“I was turning into one of the sleepwalking corporate drones I'd sworn I'd never become.”

Image of Carla Watkins

Newly Updated

From Marketer to Portfolio Careerist (Plus Post-shift Update)

Carla Watkins was battling a bullying CEO, boredom and long hours in a job she despised, when a driving trip opened her eyes to the road she truly wanted to follow. Here, she shares how she's crafted a new career that's her perfect mix, with the unexpected lessons she's learned four years in.

What work were you doing previously?

Marketing for a small financial advice firm in London.

I mistakenly thought the salary would make up for doing utterly soulless work in a company I hated more or less on sight.

What are you doing now?

A true portfolio career!

I have a stationery company that I run with a business partner; two photography businesses (one for portraiture, pets, lifestyle, burlesque, dance and body-positive goodness, and the other combining business coaching with non-boring photography for small-business owners); and I am also a professional mermaid, selling mermaid tails and accessories, and running parties for grown ups where you can be a mermaid for the day.

I also have a full-time day job in web editing at the University of Essex, which I love, and which I would eventually like to make part time. And it's only a 15-minute cycle, instead of a two-hour train journey away!

Why did you change?

A whole host of related reasons.

The job and I couldn't have been a worse fit for each other. There was a horrific, bullying CEO (who was, fortunately, let go a year after I started), zero flexibility, controlling managers, no appetite for change or progress within the company, boredom, exhaustion, and a long-hours culture.

Plus, I realised that I was rapidly turning into one of the sleepwalking corporate drones I'd sworn I'd never become.

Life is too short to spend the majority of your waking hours bored to tears or terrified of your manager.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

In September 2011, after six months of hating the job but not being able to see a way out, I spent nine days driving a £250 ($320) car from Calais to Romania with my then partner, alongside 30 other people in their cars.

I came back knowing there was no way I could stay in a job that was destroying my soul day by day, when such incredible experiences were out there in the world for the taking.

But there were several memorable moments at work, too.

The time the CEO told me I should treat him like a king because he paid my salary; the month-long vendetta from senior management because I'd put the wrong size binder combs on some presentations; the time I was told open-toed shoes weren't acceptable in the office.

The biggest turning point was discovering Careershifters, Free Range Humans, and Escape the City all in one morning, while working from home during the 2012 Olympics, and sobbing with relief that I wasn't crazy (as people had repeatedly suggested when I'd mooted the idea of quitting London). I was just working in completely the wrong place.

Are you happy with the change?  


I have a few more adjustments to make over the coming months and years for an ideal balance between working for someone else and working for myself. But most days I can't quite believe I've actually made it happen.

I have like-minded colleagues and a beautiful campus to work in. I get to play with code all day at work and create new products and businesses to my heart's content. There is so much variety in every single day and, most importantly for me, I am totally open about my business pursuits when I am in the day job.

It's wonderful to be wholly me again and not have to pretend to be something I'm not.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

I don't miss: wearing suits (I took great pleasure in discarding mine and haven't worn one in two years now), the commute, boredom, permanent exhaustion, crying most of the way home most days, the sarcastic "Oh, half day today?" comments if I left before 6 p.m., and having to account for every second I spent in the office with an on-screen timer.

I miss: having a ticket I could use to get to London to meet friends for lunch at the weekends. That's it.

How did you go about making the shift?

I faff a lot around decisions, but once I've made one I tend to go after my goal single-mindedly and quickly.

So, having made the decision in August that I had to get out for the sake of my sanity, I set myself a deadline of October. If I hadn't found a job by October 2012 I was leaving anyway, and if that meant moving from my beloved flat into a house-share or back in with my parents, that was a reasonable trade-off to get the hell out.

I scoured the University of Essex job board like a woman possessed (because I knew it would be a good place to work), I updated my LinkedIn profile, and I put out feelers to everyone local I knew so that opportunities would come my way.

With hindsight, it would have been lovely to have gone full time in my own fledgling businesses, but I know that my confidence was at an all-time low; hence the decision to find a new job as a stepping stone. I had no idea the new job would turn out to be one I wanted to keep as part of my portfolio!

I have been blogging for almost a decade now but I made a conscious effort to learn Wordpress design on the side while working in the old job, so that I had some skills to make extra cash and / or to use in my own businesses to cut start-up costs. That turned out to be one of the things I love the most, and is central to several of my projects and businesses now. Ink Drops has never had to pay for a designer!

How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?

I cut down massively on my spending so I could pay my overdraft off and start my new life without debt.

I knew I'd have to take a pay cut, and as I live by myself this was initially a bit scary. However, once I'd done the sums I discovered that even with an £8,000 ($10,000) cut I'd end up with more money in the bank each month as I wouldn't have to pay £550 ($700) a month for the train commute to London.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

Dealing with the feeling that I was letting people down by quitting the 'proper' City job in favour of using my skills and talents more locally.

