Career change 40

Denise Quinlan - Corporate IT career to Visual Narrative Specialist / Photographer / Speaker

“I was lured into the larger corporate world by the money, the identity and the potential for a longer career.  I ‘tried’ that for 18 years!”

“I used to escape from work – now I don’t need to.”

Denise McQuillan 1.jpg

“In my first job working within an educational IT company, what motivated me was helping people learn and communicate.  Latterly, I focussed on primary and special needs sectors where IT helped individuals to be part of a community, to connect and to learn.  I loved that!  

Then I was lured into the larger corporate world by the money, the identity and the potential for a longer career.  I ‘tried’ that for 18 years!  I did a partnering role for 10 of those years and loved some of the charity stuff but realised after a while that I was in the wrong business as my values were so different to those of the company. 

While there were some great people, everyone there was white collar middle-class and not hugely diverse.  I didn’t feel a real connection to organisation’s goals or values.  I realised that I missed doing something that I really cared about.”

The trigger for change?

“I used to cycle from the city office and remember leaving the office one January in total darkness.  It was freezing outside. I wondered to myself why I was doing this?  I was so unhappy but couldn’t articulate it then other than describing the concept that my mood matched the total darkness of the evening.

I knew I had to do something different.  My boss was aware that I was not happy as even though I was doing a decent job, I wasn’t excelling.  Around my 40th birthday I remember saying to a friend that I might take a sabbatical to do a 4-month cycle ride from the top to the toe of Africa which would allow me both escape my unhappiness and have some time to think. I just knew I couldn’t do another winter feeling like I did.

Roll on a couple of years, and I ended up taking a 4 month sabbatical to cycle and volunteer in both India and Nepal.  5 months later I returned to the UK, met with my boss and agreed it was definitely time to do something different even though I still didn’t have a clue what that was.”

First steps?

“A friend suggested photography and a little spark of interest lit up inside me.  It wasn’t just the 7,000 story-telling photographs taken during the trip that resonated with this idea.

 

It was also an experience with Raisa, an organic model farm consultancy, in Tamil Nadu, southern India, that cemented the idea of visual story-telling in business through images.  I got to share my knowledge of the SWOT analysis tool (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to this creative social enterprise leader which really connected.   They had so many projects spanning wildlife conservation, commercial coconut farms and local householders with mango and banana trees in their back yard. This defining moment gave me the biggest clue to my future.

I knew that both the photographic and business coaching markets are very crowded but I also knew gut-instinct wise that there was something unique here in this combination.   I could see from my research that there was a huge lack of understanding of visual impact.  Essentially, we’ve all been seduced by the amazing technology that it’s almost been forgotten that people connect with people, in both the ‘real’ face to face world and in the online world too.  The ‘first impression’ impact occurs when we meet in person but also when we’re reviewing someone’s profile photo on LinkedIn, their website or social media business accounts.

Subliminally, we’re establishing trust and whether we can see ourselves doing business with the person we see.  People in almost every area were under-valuing the power of the visual. Especially in the small, medium enterprise space.

At base level – I could see professionals on linkedin.com with headshots which were certainly not helping them in their goals to create trust and rapport.  I realised that rather than being just another photographer, my 23 years business experience would help people to understand the impact of the visual and this has become my unique selling point.”

It’s not just about profile photos though.  As a result, we have a 3-step process to help our clients become more visible, attractive, trusted and connected to the clients they seek.

What Denise learned over the course of her career change?

·         “Networking is key but can be superficial.  Actually, just getting out there and talking to real people is crucial.  Finding a niche where I fit and share values has taken time.

 

·         I’ve researched lots of different networking groups and settled on a couple of key ones:

1.       The Institute of Directors which I initially joined as a young entrepreneur and then later joined their Advance Group programme and have found it really valuable. 

2.       A more local Chiswick lunch group where there are none of the 60 second pitches, that attention-span-wise have me reeling after the 5th person.

 

·         Moving from a social office to an isolated environment doesn’t work for everyone.  If I spend more than 2 days by myself I go crazy so I’ve built that knowledge into planning my week.

 

·         If you want something deeper than a networking group, join or create a mastermind group.

 

·         Coaching is a very useful tool when it is done right, by the right person ie one that matches your values, as a minimum.

 

·         Connecting with people who have the same shared values and are in a similar situation make it all so much better.

 

·         Understanding your own personality helps to make decisions accordingly.  For instance, I’m introverted in the way I process information and thoughts but my creative process is more extroverted and needs external stimuli.  This knowledge helps me to define where I am when I need to focus on different tasks.

