Giving birth to Careershifters...

“I woke up to the fact that if I didn't do something right there and then, I was going to look back on my life having only done work my parents and society thought was appropriate, rather than what my heart wanted.”

Giving birth to Careershifters...

The man behind Careershifters, Richard Alderson, talks to Selina about his vision for Careershifters, how the business came into being, and the future of careers...

Where was the idea for Careershifters born?

On a beach in India! It was the tail end of 2003 and I'd just been through the painful but ultimately rewarding process of leaving the corporate job I was in at the time. I was in Kerala taking a career break and fulfilling one of my dreams of studying yoga for a couple of months. Twisting my body into new shapes also had the interesting effect of making some exciting ideas pop out of my head.

How did you go from having the idea to making it a reality?

With a lot of hard graft, frequent late nights, a few tears, but most of all with the help of some very talented people around me.

In terms of the process, it went something like this:

In early 2004 I wrote an initial business plan (quite an unsophisticated one as I was later to realise) and started to pitch the idea to a select group of friends and colleagues around me, refining it as I went. I then started to approach and get initial support from some of the people that had inspired me in my change - authors of some of the books I'd read, coaches who'd helped me, and others who I considered to be leading people in the career change field.

In the Autumn of 2004, I began pulling a team of people around me who I thought might be able to help me make the project a reality. Most of them were career changers themselves, all of them shared my passion for making this happen, and they all, like me, volunteered their time to the project over and above their day jobs.

We had our first team meeting in bar in Soho on a cold night in February 2005 and have been meeting monthly since, sometimes in spare office meeting rooms, sometimes in bars, sometimes in my flat. One or two of the original team drifted off, many more people joined in along the way, but we ended up with a group of about ten people, five or six of which would be engaged in the project at any one time.

We did all the things we needed to do to get the project up and running - developing the product, thinking about how we would market ourselves, drawing up a financial plan, doing our market research, developing our identity... and fitted all of this into early mornings, evenings and weekends, while also trying to keep our loved ones sane around us. No different from many other startups, I'm guessing.

Needless to say, it hasn't all been easy. There were times where things were moving at a snail's pace when I wondered what on earth I was doing pumping so many hours of my life into the enterprise. But, stubborn person that I am, I never wanted to give up because I truly believed that we were creating something that could help thousands of people.

And here we are now, almost six years after I came up with the idea - we've got a fantastic website, the brand new Careershifters Guide, workshops running in London (soon to be spreading across the UK) and the Careershifters Club launching in November. 2010 is set to be our year of growth and our mission is to help 1000 change career in 2010. I thought it would take half the time to get to this stage, but that's what they always say, right? Anyway, we're at the end of one journey (building the concept) and at the beginning of another one (building the business).

What's so special about Careershifters?

Most importantly, I believe it fills a much-needed gap in the market. There's currently no other dedicated online community for career changers. There's nowhere else online where you can access practical advice from so many experts in the field, where you can connect with so many other career shifters and where you can get inspired by so many different stories of people who've made successful changes.

It's also built by people who've been through the journey themselves and, in time, much of the content will be generated by the audience it serves.

To complement this, we're also one of a new breed of more-than-profit companies, whose purpose is to create social impact alongside a sustainable business.

What do you aim to achieve with Careershifters?

Several things. Our most immediate, obvious objective is to help the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently unhappy in their work create careers that make them jump out of bed in the morning rather dreading the coming day. That might mean helping people gain the confidence to make a change, it might mean inspiring them with other people's stories about the amazing things that are possible, it might mean helping them create connections with other career shifters or professionals, or it might involve simply helping them create a more ideal situation in their current workplace. The bottom line is that if we can help people feel more fulfilled by what they do on a day-to-day basis, we believe we can also make them happier, healthier people who will be able to contribute more to the world around them.

But we also have bigger ambitions.

