door open. As we grow, this is the thing I hear over and over again. My team loves that our culture allows them to have direct access to me. As an executive, you shut yourself off. You have gatekeepers and direct reports and organizational charts and no one gets through the door. As an entrepreneur, everyone has to be able to get through your door.
  3. Be as generous as possible. There will always be the neighbor whose daughter needs a job or someone who wants to pick your brain because they’re about to embark upon something you’ve already done. It will be in your executive nature to shut them off and not be generous with your time. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to eventually need people’s help. And if you weren’t generous with them when they needed you, they’ll remember it.
  4. Roll up your sleeves. There is nothing worse than working to build someone’s company when they’re not willing to do the hard work. Do grunt work. Make coffee. Take out the trash. Sit in the cubicles with everyone else. Make yourself part of the team. This will go against everything you learned on your journey up the ladder, but if you shut yourself off, your turnover will be high, morale will be low, and no one will continue to be excited to help you achieve your vision.
  5. Open your mind. As an executive, it’s likely it was always your way or the highway. You didn’t have to listen to other’s ideas, nor did you have to incorporate them. As an entrepreneur, an open mind and the ability to really listen to what your team has to say may mean the difference between releasing a mediocre product and an innovative one. Listen to what your customers have to say. And incorporate their feedback.

It’s not an easy transition, particularly if you’re accustomed to the things big companies can afford. But who knows? If you can make the transition well, you may soon find yourself as one of those big companies competing with your former employer(s).

A portion of this first ran in my weekly Crain’s column.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • ginidietrich

    @aliciakan xoxo

    • aliciakan

      @ginidietrich Ditto!

  • debmorello

    RT @ginidietrich Making the Leap from Executive to Entrepreneur

  • Byron Fernandez

    Loved the part about rolling up your sleeves, Gini. The small things count! I’ve found if you’re generous with your time and knowledge; it’s infectious. Others will want to speak with you, learn together and support the passion and vision you carry around in your head and in your work — beyond whether they ever spend a dime toward you or your business. Data/human liberation!  
    Nothing replaces genuine emotional intelligence and treating people with respect and dignity, even when they don’t ask for, appreciate it or offer it in return. The only one that can compromise your integrity is You … 

    • ginidietrich

       @Byron Fernandez So true. And most company executives spend their time fending off people because time is so limited. Not saying I don’t feel that way sometimes – I do. But I’ve found I feel better about myself when I can help others.

  • ginidietrich

    @dubaitara Thanks!

    • dubaitara

      @ginidietrich Love your posts. 🙂

      • ginidietrich

        @dubaitara Love you for saying that!

  • Sage advice Gini. I don’t have any perks except flexible time right now. I have no benefits. I have no set working hours. No vacation time. I hope to get these back down the road. The pay off will be worth it. I am sure many folks who have gotten to where their business is viable and self supportive will attest that.
    I have gotten to know quite a few start up  people with vision pursuing them as future clients. Over time as I check in for progress (I give them all some free marketing advice) I can tell the ones who have true vision plus the ability to take action. I want to work with these people because it is 1] exciting and 2] I learn from them as much as they can learn from me.

    • ginidietrich

       @HowieSPM You’ll never again have set working hours or vacation time. It’s all a trade-off, as you well know. And it IS exciting to work with people who have vision and passion and can get things done. Everyone wants to be surrounded by success.

      •  @ginidietrich Everyone wants to be surrounded by success. (you forgot ‘and hippies!’)

        • ginidietrich

           @HowieSPM No. Only  YOU want to be surrounded by hippies.

  • This is great advice, and I think I need to make my family read this so they have a better understanding of why I do what I do.  Number 3 is the tough one for me. Not so much the “being generous” part, but knowing when to shut that off. I don’t come from the executive/business world so saying, “No” is hard for me. Perhaps that’s another post for you some time!