 

·         Outsource some stuff – the stuff that you are not good at – as early as you can afford to.  This frees up time to do more value-adding.”

What Denise would do differently if she had to do it all again?

“I would have found a mentor that worked for me earlier.  I did have one lined up, but for various reasons their implementation got delayed.  So, not only had I unfortunately already handsomely invested but I felt in limbo for more months than planned.  My learning? To go with my initial gut feel.  My gut feel was that their profile photo was significantly out of date, and that was a red flag warning signal to me.  I overrode my gut instinct but realised it was actually spot on.”

How it feels on the days when she knows he has made the right decision?

“I just love what I do!  I love enjoying my work without the financial/profit/corporate stress/misaligned values and without feeling so frazzled.

I used to escape from work – now I don’t need to. I have my sanity back.

I just love what I do!

My creativity is unfettered in both the entrepreneurial sense but also the hands-on visual portrayal of each client’s ‘personality, messages and values’ to their target clients .“

Regrets?

“None…although I do have an impatience and want to do everything faster, you have to work through the ups and downs to creating a brand that works.”

 

Learn more about Denise and her business:

Website: http://insightfulimages.co/

Twitter: @Insightfulphoto

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/denisequinlan/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/insightfulimages/

 

Joanne McGowan - Serial Entrepreneur to Charity Digital Development Manager

This big career change has given me confidence. If I can move from being a serial entrepreneur for 20 years into a brilliant corporate role so happily, it’s made me feel I can cope with anything.

I just feel…more relaxed. My stress levels have definitely evened out. When I was self-employed I always felt like I should have been doing something, working on the business in some way.

Overview of earlier career.

“Most of my career moves have felt like an accident or probably just being at the right place at the right time.  As I was about to graduate from my degree in Theatre Studies, an opportunity came up to run a dance and drama school where I had worked part-time.  I doubled the size of the business and loved it but after 9 years it was time to sell.

After my son George was born in 2006, I’d imagined that I’d enjoy having some time off but was back teaching part time when he was 6 weeks old. I loved being a Mum but I loved my work too. By the time he was 2 years old, I had an idea that I could run a children’s party business and gave it a go.  People liked it and it grew quickly.  This suited our lifestyle then as I would work mostly on the weekends when my husband was around to be with George.  Over time, I learned so much about getting a new idea off the ground and became pretty good at community group marketing.  The good old Mummy grapevine worked its magic and I grew that business over seven years without a penny of paid advertising – just word of mouth and social media marketing.  

I loved running the party business but saw an advertisement that caught my eye on twitter for a tutor to lead digital training for women returning to work or thinking of starting a business. This was the start of my social media marketing training work.   George was a little older and I didn’t want to sacrifice our precious family time at the weekends and this seemed a perfect way to start transitioning.

That experience opened up the chance to buy into a local business community franchise which allowed me to make amazing contacts who grew into friends but it didn’t turn out to be the business opportunity I thought it would be so we parted company.” 

The trigger for change?

After that experience, Joanne paused for a moment as she wasn’t quite sure what she actually wanted to do next. 

“I did some freelance work but then I thought – maybe I might like a proper job!?  I felt like I’d been there and done it as far as buying businesses and growing them and starting businesses from scratch for the last 20 years.  It didn’t feel like there would be enough of a challenge for me to do it again.  I fancied something different and I think I needed a bit more of a routine.  I was curious how it might be working in a team environment rather than doing everything myself.”

First steps?

“I was drawn to the charity sector as I’d done some freelancing work with a charity and it felt more rewarding than other work I’d done - it felt like I was making a difference.  Once I’d decided what I wanted to do, I went application-happy!   I soon realised that the whole job application process is so exhausting and I began to be much more selective.  That’s when things started to happen for me.

In the end I had four interviews for four jobs – I got down to the final two applicants for a role with a big corporate and whilst I was really disappointed that I wasn’t chosen, ultimately, I think it would have probably been too corporate for me at that time – probably a bit of a shock to the system after my early career.   I was nervous meeting the CEO of that business but we spent 2 hours together and think I held my own.  I was given very good feedback which boosted my confidence. I think that ultimately helped me get the job I have now. After a 2 hour interview I felt ready for anything!”

 What Joanne learned?

“The thing about being a working mum is that you re-invent yourself every few years. When George was small, I needed to do work that was flexible but he’s heading off to secondary school in September so the time felt right to try something different.

