Entrepreneurship: a radical career change

Original Blog: Madhu Menon has posted a few tips (I followed Vantage Point) on managing a radical career change. He suggests the following questions for oneself before making a huge leap that might leave you vulnerable.

On a very technical note, what checklist should one follow before making a drastic decision to change career paths?

It depends on whether you plan to be an entrepreneur or get a salaried job in another industry. The latter option is a lot safer because you don't have to deal with so much change all at the same time. But a few essential things to ponder are:

1. Do you truly want to switch? Perhaps you're simply not in the right position, the right company, or both. If so, shifting to a new job in a new company might be a less risky option.
2. Are you sure you're fit for the new profession? Doing something just because everyone else is doing it is not a good idea, not only because you may not succeed, but also because you may be late to cash in on a fad. Being good at a business requires that you either know your trade very well, or have the ability to spot a business opportunity and then hire the best people to run it for you. Some people are great at getting work done, but it's not for everyone. Do your homework diligently. Make a proper business plan with numbers and chart out the most pessimistic scenario.
3. Are you willing to take the risk? A new business will not start making money for a while. Can you handle not having a stable source of income? Do you have a wife, kids, or family to feed? Do you have a backup plan if your venture fails? (And some ventures always will. It's the circle of life.) If you're not starting your own business and getting a job in a new industry, you might have to take a pay cut because you're not joining on the same level. Are you ready for that? Will the reward be worth it?
4. Do you have spare money to keep you going in the bad times? You should have at least six months of salary available for living expenses, preferably ten.
5. Do you see yourself doing this for the next twenty years? If that thought makes you pause for more than 30 seconds, consider whether it's really a good long-term decision.

Firstly, Madhu's questions maybe directed to managing the risk associated with a startup. Since that has been my theme in the past 3 weeks, I am going to post with that perspective. However, even when making a switch across disciplines, his question's are still very valid.

To add to the first question – Do you truly want to switch? – I have also been asked, "imagine that you decided not to take the opportunity, irrespective of whether the venture failed or succeded, (hindsight) what would be your regret factor on a scale of 1 to 5?". Also try to answer the question – "How will this opportunity impact your own life, assuming you succeed?". Then again, how would it impact you if it failed? Which then leads on to, do you have a plan B?

To answer the question – "Are you sure you fit the profession?" – My answer is always, "I don't know for sure". Try answering that question yourself. Two aspects will define any answer. I hope that you will not begin by listing your weaknesses and say that you cannot make it [Mediocrity by areas of improvement]. With that atitude, your not going to get there ever – even if you did have a chance. Instead, I would rather write down my strengths and think about how they would help me balance the equation. Sure, I will keep in mind that entrepreneurship requires guile, hard work and talent at spotting talent. In that sense, Madhu's advice is well-taken. I would definitely identify the weaknesses I may have in these areas, but I would never let it deter me from realising my dreams.

The other aspect is that you will never know for sure until and unless you have given it a shot. To a certain degree every professional has some clue about where they want to be in the next five years. How much of that belief is based on inspiration, and how much of it is based on actual capability? My thoughts are that the inspiration is usually a major portion.

Lastly, Madhu asks that you be financially prepared, I will add to that, be mentally prepared. Think about writing a short statement to yourself that you intend to stick to your plan no matter what. Of course, be reasonable, perhaps slap in a timeline and rationality limits – but follow your dream! Here is an example of how having a plan helped Gaurav [NewDelhiTimes.org]:

My reason was that I wanted to try out different things professionally – something that was not possible in US because of a slowing economy, lack of resources and visa issues. So when I came back, each time I wondered "What the hell am I doing in the 3rd most polluted city of the world sitting in a traffic jam in sweltering heat and earning 1/10th of what I made before?", I had an answer. You can have a different reason – personal or professional – but it should be compelling enough to keep you motivated and excited about being in India.

Economic Times: "Tips to survive through a career shift" – Viren Naidu, 14th February.

Shrikant's Blog: Shrikant captures the emotional essence of making a career switch. "Luck, Success and Skills".