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EssayLife & Business

What It’s Like to Quit A Day Job to Start Your Own Business

by Grace Bonney

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Hello, my name is Natalie Davis and I am a designer, leather worker, and owner of , a modern leather studio based in Austin, TX. As a designer, I’ve always focused on pattern design and tactile work, making with my hands to solve problems. The process of figuring it out drives me most days, and with leather work, it’s all about process. Everything I do in the Canoe studio takes many steps, from hand-tooling to hand-dyeing our leather, then finishing and construction. It is slow, laborious, and immensely satisfying to use time-honored tools and techniques.

What most people don’t know is that up until December, I was also a tenure-track assistant professor of graphic design. To keep my sanity, I separated my two lives so many folks didn’t realize I had a day job. Telling the whole story of what I did was too complicated, so I kept it simple with acquaintances and customers. It makes better marketing copy to say you are pursuing your dream wholeheartedly, right? The reality is that many successful makers also have a day job, are currently juggling part-time work, have support from a partner or family, or may be living off credit cards. That side work or support is rarely discussed publicly — it’s not glamorous to be in debt or have three jobs. It’s stressful and stretches us all too thin. Aside from gripes to our friends, that hard work and pressure is kept private, lest customers think we are ungrateful or not living examples of our brand.

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I began working full-time as a professor in 2010. I did this while getting Canoe off the ground, renovating a house, and helping my husband launch his business, . How did I do all of this? Looking back, it was sheer determination, hard work, and a heavy dose of stubbornness. My husband and I are both passionate people who had put in our time working for large organizations and believed in following our dreams. My day job as an assistant professor helped provide us with financial stability as we pursued these goals.

After my first year of Canoe, I started really thinking about what I wanted from this business. What does it look like for Canoe to be a success? What’s the roadmap for getting there? I saw good friends achieving success in their businesses, and it took me a while to step away from those models and write my own definition of success. As I worked through these ideas, one important item always came to the top — for Canoe to be my full-time job and main focus. At this point in my life (mid-house renovation), that idea was a dreamy mirage. I focused on pushing my business forward with collaborations, pop-up shops, and launching new product lines, all while teaching 3-5 classes a week.

While some people truly loathe their day jobs, I felt the opposite. I love teaching. I love being in a classroom, sharing ideas, and hearing what the students think. The discussions, critiques, and off-topic conversations were emotionally fulfilling and I cared deeply about making a positive impact on my students. Not many folks can say that they helped change someone’s life for the better, that by believing in someone, you helped push them beyond their own expectations and grow. Those sentiments were expressed to me in thank you cards by my students over the years. In 2012, I began teaching leather tooling workshops as a way to bridge the gap between my day job/dream job. I felt called to teach and, like many teachers, struggled with guilt about dividing my time between too many priorities. I was giving a lot in my classroom and that often left me feeling drained and tapped out. The studio was where I went to recharge and inspire myself, playing with ideas and techniques that would become the heart of my business.

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Bills still had to be paid, so despite the tricky juggle of day job/dream job, I kept at it, planning and working towards a slow and steady growth for Canoe. At the end of every year, I reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and set my goals for the coming year. The first week of January I go into serious hustler mode and begin implementing those plans. For 2014, those goals included attending my first trade show, growing my wholesale business, and national press. I participated in three trade shows by the fall of 2014, secured a sales rep, and had a mention in the New York Times and American Craft Magazine. I also opened a new sales channel of custom work for restaurants and interior designers. With a relaunch of my website, , before the holidays, business was moving along very briskly.

That’s when life took a sharp turn and a personal tragedy in our family made me stop everything and assess my life and priorities. The stress of juggling different people’s expectations and being pulled in so many directions had reached a breaking point. While my business had grown exponentially, my day job had placed new demands on my time that I couldn’t meet at the current pace. Instead of planning how to keep everyone happy, I wondered what would make me happy.

What did I want my life to be? What’s my quality of life right now? Going full force at everything had become my standard approach. When I stopped to reflect, I realized that this was not a longterm, sustainable solution. I needed to have time to breathe, to focus, and to be quiet. I wanted to give myself space to think about the decisions I was making, not just plough forward without question. What if I let go of the security of my day job and bet on myself to make it happen with Canoe? I felt 100% confident that I could be more successful if I stepped away from the intense juggling act and took the leap. That sounds incredibly bold and brave, but it was my intuition telling me that, so I trusted it.