This big career change has given me confidence.  If I can move from being a serial entrepreneur for 20 years into a brilliant corporate role so happily, it’s made me feel I can cope with anything.  Having the confidence to just go for a career change is important. 

I knew I wasn’t alone.  I talked about my decision to look for a job rather than set up another business/freelance with lots of mum friends of a similar age who totally understood my motivations.

You need to be prepared for all the obvious but tough interview questions and have convincing responses.  For instance, I wasn’t sure if I was actually employable after 20 years of owning and running my own businesses and never having had a real job!  I knew I’d get asked why I wanted a job now so I was prepared with a good, but truthful, answer.  

The right job is out there.  When my friend, the photographer Kerry Harrison heard me talking about my new role, she described it as ‘a job that’s good for the soul’.  And it is. There are amazing people working here at the National Garden Scheme (ngs.org.uk) and an amazing group of volunteers.  We also work with nearly 4000 amazing gardens that have a common aim, to raise money for some fantastic nursing charities. My office is based only a few miles from my home on the beautiful Hatchlands estate, but if I need to work from home or flexibly on occasion I can, I just prefer to go into the office – it’s more fun."

How it feels on the days when she knows he has made the right decision?

"For pretty much 20 years I worked on weekends now I actually get that Friday feeling.  I love my job and I love my 2 days of freedom at the weekend to do whatever we want.  There’s no negotiating or cramming stuff in.  It feels amazing!

I can definitely switch off more.  When I come home, I don’t feel that anyone is expecting me to still be working.

It’s not just me - Jon [Joanne’s husband] says that he’s noticed that I switch off more easily than before.  I agree.  I just feel…more relaxed.  My stress levels have definitely evened out.   We all have stressful days and bad days at work but when I was self-employed I really struggled to get the balance right.  I always felt like I should have been doing something, working on the business in some way.  

This is my first proper job.  I’ve never had regular monthly pay and it’s bloody lovely!  But the work itself is also really great.  I thought that working in an organisation and not just for myself would mean that it would take longer to see results but in the 8 months I’ve been there I feel that I’ve made a difference.  I feel like I’m part of a team that is making a huge impact and we have big plans for the future.  I feel like I’m contributing to something very exciting."

 Regrets?

“None, none at all.  I’ve never had any regrets.  I’ve done so many things and gained so many transferrable skills and I now have a job I absolutely love with a good work-life balance to boot."

 Find out more about Joanne:

Twitter @guildfordjo,

Instagram @guildfordjo

Linked In - https://www.linkedin.com/in/joannemcgowansurrey/

Kate Gregory - Aerospace & Defence career to Gin Distilling

"We made sure that the risk of failure would not impact us financially.  Zero financial risk.”

"Part-time was the only way that we could have done this as we both have children and mortgages. Our investment was in time and effort."

Kate Gregory - Outside her Gin Distillery in Dorking

Kate Gregory - Outside her Gin Distillery in Dorking

Overview of earlier career.

Early career in the defence & aerospace sectors.  First job at the MOD found Kate accumulating more time flying simulated combat sorties than most RAF pilots, whilst evaluating future systems. Worked her way through the ranks at MOD before moving through the ranks within a private company and ultimately leading international innovation projects - initially based in France and currently in UK. Three young children (7, 5, 5)

The trigger for change?

Kate engineered her return to UK after 5 years in the headquarters in France but found that interesting roles at her level were far and few between. So she continued to perform in her old role from UK.   When her children started school she was constrained by the assignments she could accept while still making the school run. She felt frustrated by not being able to find interesting roles from which to have an impact on the business. 

The trigger:  There was an exact moment.  She remembers traveling to a board meeting in Paris. While driving to the airport, she was listening to a radio show discussing the current global gin renaissance and micro-distilleries. She felt a flutter of entrepreneurial excitement and in an instant knew she would start up a micro-distillery.   Kate called her good friend Helen to invite her to join her in becoming part-time gin distillers. By the time she had got on the plane, she’d also researched how to make gin, had assessed the market opportunity and mocked up a rough business plan.

First steps?

Together, Helen and Kate agreed their mission “to make the finest gin on the planet”. They did a little more research into the market and financial viability and decided to take the time and effort to create an ultra-premium gin.  They assessed feasibility in terms of time, effort, split of skills, accessibility of gin making equipment and agreed their plan of attack : “we can do this” if we start on a very small scale and grow in line with demand and our readiness.  The Gin Kitchen was born in Kate’s kitchen and launched in November 2016  http://gin.kitchen

We invested the money that we would usually spend on gin to fund purchases (a still, the pure alcohol base and botanicals) and tested recipes for months. ‘We didn’t want to rely solely on our own judgement’.  They invited a big group of gin-loving mums over for blind tasting sessions and watched what happened.  The bottles of their hand-crafted summer and winter gins were sipped dry whilst bottles with other premium gin brands were left. “That’s the moment we knew that this would work”.

