In the October 13, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wonders whether rejection in the jobs marketplace suggests it’s time to start a business instead.


My husband and I have been in the software business for ten years. Paul was a crucial part of two successful start-ups. The products he developed won awards and were best-sellers, and as a result he was hired by an established company. (They hired me, too.) There, Paul started, designed and finished a small project for a client that was worth about 50,000 euro. Then he showed how his work could be turned into two products — the company’s first. The company was thrilled and so were the customers. The company netted 500,000 euro from his work. The rest has been history for us. Paul became the leader of our team and we have created many more successful products.

business-plan2Now Paul feels he has no room to grow and it is time to move on. The companies to which he has sent his C.V. [what Europeans call their resumes: Curriculum Vitae] are very impressed, but they say he has not managed huge enough projects or teams. He even got a call from a headhunter (his first!), but four weeks after the interview there has been no feedback.

Paul has proved again and again that he knows how to make a product that will sell, but he can’t sell himself. These companies have lost a chance to get a great software developer and businessman! Is there any hope? Should we keep trying to get the jobs we want, or start our own company?

Nick’s Reply

The answer is do both. Trying to start a company can lead to getting a job. I will explain how momentarily.

Paul is clearly talented, and I’m sure you are, too. I believe the problem that big companies have with his lack of experience with “big projects” and “big teams” is nonsense. Narrow-minded headhunters, personnel jockeys and managers miss out on great new hires when they confuse experience with talent. (See Pssst! Here’s where you should be recruiting top talent!)

Lots of people can conceive new products. Some can actually design them. But the rarest worker is one who can conceive and get a finished product out the door profitably and make customers happy. That’s talent. Interviewers often do not know what to do with unusual people like Paul. Investors, however, do.

You are both at a crucial point in your careers. You have proved what you can do. Now you need the infrastructure that will enable you to do bigger projects. If you compromise on that, you will hurt your careers and make yourselves miserable.

Here is my advice. Forget about pursuing jobs. If you want a great job, create your own business. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but it’s a path worth pursuing.

To start your own company, you will need to examine the market and the industry you want to specialize in. You will need to talk with many people, including prospective customers and distributors. You will need to talk to companies whose products will interact with yours, and with companies that produce related or competing products. (See the chapter titled “Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.) All these contacts will guide your product development ideas and introduce you to the partners you will need. They will help you get funding, whether in the form of purchase orders or direct investment. (See Trading your job for venture funding.)

As part of your effort, you will produce a business plan. The plan is actually a substitute for a resume. It shows what you can do. However, unlike a resume, a business plan also shows how you will do it. That’s what gets a company’s attention and its investment. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.) In the course of talking with these companies, your meetings will be a substitute for traditional interviews. Companies will get to know you far better than they ever would in a job interview. Your business plan and these meetings will help you overcome objections to your lack of “big time experience.”

Some of your new contacts may help you start your business. Others will prefer to avoid competing with you — and they will recognize the opportunity to hire you and Paul. Stimulated by your business plan, they may offer you jobs.

The key is to introduce yourselves with a business plan instead of a resume, and with a business presentation instead of a job interview. That is how you will get past the “employers” so you can meet with the people in a company who worry about profit.

The traditional, small-minded hiring process of big companies doesn’t hurt just the job hunter. It also hurts the employer. Thus, your challenge is to avoid the hiring process. Your challenge is to get to the corporate-level executive (preferably a board member) whose job is to find new ways to make money, to find new products, to create new markets, and to develop new partnerships through investment. You cannot do that with a resume and a job interview.

Paul is a point on the productivity curve, but he is on the very narrow, leading edge of that curve. He is unusual. Few companies will know how to interpret his resume, how to interview him, or how to calculate his future value. He has great abilities. Don’t use those abilities to get a job. Threaten to start a company instead. He will get more attention — the right kind of attention. And he will either get funding, or win a great job.

job-offerWhich will be the outcome? I think it depends on too many factors to predict. The point is, you and Paul need to do the same things to achieve either goal.

For everyone else reading this, the message should be clear. Even if what you want is a job (and you don’t want to start a business), a smart way to do it is to develop a plan for a business and pitch it to the appropriate people — including competitors. (See Put a Free Sample in Your Resume.) I think it’s a sure way to a job offer, because a smart competitor will “buy you out” to avoid competition — by hiring you.

