Should you work for someone else?
Hello friend, and welcome back to episode number 20 of my 31 day challenge, where every day I'm answering your questions about creating a career or business that you love. In today's episode I'm asking a question that I've been asked quite a few times since I started this, which is: Should I work for myself? Or should I spend a year working for another company to learn the ropes and learn about the industry? So we’ll be talking about that in this episode.
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So I could literally talk about this all day, every day and it would be my favourite thing in the world. You are my favourite people in the world to talk to, so thank you for being here! Okay, shall we dive into the episode, Alex? Probably.
So, working for yourself, versus going into another company and working for them; get access to the tech; learn the ropes; get introduced to the industry whilst getting paid.
I think this is a really personal choice and to be honest, nothing I say is going to give you a definitive answer, because there's so many factors that come into this and it is incredibly personal. Personally, I have always been self-employed, I always knew that I didn't want to work for a company. That reflects the particular time of life I’m in, my upbringing and being around entrepreneurs my whole life. One day I might end up going back into a company, but it has to be a really exciting company and the right role.
But for me, learning by myself, learning by doing and getting out there, making the errors, trying, testing and making my own little projects, watching YouTube videos to learn how to do the tech bits and then getting out and practising it in person...I really enjoy wearing lots of different hats. I enjoy that learning process. For a long time, I was absolutely obsessed with keeping on top of every single news update that came out from the industry so I had a really good understanding of what was happening, what the state of the landscape was. I enjoyed being my own kind of networker, going to the groups and being in those discussions online and going to events. I still enjoy that aspect of running a business. I get to do a bit of everything, and I get to pick and choose what I'm in the mood for. I get to wear those different hats. That's the ultimate benefit of working for yourself, but having said that, this all comes down to self awareness. If you're the kind of person that won’t be motivated to do all that, because what you really want to do is a very specific role in VR- whether you want to be a programmer, 360 Director or develop a business within the VR industry because you're fascinated by the tech- then working for someone else might be the most beneficial for you. If you want a very specific role, then maybe you should look at the VR companies around you and see if there is an opportunity to do that. You get to do that but one specific job that you enjoy and you get paid.
Or, you might be the kind of person who gets to go to all of the events for free and write marketing pieces on them. Those are very, very specific roles. But if you want to do all of them then maybe you should work for yourself because you'll get a chance to do a bit of everything. But one of the biggest realities in working for yourself is you can do what you want to do when you get to a certain level, but the first couple of years are a real grind. You're gonna have to do stuff you might not necessarily want to do just to pay the bills, and one of the biggest myths (I think) about working for yourself is that I could take two months off and go on holiday, or I could have a two day workweek, or a four hour workweek (if you go by the Tim Ferriss book). No, no, no, that is absolutely not the reality for 99% of freelancers, especially when you start. Absolutely not. When you work for yourself, even when you run a fairly established company and you have clients that bring you repeat work, and you know you're not going to starve next month, there is always, always, that voice in your head telling you you should be working all the time. I think since I started Cats are not Peas in late 2016 I’m fairly certain I haven't had that many weekends where I actually just fully switch off and I don't do anything work related. I haven't done that since I started the company. I probably haven't done so since I started working as a freelancer when I was 21. Part of that is because you enjoy it, and because that's what you're passionate about.
But also there's the risk of something happening like COVID. There's a lot of my friends that are self employed, or business owners, and then COVID hit. If you're employed, there's obviously the concern of being made redundant, of having no control over the situation, but there’s some protection there. To some extent, as a business owner or someone who's self employed, you've got more room to control your own destiny, because you can decide what you want to do, you can make your own plans in order to get yourself in the best position possible during hard times like this. But overnight businesses closed down, work dried up- we had about four different projects, all signed off, budgets allocated, ready to go, pre-production started- and it was a game changer. All of a sudden, we couldn't shoot anything. Budgets dried up. All of a sudden, the world went into meltdown. And whose shoulders does that fall on to? To sort out whose burden is? As a self-employed business owner, that’s mine. That's my responsibility, although in my case, I still had my speaking revenue coming in, because those events just turned into online webinars and events for the first month or so.
But then I found, for me, I really needed this time. I had the opportunity, as someone who runs my own business, to be able to take a step back during COVID and re-evaluate what I wanted to do, which is a huge benefit of working for yourself. You get to be flexible, you get to decide. But there’s not as much governmental protection for being self-employed versus being employed.