    • ginidietrich

       @KenMueller I’ve written before about saying no. I have a really hard time with it. But that’s why I have Patti. She has no problem saying no for me. And she’s more protective of my time than I am.

  • I started the same way, I always find it funny that we start with a strong awareness for what we DON”T want.
    What the business will do and how it wiil look like comes down the line.
    In terms of overheads, starting in the UAE meant I had to pay upfront for everything. No income tax but I had to get a local sponsor who owned 51% of the company and was paid annual dividends (which were not related to income), in order to incorporate we had to rent x amount of sq.feet of office space. All paid upfront before we made a dime.
    Then we had to fly in employees, interview them, make sure they fit, pay for their healthcare and lodge them. 
    I always say I’m not a gambler but sometimes it did feel like playing russian roulette. 
    On the other side it did give me a huge kick up the a** to go and get clients 🙂
    But you are right Gini, going lean is the smarter approach, I didn’t have a choice when I started, but we are now much leaner and also much happier.

    • ginidietrich

       @John Falchetto It’s funny…the lean thing. So many companies (particularly the big ones) are always working toward lean management. Reducing inventory, reducing staff, reducing expenses in order to improve margins. Maybe those leaders should be entrepreneurs for a year. It won’t seem so hard after that.

  • dubaitara

    @rchakaki Thanks for RTs and everything else. 🙂

  • Gini;
    These are all good observations about making the leap. One more I might add (that I think you assumed) is that when you are on your own there’s nothing more important than customers. So many corporate folks spend hours worrying about their office furniture, job titles, or other things that are important in corporate. But on your own you are nothing with out clients/customers. Put that #1 and you’ll go far.

    • ginidietrich

       @blfarris And, to take that even further, you don’t really work for yourself. You work for your clients and for your team. Always. 

  • I had a heart to heart with myself shortly after my 30th Birthday in January. Part of me feels jaded because compared to the expectations I set for myself in my early 20’s, I’m wayyyyy behind the entrepreneurial 8 ball. I’ve been using my family as an excuse as to why I haven’t started my 3 companies(or even 1) yet. I certainly don’t regret having a kid so early (and then 2nd & 3rd), but it absolutely changed my plans in “settling” for jobs to make a living. It’s become increasingly difficult to set aside a nest egg to support my family while I make the plunge. There I go with excuses again! As for your post, I love your advice… Per the usual

    • ginidietrich

       @SociallyGenius I can imagine it’s much more difficult to take the risk when you have a family. And it is a risk. A big one. But you can be very calculated about it. Start a business at nights and on weekends. Find clients. Build it to the point that you can pay yourself what you’re making now. Then quit your job.

      • @ginidietrich That’s what I’m planning out now, Gini. Maybe a cirque de soleil type of shows for weddings

        • ginidietrich

           @SociallyGenius  LOL!!

      •  @ginidietrich @SociallyGenius 
        My family is precisely the reason why I haven’t done a few things. It is much harder to assume risk when it is not just you. But I suspect that we could also argue that it means that you’ll be that much smarter about how you build a business.
        Or at least one would hope.

  • I’m a little rushed this morning for time G’ but may I just say I thought this piece was exceptional, a literal must-read for any entrepreneur that’s in this battle of finding momentum, attracting good people, but also keeping their doors open. Seriously, this was exceptional.
    Have a wonderful week,

    • ginidietrich

       @Marcus_Sheridan People are going to begin to think my mom is paying you to come here and say nice things.

      •  @ginidietrich She pays? I want mine.

      •  @ginidietrich She pays? I want mine.

        • ginidietrich

           @Sean McGinnis She only pays people who are nice to me.

        •  @ginidietrich Did you show her the e-mail? #JustSayin’

        • ginidietrich

           @Sean McGinnis You told me not to share it…so no.

        •  @ginidietrich Well, it’s OK to share it with  your mom….who will pay me. That’s totally different.

        • ginidietrich

           @Sean McGinnis Oh OK. Hang on, then.

