Image by M. Eldow.
How do you know when you’re finally “qualified” to quit your job and go out on your own?
Becoming your own boss is a scary proposition, especially for an immigrant like me, but I learned early on that power is taken, not given. At age five, I came to New Jersey from Cuba. At 14, I started selling Avon products to my high school classmates to save up for college. When I was 22, I got my dream job as the manager of a small NYC-based Spanish language television network. But that gig didn’t evolve as I had hoped: despite working what often felt like 24-hour days, the company got sold and I got laid off. I had to start over. Out of some combination of necessity and desire, I launched my own production company. I had great ideas and connections and thought it’d be great to be my own boss. For four years, though, I didn’t make a single dime. I felt like the world’s biggest failure – and like I had made a horrible mistake.
But eventually, I bounced back. In the years since, I’ve worked as a serial entrepreneur and bought and sold real estate properties with enough success that I could retire in my forties. But I didn’t do that. I became the first female president of the entertainment division for Telemundo, the American Spanish-language broadcast television network owned by NBC. And no, I didn’t always have a clear plan, but I quickly learned that my biggest successes ultimately came from going out on my own.
If I had it to do over again, I would still make the choice to launch my own company all those years ago. Only now, I would know to keep in mind these seven learnings I’ve picked up along the way:
When I left my job, I knew the Latino market pretty well — I just didn’t know about all the new projects that were starting within it. Before you go out on your own, double down on your area of expertise to learn everything new that you can. And continue to challenge yourself once you’re doing your own thing: meet new people, go to events within different circles, and tap friends and contacts for new information. When a friend told me that HBO was preparing to launch in Latin America and needed someone who knew the market to advise them, I did my research and nabbed that opportunity for my business!
I once received an offer to help launch ESPN Latino; the job was to produce the promos and commentary for the network in Spanish. Since I knew absolutely nothing about sports, my initial instinct was to decline. Instead, I hired a sports tutor, memorized sports terminology, and took the deal. Since then, whether I’m at a full-time job or working for myself, I’ve hired coaches to teach me everything from accounting to advanced English grammar. Your business will be better when you seek out the right training to address your weak spots.
It may sound insane, but the reality is that if you’re going to leave a steady job to start a business, you may go without an income for years. That means you need a safety net. Aim to save 20 to 50 percent of your income before you make that leap so you have a safety net. And yes, it is possible! The sacrifices you’ll make by moving to a less expensive apartment and living on a smaller budget will pay off later as the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own business.
On a spreadsheet, list out every job you’ve ever had. Make columns that spell out particular likes and dislikes, and be brutally honest. By listing out all the jobs I’ve had – from a salesperson at The Limited to news producer – and breaking down the parts I liked (“glamorous setting”) and didn’t like (“bad hotels”), I was able to pinpoint certain common denominators: I liked running businesses that connected with customers, made money, and were creative, collaborative, and exciting. That’s how I knew I wanted to start a production company where I could work with upbeat people and create meaningful content.
Think about how your skills and goals translate into what you want to do for work and into a product or service that provides a solution to a problem you know well. Also write out a list of personal goals, financial and otherwise, that you’d like to achieve in your life. I had “own a home,” “take a trip around the world,” and “have two years of salary saved” on mine. The next step is to start sketching out a detailed plan and strategy outlining when – and how – you will launch your plan. Include target dates for each component. These initial notes can become the basis for your business plan.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who are too shy to even say hello after I give a speech, even if I traveled halfway across the country just to meet and engage with them. I always wonder: How will they pitch a CEO if they can’t even talk to me? Have your vision and business strategy ready to pitch at all times. Own your story. If I hadn’t found the courage to pitch myself as a producer to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, I would never have had the opportunity to run Telemundo's entertainment division.
In my first meeting with Murdoch, he asked me to help him launch Fox in different markets throughout Latin America. It was a good offer, but I wanted to produce original programming. When I told him as much, he immediately shut me down. He said if I hoped to distribute my own content in the future, I would first have to become a key player on an established channel. That’s when I realized what was wrong with my business. I had jumped ahead of myself by failing to think about how I would even distribute the shows I wanted to produce. So, I revamped my approach and accepted Murdoch’s offer, on one condition: Fox would outsource the work to my company, Galán Entertainment. By seeing this mutual opportunity and shifting to a model I hadn’t originally anticipated, I found a clear, scalable path to profitability and growth.
Nely Galán is the author of SELF MADE: Becoming Empowered, Self-reliant, and Rich in Every Way. She launched the SELF MADE platform to help women everywhere find the resources they need to build their businesses.