“I was feeling pretty despondent about work.”

Image of Emma Hamlett
From Museums to Books

Having recently made a shift that hadn't panned out the way she'd hoped, Emma Hamlett's confidence was knocked when it came to making another change. So, she brought in some external support. Here's her story. 

What work were you doing previously?    

I'd worked in the museum sector for about 15 years.

Before making my ‘main shift’, I’d already left museums and started working as a project manager for a small startup, a social enterprise that delivered arts learning and participation opportunities for older people living with neurological conditions. 

I did that for about six months before it was clear that this wasn’t the right work for me and I decided that I needed to invest properly in considering and deciding what was going to come next.

What are you doing now?

I now own and run a bookshop business. 

We specialise in work written by women, run a busy programme of author events and book clubs, and are a cafe-bar as well as bookshop.

The shop is open from 8am through to early evening so customers can pop in for coffee and a browse on their way to work, or stop in for a glass of wine or locally brewed beer at the end of the day. 

All of this against a backdrop of amazing books to browse and buy!

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?

I was feeling pretty despondent about work. 

I'd already made quite a big change, leaving what I'd thought was going to be my  career for life, and had started doing something else, pretty confident that this would be the thing for me.

It then became very clear, very quickly, that it wasn't.

I wasn’t at all confident in the work I was doing, but then also lacked confidence to make another change as I'd already made a shift that I then realised was completely wrong decision.

I hadn't made the wrong decision to leave the museum sector, that was definitely the right thing. But having gone into something else that was not right for me, I felt really at sea and didn't know what to do next, or how to go about finding what would be next.

How did you choose your new career?    

I was fortunate that I had a friend who had taken part in another Careershifters programme.

I had a good chat with him and got some insight into what being part of the Career Change Launch Pad might mean, and the difference it had made for his work and life.

I'd taken voluntary redundancy from museums so had a little pot of money set aside, and thought that I’d use some of that to get some support to help me make a better decision – invest properly in the process of career change and so, hopefully, make a better informed next step.

And so I joined the Career Change Launch Pad.

I had a real pivotal moment just over half way through the course. 

As part of an exercise a very good friend of mine gave me some feedback and as I read it I thought “I should open a book shop”. I just knew! And that was from her insights into my character and my abilities.

I think it comes down to confidence. I wasn't able to look at myself all that objectively, or identify really clearly what I was good at or where I had skills that I could use elsewhere.

That’s where an outside perspective can be so helpful. 

Are you happy with the change?    


Things could not be more different!

Before, I was completely lacking confidence in my ability to make good decisions, as well as to know what I was good at and would enjoy. Now I run something that I just love, am proud of, and know is good. I love going into work every day. 

I always joke with people that what I've done is created my dream bookshop! I've created the place that I'd really want to go to.

The warts and all truth is that running and owning your own business is exhausting. I’m probably no less anxious than I was before as there is no real safety net now, and I have other people who are dependent on me and the success of the business. 

But those feelings are kept at bay by having utter confidence that it's the right thing for me to be doing.

That’s a really wonderful feeling.

How did you go about making the shift?    

I had lots of informational interviews, reaching out to people to ask if I could meet with them and pick their brain.

The result of that is I have a really good network of independent book shop owners in my area who I went to see as I was planning my business, who I've kept in touch with that I can reach out to if I don't know the answer to something or could use a bit of advice.

One of the most unlikely but possible most helpful things I did during the course of my career change was to volunteer as a zumba instructor for a period of time. 

I go to zumba every week, have done for years, and our instructor was going to be away on parental leave. People in my class wanted to carry on while she was away, and I said I'd do it.

This was entirely outside of my experience and a great example of something that makes me uncomfortable and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do – being in front of a group of people, putting on a sort of performance, always with a smile. 

Leading the classes, learning that I could do it, and actually having great fun at the same time, was an enormous boost to my confidence and gave me the perfect kick to pursue the bookshops business.

I also did a slightly ridiculous and quite expensive shift project, where I ran a mobile book business before I had my bricks and mortar shop. 

I did some market research by putting together a questionnaire and sending it out, and asking other people to help send it out to get as many different people as possible. 