        • @Sean McGinnis @ginidietrich Since I’m desperate for attention, I’ll pay you to email me. Ok Sean?

  • When we enter this planet, we are born entrepreneurs. Society has changed to make of us want what the executives have. Big cars, someone to take out your trash, someone to make sure your coffee is just right!!! I can’t stand it myself – and I long for the day when society encourages a more responsible approach to all. Apologies to the good execs out there…
    Go Entrepeneuries!!

    • ginidietrich

       @Nic_Cartwright Wait! Does someone take your trash out??! I’m getting screwed.

      •  @ginidietrich Hell yeah..  Always the first thing on a new contract…..
        Trash taker outer – double check
        Salary – check
        Shoe polisher (Thursdays for the deck shoes) – check
        Someone to refill my ink pen – check
        Envelope sticker on-er – check
        Watch winderer uper – a must
        In today’s harsh conditions – it is key to get all your basic rights as an over-inflated egomaniac executive sorted from the get go.
        Off to watch my clay-pigeon-shooter-assistant shoot for me.
        PS – apologies for the poor English in this blog update.  My new blog-typing-assistanty-person hails from Luxembourg.  Slightly expensive (based on market rates) but very dedicated.

        • ginidietrich

           @Nic_Cartwright You are hilarious!!

  • Hi, 
    I fully agree with Marcus, this piece says it all.As an entrepreneur in my veins, I’ve never been in any corp. unless to meet with my friends.
    I always congratulate those who make the leap and do the unthinkable: leaving the comfort zone for a wild life. Exceptionally motivating ;)Thanks for sharing, 

    • ginidietrich

       @Yael Rozencwajg I think most of us who take the leap don’t realize what we’re doing…or we wouldn’t do it. 🙂

      •  @ginidietrich are you trying to tell me we’re irrational? Anyway I am 😀

        • ginidietrich

           @Yael Rozencwajg I am, too!

  • AngelaMoorePR

    This is a great post! I made my leap in 2003 and have never looked back.  I definitely learn from my mistakes (and there have been plenty) and have had great guidance from other entrepreneurs.  It’s a crazy yet wonderful journey! Thanks for sharing this – I know it will help others who are leaping or about to.

    • ginidietrich

       @AngelaMoorePR We all make mistakes, even when we’re told what will happen if we make that decision. Yet…we have to figure it out all by ourselves. Sigh…

  • ginidietrich

    @drbenlo Thanks!

  • Interesting. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 30 years now, long before there was a moniker for it. I’ve never been employed. I’ve always made my own way. No pension. No benefits. No vacation. No gold watch. No perks. I don’t know any other way, and the businesses I work with come to realize that what works in corporate does not work in the world of the self-employed. When the toilet needs scrubbing, when an employee is crying, when you’re up to your eyeballs in alligators, the speed of the leader is the speed of the game. Wish more people would work with coaches – people who’ve been there, stepped in the s*#t, dusted themselves off, learned from it…people who, through both their practical experience and academic learning can help people achieve success more efficiently and effectively than those trying to go it on their own. I get frustrated when I hear people say they “can’t afford” a coach. In my experience, the people who need it the most choose to afford it the least. Just my rant for the day. I guess I’m feeling mighty prickly about the topic. So I’d add a 6th thing: work with a coach.

    • ginidietrich

       @KDillabough Totally agree! There is no shame in having a coach. Athletes have them…why can’t business leaders have them, too??

      •  @ginidietrich Wow. Would never have even imagined there was even an intimation of shame in having a coach.

        • ginidietrich

           @KDillabough Unfortunately there is. People feel like they should be able to make a go of it alone.

