It's a strange thing, to have a steady paycheck then walk away from it when you aren't sure that it's the right thing to do (but in your heart, you know it's the right thing to do).
The lesson was learned once before: steady never really means steady. At any point, a higher up can decide you are dispensable, your talent is replaceable, your earnings can be given to a new employee who asks for less to support themselves, or whatever other whim comes to mind.
The first time I learned that lesson, I'd given up to 60 hours a week meeting the demands of an agency. Anything over 40 I didn't get paid for. I was happy to be challenged, happy to be working on accounts I respected, happy to create things that helped my co-workers.
But while the owners built second homes, spent thousands purchasing and revamping a space in the downtown area of a capital city (for a second office space—with two people to fill it), and took their significant others on vacations under the company name, they simultaneously announced that they were not going to be able to afford staying open much longer.
Now, I'm no accountant, but no kidding, geniuses.
Two weeks shy of me purchasing a little piece of land so I could build a home for myself, the layoffs and—people leaving—began.
More than half of us no longer had jobs, but the company stayed open. The rest of us scrambled, and I moved back into my car.
It was then that I realized I never wanted to rely solely on someone else's whims for my income.
This time, I was more—though not entirely—prepared as I walked away from a job that a few of us employees felt wasn't being entirely upfront with its team. Though we'd all rushed to meet last-minute demands, worked weekends when needed, and did what was necessary to improve each clients' accounts (and the agency's relationship with them), we felt baited along.
We all walked.
Leaving the job still felt like being laid off. It wasn't directly forced, but it was implied in several ways. The feeling was that I was dispensable and my contributions meant very little to the agency. Though I'd kept contracts open for them and helped bring in more than 50% of the agency's revenue, I was passed over for a new hire to take over a senior position.
To add insult to injury, I was asked to train the new hire to cover my responsibilities and clients.
But here's the thing: Neither of these agencies were mine. In other words, it wasn't my dream I was helping to build, it wasn't mine to create an operations strategy or growth strategy or team culture strategy for. And with the second agency, I already knew the lesson plan: don't keep your eggs all in one basket. No matter how much I wanted to believe I was working toward a future there, I knew what living someone else's dream meant: if a better opportunity opens up for them, they may very well take it.
So while I wanted very much to help the agency succeed, I kept writing jobs open—at a minimum level, but somewhat maintainable—and kept a focus on my nonprofit. Neither earned me a living wage as I increasingly dedicated time to this agency, but I didn't stop practicing my other skills, I didn't stop looking at opportunities, and I never stopped learning.
Though it might not sound like it from the above, there's no ill will for either of the previous agencies; I know many come into business ownership with the idea of "it's not personal, it's business." The approach to business comes from many different perspectives, it's created from varied personal needs, and has a lot to do with the values an owner holds.
However, I want to work with people who create jobs because they love people and want to see them reach goals, provide for their loved ones, and succeed together. I view entrepreneurship as a way for people to teach each other, a way that allows learning and personal growth—both in personal and professional goals. It's exciting, demanding, and yes, it forces you to make tough decisions.
Sacrificing your own proven employees for a shiny new unknown on the horizon or wanting to put on a front that your business is bigger than it is (e.g., do we really need to renovate a historic building's eighth floor in the most expensive area in a state across the country so we have a trendy-looking office for the two employees who live there just to impress clients who we actually fly to meet in their offices around the country anyway?) aren't what I consider part of a positive work culture.
In one situation, I was laid off. In the second, I realized my own worth and left—with a few eggs still in my basket.