Then I bought a van and turned it into a mobile book shop. At the time, I wasn't really thinking of that as marketing testing. I did it because I'd struggled to get premises and I was getting quite frustrated, so I thought this was another way to get going. 

I realised later on that the mobile business helped me get my brand name out, test what it was people were interested in, and then lay those foundations for the shop.

How did you develop (or transfer) the skills you needed for your new role?    

I think I was surprised by how much I already knew or was able to do.

Of course, I needed to build the sector-specific knowledge but I knew how to build a budget, how to put together a strategy and plan, how to run recruitment, apply for funding – all of that. And I knew how to present a space because I was a curator for a really long time.

It was just putting all of those things together in a different way and towards a different end goal.

And it has been incredible continuing to see the extent to which the things I did and learned through the Launch Pad inform how I go about my work.

The practice of informational interviews means that I’m not scared to reach out to people. Leading those zumba classes showed me that I was better with people than I thought I was, and that I could get energy from interactions and relationships with customers. 

And the principle of not being afraid of asking for what you want has been invaluable. Within our first year of trading we have had a really brilliant programme of events with some incredible authors, including some from the 2023 Women’s Prize list  – all because I haven’t been afraid to ask.

You just send that email and ask them, because what's the worst that can happen? They can say no and it doesn't really matter.

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

The whole thing was possible financially because in the year before I set up my business, I’d been working at the social enterprise while also freelancing.

I was able to dip into being self-employed in a safe way as I was running my freelance projects alongside a part-time job.

But there is no doubt about it, it is scary, especially if you've been used to being employed.

I suppose the hard lesson was that it doesn't matter how much you plan and how much you save, it still doesn't work out quite how you think or hope it will.

I worked out how long I needed to set the business up and how much money we needed to have in savings to cover a period without me earning. I then worked my part-time job and freelance projects until the right amount was in the bank.

But, of course, things didn’t work out that way and getting the business off the ground took much longer.

I’ve seen it suggested that you take whatever figure you think you need and then add 50% – which is probably more like it! 

What help did you get?    

I drew on quite a lot of support.

I got a business mentor through my region’s enterprise agency. I had a book shop mentor through the Bookseller's Association, who also ran a one day course 'how to start and run a book shop’  – a classic ‘does what it says on the tin’ bit of training!

I also met some brilliant people on the Launch Pad who lent me their skills and expertise. One of them is my brand designer.

What have you learnt in the process?    

There are a few things for me.

One is about work-life balance. I think quite a lot of people consider changing career because this is something they want to improve. 

The honest truth is I have a worse work-life balance now! Work is life and life is work, but that suits me in a way.

My husband and members of my family are in what you might call “vocational” work where the lines are very blurred between work and life, and I came to realise that I craved that too.

It was important to me that I was so invested in what I did and that what I did was so much a reflection of me, that the lack of balance was okay.

That’s been surprising.

Secondly, I’ve learnt a lot about myself. I didn't think I was very good with people, but of course  you have to be good with people to run a shop. It’s been surprising for me, but I think it's to do with resonance. Because I love the books,I love talking to people about the books!

That has been a huge revelation.

And lastly, one of the big things I learned through the whole career shift process was that I found it difficult working for other people (not with other people, but for other people) and so now I have the confidence and knowledge that self-employment is right for me.

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

The principle of getting into action was so crucial for me, and still is.

I moved into something I didn't know anything about. I'd never run a business, I'd never worked in business; my entire career had been in the public sector. So, just thinking about it wasn’t really an option. I was always going to have to take action if I was going to get anywhere!

So even now when I get stuck with things, I think ‘well you need to do something, stop thinking and sitting in your own head. Get out, do something, try or test something, seek out other people, find somebody to talk to’.

Those were definitely the things that took me through the shift, but I also continue to use those principles every day and it's so useful to do that.

It's so easy to get stuck in your head and think about all the possibilities but you don't know anything until you do something. 

That's been absolutely crucial for me – when you get a bit stuck, find something to do. If you don't know what to do, find somebody to talk to and that will lead you on.

To find out more about Emma’s business, visit https://collectedbooks.co.uk

Emma took part in our Career Change Launch Pad. If you're ready to join a group of bright, motivated career changers on a structured programme to help you find more fulfilling work, you can find out more here.

What lessons could you take from Emma'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.