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Once I had this realization, I did not deliver my resignation letter the next day. That beautiful, handwritten “follow your dreams” poster everyone is liking on Pinterest should actually say “plan your dreams.” I spent a lot of time thinking about this decision, discussing the change with my family, and then thinking about it some more. I drew up a realistic budget to understand what this change would mean in our lifestyle. I had five months of salary saved to use as a cushion in slow months. I’m a planner and pretty thrifty, so I felt confident that we could make it work. The lifestyle changes we’ve made are supporting our dreams, so they feel less like a sacrifice and more like a smart step forward. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard at times, but it pushes me to make daily decisions based on my values and not just my desires.

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As of January 1st, I am working for Canoe full-time. As soon as I officially gave my notice, several important business opportunities presented themselves. Each project draws on my unique skills as a leather worker and designer, and pushes my business forward. If I still had my day job, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes to any of these projects. While discussing my concerns about leaving my day job, a friend gave me this valuable piece of advice, “It’s like flying trapeze. You can’t catch the the next bar until you let go of the first one.” Once I had a solid plan in place for the transition, I’ve been able to turn my attention fully to pursuing my goals with Canoe. I feel grateful every day that I walk into my studio. Leather work has taught me the value of patience and slow growth, and appreciating the process, not just the finished product.

 

Here’s a list of steps to take if you’re considering leaving your day job:

-Spend time reflecting on what benefits you get from your day job. Not just tangible benefits like a 401k, but emotional benefits like your relationships with co-workers. We often just focus on the negative aspects of a day job, yet even the most menial jobs can bring us joy at times. It’s important to weigh the good with the bad.

-Get your financial house in order. Pull together all of your accounts, debts, and scary credit card statements. Start tracking your spending for a few months. You can use apps like Mint or LearnVest to get started, or download a budget template from Google Docs. Understanding where your money is going and how to make it work for you will relieve a lot of stress. It’s the not knowing that keeps us scared and immobilized.

-Once you have a realistic budget in place, start saving! Figure out what you can cut to put away for slow months. This might be small luxuries like morning coffee runs, or it might be downsizing into an apartment on the other side of town. Depending on your current salary and budget, saving 5-6 months of your salary is a good place to start.

-What does your dream job look like? Write out a job description of what you want to do. Talk to folks who are doing what you want to do and ask them about a typical day. Most illustrators don’t spend their days drawing — it’s a small portion of their day, which is filled with a lot more administrative work than you can imagine.

-Get started now on your dream job. Work on building your dream job during lunch breaks, early mornings, or after you get home. That might mean freelancing or interning on nights/weekends to gain experience. What skills are essential? Leverage your steady salary to take classes or seek a mentor to teach you.

-Talk about this decision candidly with your family and close friends. Share your fears, listen, and give yourself time to reflect on what you truly want to do. When you daydream about the possibilities, what decision brings you a sense of calmness? That’s the right one for you.

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Comments

  • Thanks so much for sharing this story. The thought of leaving my full time job to pursue my dreams is something I have been struggling with. It’s honest stories like this that help my figure out how to make that a reality. ps. my husband and I love Salt and Time :)

  • What a relief to read Natalie’s honest and inspiring story. There is a common misconception that makers who are succeeding with brisk sales and great exposure are not struggling financially. Even when bootstrapping a business, materials, shipping, rent etc. are regular expenses that eat heavily into profits (and often exceed them). Getting to a place where the numbers work is no small feat, and I have enormous respect for Natalie’s ability to grow her business to a beautiful, full time endeavor. A heartfelt congrats to her!

  • This post made me feel a LOT better about leaving my day job back in November. I am pursuing several dream careers (writing and candle making) and things are off to a good start, but I have had to juggle odd jobs and credit cards for a minute now. Thanks for showing us there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    maggie

  • Awesome post. I’ve spent too much time being ashamed that I spend 75% of my energy on my day job and too many days feeling like my work painting and designing is just a hobby because it doesn’t support me financially. Just because I’m a project manager from 9-5 shouldn’t have to devalue who I am as a maker. It’s good to remember that many of the inspiring Instagram feeds I follow might be people in the same position as me, trying to carve out time for something they love while balancing a more practical job.

  • This article is so full of honesty. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too have been working my way towards a full-time entrepreneur having recently gone from a full-time “other” job my business, to now working a part-time “other” job with lots of flexibility my business. Stepping stones. Also, totally loving the advice, “It’s like flying trapeze. You can’t catch the the next bar until you let go of the first one.” Thank you!!

  • This is a beautiful story, especially for a girl right here that just had a meltdown last night about this very subject. Thank you so much for this today…

  • What a wonderful read. I keep hearing that given the state of technology + the economy, right now is the best time ever to work for yourself. It’s scary thought even still, and I am always grateful to read about stories of success! Congrats to Natalie on her hard work!

  • Thank you so much for this post. It was exactly what I needed to read today, as I take a step toward truly doing my own work. I am often afraid, but know that it will all work for the best. Good luck with all that you do, and thank you!

