Friday Entrepreneurs: Pamela Slim, Escape From Cubicle Nation

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Man, I love this interview. I’ll be totally up-front and admit that you’re going to see much of my bias that more people should think entrepreneurially in the interview below. Fortunately, Pamela agrees. After working in a corporate environment and hating it for a long time, she’s created Ganas, a consulting company that helps certain people re-evaluate their careers and decide what’s next: starting a company? Moving to another job? She also uses a blog as a central strategy of the business (with great articles like How to get experience and credibility when you are just starting your biz. (Check her blog out–I read it, and there’s a ton of great information on it for everyone.) As you read it, note a few things:

  • I just really like her whole attitude, and you can hear the energy in her responses. She’s obsessed with people doing what they really love–but tempered with realistic advice (“How long can you survive? How will you make a living? What’s the market like?”) I pressed her to explain why she started Ganas and walked away from a comfortable, steady job. See if her answer is interesting to you. I’m always curious what makes people make a big change in their lives.
  • You don’t have to buy into the premise that everyone should be an entrepreneur to get value out of this interview. Neither of us think that.
  • She’s “adopted” a couple of (very prominent) professors as her informal mentors, whom she can send questions to and run ideas by. These people found her through her blog. Think about that: These senior people found her just because she wrote something interesting.
  • She gives some surprising advice about being young and not liking your job. She also talks about working with gangs and the common mistakes she made (is there anyone who hasn’t underpriced their consulting services at first?).
  • Oh, one more thing. You’ll notice that every Friday Entrepreneur I’ve posted is insanely easy to get a hold of. These are great resources. Send Pam an email. Ask her what she thinks about your situation. This is how you meet interesting people! And she’s openly willing to hear from you. Sending one email could make all the difference.

I absolutely love the tagline at the end of your email:
“Are you a corporate prisoner who suddenly realizes you must escape now?
Visit my blog http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com

Where did it come from?
The Escape from Cubicle Nation brand came to me as a lightning bolt to my forehead as I was walking my baby son around the kitchen trying to get him to sleep. I had been taking a class on building platform, and knew that I wanted to help frustrated corporate creatives break out and start their own business. But all brand names I thought of were boring, “consultant-like” and terribly lame. All of a sudden, like a possessed madwoman, the phrase popped into my mind from nowhere and I knew in my bones that it was the right brand. As the wise and spiritual among us say, “There are no coincidences!”

For the byline, I actually started with “corporate warrior,” but found that “prisoner” more aptly captured how my “peeps” were feeling in their cubes.

And what did you decide to do?
I ran with the brand, starting a blog of that name. And the blog has parlayed into a book in progress, as I have found that many, many people are hungry for information that addresses the transition time between deciding you can’t live another moment in your cube and having all ducks in a row to leave and start your own business.

So you actually took it a little bit further. Can you tell us about Ganas?
Ganas Consulting LLC is the company that I founded in 1996. Ganas is a spanish word that means inner fire, motivation, exuberance and drive. I spent the first 8 years of my business as a management and leadership consultant, working with a loads of companies to help them better manage the “squishy” side of their business. Early clients were HP, Cisco, 3Com, Sun and Charles Schwab, then as the dot.com scene imploded, I moved into other business sectors. My clients spanned the gamut of ages – from 20-something engineers to 50-something execs.

Although I loved a lot of what I did in the early years, I reached a point where I felt like I was not totally engaged in the work anymore. Although my reputation was good, work abundant and my cash flow was great, I found it hard to get excited about launching a global campaign to help 50,000 employees adapt to a new technology. It didn’t keep me awake at night. But talking with frustrated employees who dreamed to escape and start their own business really lit my flames.

This was coupled with some life changes where I became a Mom for the first time and didn’t want to spend time on the road. So I moved Ganas in a new direction and decided to build a new consulting practice around helping corporate prisoners escape their cubes. Products and services will include 1:1 and group coaching, teleclasses, offsite retreats, books and information products. Plus the blog and podcast – which is where the real fun is.
My new clients span the age range from 20-somethings to 50-somethings. But I will say the core is in the 35-45 range, who tend to have families, mortgages and heavy job titles that are hard to give up.

Take us inside Ganas. What about mistakes you made?
I have made so many mistakes I can hardly recount them all here … But I will say that early on I did not do market research and charged too little for my services. I started my business relatively young at 30 (for a management consultant, anyway), without an MBA or business degree (I am a liberal arts major – International Service and Development) and without having obtained a VP title in my career as an employee. My second client actually gave me a raise without me asking, probably out of pity … How pathetic is that?

As the years went by, I would have to say that I could have started the shift in this new direction earlier before I got so burned out on the other work. As it turned out, the timing was useful as I got a big fat consulting project that allowed me to bank up a year’s salary and take time off with my little guy.

