This month’s Fearless Fridays interview is with Carol J. Dunlop. At the time of recording, we were taking part in a virtual summit with and for women… When she heard about the work I was doing, she said to herself, “Oh, I have to be on this. I have to do this.”
Carol is, I’d say, our most experienced escapee so far. She started her business from home when that wasn’t just something you did! I took the opportunity to explore with her how she has been able to continue growing, learning and pivoting in her business so that it has lasted for the past 25 years (yes, 25!).
Read on or watch the full interview below to discover how Carol got started 25 years ago, and how she’s still going strong.
Leaving a corporate job behind to follow your passion: From graphic designer to pioneering business owner
Carol J. Dunlop had spent her whole career working as a graphic designer or in some kind of design role. When her husband prompted her to go out on her own, that’s what she did, and she became an ‘early adopter’ of the work-from-home business model. Today, she is still the Chief Communications Officer at CSI Corporation, the website and marketing strategy company she founded 25 years ago with her husband Alvin.
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
All my life, I’ve been a graphic designer. And I just got to a point where I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I want to be on my own. I want to work for myself.”
And I just made the decision one day: “I’m going to do it.” And I’m so glad that my husband was there because he actually made the decision for me. He was like, “You need to get out of doing this. You need to be on your own. You’re too good to work for someone else.”
I think he saw the entrepreneurialism in me, and I was such a bad employee anyway. I mean, I did not follow the rules, I didn’t want to listen to the authority. I always had other things that they needed to do. If they told me to do one, two and three, I was like, “Well, you should do one, two, three and four.” Or, “Five, six and seven. Why are you not doing this?”
I needed to be on my own. Because as you know, most people, when you’re working for a company or boss or whatever, you’re limited on the things that you can do for yourself. And there’s really no creativity or freedom. It’s just, “Here, do this, do that. Thank you very much. Okay, do this again.” And I don’t flourish in those types of environments, so I knew I needed to get out. That was basically it.
And to top it all off, my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother all worked for themselves. Now granted, my great grandmother and my grandmother grew up in the States in this kind of oppressed, Deep South and blacks only do certain things. But my great grandmother owned a farm, which was kind of unheard of for a woman, and a black woman at that.
And then my grandmother, she worked for the local, I guess rich people, cleaning their homes and stuff. But I like to call her an Independent Contractor. She just worked for whoever she wanted to. She interviewed them and they came after her. And then my mother actually owned a day care centre.
So I grew up with seeing all these women bosses all around me and they weren’t taking anything from anybody. And I was like, “Why was I?”
But, you know, when you’re born you’re set on this track. And then as you grow up, your parents or other grown people around you are always trying to get you to do certain things like go get a job, finish school, have a career. So that’s what’s pumped into you, and that was what was pumped into me. Go to school, get a career, live your life, get that gold or platinum watch or whatever it was.
My dream was to actually start an art studio because I am an artist, by heart. My God, he gave me that talent and I was like, “Oh, okay I want to just paint and travel and all that.” So I knew I had that yearning. It’s just… sometimes I think you need someone to push you forward and make you realise how great you are. And that was my husband.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
I think the transition was like it was for everyone: “Where is the money going to come from? Where am I going to get these clients? How am I going to deal with this? How are they going to pay me?” Just all those little things you really don’t think of when you want to go out on your own, and there’s no one there to tell you exactly what you need to do. Just hitting the ground running and saying, “What do I need to do?”
The first thing I did was to connect with a couple of people I had worked with previously and they hired me to do some freelance graphic design. And then that’s the other thing: “How much am I going to charge?” and being brave enough to say, “No, I don’t want this,” and not just working for anything.
Because when you’re working for yourself and you just push yourself out there, you think, “Okay, I’ve got to get money. Okay, I’ll just discount this piece. Okay, I’ll just … ” And then before you know it, you’re discounting everything and you’re not making any money. And you think, “Darn, I should just go back and work for the man because I’m not making enough money.”
So, it’s all about giving yourself that time to learn and to grow. Because when you first go on a job, you don’t know how to do the job. It’s going to take you about six months to a year to really perfect it, to really know what you’re doing. And sometimes when you go out on your own, you don’t have the luxury of that time. Depending on if you just got fired or if you just quit, or if you’re just making this decision right now, you need money now. So, that influences what you do and how you do it.
