when your industry gets disrupted
The stone-faced news executive opened the door to my office and curtly announced, “We'd like to see you upfront.”
Across the newsroom, the executive producer for our investigative unit motioned me over to speak.
“What's that all about?” he asked in an ominous tone.
“I'm about to be terminated, and you're probably next on the list,” I replied.
The color drained out of his face.
Indeed, it was a bloody day in March of 2008 across the CBS Television Station Group as well as other networks. The corporate “suits” ushered hundreds of award-winning news veterans into conference rooms across the nation, handed them severance packets, and then had security escort them out of the building.
The news industry slashed legions of journalists dedicated to original, in-depth reporting that “spoke truth to power.” It was the perfect storm — the convergence of the Internet and the Great Recession.
So how did I know that my Ides of March had come calling that fateful day?
During the previous nine years, I watched the industry blindly sail on the proverbial Titanic. Veteran media executives arrogantly thought their business model was unsinkable.
The looming iceberg of disruption
Suddenly, anyone with the desire and discipline to become a media producer could build an audience. Mainstream media were no longer the gatekeepers to access the public.
Plus, a television newscast was an analog product where the producers were in control. Digital media put the consumer at the helm. They no longer had to wait until 20 minutes after the hour to get their weather forecast.
Digital media and distribution reordered time. Instant gratification became the norm and attention spans shrunk to all-time lows.
I knew we were headed toward that media iceberg. Why? Executives had been scolding me for “wasting time” on a terrorism blog that I launched after my stint as an embedded reporter during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The site had thousands of “backlinks” from high authority websites around the globe. The executives didn't have the slightest idea about the value of backlinks — the critical currency valued by Google for the way they directed people to content in digital media.
A few years later, reporters asked a CBS executive when local newscasts would be available on cell phones. He pulled his iPhone out of his jacket and replied, “I just don't think our viewers want to watch the news on this itty bitty screen.”
By 2018 more than 75% of the worldwide video viewing was mobile. He simply couldn't see it coming.
And the band played on …
Despite many warning signs, I failed to abandon ship and suddenly found myself swimming for a lifeboat. I almost drowned.
Here's the blunt truth, at some point over half of the people in the U.S. labor market, will be fired or demoted — especially if they're deemed “older.”
Data cited by ProPublica reveals that once you’re over 50, odds are the decision to leave your job won’t be yours. That's disturbing news for Generation X.
Plus, 62% of jobs in general will be in danger within the next ten to twenty years. A McKinsey Digital study concludes that “45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated Technologies.”
Ask yourself, can a machine do your job? Professionals are not immune to the chopping block.
The McKinsey study cited above “discovered that even the highest-paid occupations in the economy, such as financial managers, physicians, and senior executives, including CEOs, have a significant amount of activity that can be automated.”
Is it time to pull the plug?
How do you know if it is time to become a freelancer or solo entrepreneur? Try asking yourself:
If Amazon, Google, or Facebook came into my employer's market niche today, what would we do?
The answer (or the absence of one) will tell you if it is time to build your own business. You are not alone — it's the employees who are frustrated by a lack of support for an idea, product, or service that start 15% of all startups.
Plus, there's never been a better time to become a solo entrepreneur. The world has changed in favor of the self-employed, and against employees.
Your laptop combined with a crowd of independent contractors can enable you to seamlessly enter and exit digital labor markets. There's a potpourri of web applications that reduce the friction that was a barrier to doing business in the past.
I firmly believe that had the information and resources provided by Brian Clark's Unemployable podcast been available to me ten years ago, I could have cut my solo entrepreneur learning curve in half.
There's a lot to learn, but there are people who've done it who are happy to share. And it pays to get started before the axe falls on you.
As a company of one, you are responsible for sales, marketing, project management, invoicing, reporting, and client retention. It's certainly doable, but it helps to begin before you have to.
Get started now
When my axe fell, I didn't know the first thing about running a business and most importantly, about “getting” business (also known as marketing). I enrolled in a course at the University of Texas at Dallas, where I received a Certificate in Entrepreneurship.
The program focused on how to launch and grow a startup by raising
venture capital. Although that's not directly applicable to a bootstrapped solo entrepreneur, it prompted me to start thinking about business processes to make money.
Don't wait to get your pink slip as I did. While you're still employed, get going by:
- Hiring an accountant,
- Forming a legal business entity,
- Developing a business strategy,
- Brainstorming a list of potential clients, and
- Preparing your launch plan.
Starting a new business is not for kids. Mark Zuckerberg is a unicorn, not the norm. The average age of a successful startup founder is 45.
My solo entrepreneur journey resembles a honey bee pollinating. I tried producing TV reality shows, producing TV commercials, search engine optimization (SEO), building websites, writing blog posts, branding, digital marketing strategies, and social media.
I was trying to figure out where my storytelling skills fit with the new digital media. And yes there were failures along the way.
Fortunately, I majored in Architecture at Texas A&M University. Although I never practiced the profession, the studio learning environment grounded me in design thinking and the creative process. Plus, my critical thinking skills developed throughout my long career definitely gave me an edge.
Do you have what it takes?
First of all, I don’t advise you to immediately give notice to your current employer. There's no need to put yourself under that kind of pressure.
Before you pull the trigger, try moonlighting. Build an initial business model and find out if you can support yourself or your family before making the leap. That's the beauty of starting before you have to.
The following checklist contains the traits and characteristics that can help you determine if you have the “right stuff” to become a freelancer or solo entrepreneur.
You have a passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even when it's not going well.
You maintain a high level of intellectual curiosity about everything and everyone across many fields and disciplines. You are able to venture outside your comfort zone and explore new areas of immediate interest.
You recognize that innovation occurs at the intersection of different disciplines. You synthesize your accumulated knowledge and look at it from different perspectives.
You are comfortable with introspection and are able to get a tight grip on what you are good at, what you are not good at, what you like, or don't like.
You are able to take responsibility for defining and achieving your success. In the spirit of Texas, I call this a “can-do” attitude. You take the initiative without being asked to take it.
You have the courage to be open to welcome change and new ideas, regardless of their source.
You are able to empathetically listen to client needs and don't force-feed canned solutions. Most importantly, you cultivate active listening skills.
You make learning a lifelong process. You need a big appetite for
self-learning because you need to know a little bit about a lot.
Your focus determines your reality. Attention is just another word for time. You have the ability to hyper-focus for long stretches of uninterrupted time — a critical skill for deep work.
You are able to find your equivalent of an enchanted forest–a place of introspection and reflection. Creative solutions bubble to the surface in this environment.
You easily make inspirational friendships. Solo entrepreneurship can be a lonely existence, so you maintain a network of people with whom you meet for regular lunches and chats over coffee.
You guard your reputation as a prized possession. Trust is your gold standard.
Does this strike a responsive chord? Do you feel uneasy about your current employer and its future? Is it another version of a taxi cab company and you hear the rumble of Uber coming?
Do you suffer from a crisis of meaning when it comes to work? Are you stuck in the rut of meritocracy in a corporate culture that lacks desire and passion? Are you being held back from living your best life?
Before I was cut from the news, I was already asking those questions of myself. But I clung to the idea of job security. Of course, job security is an illusion, especially in an age of globalization and fast-paced technological innovation.
As a Texas horseman, I realized that at some point I had to saddle up and grab the reins. It has been a scary ride at times. But, you learn by doing.
And when you find your stride, and step up to a gallop, it's exceptionally satisfying to be unemployable. Giddy up!