Changing careers can be a daunting prospect, so how can you do it successfully without spending any money on professional development?
It’s something I faced about 18 months ago now. The problem was knowing where to start, when I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I had the idea for Femeconomy – to encourage and inform women (who make 85 per cent of consumer purchase decisions) to shop brands with female leaders, to create gender equality.
But setting up a website, developing a marketing plan, creating an engaged community, using social media effectively to reach people, delivering keynote speeches at conferences, understanding the dynamics of the retail industry, public relations, deciphering the startup world, and managing small business finances and tax were all things I’d never had to do in my previous work life.
I was self funding my business, and with three degrees to my name already, I didn’t have the time or budget to pursue further study to transition my career.
Here are my top five professional development hacks, which led me to rapidly develop the skills and experience necessary in order to be effective in my new ‘job’, without spending a cent.
1. Have a plan and start online
Any good professional development intervention starts with a needs analysis. My first activity was to identify and document where my skill and experience gaps were, but also to identify my strengths and transferable knowledge.
Then I prioritised the list of topic areas and development needs, and started at the top!
I read everything I could online, for hours every evening and on weekends.
I read all about marketing, website content management, social media strategies, small business applications, small business finance, gender equality statistics, startup ‘how-to’ articles, and retail industry news.
I devoured hours and hours of online content, in a self-imposed literature review. Then I captured and shared insights with my cofounder and, where valuable, translated them to action.
2. Secure a cofounder(s) who has a complementary skillset and experience to yours
I was persuasive enough to secure a cofounder who is a marketing guru.
In my previous corporate career, marketing wasn’t something I ever touched, but I knew the business would need a strong marketing focus ongoing.
Serendipitously, my Cofounder, Alanna Bastin-Byrne, also had an unusually generalist background and had worked across many specialist areas of marketing and media.
I picked her brains relentlessly and asked all the ‘dumb’ questions.
I rarely question her judgement, but I do always question the methodology so that I understand the context and can learn incrementally as our business develops.
Between us, we have most of the core skillsets our business requires, meaning that we have minimal need to outsource work.
3. Find someone who has already done it
There are always many people who have trodden the same path you are. I sought out those who had progressed further than me in their startup ventures, and asked them all about their journey.
I asked them about the lessons they had learned, what to read, what events would be worthwhile to attend, and who I should meet with next. The startup ecosystem is full of people at various stages in their business journey, who generously begin conversations with “How can I help?”.
This is a wonderful leveler, and usually there is a simple way to help each other, even in the smallest of ways, through sharing knowledge or networks.
4. Leverage your existing network and use social media to accelerate progress
I confess that previously I had only one social media account – LinkedIn.
And I was selective about who I connected with. I rarely posted content, and used it more as an online contacts list and for professional development, reading others’ content. Since starting this business, I have discovered the real potential of social media.
Social media is a fast, effective and free way to build audience and connect with customers.
Leveraging my existing LinkedIn network through sharing Femeconomy’s interviews with female leaders who are CEOs, board directors and business owners enabled me to make second and third degree connections with people who enjoyed the content, and were also gender equality advocates.
Twitter has been invaluable for connecting with like-minded individuals and organisations who advocate for gender equality.
On Facebook, we have an engaged social community of people who are interested in inclusion and supporting each other, and are having an ongoing learning conversation together.
5. Seek out relevant free or low-cost events
When starting out, most businesses are on a tight budget, and there is little available to be allocated to attending conferences and events.
But there are many excellent free or very low-cost professional development events on offer, generally because they are either government subsidised or privately sponsored.
Sometimes though, it’s difficult to know which ones are a quality time spend. For me, taking time out of my business is also a cost, so I want to make sure the events I do attend deliver a high return on investment.
I rely on referrals from others, and always attend events with a firm understanding of my intent; whether it’s to develop my network, learn a new topic, or be inspired/ reenergised.
Then I evaluate the outcome against my expectation.