What’s the difference between job hunting and pitching a business idea? Is there really any?

: :

  1. This article describes my life over the past two years. Nearly every bit of interest I’ve gotten from employers has been due to the fact that I have done a few projects for a couple big name clients recently.

    Self-employment is not easy, as it involves always hustling, ups and downs in cash flow, and general uncertainty.

    The only real drawback that persists is someone asking me (after I list a couple current/recent projects) is the “but who are you with?” question from people who simply don’t understand what self-employment is , or simply sneer/look down upon that.

    Two years in, I’m nearing a critical mass of work at which I may be able to continue down this path indefinitely. I’m working with a good friend to market my services more effectively.

    I’ve turned down a few insultingly low salary positions in the past year and have also dealt with indecisive managers regarding so-so /decent positions. Soon I hope to be successful enough to not even look back at the world of (slave) labor for an employer.

  2. Spot on. Yes do both.
    The discussion hits on a # of things
    1) Career growth…moving to the next step. Make no mistake, employers concerns about experience managing large(r) organizations is a real issue. It’s an acquired skill, and best done by leaders who themselves hire and grow good leaders, and trust them to do their jobs. Not a place for micromanagers. Alas, that’s what it should be, but technical management is awash with senior managers who won’t let go. This is all about someone who’s ready to make that step.
    2) Risk. There’s no riskless hire, and a mistake hiring (and promoting) managers can be devastating. So on the surface it is reasonable for employers to want that experience. But this is where Nick’s point about short sighted mindless hiring comes into play. the typical approach to blindly look for someone who already has this case…experience managing larger projects and teams. Said another way, they want to find someone who is willing and able to do the same thing they are already doing, who’ll make a jump for what boils down to a lateral move. Satisfied with their status quo. Most people aren’t so it’s highly likely they are trying to recruit people who aren’t going to something, but running from untenable, undesirable where there might be growth. Sure they may get a $ bump, but that doesn’t effect content of the job. These people did not say they were running from a toxic situation, they just want to grow. Sure there’s a risk to move him up coming in the door, but with the info provided it’s not a big one, no greater then hiring that more senior manager…who may not have the product smarts this guy appears to have. In sum, when an employer really looks, has some confidence in their hiring skills, is risk tolerant, very fertile ground for recruiting is within the group of people ready for the next step up, not the crowd already there. But usually employers go the latter route with the worn justification of wanting someone who can hit the ground running blah blah blah. And a point that shouldn’t be lost is this guy is not a one trick pony, he’s done well twice.
    3) A point Nick didn’t make about the benefit of your own start up is something called “managing a P&L” or profit and loss center. In large development organization, most managers run cost centers. Yes it’s important to run them efficiently. But if you want to continue growing, and I’ve seen this happen a # of times, some employer, or executive is going to tell you when you want to reach for an executive/general management role is “you’ve never run a P&L center” , where you have full accountability for not just the cost..but the revenue and every operation that effects the bottom line. When you run your own own the whole story, fully accountable. Even if you take a shot at your business and it doesn’t get that P&L experience for sure and it’s something marketable, that other managers don’t have. It will come in handy when you want to grow again. Of course if your business flies…mission accomplished.

  3. Carl, there is a big difference in presenting yourself as self-employed and starting a company.

    “Self-employed” implies (often erroneously) that you can’t get a regular job, and are scraping by from one project to another.

    Starting a company makes you an entrepreneur, several notches up the so-called ladder. Starting a company usually implies some sort of incorporation (LLC or C-corp), and having employees and/or partners, and a focused mission. A one man band seldom is considered being an entrepreneur.

    Nick’s column is about “threatening” to start a company in competition, not walking away in a huff. No company is scared of a loner; all are apprehensive about the next Google (just two guys in the beginning), Uber, et al. eating them for lunch.

  4. @Nick,

    What a refreshing insight and dead on advice-usually as always. This is a new dawn, a new day. Being on the leading edge to either have a business idea or creative services or products that will attract people to put you where you belong for unusual and leading edge individuals.

    Great post!!!

  5. @RicardoRI fair points.

    I’m at the LLC /incorporation stage right now , have a steady supply of large and small clients, and I have a business and marketing plan ready to hit the ground.