For the first couple of years of running my business, it was non-stop. Speak to any person that's close to me, they still rarely see me because I'm a workaholic! But for the first couple of years of my career, I would be working the equivalent of three people's full time jobs. I was a machine; go, go, go, go. Don't get me wrong, I'm not glamorising that because I've burned out several times in my short VR career and it is not a nice feeling. It's not healthy. It's not a place that you want to get to. But sometimes the reality is when you're starting your own business or freelancing, that's what it takes to get it to the level that you want it to be. I had unrealistically high expectations of myself. At some point I'm sure there'll be some wonderful therapist that comes into my life who gets into the weeds and sorts all that out for me at some point in future, but today is not that day!
Realistically, if you want to replace what would be the equivalent of an average employed salary, that's going to take a lot of work to begin with because there is a lot to do in the beginning of starting a business. So if you’re scared of that, if that kind of frightens you, then maybe you want to look to be employed somewhere. I think most people in their gut know if they want to run their own show or not, but I can't describe to you the feeling of running your own thing; everyone is yours, every loss is yours, but it's yours. It sounds whimsical but you are literally taking control of your own destiny. When people or friends of mine come to me and comment that I’m lucky, they look at everything I’m doing and are wowed by that, but I am not lucky: I have sacrificed years of the best years of my social life to build to where I am right now. It took a lot of sacrifice but I loved every second of it and I wouldn't have it any other way. I ground so hard, but that success is the product of all of my hard work. If I was working for someone else, to some extent, I could perhaps feel a sense of ownership over the things that I’m doing, but very rarely do you get the opportunity to fully feel the highs are high and the lows are lows. When you're an employee, it’s all a little bit tempered by the fact it's not really your problem. If something goes wrong, it’s the boss of the company's problem.
On the flip side, though, if you do want to work for someone else, the benefits are that there’s way less risk. Although I would argue that if you're working for a VR company it's still risky, because the very nature of the company being in VR means they can go out of business at any second. You only have to look at all the various big studios and big announcements of VR companies going under or changing direction because they're losing money.. So it's not totally riskless to go into a company as a VR employee, but the benefits are that it’s less risky, because you are going to get paid a salary. That's really nice, you're essentially being paid to learn! Whereas when you have to learn stuff on your own, when you're working by yourself, you’re paying yourself to learn. You might do a job that's worth £2,000 but you spend the next week having to upskill on something new and spending seventy hours on that. So actually, you've had to pay yourself that two grand to learn that next thing. So it's nice to get paid to learn if you've got a job that you enjoy. And so much of that enjoyment will be the people. That can be a really amazing thing to be around, people with the same passion as you. That sense of community is really nice.
That is the biggest drawback for me running my own company. Although I absolutely love it, because I'm not in a place where I want a physical office with lots of employees (I'm not there yet, maybe in future), one of the big things I lack is the camaraderie and being around people. I saw yesterday that Facebook apparently put massive orders in for the next version of the Quest- which will probably be announced in September at OC5- and that to me is exciting, and if I was in an office with people we'd all get into a conversation about it. I had some store credit on my Quest actually, so yesterday I went on there and bought some new levels on Beat Sabre, and bought downloaded Gloomy Eyes, finally! I haven't experienced that since seeing a very small glimpse of it at a film festival. That would have been really nice to be around people for. I can go online and do that, and I do. That's where the episode I did about community and the groups I'm in on WhatsApp and Facebook comes to play, and that's really lovely. Having that is so important, and having colleagues you work with on a consistent basis is a really lovely dynamic that cannot be overstated as one of the benefits, because friendship with the people you work with will make or break your experience at a company.