  • I enjoyed this article and I found it very interesting. I liked the trapeze metaphor in particular.

    That being said, I feel like all of the business profiles / stories on D*S are about people running their own small businesses. Are there no other people out there who, like me, are happy working for a larger company? I’ve never felt a drive to run my own business, ever. I’m just not that type of person. I like the articles you run – it’s just that most of them aren’t applicable to me.

    • hi jessvii

      we’ve run several articles with people who work for others (the profile of madewell’s graphic designer might be of interest?) and have a few more coming up, so stay tuned. that said, the focus on the biz column has always been for people running their own creative businesses, so it will tend to slant that way.

      grace

  • So well written. What incredible faith this took. I tend to dream of losing the day job, but feel the need to be more financially secure. maybe I should start with the plan for saving the cushion, before I plan my escape. Thank you for your perspective. Enjoy following your bliss.
    xoxo
    Katie

  • It’s funny how this side of the story almost never gets shared as a story in and of itself. Often, it’s mentioned in the “how I made it to where I am” story…but when the journey is the focus, as it is in this piece, the work– emotional and day-to-day– to launch and sustain a dream takes on new meaning and becomes inspiring in a new way. …I love that Natalie is sharing her story even as it is happening. Congratulations, Natalie. xox : )

  • This was such a great article!! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Natalie! I also quit my day job at the end of the year and can relate to Natalie’s honest comments about monetary and relationship struggles. It can be such an isolating and scary change.

    I was also so glad to see a story about the very real steps it took for Natalie to start her own business and quit her day job. I feel like more and more, across a gamut of industries, I hear what seems like the same story, always summed up to something like “I made some stuff, put it on Etsy, a national retailer picked it up and the rest is history”. I feel like those stories, while undoubtedly incredible (and I absolutely do not discount that those people still face very real and difficult challenges everyday) creates not only an unrealistic idea of what it takes to start a business but makes industry exceptions look like the rule. To me, stories like this are much more empowering for us all.

    Thanks again for sharing Natalie!

  • As an artist who dreams of leaving the safe, protected, corporate job world some day, it is honestly so, so good to hear that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling bad about yourself because “everyone is so successful and you aren’t!” and I appreciate the honesty of the struggles many independent makers face when branching out on their own.

  • I love that this article spoke about the transitional period between working for someone else, and working for yourself. Not as an “I’m out of here!” move, but a careful and planned change. Also that yeah, you gotta hustle!

  • *Thank you* for the honest account, and especially the part about so many business owners not showing you the other side, for fear of looking like they aren’t living their brand. As a full time designer for a large company, I often dream of going off on my own. But every time I get a pep talk, it’s from someone who is 26 and unattached, or someone whose spouse earns enough money to support them both, or someone who doesn’t have a family relying on them. And I think, “Is everyone high?” But this definitely made me feel better.

  • I left my amazing job as an interior designer at a wonderful architecture firm last year to pursue my dream of launching a textile line. There was definitely a lot of careful planning to make the transition a success. Getting a handle on the business and financial side of launching a company is by far the hardest part. I am always seeking guidance on the topic and I love hearing stories of designer that make a successful leap into starting business.

  • I LOVED this feature, Grace! I do think that things oftentimes get glossed over when talking entrepreneurship and edited into, what appear to be, overnight success stories. I really appreciated Natalie’s honesty while still delivering a sense of optimism for those who do dream of launching out on their own. :)

  • This is just what I need today! My fear is exactly what’s holding me back from starting my own business. Thanks!

  • Thank ya’ll for your kind thoughts on the essay. I’m so glad it helped draw back the curtain and show what goes into building a business. It’s rarely glamorous, but it is fulfilling.

  • Thanks for this! I really appreciated all of your insights and your honesty. It’s so helpful to get a peek into what actually goes in to making this transition vs. the romantic notion I have of leaping into a creative career. Such good advice.

  • This post is wonderful in so many ways!
    Natalie, thank you for being so sharing your journey – you’re honest, brave and inspirational! It’s tremendously encouraging to see someone embracing all these negative feelings, step back and re-focus in order to really find what you want. Too often we burden ourselves with endless goals, expectations, stress and end up losing the pure joy and core meaning that initially lead us to our creative path. I wish all the best for you and Canoe!
    Grace, this is why I treasure Design*Droits-Humains so much. I keep coming back to it since I started reading your blog my junior year in college. Thank you and keep up your awesome work. This post and your previous one on Copying & Crediting are terrific!

  • Thank you.
    Today was the day when I needed to hear what you shared.
    Yesterday I was not ready, tomorrow would be too late.

    Good luck with your business.
    Strength, patience, inspiration and health to you.