        •  @ginidietrich  @KDillabough there seems to be less awareness of the opportunity for coaches in the entrepeneurial (darned I thought I had nailed the spelling of that word) world.  I am aware that it is far more prevalent in “exec heaven” – but I think it would be much more powerful for the Entrepid Entrepreneurs (yeah – got it that time!!).  I have tried a couple of times to get myself someone as a full on mentor / coach – but I keep moving countries!! – Doh…
          No doubt will find myself a friendly guru-like Sheikh in time over here… 

        •  @Nic_Cartwright  @ginidietrich Great point. I often say that the people who can benefit most (entrepreneurs) are those who choose to afford it the least (note the word “choose”). As a business/life coach for 30 years now, my target market is the entrepreneur, but often not the start-up, which is ironic, because start-ups are the ones who could most definitely benefit from coaching from the get-go.I analogize to sports coaching. We really need our excellent coaches coaching beginners, because that’s where the most significant progress can be made. When beginners don’t get good coaching, they develop bad habits, learn improper technique and suffer in terms of performance. And it’s very difficult to “un-train” those things later.
          Same thing goes for business. If more entrepreneurs engaged the services of the coach, they’d get to their goals and destination with less frustration, more effectively and efficiently than without.
          Coaching is an investment, not an expense, with a return on that investment. And remember @Nic_Cartwright , it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. We coaches can work with clients regardless of geography, using the tools of technology at our disposal.

        •  @KDillabough  @ginidietrich you make a fair point there!!
          my coaches have always been mentors/friends higher up the food/corporate chain…  never had the wherewithall (spare $$) to invest in a professional…. 

        •  @Nic_Cartwright  @ginidietrich Great to hear that you’ve had coaches/mentors in the corporate chain. Progressive companies do set up excellent in-house programs. It’s unfortunate that most entrepreneurs choose not to benefit from the same type of coaching/mentoring. I’m biased, of course, but having been an Olympic sports coach and seen what coaching does for athletes, and translated that to the business world, I believe every entrepreneur would be wise to work with a coach. I believe it should be part of every business budget. But like I said, I’m biased;)

        •  @KDillabough  @ginidietrich coach is most important person in the team in sports (mostly) – apart from the CEO #ahem of course….
          sports clubs sadly invest far more in their on pitch than off pitch talent

  • It is crazy what people will do, isn’t it? 🙂 They are nuts. PEOPLE. 
    But seriously, I’m not in business for myself anymore, but I will be again some day. That’s exactly why I called my business Big Leap Creative. It’s a scary thing. and there are a lot of trade-offs. I really enjoyed not having any employees. When I eventually hired one, I realized, like you said below, now I’m not only working for my clients, but I’m also working for my employees. That was less fun. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is critical, and understanding where you want go exactly so you’re still playing to both at it’s best advantage. So many people end up somewhere and think… this isn’t at all what I wanted. 

    • ginidietrich

       @Lisa Gerber “Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is critical.” That self-awareness thing is pretty darn important. And, when you can recognize strengths in people where you are weak, you begin to build a really strong team.

      •  @ginidietrich Having the confidence level to hire someone who is strong where you are weak is another great point. I had a boss a long time ago who hired a bunch of Yes Men, and that gets you nowhere. 

    • Byron Fernandez

       @Lisa Gerber Everyone brings joy to the office/work. Some when they Enter. Others when they Leave. 

  • nicole_gaskell

    @ginidietrich great write up and it’s 200% spot-on!!

    • ginidietrich

      @nicole_gaskell Thank you!

  • rustyspeidel

    Once I made the move, it was almost ridiculous to consider going back to big biz. There is so much dysfunction, waste, and silo-raising built in there it’s incredible. But they make fantastic clients because of those very same things! It’s so ironic that when they hire someone at those big companies, they always want someone who can “think entrepreneurially.” 

    • ginidietrich

       @rustyspeidel That’s because they can’t get out of their own way.

  • rustyspeidel

    I also don’t agree that you should ever shut yourself off, no matter how big. Collaborative management, especially in your field where so many folks have good ideas, is a serious waste of all that talent you searched and pay for.

