I can honestly tell you that I never imagined becoming an entrepreneur. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up because I thought that meant I got to live on the beach and swim with dolphins all day. Then, I got into soccer & gave serious thought towards dedicating my entire life to becoming the next Mia Hamm. This dream was squashed when I had to have knee surgery my junior year & couldn’t land a scholarship before graduation. As I began to apply for colleges, I admired my friends who already had a clear direction of what majors to apply for… accounting, nursing, teaching & engineering were all respectable options, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that none of these really felt like me. So I decided to take a free course through the local technical college to find out what career path would be the best fit for my talents & interests. I tested highest in Art, Science & Math which landed me in the Interior Architecture program at UW Stevens Point. This made perfect sense because I was always sketching up something as a kid from my dream house floor plans to treehouse elevations for the backyard. My dad even helped me make to-scale templates on graph paper of all my bedroom furniture since I was constantly rearranging. As I worked my way through hand drafting & studio classes, I narrowed my job search to commercial interiors with an emphasis in lighting. I landed my first internship, studied abroad in Europe, Italy & Paris and had a job offer before graduation. Signed, sealed & delivered.
Fast forward 4 jobs & 5 years later, I realized the world of commercial interior design was not exactly what I imagined. I watched my colleagues stay at the same place building their resumes & I questioned if I made the right decision after nothing I tried on really seemed to fit. I thought if I was going to work for the rest of my life I mind as well do something I loved, but every career opportunity I had worked so hard for led me down a short & unfulfilling dead-end road. Enough was enough. I had left jobs I felt were holding me back to go to jobs that would over promise & under deliver. I was put in circumstances where I had to travel 70% of the time or work for someone who didn’t respect my time or education. What was the point? I wasn’t enjoying the work I had set out to do in the world & I had become a slave to my desk pumping out projects one after another just to make the time go by as fast as possible. I thought I would give it one more shot before I threw in the towel and landed a design position at a firm that provided me the opportunity to learn about commercial office spaces from the comfort of my very own 6’x8′ cubicle. New cube, new me. Let’s go.
I was working my comfy job in my fancy office with a view right in downtown Milwaukee & I often thought I finally had it all figured out. I was offered a promotion by the president of my company at the time for a hybrid sales & design position after he listened to me pitch one of my big client presentations. It opened so many doors I had closed off in my mind, but it was freeing to feel how naturally & quickly I was able to succeed in this new role. I was getting clients left & right because I literally would do ANYTHING for them. They trusted me, they were comfortable knowing I would be the one driving the design & managing the entire project, and they knew I would take care of everything behind the scenes to ensure install day went smoothly. I was the one they wanted on their team & I loved every second of being able to serve my community in a way that I was really freaking good at. Until the day when I walked into my office to have a quarterly meeting with my manager that I went into thinking was going to be extremely beneficial to me moving forward in this new direction of my career. You guys. I’m not kidding; I brought my personal goals list, my vision board and all of the things. But instead, he looked across the table & said “there’s been a change in plans, today is going to be your last day.” He wouldn’t even make eye contact as he slid my non-compete paperwork across the table & proceeded to tell me that I should be careful with where I choose to apply for next. He also made it crystal clear that I was not allowed to be in contact with any of my current clients that I worked my butt off to bring in, for an entire calendar year. Wouldn’t want to “ruffle any feathers”. To say I was devastated is a massive understatement.
Excuse me what?!? Did I miss something?! For a second I sat there in complete shock & out of total confusion all I could think of to ask in the moment was “is there any reason in particular?” in which he responded “we decided you are just not a good fit.” The voice in my head called bullshit. I think the actual words that came out of my mouth after I picked my jaw up off the floor was “I couldn’t disagree with you more… I am perfect for this job & we both know it.” And I totally was. The real problem? It was no longer the right fit for me. My project board was full of new clients, I had won jobs that he told me I wouldn’t & I had two massive installs coming up the following week. If I was doing so well, why did I still feel so unfulfilled? Honestly, I was more devastated that I wasn’t going to be able to be on site for those installs like I promised my clients I would, than the fact that I was literally on my ass, with my box & I had absolutely no plan moving forward. As I was standing there at the elevator watching the doors close on the chapter of my life that was about to end, I thought to myself… THIS is my defining moment. I’ve got this! I don’t need this place to do what I love & I don’t need my dreams to be anyone else’s to manage. Was I successful? Yes… but at the end of the day my schedule was not mine to control. I was not running my projects; my projects were running me. I was pulling late nights, weekends, attending networking events in my spare time & all for what? I was chasing the wrong dream.