I did write a couple of posts that detail what I did right and wrong when starting my business:
Writing a Dr. Seuss business plan and other questionable things I did when I started my business and Dr Suess Aside, Here is what I did right when I started my business.

What does it take for someone to approach you?
The ability to send an email or pick up the phone. I love to talk to people. My only challenge now is keeping up with correspondence since as the Mom of a toddler I don’t have the working hours that I used to. But I am working on getting more efficient at it, as I want to stay connected with my readers and participate in dialogue.

Do you think you can teach someone to be entrepreneurial?
This is an interesting premise … a recent issue of Entrepreneur or Forbes Small Business (I forget which) devoted a cover story to it. I think that the answer is my favorite consulting response: IT DEPENDS. Depends on the type of business you want to start, your personality, work and life experience, tolerance for risk and ambiguity, awareness of your learning style etc. As I said before, I don’t have an MBA and at times have been sideswiped by my blinding ignorance of all things financial (here is where I need your help Ramit!). I think that there are incredibly valuable things to learn in a formal university setting that will allow you to put together a sound business plan and avoid mistakes of the past. I have “adopted” a couple of university professors myself – Dr. Bob Sutton from Stanford and Dr. Srikumar Rao from Columbia and London Business Schools. I harass them occasionally with questions, or run ideas by them as I really value their opinions. (they both found me via my blog by the way … I find that very cool)

But in my own experience, I could never justify the expense of getting a business degree while I was learning so much in the moment, on the fly and in the heart of intensely interesting business situations. I will sound like a pompous gasbag, but I did find that many of my more “credentialed” consulting colleagues were not as intuitive or effective as I was, maybe because they were more worried about doing things the “right way.” I didn’t know what the right way was, so I made it up as I went along. And it seemed to work.

I hope that we liberate the word “teach” from its academic context and see it as a learning approach to life. In that way, you can learn to be an entrepreneur from mentors, high-performing peers and lots and lots of reading.

How does your blog fit into your business goals?
My blog is at the very center of my business goals. It is the hub that makes everything work. I connect with my audience there, share ideas to build products and services, share chapters of my book, build my brand and get my name out there, even attract business partners and publishers. I had NO IDEA what I was getting into when I started it in October of last year. I will sheepishly admit that I had never even read a blog before, and had no idea of its power. I love to write, and find that I am obsessed with blog post ideas most days.

So, yes, I aim to keep writing my blog for as long as I am in this phase of my business, or until it dies a natural death.

You’ve worked with gang members and coached them. My doctor once described me as ectomorphic, which means “of a slender build with slight muscular development.” How long do you think I’d last in prison?
Do not be dismayed by your ectomorphic proportions Ramit – who pays doctors to make these terms up? As a martial artist who has learned the hard way by getting my face smashed into the wood floor of a gym by a large, drooling (and woman hating BTW) brazilian master, I will say that technique and attitude matter most. Just view some of the old footage of the (pre-new rule) Ultimate Fighting Championship matches with the lithe but deadly Gracie Ju-Jitsu brothers. They never lost a fight since they would slowly choke their opponents to death or apply careful pressure to the right joint of muscle-bound men many times their size. Their focus and deadly stare had to help them out.

I have never been to prison, but see two things in your favor: ability to quickly assess a sitation and see who are the important people to know, and business and accounting skills. We all have seen The Shawshank Redemption and know that Tim Robbins survived, and eventually escaped, by doing the prison books. He had to suffer before that, so ally yourself with the protectors early on.

And Ramit, a few push-ups won’t kill you. Everyone should know some self-defense moves. Get thee to a dojo.

Hrm, ok. What about being a woman in business? You’ll notice that I specifically asked to hear more from women, which is how we got introduced (through Matt Blass). What’s it like to be a woman in business? Is this a concern for you?
This is always an interesting question for me, since I don’t tend to classify myself as a “woman entrepreneur” or “mommy blogger.” I would define myself as a feminist, having grown up in a very pro-chick power household in Marin County in the 1970s with empowered women around me. If I had been old enough to wear a bra, I probably would have burned it.

But I tend to view my working life as my sister in law does. She holds a doctorate from UCLA and a post-doctorate from Cal Tech in isotope geochemistry or something really smart like that. She is a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also half-japanese and half-puerto rican. She told me awhile ago “I don’t want to be known as an excellent FEMALE scientist, or LATINA scientist or ASIAN scientist, I want to be known as an excellent SCIENTIST.” I couldn’t agree more. Have we had to deal with some macho crap along the way from bullheaded males in the work environment? Sure (especially her). But I don’t wake up each day thinking “how can I contribute to the field of women in business?” I wake up thinking, like my “professional crush” Kathy Sierra says, “How can I help my users kick ass?” (she wrote a great post on this topic too … I am not a woman blogger.)

