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Quit Your Job to Win, but Look before you Jump

Craig Zelizer

March 4, 2020

This is a post originally written in 2016 (right after I left my professor position at Georgetown University) but I've updated this for 2020.  The reflections are still very relevant for anyone exploring making a radical career switch and taking a big risk.

In June 2016, after a wonderful decade long experience helping run and teach in the Georgetown University Conflict Resolution Program, I chose to leave the position to work full-time on PCDN, one of the world’s leading platforms connecting changemakers in diverse sectors to opportunities around the world.

This posts contains a few reflections about taking this risk (and the excitement and terror at doing so). The title reflects the need to balance that a strategic risk can be the “right thing to do,” but also it is essential not to do so without engaging in serious reflection and planning. Over the past few years I've also had many friends who have been exploring making a similar choice to leave stable full-time employment to work on startups and/or social impact (some have made the jump and others decided it wasn't the right decision or time to do so). I do frequently joke I may start the quit to win club (if anyone wants to join let me know).

A few key points for anyone considering a radical career change that involves leaving a stable position into a more unknown opportunity in the social impact space:

  • Don’t just quit your day job – If you’re fortunate to have a job that covers the bills and overall you're happy, I strongly suggest don’t immediately quit your job to follow your passion. Unless one is independently wealthy, most people don’t have the resources to jump into a new endeavor that may not work. Thankfully, I loved my job at Georgetown and was able to carve out time to work on PCDN over the course of several years. This allowed me to slowly work on scaling our work, build somewhat stable revenue streams (nothing is guaranteed), develop better internal systems and learn as much as possible about marketing, sales, financial systems and related areas. Having time to explore PCDN without the financial pressure to succeed overnight also gave me a chance to explore in more depth what would be the pros/cons of jumping into this full-time.
  • At some point one needs to either make the job/or not – Although jumping into the the unknown can be quite terrifying (it certainly isn't always easy), for me personally it got to the point that I needed to chose. Doing both Georgetown and PCDN, along with family, life and other commitments was becoming unsustainable. While Georgetown was my priority work-wise, PCDN was slowly growing, meaning I didn't have enough time time to fully develop the enterprise.  Dr. Catalina Rojas, my wife, and business partner (PCDN's wonderful director of Innovation) and I had countless conversations about if this was the right move, what this would mean for our family, the scary idea of choosing to leave stability, as well as the potential excitement of growing PCDN. After a great deal of thinking, reflection and planning  (including running the numbers many times  to make sure it wasn't totally crazy) we made the decision to jump into PCDN full-time. It was very hard to leave Georgetown but were delighted to have the time to finally focus on PCDN. I should note I still love academia and I am fortunate to continue teaching once a year a class on social entrepreneurship at Georgetown and occasionally at other institutions.
  • Engage Your Peers– Part of the process of deciding about whether to jump or not was talking to key peers to  see whether this was a crazy or brave decision or both? As I moved closer to the decision to change, I ran the idea, the business plan, the pros and cons by key friends and peers.   A great deal of the final decision also come down to listening to one’s internal voice. A central factor for me was while I had one of the best jobs at Georgetown in the world, I felt compelled towards full-time entrepreneurship. I had previously done many years work in the nonprofit sector, followed by a decade in academia. The idea of further building PCDN and helping thousands more people each year and developing my skills in the social enterprise sector was particularly intriguing. Another key tool I used in exploring what to do including using a rank order decision exploration process (this type of approach has helped me many times). I used an affordable app called the Best Decision App on the Apple App Store. This helped me to explore all the options and see how my values, priorities connected with each opportunity.
  • Acknowledge the Stress - Although I love adventures and change, there was a fair amount of stress in making the decision and beyond. In particular, doing the final reflections and weighing the pros and cons, talking with Catalina and peers, spending time reflecting was both exhilarating and exhausting. There was a period where I didn't sleep much but once I made the decision I felt amazing. Once I made the change it hasn't always been easy (see below).
  • Find Community and Support – For me personally, I likely wouldn’t have made the choice to move on if I didn’t have an inspiring place to work. Being part of a coworking community (at the time PCDN was part of 1776.vc, now we are based at Impact Hub Medellin) being able to share and learn from others on a similar path has been invaluable. Don't do this type of project or decision alone.
  • Look at the Data - In deciding whether to start a new initiative, I also found it helpful to look the numbers. It is terrifying to leave a stable job, benefits and security. However, I ran the numbers a million times and saw that we could likely at least survive with PCDN's revenue.  Part of looking at the data is also doing budgeting and tracking much more carefully current expenses and forecasting budgets.
  • Enjoy the Ride, but expect some serious ups and downs – Overall since leaving my full-time academic position four years ago it has been a fun ride (of course with many ups and downs).  But it is essential to stress there are and continue to be challenging times including periods of little sleep, stress about the future, worrying if we would be able to sustain our work and revenue. Sometimes have been more stressful than others. One of the greatest challenges was seeing a drop in revenue and realizing we couldn't sustain our budget in the very expensive DC area where we lived for almost 20 years. This required a lot of soul-searching about values, priorities and if we should continue PCDN or to look for more stable employment again. After a lot of exploration we made the decision that truly believe in PCDN and decided to relocate overseas (in part for a reduced cost of living and particularly health care) which we did over two years ago. Thankfully we've been able to sustain PCDN as a slow-up. At the same time I've radically expanded my skill set and learned a great deal about more effective communication, building technology products, marketing, design and much more. It has been a great adventure in many ways and recently after a tremendous amount of work  we launched an entirely new PCDN 4.0 platform recently.
  • Talk to your members – One of the biggest joys in pursuing PCDN full time is interacting with our global community and hearing the incredible stories of impact and benefit they receive from our work.  On a very regular basis I ensure I make time to chat with our community in person, online, and at industry events.

I hope this short reflection may be helpful to others. Look forward to continuing posts about the opportunities and challenges of full-time social entrepreneurship. What are your lessons and challenges in this area? Again,  if you want to join the Quit to Win club let me know.

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