If your aim is to go in and work at a company for years to learn and then go out on your own, that's a little bit of a different proposition and there’s a drawback there, because essentially if you want to learn a technical skill, I would argue you would learn quicker by yourself. You would learn quicker by getting out and doing it, doing lots of different projects. Felix and Paul, for example, will probably have a commercial arm to their revenue streams- Felix and Paul for those of you who don't know is a brilliant cinematic VR studio that does lots of beautiful high end documentary and drama, Cirque du Soleil kind of experiences. They are the masters at 360 filmmaking, so definitely check them out if you've never heard of them before- and they are the kind of projects that most companies would hire you for, so realistically, as much as you think you might be learning skills and refining them for the first couple of years, you'd most likely be recycling the same skills over and over again for the next year. You might not have the opportunity to work on as much new stuff, you might not necessarily have the brain power when you go home after an eight or ten hour day to work on your own stuff. So as much as it might be nice to get paid to learn how to do some VR, to have access to the kit you don't have to buy (which is a massive bonus for working for someone else), will it kill your passion for it? Could it take away from what you actually want to do? Will you be a really good 360 camera operator if you're only ever working on the same shoots? It's a really personal thing, and I think ultimately if you're working on the marketing and business side, then yes, going into a company is a better idea. You're being paid to learn but you're also front facing, you're going to get to be hands on with other people in the industry, you're going to get to network, you're going to get to go to events. If you're someone who's coming in as a junior in a technical position, like an edit assistant, a production assistant or an office runner, then realistically, you might not get opportunities to learn the skills that you actually want to. I have to generalise because I don't have a specific example here. Unless it's a really big, cool company that could give you opportunities outside of LA for example- if you went into the Facebook VR department that's slightly different because you would probably get opportunities from that and be able to leverage the fact that you worked at Facebook for other opportunities down the line, so there's absolutely exceptions to this rule- I think it’s worth doing a gut check. When you think about the realities of working for someone else, does that excite you? Or does it excite you to think about working for yourself and the challenges but the thrill of doing that, going out and finding work and doing your own projects, working on lots of different things and being the master of your own destiny?
Go from there. Someone reached out to me recently and I think after talking to her, she realised that she didn't want to work for someone else. It seems like the safe option, but when you dig into the weeds, it was actually going to be better for her to stay with what she's currently doing which brings in money, and then start to slowly build a side hustle in virtual tours/360 videos, that side of things. Then eventually, that could maybe replace her salary. To her, that was more exciting. It doesn't really matter whether you work for a company or not, you will still have the same experience in terms of opportunities to network and get into groups. If you want to be in TV for example, it's really hard if you don't have a way to get into those circles. So you would need to start by being in a company, making friends and then using that to leverage yourself into those circles. The VR world on the other hand is so small and it exists so much online. In these grassroots events where you don't need a company to be there, you're in with the industry, you can just rock right up in there and chat to people exactly the same. Most people in this industry either work for themselves or do contract work where they are technically self employed, but they do stints at different companies. Essentially everyone's in the same boat, and everyone's super lovely, so there isn't really that sense of elitism or exclusivity in this industry. There's none of that.
Those are my general thoughts. I hope that helped. I think you probably know what you want to do. Don't be scared, I promise you, working for yourself or working for someone else; it's not as hard as it sounds. I think there's something in working for yourself. People might not be ready to take on those responsibilities, or feel like they can’t get into that mindset, but I think the person who is running your company where you're currently employed, they're the master of your destiny. They're the person that can literally change your life, they're the person that's responsible for bringing your salary in. Yes, that's a little bit more safe, but is it really? If they run into trouble, then they will or could potentially overnight change your life by cutting your salary, making you redundant, or changing your job description to do something you don't really want to do. They're currently your puppet master. They dictate when you get out of bed, how much work you do and what you have to do. At least when you're working for yourself- granted, it's not stress free. You’ll have to work even when you have time off, on holiday or a weekend. Even if you're not working you're still thinking about work. It’s 24/7- you are in control of what projects you take on; how much you're charging; how often you’re working every month; where you work. Personally, I'm in a phase in my life where this remote life is actually amazing. I really want to go travelling, but unfortunately we're in a global lockdown where no one can really travel that much, but I really want to get out of England for a bit and go and see the world. So I'm going to pivot my company to be more remote based because of that, and I have that freedom to make that decision. If I was in a job, I would have to make the painful decision of quitting and not having any income for the next however many months because I want to travel, and then when I come back, will I have to find a new job? I don't really have to worry about that, because I've spent years building
build building self-efficacy.
I'm gonna leave you on that! You know I love to hear from you. Reach out to me at @alexmakesVR. We are on all of the socials. firstname.lastname@example.org is the place if you want to be reminded when these episodes go live, and sign up to the newsletter over at Alexmakesvr.com
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