    • ginidietrich

       @rustyspeidel I agree. But it happens all over the place.

  • I do he exact opposite of this stuff on my blog. No wonder I’m a terrible entrepreneur.

    • ginidietrich

       @JayDolan LOL! I love you.

  • TheRedDogInn

    @ginidietrich Hear! Hear! Gini. I wish I could hug you right now. Great stuff here.

    • ginidietrich

      @TheRedDogInn I’ll take a virtual hug until we meet IRL

      • TheRedDogInn

        @ginidietrich consider yourself squished.

  • KyEkinci

    @ginidietrich …good post. Sharing the love, the mistakes, the learnings with the new entrepreneurs who are ex-corporate-America matters.

    • ginidietrich

      @KyEkinci Thank you!

  • KellyeCrane

    Great points about how entrepreneurs can be scrappy and forego what larger companies feel are necessities. I’d add one more item to the optional list: employees. Especially initially, using a network of highly qualified subcontractors can give a lot of flexibility to a growing business (and it makes adding team members a little less scary!). From solo PR pros to virtual assistants, independent contractors are available for almost any need — I’ve run my virtual PR agency for 16 years this way.

    • ginidietrich

       @KellyeCrane Really great point, Kellye! One I didn’t consider when I started AD. Probably would have saved me a lot of money (and heartache) had I started out that way.

  • ginidietrich

    @_KatherineBrown Ha!

  • ginidietrich

    @_KatherineBrown How was I not following you?

    • _KatherineBrown

      @ginidietrich Thanks for the follow! You are my Twitter hero.

      • ginidietrich

        @_KatherineBrown You are a goofball! And one of my favorite people IRL

  • I’ve always thought that one of the reasons that made, at least in the past as things have changed also there these times, Japanese businesses so great was, beside their culture of perfection in everything, that every worker could go to his boss and explain his thoughts on ways to make a better job and if he was right he was given credit and his ideas applied. This way every worker could improve the business as there wasn’t a “This is the way we do things” attitude. There’s already respect for the leader so the open doors policy is always a winner if someone wants to be a leader and not a boss. Caesar ate with his soldiers and that’s why they would have gone to Hell for him, he was one of them but also their leader. One thing doesn’t eliminate the other. 🙂

    • ginidietrich

       @Andrea Hypno It’s interesting you say that because we have a client who enforces Japanese culture in his business. I’m learning a lot about the way they do things and, you’re right, it’s a very open (but lean) culture. One of the things my team says about our culture, that they don’t want to change, is access to me. At some level, as we get bigger, access will change, but I will always have an open door.

  • cindyoyo

    Always good reads from Gini! RT @ginidietrich: Five tips for making the leap from company to entrepreneurship

  • ifdyperez

    Ah, this is great. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and this was encouraging to read. I may be picking your brain on this kind of stuff one day. 🙂

    • ginidietrich

       @ifdyperez You, my darling, may pick my brain on anything you like.

  • ginidietrich

    @alyssaLvan Thanks!

  • This was really refreshing to read. As my business partner jasonstewart_ and I launch a design and marketing firm this was really good to read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic because its always interesting to hear other peoples view points.

    • ginidietrich

       @Justicewordlaw  jasonstewart_ This is one of those, I wish I knew then what I know now things.

  • PagesofVision

    @wagnerwrites Nice article thanks for sharing!!! #TeamPagesOfVision #LikeUs #FollowBack

    • wagnerwrites

      @PagesofVision I’m always happy to share wisdom from @SpinSucks. Glad you liked & shared.

  • wagnerwrites

    @avisionarydiva Isn’t @spinsucks the best? One of the few blogs I try to read every day.

  • ginidietrich

    @jodykoehler Thanks Jody!

  • lizstrauss

    RT @ShellyKramer: Making the Leap from Executive to Entrepreneur via @ginidietrich

    • ginidietrich

      @lizstrauss xoxo

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