A million things went through my mind when I left that day. I got into my car & my immediate response was naturally, to stick it to ’em. They can shove that non-compete right where the sun don’t shine & watch me succeed in the same exact role with one of our direct competitors. Anyone would hire me in a heartbeat with my resume & I’d probably have 3 offers by Monday morning. That would show them! Right?!? But then, I let my heart catch up with me. I quickly realized that doing it for them wasn’t what I wanted for me. I knew in that moment the direction I wanted to take my life was not to continue to climb some ladder only to become that guy with no power or ability to stand up for his own team blankly staring back at me as the elevator doors closed. To be honest, I knew I could design & sell projects on my own, but I never had the confidence to work independently until this exact moment. So, when I got home that day (in true Jess fashion) I told my husband I wanted to start my own business. I locked myself in the guest bedroom & drew out my entire business plan on the glass closet doors. I calculated how much I would need to charge in order to comfortably be able to replace my old income. I mapped out 3 design services that I could provide with the skills & tools I already had. I strategized how I would be able to bring in leads & partner with local builders as an extension of their services. I built my website. I came up with a creative name & catchy tag line. I worked with a graphic designer to create my logo. I ordered business cards. I wrote my mission statement. I slapped a fresh coat of paint on that little guest bedroom that I proudly called my new office. It even had a beautiful view & a window I could open. Now this? Was IT.
Instead of me being sad & upset about my situation, I had this fire burning inside of me. I had a whole new outlook on life that defied all my previous thoughts behind the fear of taking the leap to go out on my own. I realized for the first time that it was a way bigger risk to live my life on autopilot & wake up when I am retired after working non-stop my entire life just to realize that I had wasted it. That I never did anything that meant anything & I missed out entirely on what I was put on this earth to do. That my life had absolutely no purpose. That was the day I snapped out of it & “Defy the Default” became a mantra for how I was going to live out the rest of my life. These are the defining moments that make everything we’ve been through worthwhile. I had to realize that success to me looked different than how our society portrays it. I had to learn that I value my time more than I value money. I work harder towards achieving financial freedom because what this means for my life is that I get to live how I want to. I am happy to sign on some late nights to crank out a deadline for a client if that means I get to spend the next day at the beach with my family. I don’t mind working weekends if that means I get to be there to pick my kids up from school. I love the idea of working overtime when it means I get to take a 2-week vacation whenever I want.
I used to believe that Entrepreneurs were either born that way or they pitched a ridiculously genius product on Shark Tank. Like being in business meant you came from money or just got lucky. Truth is, it is not a matter of some people have it and some people don’t. It has everything to do with the fact that some people want it & most people won’t. If you are watching the Instagram version of someone else’s journey, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that you were not cut out for this work. Behind the screen everything looks like rainbows & butterflies, but you’ve got it all wrong. We are all flying by the seat of our pants, don’t let anybody tell you different. If you are not thinking about the next thing that will put you out of business, it absolutely will. Think of social media as a highlight reel, a place where you see everyone’s best of the best all wrapped up in a pretty little filter, cropped & edited just right to make everyone believe that you’ve got it all together. That is exactly why I am sharing my story with you. I want to shed light on the fact that being an entrepreneur is not easy. It takes consistency, the hardest work, long hours, lots of tears, TONS of wine, and a million mistakes. If I posted every time I cried in the shower or how many times I wanted to throw in the towel you’d be totally surprised & wonder why I even do this in the first place. But then I remember something that I’ve heard in my heart for so long… I was created to do this work. And maybe, you were too. My life was never meant to be easy because the best things in life never are. When I look back at all of the hardships I’ve faced head on since starting my business, I realize that I am the best version of myself because of the fact that this train was never on the rails. I started before I was ready. I am building an empire day by day off of adrenaline & a strong cup (or 6) of ambition. And every time I get knocked down, I make the decision to stand back up. I want you all to know something… I love what I do, but even more I love who I’ve become. My goal is to wake up every morning and be a better version of myself than I was yesterday. Because growth only happens when you throw yourself outside of your comfort zone.
March 23rd could have been the worst day of my life if I would’ve let it. I could have spiraled into years of depression and anxiety thinking I am not good enough to do this work. That I am not strong enough to handle whatever hand I’d been dealt. But that’s not my story and I don’t want it to be yours. I knew in my heart I was made for something so much more. When I share my journey of how I got to where I am today, I am so stinking proud of myself for not taking the easy road. I will never forget that day because it was the one where I discovered my true passion was to design a life I loved. One that I would use to empower other men & women to do the same. I look back at the girl who sat in that stuffy conference room choking back tears as I faced the walk of shame & the fear of not knowing what was to come. I look at her in complete awe because even in that moment, she believed in herself more than ever. I am so grateful for the fire that started in my heart that day & the fierceness in my stride as I walked out the door. I decided from that day forward, I was never going to fit the mold of “Corporate America”. I was going to ditch the idea of fitting in for the idea of trailblazing a new path for creatives to follow. I absolutely cannot believe where this incredible journey has taken me and even though it is not always easy know this: it was so worth it. Cheers to my second year in the books as an Entrepreneur, stay tuned for more “behind the schemes” action from yours truly & always remember, you too were made for more.