  • Wow, a very eloquent and inspirational piece. I’m always comparing my business to others’, and it can be a negative waste of time. This was a good reminder that my successes will look different from anyone else’s. Thank you for this awesome essay!!

  • I really loved this article. I do not work a full time job anymore due to medical reasons, however, I do have a full time job just taking care of my household which consists of hubby, daughter and 2 grandchildren and myself. I am their total care giver! It is a lot of work because I make it a lot of work. I chose to do it all for everyone to keep my own life active. I do want to start my own business and have been contemplating it for quite some time. I am a woodworker, crafter, repurposer, sewing and make and remake a lot of projects. I have been planning my business now for about 8 months but unfortunately my husband got cancer back in August and things have been much more hectic. He is 100% cancer free now but just had surgery and is recovering for about the next 3 to 4 months. I will be committed to helping him but now have a lot more free time to continue my work. It will come one day soon. Thank you so much for this article it is very inspiring!

  • Unfortunately I don’t have a job to quit. I graduated from college 4 years ago and cannot find a job anywhere. I’ve worked several low pay jobs, but none of them have worked out. My only choice was to begin a business in landscape design/gardening, which hasn’t much business right now (I have degrees in music and landscape architecture). I’ve had a couple of clients and may have a third this spring. I’m not employed anywhere right now as I was laid off at a decent job 2 weeks ago. I struggle very much, as I have a lot of expenses and responsibility, because my father passed away when I was a senior in college. I have been putting all my faith in my business and the career I envision.

  • My friend sent the link to this article as inspiration and he nailed it. Your words are perfect, well thought of and truthful. This article has changed me and my goals. God works in mysterious ways and brings things to you for a reason. May God Bless your business and keep inspiring people to do the same.

  • Thank you so much for this story. From one ATX girl to another planning to open a new door and begin her own biz, thank you for the candid, practical, heartfelt advice.

  • This is what I was yearning to read. For long I have struggling to start something of my own. I found everybody took good advantage of my skills wherein I am not benefited but only they. Thanks for a wonderful piece of advice.

  • Thank you for this article; a lot of sensible advice as well as inspiration. I loved the trapeze quote, too. It sounds like the students Natalie used to teach were lucky to have her!

  • Natalie has and will continue to be a huge driving force in my professional life. I was lucky enough to be a student of Natalie while going back to school to follow my dream of being a designer. She has always been an inspiration and everything in this article reminds me why I continue to think of her as a mentor. In a time where I am trying to decide my future again, I see her article and again she inspires me. Thank you, Natalie!

  • First of all, your art is beautiful! Really lovely. I did not quit my day job, I was fired after 20 years. So I opened my own little interior decorating business in town. I work on it everyday and weekends too but it’s what I love to do and it is for me. I hope to one day catch up to our financial fall. Thanks for this essay. It was terrific.

  • Well done Natalie. This advice is as relevant for one later in their career as it is on the early side. I enjoy the balance you offer between logic and intuition. Thanks much and best to you and Ben.

  • Thank you so much for this essay, I have bookmarked it as I know I am going to keep referring back to it. Very inspiring, thank you!

    TGC

  • This is so inspiring. I’ve even bookmarked it so I can re-read this regularly for motivation. Great job on your achievements Natalie! I am in the same boat at the moment, working a day job while dreaming of starting a business. I know it will be so hard… that’s what makes it so difficult to pull the trigger and do it full time. But this gave me some great pointers and motivation. Thank you so much for sharing, I’m sure you helped many more people than you realize!

    Sara S.

  • Thank you for your inspiring story! I thought you might enjoy this post we recently wrote about when to quit and when to stick it out!

  • Your story is really inspired me. I am a fashion designer by profession I always wanted to start something of my own. I will start my online store very soon. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

  • Thank you for this post. Like you, after a lot of planning and saving, I quit my day job 2 months ago. Unlike you, I don’t have another business to focus on or pursue, but am instead trying to figure out what my dream is and how to pursue it. After 8 years of making my day job my life’s priority, I knew I didn’t have the mental, physical or emotional space to figure out my real dreams and passions while working 10-12 hour days in another job. While I’m still not “there” and still have scary and stressed out days without the financial security of a job backing me, or the emotional security of knowing exactly what the next step is, I still know that this was the right decision. Every day I get closer to figuring things out and have learned so much about myself that no matter what happens this experience will be worth it.

    Thank you so much for the inspiration and motivation!

  • I needed to read this. I have been moaning on about quitting to focus on my business, but what I need to do is knuckle down, save money from the day job and work on my business during all of my spare time so that I can make a more seamless transition to working for myself. Thank you.

  • Thanks so much. A lot of what you said resignated within me. You truly have an ear to hear, and taking the time to reflect made a difference. Very inspiring piece. Love your work.

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