I had just run into the CEO of my ad agency after stepping out of the elevator. “Hey, good news!” I said, feigning joy. “We just nailed down the geotargeting parameters for the (insert client name) campaign and the media team feels good about it. We all do.”
He gave me an icy glare. “What about (other client name)?”
“Well, we straightened that out a couple of weeks ago…” I said.
“Not what I heard,” he replied. And he walked away. Not a good sign.
20 minutes later, I was asked to go to a makeshift conference room on the fourth floor of my building, conveniently located just outside of the HR director’s office. I walked in and saw a table of executives who were far too important to be in the room at the same time just to pay me a compliment. They were silent as I walked to the only open seat at the table and sat down.
“David, we hate to do this,” one of them started, deadpanning, “but we have been instructed to let you go; today is your last day.” I felt a pang of dread in my chest and suddenly, my hands were damp with “oh fuck”-ness. Minutes before, I’d been on my way to share my big campaign. Now, I wouldn’t be presenting anything. Now, I didn’t have a job.
Another 30 seconds of smattering details ensued, but that was it. I handed them my laptop and was escorted to my car.
I was unemployed.
I’ve had 365 days to reflect on that day. The reality, though, is that I had less than a day to get my shit together. I ran the gamut of emotions you’d expect that night. I wasn’t sad. My feelings weren’t hurt. But I was scared. I was shocked. I got in my car and made the 40 minute drive in to work that day knowing that I had a ton to get done. I got in my car and made the 40 minute drive home from work that night, knowing that the next day, I had no source of income, no job, no coworkers, nothing.
My mortgage and car payment were both due on May 1 and I didn’t have another paycheck coming. That meant that I had 12 days to recoup half my monthly income.
Well, I did. I busted my ass, but I did it. And I’ve also now had the 365 days to reflect on the rest. Here’s (some) of what I learned.
No one gives a shit about your career. If you are hired help, you are a movable part on an assembly line. You might be even be a valuable part on that line, but you are expendable. The only reason you have that job/role is because it delivers value to the people profiting off your work. Yes, you’ll meet good people along the way who will try to help you. But even they are marching to the beat of someone else’s drum. It’s heartless, but you have to put your own career first. No one else is looking out for you more than they’re looking out for themselves.
Hard work is overrated. People will tell you until they’re blue in the face that there’s value in hard work. It’s bullshit. There’s value in good work. There’s value in smart work. I have accomplished more this year than I did in three at my last job because I’m no longer compensated to make a show of working hard; I’m only compensated for work that drives results. And if I fail to do that, I don’t eat.
Time doesn’t matter. Value does. If you could make your client $50,000, do you think they’d care if you billed them $10,000 for the work? Of course not. But many people get into business, peg their value at a certain hourly rate, and then send a bill. Employees get paid an hourly rate, and let’s be honest, a salary is often an excuse to get you to work beyond that rate anyway. If you work for yourself, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to sell your services based on value, not time.
Your clients are wrong. Ad agencies are notorious for working employees to the bone in the name of ‘client service.’ That often meant 60 hour work weeks, or 50 percent more than the standard 40, because your client wanted you to respond to “hey, nice couch!” tweets at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. The reality is, your clients don’t know what they want. That’s why they hired you. It’s your job to tell them no, and it’s your job to steer them toward the things that matter to their bottom line. If you fight a turf war over small stuff, your client already won. And you’re going to be beholden to ass kissing for the sake of collecting a check. Clients don’t have to like you. But if you push them into the decisions that make them money, they’ll respect you. And then they’ll really like you.
You’re more valuable than you think. I spent every day at my last job balancing confidence and total insecurity. Spoiler Alert: That’s true for everyone – at every level. I took the jump into working for myself, but I was keenly aware of the fact that I was a one-man show trying to convince corporations that they needed me. Well, I’m over the insecurity. I’m not a big shop, but I am small and nimble enough that I can deliver better service. I’m not surrounded by a department-full of thinkers, but my clients also know they’re not paying for a bunch of people who won’t ever work on their account, either. I can’t invite clients to a fancy office, but they know they’re paying for results, not my game room.
Yes, you can do it. If I didn’t get fired a year ago, I’d still be at that same job, jockeying for position to get a raise, a promotion, or some form of acknowledgement. I got fired and that pushed me into taking a risk I’d wanted to take for a long time. I’m a smart guy, but I’m not a genius. I’m a hard worker, but I’m not obsessive. I’m just a normal guy who believes in himself, learns a little more each day, and takes chances. And I am succeeding. You can too.
It doesn’t have to be so hard. I’m not a web designer, but I hit up Square Space and built a nice website in a couple of hours. I’m not a photographer or graphic designer, but I can get free, high quality stock imagery from Pexels or Pixabay. I’m not an IT specialist, but I set up a business email account through Google on my own. I’m not an accountant, but I keep track of my expenses in Excel and pay a little extra for a good accountant. Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. Start asking around and be resourceful. You’re only a few steps away from really looking like you have your shit together.
I started April 18, 2016 with zero clients, and I opened a business that didn’t even have a name.
A year later, DB + Partners has 11 clients, some of which include McCormick, the YMCA, Azamara Club Cruises and some others you’ve possibly heard of. I have a fully functioning website and even created a program you can buy through the site’s store. I work most days from my kitchen table or a Starbucks.
I have no commute, outside of a meeting or two that I have to drive for. I have flown home to see my family 13 times in the past year. I am free of anxiety. I met the love of my life. Oh, and I earned more in 2016 than I would have if I’d never gotten fired in the first place. 2017 is shaping up to be even better.
And most importantly, I’m happy.