The first is about playing a part in radically changing how careers are perceived. The fact that so many people are unhappy and unfulfilled in their work is in many - but not all - cases the product of a system that constrains people in their thinking about the career choices that are available to them. I'd like Careershifters to play a part in helping to change people's perceptions about what is possible - and to do that, we'll not only need to work with people in the workforce, but go back earlier to those still at university and at school. This is a whole big topic in its own right, and I'll be posting more details about this on the website in due course.

The second is about Careershifters becoming a role model for a new type of business. A business that creates both social and economic value, and a form that we're increasingly seeing being created by a new breed of entrepreneurs. If we can inspire others to do the same and to learn from what we've done well (and indeed not so well), we will also have succeeded.

Finally, with my team, I want to understand how to start and launch a more-than-profit business, so we can do it again on a bigger scale in the future.

What do you think careers of the future will be like?

Very different from today. I think there will be a number of trends that will fundamentally change the career landscape. Firstly, I think the people's career choices will increasingly be driven by their need for fulfilment rather than material benefits. Secondly, the concept of what a career is will become far broader than what we understand it to be now. Thirdly, the nature of the work that we do in the future will become far more flexible and unstructured. The net result for your average punter like you or me is that the opportunities available to them will be even greater, but learning to navigate this increasingly unstructured system will be ever more challenging. I'm going to write an essay on this, which I'll post onto the Careershifters blog in the next few months.

What would the world be like if EVERYONE did the work they longed to do?

A hell of a fun place to be!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

It changed a lot but rock star keyboard player, entrepreneur, teacher and writer all figured in my imagination at various points. Funnily enough, it looks like I'll be able to do all of them, bar the rock star!

What twists and turns has your own career journey taken so far?

I remember reading something very wise a couple of years back which said that if you followed your heart in what you did in your life, the different paths you took might look messy at the time, but would make complete sense when you looked back in hindsight on them. So I'd describe the different jobs I've done in my life less in terms of twists and turns and more in terms of different building blocks, all of which have contributed to where I am now.

But what jobs have I done? I spent my time at university and the couple of years afterwards doing some pretty varied - sometimes crazy - stuff: I was a door-to-door salesperson for a couple of months in Ohio in the US; I spent three months being an environmental research assistant in the forests of Tanzania; I worked for eighteen months as an English teacher and journalist in Japan; and I spent a short time as an assistant to a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India. I then followed a more conventional path (in hindsight probably more what my parents and society thought was appropriate rather than what my heart wanted) and spent four and a half years as a corporate foot soldier, aka management and technology consultant, based in London, Dubai and Amsterdam. In 2003 I woke up to the fact that if I didn't do something right there and then, I was going to look back on my life having only done this type of work. That felt very, very scary. So, after a lot of soul-searching and frankly, some pretty, low times, I shifted to work in the civil society sector as a consultant to social entrepreneurs. There's a whole other story in how that happened. Now I'm also becoming the entrepreneur I always wanted to become.

What do you think the best job in the world is?

It's different for everyone, but the principles are the same. It's a job that you feel truly fulfilled doing. And it's interesting: you can immediately tell people who are doing their "best" job in the world. They have a life to them, an energy, a sense of being in the flow with their work and with life. There also isn't just one "best" job for everyone. There are several, and as people develop as individuals, so their ideal job will also change.

What book changed your life?

There are a lot, but one that had particular impact on me was Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.

What experience changed your life?

Again lots. My experiences living in different countries have had a massive impact on me. But most recently, the experience of changing careers truly did change my life. Not only am I now doing work I'm truly passionate about (and am much happier and healthier as a result), but going through the process has made me a lot more confident about the future - far less constrained in my thinking about what is and what isn't possible and far more confident that whatever changes life brings me in the future, I'll be better positioned to deal with them.

What advice would you give to people thinking about a change in career?

Do something about the way you're feeling. Don't remain stuck, whatever you do. A change in career might or might not be what you need, but at least understand why you're not happy. Look at yourself first to do that. Then consider what you might do with your life that truly excites you. It's not always easy to get there and it almost certainly won't happen overnight, but there are thousands of other people doing things that excite them. Why shouldn't you also be able to?

What lessons could you take from Richard's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below. 

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@careershifters.org.