It's amazing to me how some people perceive a job in the City. I found that people discouraged me from leaving on the basis of prestige and money, even when it was patently obvious I was miserable, and it was affecting both my physical and mental health to stay there.

I'm still dealing with the fact that I can't keep up financially with some of my old friends and acquaintances; money I used to spend on wine and dinners now goes into my businesses. But I'm happier than ever despite these little snags, and I make frequent use of a lovely proverb a friend of mine introduced me to – "not my circus, not my monkeys". It helps.

What help did you get?

I sat down with my parents to talk about what would happen if I quit without a job to go to (I know, I'm an adult, but I needed their reassurance that I could gatecrash my way back into their lovely neat lives with all my bohemian messiness trailing behind me if the crunch came).

They were brilliant and said yes. They also said they'd help financially if they could and if I needed it – I didn't, but it helped with what was for me the biggest emotional hurdle in making the shift.

What have you learnt in the process?

That I'm much braver than I think I am, that creativity should never be hidden, and that contrary to what I believed for the first 26 years of my life, you can create a life based around what you love.

It's been a revelation to me to find I can love my life even with a full-time job in it. So many of the entrepreneurship mentors and coaches out there say they'd never go back; it initially felt like a bit of a cop out to have a job alongside my own ventures.

And then I realised I liked it and stopped worrying about what other people thought.

What do you wish you'd done differently?

I wish I'd listened to my instincts and said no to the London job in the first place!

And I wish I'd put more money into an escape fund and not tried to numb my misery with meaningless shopping for stuff I don't even remember owning.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Find likeminded friends.

I have two groups of people I've found through various events and courses. I wouldn't be where I am without their encouragement, support and accountability. You are not alone in this!

Set a deadline, and do something towards your goal every single day – even if it's only one phone call, one email, one idea for a blog post.

Be open, honest, and yourself. Against all advice, I used humour to explain my ambitions for my businesses in my application for this day job. It worked. I don't have to hide any more and I have a ready-made audience to test new products on!

Use courses and workshops sparingly – they are incredible for getting you to the heart of what you want, but it can be very easy to get hung up on the next one being The One and never actually getting started for yourself.

We caught up with Carla recently to see how her shift was working out, roughly four years on. Here's what she's been up to, and the biggest lessons she's learned.

What work are you doing now, four years on?

Since you first published my story, I've left my job, and gone full-time on my portfolio of businesses!

My portfolio is currently made up of: branding photography for small businesses and their owners(which also features a podcast); a stationery subscription company; mermaid photo shoots and hen parties; and lifestyle, landscape and fine art photography.

I also work with a burlesque company on their social media, and of course I still have my blog, which is nearly 14 years old.

There's never a dull moment! I feel proud and excited! My collection of businesses finally feels like absolutely the right thing – a perfect quartet of things that make me happy, and enough variety to keep me thriving.

What challenges have you come up against since making your shift, and how exactly have you dealt with them?

I lost my dad suddenly eighteen months ago, and that has really shaped my approach to my career and life.

Grief aside, losing him made me look very hard at my life and reassess everything in a different light. I'm still grieving, and part of my wish to work for myself was so Dad and I could work together at the pub or in our home offices, so some days I really struggle with motivation, even for the things I love the most.

Confidence wobbles, comparison-itis and perfectionism have always been my Achilles heels, and this is no different now. I get around these with coaching, sympathetic friends and also friends in the industry.

How is the financial side of things panning out?

A bit more precariously than I hoped, but probably about how I expected for the first six weeks of being full-time.

I have some lovely clients and plans in place to find more. My savings should see me through for the next three to four months, by which time I intend to be earning enough to live on and comfortably pay my bills. From there I can grow as the whim takes me!

If for any reason this doesn't work out by then, I will find a short term part-time job to cover the basics. While that obviously isn't my ideal, I am a portfolio careerist at heart – and one of the joys of that is being able to shuffle your commitments and jobs to suit your current situation.

I am trying to stick to a stricter budget for a while, but work is coming in and crucially, I now have much more time to work on the activities that lead to more work – marketing, blogging, and getting out and having conversations with real humans!

What have you learned, since making your shift?

There is no substitute for getting out there and doing whatever it is lights you up.

You can talk about it till the cows come home, but only by actually doing it will you get better and work out whether it is, in fact, what you actually want to do. My best example of this is launching a web design company for solopreneurs, and realising fairly rapidly that the thing I actually liked about websites was creating stunning photographs to go with them.

Success is defined by you alone. Lots of people have asked me if my businesses are successful. Financially, I'm not yet making what I eventually plan to, but in every other way, my businesses are a runaway success already. I am happier, healthier, mistress of my own time and able to spend my precious time on the things and people that matter to me. I'm often unaware of time passing, and I never clockwatch any more!

I would strongly advise against leaping with no financial backing/savings at all, as the times I have found it hardest to create in the past have always been the times when I was worrying the most about money.

You can find out more about Carla's work at www.carlawatkins.com.

What lessons could you take from Carla'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 [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.