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Pamela Slim - Escaping the Cubicle Nation

CrazyEngineers exclusive interview with Pamela Slim of Escape From Cubicle Nation as a part of Founders Circuit initiative
CrazyEngineers
CrazyEngineers Staff · 31 May 2009
Founders Circuit Team
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent"
- Pamela Slim, Escape From Cubicle Nation

This Small Talk is dedicated to all crazy engineers who are wannabe entrepreneurs. If the thought of starting something on your own has ever crossed your mind, this small talk is for you. It's our honor to have seasoned coach & writer on business & entrepreneurship, Pamela Slim to tell you practical ways to escape from the cubicle nation & get started on your own. Pamela answers the questions you've always wanted to ask in following exclusive interview with CrazyEngineers. Check it out -


CE: Pamela, you are a seasoned coach and a writer. Could you tell us more about yourself?

Pam: I have been self-employed for thirteen years. My last “real job” was as Director of Training and Development at Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco. I started my business in 1996 consulting in Silicon Valley in a number of high-tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems. Over a ten-year period, I criss-crossed the country, working inside hundreds of companies trying to make productive change on the inside. After meeting many frustrated employees who harbored dreams of starting their own business but who didn’t know how to do it, I got inspired to start my blog, Escape from Cubicle Nation, in 2005. I started coaching individuals through the transition from corporate employee to entrepreneur, and my blog led to a book deal with Portfolio. These days I split my time between writing, teaching, speaking and coaching individual clients.

CE: You have mentioned that a good business idea is rooted in something you are passionate about. Could you explain it a bit in more detail with an example?

Pam: When I was writing my book, I asked a lot of successful entrepreneurs what they thought were the key ingredients to a successful business. Every single one mentioned passion. The way I interpret this is that it is a lot of work to start a business. Choosing the right idea is challenging. Marketing and selling yourself is not easy. Creating products and services while maintaining some semblance of life balance is sometimes elusive. So if you don’t deeply care about what you are doing, and see the value of it far beyond making money, it will make the process of entrepreneurship very uncomfortable. Think about how Merlin Mann feels about productivity. Or how Dave Seah feels about well-designed forms. Or how Joel Spolsky feels about coding. Or how Kathy Sierra feels about the brain. You can’t make passion up, it is either there or it isn’t.

CE: I do not know what I am passionate about. So far, in my life, I have followed the beaten path: School –> Engineering College –> Job. I do not like my job and want to quit. I want to do something else, but do not know what. Do you have any suggestion for me?

Pam: Start by paying attention to yourself. Notice the kinds of situations in your life that really energize you. If you don’t have an ounce of joy at work, what lights you up? Are you a movie hound, closet musical theater aficionado or space program fan? Pretend you are a heat-guided missile and notice where you are drawn as you walk through a bookstore or mall or city street. Write down notes about your interests and see if there are any interesting patterns that emerge like “graphic design and cynical humor” or “elegant problem-solving” or “organized coding. This initial excavation of your soul can lead to specific business ideas which you can put through the paces of traditional business planning and development.

CE: How is your new book titled Escape from the Cubicle Nation different from other books on entrepreneurship?

Pam: I tried to write a book that was grounded in reality, not puffed up dreams of fantastic success or dramatic failure. I wrote about the very specific issues that corporate employees face that are often not covered in other business books like how you tell your wife or husband that you want to quit your job to start a business, or how to deal with raging fear and self-doubt, or how to test and try your business idea without spending a fortune or how to build a group of supportive mentors to grow your business. I also tried to make it fun to read, since I drool with boredom if I read too many pages about market research or business models.

CE: How do I find out whether I am made for business? What are the qualities/skills I need to be an entrepreneur?