    Regarding the ‘can’t get a job’ independent consultant, I’d just say that the leper label is unfair, since employers are not hiring for advertised positions. I know of many positions open for 12-24 months at least. I realized a long time ago that my time was being wasted. My tune is spent investing in myself and my work.

    I’d like to think this doesn’t make a loser in the eyes of HR/recruiters, but honestly I don’t care. Their opinions are worth $0 to me. I value my clients and my output, instead.

  6. @ricardoRI: “Threatening” to start a business so as to nail down a job offer can sometimes lead a person to realize that starting a business is really the best path. So what I suggest is a tactic, but also an eye-opener.

    @Jurassic Carl: Tread carefully when choosing your business structure. I started with a C corp, on advice of a good but overly optimistic lawyer. Big mistake, big costs. I then switched to an S-corp. Better idea, but still not the best. I now have an LLC and am very happy with it – significant savings tax-wise and otherwise.

    Find a smart accountant who does a lot of small-biz work and talk it through. I’m not saying you should be an LLC. Some key issues to expolore are liability, health insurance, payroll taxes, costs of filing returns, state business taxes/fees, and cost of processing payroll. It’s different with all the structures.

  7. @Jurassic Carl: Good for you. I think two of the biggest hurdles people face during the uphill process of starting businesses are (1) lousy deals and (2) marketing. It’s hard to reject money, but as you point out, lousy offers aren’t worth taking. They will distract you and demoralize you. Just say NO. You can’t build a business while taking lousy gigs in the meantime. Most new businesses – especially one-person ones – fail because people don’t realize how much time they must spend keeping the pipeline full of new business. You are wise to get help. It’s very hard to market and sell while also being the person doing the work for clients. Souns like you figured it out! I hope others learn from your experience.

  8. @Jurassic Carl: “employers are not hiring for advertised positions. I know of many positions open for 12-24 months at least.” I’ve been “losing it” lately with these fake jobs (I know I’ll never work in America again, so I’ve got nothing left to lose). Came across another one yesterday on StinkedIn, it was previously posted on August 7 when I applied for it. I decided to take advantage of the direct “apply” button and tell the recruiter off in a nice fashion. Basically I pointed out that I applied for this job two months ago and heard nothing, and how that original job posting shows 180+ applicants ( and “I have trouble believing you couldn’t find even one qualified applicant here” and how funny it is that I actually did some designs for their company when a colleague working there hired me for some freelance work. I then warned her to be a little more careful about posting fake jobs, “don’t be surprised if one day you post a job and nobody applies.” And, instead of putting in my resume I dropped in images of the freelance work I did for them.

    Well, I got an email from her thru StinkedIn, and I cannot believe the level of stupid I am dealing with here…”Hope this note finds you well. I am reaching out as I received your application and cover letter. There was no resume attached so I figured I would send a note. Please let me know when you are free to speak and what number I can reach you on.” Um, yeah, there’s a reason I didn’t attach my resume — I am *not* applying for your stupid job (it’s FAKE!), and I already sent you my resume two months ago…did she even read my so-called “cover letter”??? Sheesh! Still trying to decide how to respond, if at all. (Sorry for getting OT here…)

  9. I just responded to linkedin re their abundantly annoying job promotions (via email) who need people “just like me”,yet don’t hire. Let them know these are bogus ads, tho I’m sure they really don’t care what people “just like me” say.

  10. @sighmaster

    I hear you. It’s worse when they call you (and likely others) for 2-4 interviews and then no one is hired. Job re-posted every three months with larger and larger wish list. Rinse and repeat. It’s an even bigger time sink.

    That’s why I have been turning down interviews and opportunities for almost two years now. My time is worth something. I spend that time bidding, winning and completing work for consultancies. I get paid, rather than stressed about indecision and purple squirrelism.

    Back to my deadlines. Good luck, everyone.

  11. There are too many dysfunctions in the way many (most?) corporations hire today. I think we will see a revolution in how people work. More people will work for themselves and do projects, consultancies, etc. People will realize that they can make more money doing this than working for a greedy corporate employer and so they will continue doing so. Now that they can compare and buy decent health insurance for themselves and / or their families, there is just nothing keeping them at these companies. Employers need to get serious and realize that they have a problem in the recruiting and hiring process.