Ask Knightley: Career Advice

Career-Goals Image from Getting Hired

Thanks to everyone for responding to my request for questions. Good to know Emma (and the business) has an engaged, active readership. Several of you asked about topics that pertain to college and careers, so I thought I’d start with that. Here we go…

Olivia Dully asked:

“What advice would you give to a college freshman who’s still a little unsure about the future and next steps?”

I’d say it’s actually a good thing that you’re feeling this way. Some people dive into college knowing exactly what they want to do, but the majority are there precisely to find that out. You’re supposed to be unsure about the future – if you knew everything already, you wouldn’t need college. Plus, starting with too narrow a focus can blind you to alternate paths that might truly make you happy, even if they are very different than the direction in which you thought you were heading. When I was a freshman, I had a pretty good sense that I wanted to run my own business someday, but I had no idea how that was going to happen. College was a great place to try new things and start to figure that out.

That said, the combination of choices of hundreds of classes and being away from home for the first time can be feel overwhelming, so I suggest starting with something you know you already love – even if it doesn’t seem like an obvious career track – and diving into a course related to it. Loved learning French in high school? Take a French art history class. If algebra was your thing, try an advanced math class. You may not think that you want to be a mathematician, but taking a math class will come in useful no matter what you do, whether it’s real estate, finance, or graphic design.

Pair a familiar-feeling class with something that is completely outside your experience, but catches your attention in the course guide. Take advantage of the tons of Intro courses available to freshman to expose yourself to something a bit more offbeat. You may not decide to major in geology after “Intro to Major Landforms,” but after seeing all the amazing pics in class, you might discover that travel is something you’d like to incorporate into your life, either as part of your career or simply as a hobby. And at the very least, you’ll meet new people with experiences distinct from your own, and that’s a big part of what college is all about.

Lastly, check the list of course requirements for three of the majors you are considering. Try to get at least one or two of these courses off your plate each semester. That way, as you explore, you will also be methodically working your way through the classes you MUST take, which will leave room in your junior and senior years for more specialized classes as you zero in on your real interests.

@barricadegirl asked:

“Any advice for college students on what to do to prepare for being in the corporate world one day?”

College coach Sia Knight has a great post on this topic. She was at an event where Alan J. Kelly, president of ExxonMobil’s Fuels and Lubricants division, was giving advice to students about working in the corporate world. His three main suggestions were:

  • Know yourself and make sure that an opportunity fits in with your personal philosophy or larger life plan.
  • Develop a variety of skills that will enable you to jockey for position in an increasingly competitive global environment.
  • Develop influencing skills, because collaboration and relationship-building are now part of every corporate workplace.

I can speak from personal experience that the latter is especially important. My current partnership with the Highbury Partners Lifestyle Group came about directly from the relationships I’ve formed…but more on that in a bit.

Knight suggests choosing five major companies and searching their websites for entry-level positions. Take a look at the qualifications they list and see how you match up, as well as where you may need to beef up your skill set.

@LogicAndLeresis asked:

“How do you figure out a career? I just graduated and now feel stuck?”

It’s pretty normal to feel stuck after college. It’s often the first time in your life that you’re totally on your own, without a parent, teacher or professor telling you what to learn or how to spend your time. While it can be freeing to finally have no one looking over your shoulder, it can also be a little paralyzing.

If you know what you want to do, but are unsure about how to get started, go find a mentor. Someone you can model your career after, and see what steps they took to get where they are now. Ideally, this should be someone whom you can get access to and occasionally ask for advice. You can start by simply buying someone a cup of coffee – you’d be amazed how many doors will open by combining this gesture with making it clear that you just want a conversation, not a job offer.

For those beyond your reach at the moment, turn them into virtual mentors. Read any books they’ve written, or check out if anyone has written a biography about their history. If they are online, subscribe to their blog or Twitter account. Learn what makes them tick and how they work, and then see if that appeals to your own goals and values.

If you don’t know what you want to do, I think actively jumping into something can help with getting unstuck. Find an entry level job somewhere that is in some way related to an interest you have, or if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford not making money for awhile, apply for an internship. The key is to not wait around for the “perfect” idea. Just START. And in the doing, you’ll start to get insights about the kind of profession you may – or may not – ultimately find yourself choosing. While you may not get a final answer, you’ll feel like you’re making progress and that will alleviate that awful “stuck” feeling. I think this is one philosophy that Emma and I definitely agree on.

Erika Burns asked:

“What’s the best advice you received or would give for starting a business?”