Pam: Fundamentally, you have to believe in what you are doing. You have to be willing to test and try things and not be devastated if they don’t work out like you think they will (they never do). You have to know when you are out of your league and not be afraid to surround yourself with smart people who will make up for your shortcomings. You have to be willing to learn voraciously about the market for your product or service. Besides that, there are no set criteria for a successful entrepreneur. The best way to know if you are cut out for it is to try a small project on the side. See how it feels to do the work. If you get excited about it, keep moving. Growth can be gradual, and by the time you are ready to decide to quit your day job, you will have tangible evidence if it is a good or bad idea.

CE: For any wannabe entrepreneur, the biggest fear is the fear of failure. What should one do to overcome it?

Pam: Change your expectations. The notions of success and failure are extremely unhelpful. It will help you a lot more to view yourself as a scientist who is testing a hypothesis. You could say: “I think that I can create a software product that will solve an important problem and make me a few hundred dollars on the side of my day job.” So you go forth and create the product. You set up a website. No one buys a thing. This, in my opinion, is not failure; it is simply the results from an experiment. Instead of saying, “I failed, I will never be an entrepreneur,” you can say, “I wonder why I didn’t sell any product? Was it the wrong product? Was it the wrong market? Was my web copy compelling? Did I offer a free trial to entice people to buy?” If you continually learn and tweak what you are doing, you will see results in the end.

CE: I love my job. It pays me well. My boss is happy with my performance. I will be promoted if I continue to perform. Yet sometimes, I think, something is missing. Am I really a corporate prisoner?

Pam: As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” So of course, employees are not shackled to their cubicles and forced to work. What I have learned by working with many corporate employees is that the prison is self-imposed. Many employees are in situations that are fundamentally wrong for their true personality, skills, talents and work style. This will cause great dissatisfaction in the long run. I use a “loathing scale” with my clients and have them rate their degree of loathing their job from 1-10. Those in the 1-5 range often can make small tweaks to end up being pretty happy employees. Those in the 8-10 range often have health problems, low-grade depression or seething rage. Think Office Space, when the poor red-stapler toting employee was moved one too many times. So do pay attention to what in particular you don’t like about your job, and see if you can make smaller changes to feel better. Never risk more than feels comfortable. But if you head to your job every day and see no value or meaning in your work; when you don’t respect those you work with; when you don’t feel like you are learning and growing every day and when you live for evenings and weekends, then maybe you need to think outside the cube.

CE: I have not sold a thing in life so far. I am a big zero when it comes to public speaking or making a marketing/sales pitch. Do I have to be good at it to be successful as an entrepreneur?

Pam: You have to be confident enough in the value of what you are providing to have an intelligent conversation about it with people who may want to buy it. I think so many people are scared of marketing and sales because they have never experienced an example of a non-sleazy, ethical interaction between a businessperson and a prospective client. As an example, I used to teach presentation skills to teams of salespeople and engineers and at times had to step in to avoid an all-out war. That said, a good model is to look at the sites or stores of products you love and buy. Do you feel hassled or coerced when you buy? Develop a few models of marketing and sales approaches you really like as a customer, and see if you can develop a comfortable method for your own products. You may also feel better when you realize that you usually suck at things that are new to you. I wrote a post about this, which I included in my book, called Knowledge of the learning process will help you through the stumble-bumble phase of new entrepreneurship.

CE: Could you tell us about your favorite example of an entrepreneur who escaped from the cubicle nation?

Pam: One of my favorite former cube dwellers is my wedding photographer, Sergio Lopez. I was so struck by his overwhelming passion and enthusiasm and artistry that I included him in my book. He is one of those people who is meant to be doing what he is doing. One of the things I like best about him is that he is giddy with genuine excitement about his work. Not exactly what you see in the aisles of cube farms.

CE: We thank you for talking with us. What is your message to CEans?

Pam: Forget trying to come up with The Perfect Idea. Choose something you are interested in developing and start with a very small prototype. This will reduce your fear and paralysis and give you a real sense if you are cut out to not just be a crazy engineer, but a crazy self-employed engineer.