They launched The Gin Kitchen in a Red Bar in Dorking, Surrey, where Kate lives, with a cocktail designed specifically for the event “the Woodcock” (http://gin.kitchen/images/woodcocks.jpg) and very quickly were stocked in 3 bars and 2 local shops.  When those sold out and they wanted to order more, “we had yet another confidence boost”.  More and more venues came on board as “people seemed to be really passionate about the gins and the word spread".  The market reaction was so strong and their confidence so high that they took a bottle into Fortnum and Mason’s and asked to speak to their spirits buyer.  He loved both of their gins so much that he offered them “Spirit of the Month” twice in 2017.  They couldn’t accept the first offer as they simply weren’t able to make the stock fast enough but happily accepted the offer of a later date.  Dancing Dragontail exceeded Fortnum and Mason’s expectations and stocks had to be replenished twice after selling out over the course of May 2017.   Bear in mind The Gin Kitchen had only launched in November 2016.

What Kate learned?

“Having an awesome business partner with complementary personality and skills has been key.  It’s not just great to have someone to share the workload with, it’s really good fun when something brilliant happens and we can share the glory.  In a partnership two heads are better than one.”

“In the extreme uncertainty of start-ups you could spend months trying to reduce risk without increasing chances of success.  I love making decisions – in minutes rather than after 6 months of risk assessment, by trusting my intuition and then working through any difficulties.”

“A great deal can happen with an idea, 2 jerry cans of base alcohol, a still and some juniper.”

“I am creative.  I used to spend hours drawing every night when I was a child so I was very keen to design the label for our new winter gin.  When the time came to design our summer gin label, I realised that my talents didn’t extend to water colour so we asked our friend Helen Sweeting to paint a butterfly garden for us. I adored the professional results and was excited about commissioning the design of our new Absinthe from an amazing local tattoo artist and I think it's perfect. 

“Part-time was the only way that we could have done this as we both have children and mortgages.  Our investment was in time and effort.  We spent evenings and week-ends trialling recipes, navigating all the regulations, distilling, bottle-labelling and delivering stock to customers.   We still do but we have some extra help now.

“Grow at the rate that you can afford to grow.  We were limited in the amount of gin we could produce by the amount of ingredients that we could afford and could only buy more when we had sold our stock, and been paid.”

“Our attitude and our growth model in the beginning meant that even if this turned out to be an elaborate hobby and we were left with 80 bottles of fabulous gin that only we loved – that would have been fine. We probably only spent the amount we would have spent on gin in that period anyway!  We made sure that the risk of failure would not impact us financially.  Zero financial risk.”

What Kate would do differently if she had to do it all again?

“I wouldn’t change anything. But if I could go back in time, I would have started The Gin Kitchen two years earlier to catch more of the earlier upsurge in interest in gin.  We are tracking so well, it’s hard to imagine it being better but we would have even faster traction – I’m not complaining at all though.”

How it feels on the days when Kate knows she has made the right decision?

“It feels great being creative all day.  Being involved in everything from gin distilling, label design, launch planning, marketing, operations and delivery all involve creativity.  Even the seemingly “boring” elements like risk assessment or designing processes behind 5* food hygiene ratings etc. feels creative. There is a level of care required in every activity if we are to continue to aim towards creating the finest gin in the world.”

“I sort of hope that my children catch a little of the entrepreneurial spirit.  The twins are too young but my 7 year old was playing war games with a big group of friends recently. He had organized a team of boys to collect spent nerf and he had set up a shop selling them.”  I think that entrepreneurial spirit might have seeped in already!

“We feel happy, proud and confident in what we have produced and we are having such a lot of fun along the way. “

Any regrets?

“None - every aspect of this has been fun.”

 

6 months later after our interview Kate got in touch to tell me that The Gin Kitchen has now grown to a size where she has been able to move full-time into the business leaving her old career behind.  When I asked how she was finding the new shift she replied  "I'm loving every minute." 

Click here for more stories of individuals in their 40s, 50s and beyond who have changed careers successfully.
 

 


Find out more about Kate and Helen's Gin Kitchen by checking out their website and following them on social media. 

http://gin.kitchen   @theginkitchen

Kate Gregory Absinthe launch invite.jpg