While a lot depends on the type of business you are starting, here are a couple of basics that apply to most entrepreneurial endeavors.

  • Cross your T’s, dot your I’s. Make sure you’ve taken care of all of the legal aspects of your business. This can include determining the legal structure of your business (sole proprietorship, LLP, LLC, Corporation, S-Corp, non-profit); getting a tax ID number; registering for state and local taxes; obtaining a business license or permits and understanding the legal side of employer responsibilities such as insurance.
  • Figure out who’s buying. Business plans talk a lot about “the marketplace,” and there are plenty of books you can read and courses you can take that will breakdown this idea into specific concepts. But it’s really a fancy way to say, “Who are your customers?” You can have a great idea, but you need to figure out who is going to purchase your product or service, and how you’re going to find them.
  • Pay yourself. New businesses take time to become profitable. When searching for funding, make sure that the budget in your business plan includes a salary for yourself. It should be lean and mean, but if you can’t eat or pay the rent, you can’t run a business and help it grow. If you are funding the business yourself, make sure you carve out the time to do paying work while you are simultaneously getting your venture off the ground.
  • Know your strengths. Are you a salesman? Or would you rather sit in front of a spreadsheet for hours? Part of running a successful business is knowing which pieces of it you can fulfill, and which require outside counsel or partnership. Find the right people to work with who complement your strengths. I think Emma and I are a good example of that.

Francisco José Ortega González asked about: 

What a 21st century young entrepreneur needs to know about the business and mass media working together to survive.

That’s a pretty broad question, but Emma covered some of that territory when she posted about three women who have started their own businesses. Check it out here.

Christine Mickus and Larissa Siriani both specifically asked about:

Starting a business with friends.

This is a great question because people don’t always think about what they’re getting into. There are many variations of this scenario. Some young people try to start their own businesses right after graduation with a group of friends who have the same majors and the same dreams, but no real life experience.  Others spend years working for someone else, before striking out on their own and bringing all of their work friends with them.  The upside to both of these examples is that forming partnerships with friends can help to instill confidence, as you support and encourage each other to take risks. And let’s face it – it’s just less scary and more fun than doing it alone.

But starting a business with friends comes with its own set of risks. There are endless stories of friendships breaking up or enterprises failing because people make the mistake of mixing business and pleasure. Think carefully about the people you are choosing to start a company with.  You may like them as people, admire their ideas and goals, but do you respect their work ethic?  Are they fun to be around, but do they fail to come through when it counts? On the flip side, are they great at meeting deadlines but do they lose their temper when under pressure?

How do you figure this out, given that you may not have any actual work experience together? Consider your mutual history.  Picture any time you’ve had to work together to accomplish something, even if it’s just helping someone move or organizing a weekend trip.  Were you grateful they were there? Did you get into arguments? Was it stressful or smooth sailing? Think about when you’ve had disagreements. Do you have a history of being willing to put in the work necessary to resolve them, or do you have problems with confrontation?

If after performing this evaluation you still think working together is a good idea, the next step is to create clear definitions of everyone’s job titles and responsibilities. While this can sometimes seem like overkill, especially at the beginning when it may be all hands on deck, as the business grows this becomes increasingly important. Drawing strong, bold lines in the sand before money becomes a factor can save you from disagreements and resentments in the future.

Emma and I have known each other forever and have so many people and places in common that we are permanently connected. This kind of history means you know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and usually have developed a rhythm over time. Still, I’ll admit, if you told me years ago that Emma and I would be in business together one day I would have thought it unlikely (to say the least).

But part of life is keeping an open mind.  Emma always had a clear idea of what she could do, but it took a few false starts working for others before she realized she could break out on her own. On the other hand, I always knew I wanted to be my own boss, and I realized pretty early on that climbing the corporate ladder was not the best way for me to do it.  Business may be logical and practical, but it’s also about trying new things and seeing the opportunities no one else does.  When Emma had her brainstorm about the Lifestyle division and discussed it with her father, he was aware that I had been keeping an eye out for something different and challenging. When I told Emma and Mr. Woodhouse I could see the potential in the marketplace for her services, he thought I could help her succeed.

Emma and I have different approaches, different definitions of success, but because of our history, I know that this opposing dynamic balances and strengthens us as a team. It also allows us to be very honest with one another, which is important when running a business together. We may still have the occasional argument but it’s only because we are both passionate about what we do – a shared quality that is a definite plus (although perhaps my enthusiasm is a little more internal than Emma’s). Luckily, our personal relationship is old enough and strong enough to survive our disagreements. I hope everyone who goes into business with friends has the same good fortune.