“Make your move. It's a risk, but everything will eventually work out.”
What work were you doing previously?
I was an associate brand manager with Activision, the largest video game publisher in the world.
What are you doing now?
I'm a market researcher.
I focus on qualitative market research – focus groups – and I'm a sole practitioner.
Why did you change?
I made the change because I wanted control over my professional life.
Working for a large company like Activision taught me a lot, but my salary had a low ceiling and my time was not my own.
I wanted more freedom and more of a financial upside.
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
About a year into my time at Activision, I observed a focus group run by a young, dynamic moderator.
He worked for himself, and did very well. I realised right away that his career suited me, too. I spent the next year observing as many groups as I could.
Are you happy with the change?
Yes, very happy.
I doubled my Activision salary in my first year as a moderator and my earnings continue to grow. I have more time with my family and for myself. And I have a degree of control over my life that comes with being your own boss.
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
I miss the benefits that come with working with lots of smart people – social interaction, introduction to new ideas.
So now I need to make that stuff happen through dinners, networking events, etc.
I don't miss the corporate slog of meetings and politics, though.
How did you go about making the shift?
I spent as much time as I could in my role as a brand manager getting up to speed on focus group moderating.
That meant observing groups and setting up informational meetings.
I then approached the best moderator I knew and convinced him that my experience on the client side gave me a perspective most moderators don't have – the understanding of what clients really care about and what kind of research insights they find useful.
By turning my weakness – inexperience – into a strength, I was able to convince him (and future clients) of my value. It also helped that my domain expertise was in video games – a niche not many moderators at the time knew how to tackle.
What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?
It took me a while to get the hang of research report writing.
I have a background in journalism, so writing was always something that came easily to me. But this was a bit of a different animal. I had to craft an argument / story in PowerPoint format with as few words as possible. I loved the mental gymnastics, but it took some time to get good at it. I still think report writing is the hardest part of the job.
I also didn't assert myself strongly enough in my new role when I started. There was a period of time when the moderator who took me in and mentored me was working me to the bone. I should have told him I needed a break, but I didn't, and as a result some of my work quality suffered.
How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?
Fortunately, my wife worked, so she helped keep the lights on.
We also cut back. But I was fortunate to start making good money almost from the start.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
I was starting a new career. I had a hunch I’d be good at it, but I wasn’t sure, so I went through a substantial period of self-doubt and uncertainty about the future.
Also, I went from having an association with 'Activision' – an esteemed public company – to working with one guy, literally out of his garage. Some people interpreted it as a step down, though I quickly made much more money and had a more favourable lifestyle than many of those doubters.
What help did you get?
I got a lot of help from the moderator I joined up with.
He was a very talented consultant and passionate about what he did. He was patient with me and really helped me grow.
My wife and the rest of my family were very supportive when I doubted the move.
What resources would you recommend to others?
The best thing to do is have informational meetings with others in the field you're interested in.
Books and websites are fine for getting up to speed, but they can't move you forward like relationships can.
What have you learnt in the process?
I learned two things.
First, follow your talents. I joined Activision because I thought being a brand manager was what I was supposed to do after graduating from business school. But the job was very heavy in quantitative analysis, and that's not who I am. Once I found my place in research, I was off and running.
The second thing I learned is joining a big company isn't always a secure move, and joining a small company isn't always a risky move. Activision had several layoffs after I left, while my consulting practice was growing. In fact, I serviced Activision after I left. So I saw first-hand that my move gave me more security, not less.
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Make your move. It's a risk, but everything will eventually work out. Life's too short to stay in the wrong job.
To find out more about focus group moderating, check out Dan's book on the subject here.
What lessons could you take from Dan's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.