Your tagline is for people who are corporate prisoners. What are the reasons you’ve seen for why people get sick of their corporate jobs?
If your readers work in a corporate environment, they could probably rattle off a long list without thinking twice. Top answers tend to be: lame management and corrupt executives (can anyone say HP?), intolerable workloads, stifled creativity, limited opportunities for growth and uncertainty and risk of layoffs.

What advice would you give to someone young who’s sick of their corporate job?
Here is where I have to sound old and grizzled, even though I pride myself on trying to stay “hip,” “sick” and “phat” for you youngsters [Ramit's note: I would love to see Pam say "phat" to me in real life]… When you are young, sometimes frustration comes from a lack of patience, not because the environment is intolerable. Your generation is sometimes unfairly labeled by mine as the “entitlement generation,” wanting quick fame, riches and perks without slogging through the trenches for it. You call us out-of-touch gasbags, with no clue about the future of business. I think there is a bit of truth in each perspective.

From my martial arts background, I know with total certainty that there is no fast track to true mastery. You must sweat through thousands and thousands of sit ups, push ups, drills and running to get your reflexes in shape to be a great fighter. You learn from each experience you have, and that is the way that you develop the mental toughness required to be successful. The same is true in business – there is no greater teacher than experience.

That said, you are entering a corporate world that is very different from your parent’s generation. There is no expectation of loyalty, things move lightening fast, and many people realize that the management styles currently in practice will not support the next generation of business.

So to know if you should stay or go, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. What is your long-term plan? If you want to start a business, what skills, knowledge or information do you need to be successful (not to mention money)? Which of these can you learn at your current job? Will the next place be truly better? What do you know about your target market? How many good mentors do you have around you to help guide you in your career? Are you miserable because you are in the wrong job or the wrong company?

If after this self-reflection you still desperately need to leave, by all means do so. Make a good transition plan to ensure your next step is in place before you jump off the cliff. And DON’T burn bridges even if you think your entire company is filled with idiots. It WILL come back to haunt you, I guarantee. Part of being an evolved human being is assuming personal responsibility and being humble. Be grateful for what you have learned, and move on.

Interesting–I didn’t expect that. Would your advice be any different to a young woman in the same situation?
None whatsoever. OK, maybe get a pedicure to make you feel better, but that is it.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate with you. Why SHOULD I be an entrepreneur? It’s so risky. Even though everyone talks about it, I don’t understand why. What about money?
In the long run, being an entrepreneur is less risky than being an employee. Just think about it. As an employee, as much as you hustle and perform well, your career is in the hands of other people. Your company may have excellent financial performance one day then falter the next due to a giant blunder, market shifts or a merger or acquisition. And if you have no backup plan, you will fall right with them, and find yourself scrambling to get back on your feet. You may get a steady and predictable paycheck, but for how long? During the tech boom, the average time between jobs due to layoffs was something like 3 weeks. After, it was 18 months.

When you are an entrepreneur, you have to operate with the mentality that the sky is constantly falling, you just don’t know when or where. You have to always create multiple streams of income and diversify your client base. If you smell a slowdown, you can act on it right away. And as you grow and change as a person, you can grow and change your business – get partners, sell it or change directions like I did.

As for money, I would rather get true pay for performance – if I work my ass off selling something, I want all the financial proceeds. If I slack, it is my own damn fault.

Lots of my readers are college students and recent grads. We’re all looking to do something important with our lives. What do you recommend? (A lot of people just say, “do something you’re passionate about” but that’s hollow advice for a lot of us.)
I think the best thing you can do when you are starting out in your career is to become familiar with your natural, intuitive voice that tells you what is truth and what is crap. Passion is just an emotional byproduct of doing the right thing at the right time. Part of the struggle that peers of my generation face is that they thought they had to turn off their emotions to make it through the work day. Now they don’t even know how they feel, and are walking zombies ready to explode at any minute.

There is no need to choose a “career path” that is a series of ever-ascending job titles and salary levels. That model is dead for your generation.

Instead, ask yourself: What do I think about all the time? What do I want to learn? What kind of people am I drawn to? Where do I spend my time on the internet? When I am feeling on fire, energized and happy, what am I doing?

“Important work” for you is an intensely personal experience. Respect others’ opinions of what you should do, but pay them no mind. Go with your emotional compass and follow work that makes you feel alive. Choose work that you feel you can learn from for a good amount of time, and give yourself enough time to test the premise and see if indeed you enjoy it.

Try something for awhile, and if it doesn’t float your boat, move on.
Don’t waste your time with 10 million career assessments – get out there and DO SOMETHING. It is your time to experiment. As you look in hindsight when you are older like me, you will see that each step you took was a critical part of getting you where you want to be.

I think a lot of people will like what you have to say. What should they do now?
I have an intense maternal love and passion for supporting young people. Some of my proudest life moments were seeing the teenagers I worked with grow into happy and successful young men and women. I love to help my 20-year old “bonus son” (I hate the word “stepson”) grow and develop. For this reason I feel particularly good to support your community of readers.
If you want to find me, holler at pcs (at) ganas (dot) com or better yet visit the blog at www.escapefromcubiclenation.com. I just started a podcast too … sign up at http://feeds.feedburner.com/EscapeFromCubicleNationPodcast. You can bet Ramit will be an interview guest sometime real soon! And please join my ezine list Get a Life: www.ganas.com/freestuff. I won’t s*pam you to death, just send a monthly newsletter and occasional notices of cool stuff.

Thanks for having me! I feel priviledged to be one of the first “female” Friday Entrepreneurs, as well as the honorary old person (ok, elder).

Pamela Slim.jpg

Check out Pamela’s blog, http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com. Still looking for more? Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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14 Comments

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  1. Awesome website Pamela, I look forward to researrching your journey to personal freedom. I’d like to break the shackles off ASAP, however I’ve only been on the job market for about a year… so… it’ll be an interesting struggle.

    My blog aims to track my journey, hopefully it isn’t too bumpy…

    NG

  2. Wow! Easily the best Friday Entrepreneur interview to date! It’s incredibly inspiring to know that there ARE people who aren’t conforming with the rest of the sheep. As a 20 year old in Business School, I’m so tempted to “Make dad’s investment pay off” and attempt corporate America when I graduate next year. A post like this is something that gives me JUST ENOUGH of a push into the entrepreneurial raceway. Pam, you kick ass. Ramit, how the F do you find these token interviewee’s?

  3. Wise words from a highly evolved human being and all round nice person. Ideally placed to be a mentor in light of her cheerleading expertise – her blog will inspire many of your readers.

  4. Great interview!

    I think this quote is great: “When you are young, sometimes frustration comes from a lack of patience, not because the environment is intolerable.” I think that is a very difficult thing to keep in perspective. I guess it makes me wonder how to develop patience. How do I know if I am patient enough? Or if I’m too patient?

    The Escape from Cubicle Nation blog looks right up my alley. I just read Pamela’s entry on outsourcing everything possible. Now, how do I outsource all these great blogs I spend so much time reading?

  5. Ramit, this was a refreshing interview. Different perspective and point of view.

  6. Broderick Turner Link to this comment

    Ramit-

    I read this article today. Loved it. And called Pam. She was awesome. You’re right, the people you pick for Friday Entrepreneur are extremely accessible. I imagine though it can’t be that hard to talk to people you admire. The folks at road trip nation (roadtripnation.com) have been doing it for years. And again, keep up the great work on your site, it’s a welcome relief to us “prisoners”.

  7. “Get out there and do something!”
    That’s what everyone should take from this. Whether it’s spending a few hours on the side or a full time commitment – it’s so easy to get yourself a domain, internet hosting, and you’re off and running..!

    My motto though: Know where you’re going.

  8. Agreed, thanks so much Ramit. It is interesting to hear Pam’s perspectives on work, and as always, you’ve added another great resource that I can track and follow in the future in her blog.

    NG

  9. I remember Ramit’s article on New vs. Used cars and about questioning conventional wisdom. My advice to anyone caught up in the entrepreneurship frenzy is to take a step back and say is this really what I think is right? Why is starting my own business a better idea than working for a small business that doesn’t have 30,000 employees, but instead has 5, 50, or even 500? That’s technically working for someone, but vastly different from the “cubicle nation”. Just remember to question conventional wisdom, even if you think it’s right.

  10. Ramit: What about the details of her business. Some of the entrepreneurs you are interviewing sound like they have really young businesses, but Pam sounds like she’s established. I would be very interested in finding out more about the businesses from a more analytical focus. Her bio on her own site mentions some big name companies and international experiences but that doesn’t help someone starting out.

    The coolest would be if she analyzed her own business for you. Telling you about what her strategies are, what her growth predictions are, what she tried in the past but failed at or succeeded.

    Anyway, this one caught my eye more than the others as one that would be a real worthwhile example for aspiring entrepreneurs.

  11. That is good advice, Carlin. Entrepreneurship is not right for everyone, or maybe not even for the majority of people. But there are many who can step out and do great things if they give themselves a chance.

  12. thanks for this interview! this is the best yet. i LOVED it….
    i will be checking out her site and probably signing up for the newsletterthingie.
    inspiring.

  13. That is good advice, Carlin.