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
The internet. But it was 25 years ago, the internet wasn’t what it is now, so I had to turn to people who were already doing that and to books at the library. I’ve always been a curious person, even nosy – curious as to how things work. So, I’m always looking at others, how they’re doing things and trying to look ‘behind the scenes’. Now, when the internet broke out and you could find anything, oh, I was just a ‘gobbler-up’ of information. And today it’s so much easier to find stuff because you can follow people who are doing stuff that either you want to do or need to do. And the ease of access is just so much exponentially greater than it was.
Plus, depending on what you’re going into and what you’re going to do, you can always temp. The temp agencies weren’t really around that much, not like they are now, when I started out. You can work from home and do just about anything now. When I started, you couldn’t work from home and do anything. Nothing.
Believe this or not, and I know some of you will go, “Oh my God”: if you tried to get a telephone number for your business and it was out of your home, Southern Bell was not having that at all. You could not have a business number out of your home.
So, those were the barriers and the things that I had to contend with. And then, of course, if you were a business, you needed a location and working from your home was just unheard of. “Well, working from your home, what are you doing? Keeping kids?” “No, I’m not. There’s no childcare here.” So I got started before SOHO, small office home office, came about.
Today, it’s so much easier and you get so much respect, so much more instantaneously now because people don’t ask you, “Well, where’s your office?” And if your office is in your home, you can always meet somewhere else. “Let’s meet at the coffee house.” They don’t think anything about it.
So basically, the library was my best friend until the internet really came out and gave us all this information. And I have books upon books – I had three tiers of books on working from home, working for yourself, being a consultant, all of that.
The stuff was out there – It was just harder to get hold of than it is right now.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
I would have to say it’s everything. It’s everything that I had wished for and then sometimes it’s nothing that I thought that I would get.
And then on some days, I have to be honest, it’s the worst thing that ever happened. It’s the worst thing, worst decision I ever made. “Oh my God, what is wrong with me?” Even this long, you get frustrated, you get tired. You have to look at it like your job, right? You go into work every day, you get up, you have your ritual, you do your thing, you go through the day. Your boss pisses you off so bad you want to quit and then you’re just cursing him out in your head, but you don’t quit. You keep going because you need that money, or you need that check or whatever.
Having your own business is the same way. Clients frustrate you, tactics, things that you have to do, marketing – they frustrate you. But you don’t quit, you just keep going, if this is something that you really want to do.
And actually, I did a podcast episode about this. What do you do when you want to quit? Because I had that feeling, a couple of weeks ago, it was just so hard. And then I had four of my best business friends say, “I’m ready to quit. I’m tired of this, I’m getting frustrated.”
If this is your calling, your purpose, you know this is what you want to do, you can’t quit on it. You have to find ways to keep yourself going.
I have business besties who, when we feel that way, we call each other, cry on the phone, pray, meditate, whatever you have to do, just to get through it. Just because you’re having a bad day, life doesn’t stop, it keeps on going. The clients still need stuff, you still need to get stuff done. You still have to pay for things, you still need to keep your videos going, your podcasting, your writing, whatever it is you’re doing.
Every day is different, you never know. The things that come into your life, the people… The people that you meet that otherwise, if you just stuck in a J-O-B – unless you’re a travelling salesperson or a rep or something – you would never meet these people. Like you, you and I, how we came together.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
Well, that’s a great question.
I would say – if you haven’t done it yet, if you’re thinking, “I need to do this,” – get a coach. Get a coach who is coaching in whatever it is you’re trying to do. Even if it’s a success coach or a money coach or a productivity coach, whatever. Get some type of coach so you can get your bearings.
The thing is now, you don’t have to be a pioneer. You don’t have to go out in the forest and cut all the trees and make the log cabin all by yourself – it’s already been done. So find some people who have already done it and get with them so that you can have that kind of instant community.
Now, if you are hell bent on doing it yourself, go ahead. But go to the internet, follow some other people who have been doing it and listen to them for a little bit. Because the best thing is, if you’ve got time, if you have a J-O-B right now and you’re making money, use that time to fund your business and set yourself up for success. Now, sometimes you can’t. You get fired or you lose your job right away or you just can’t take it…
But there’s too much information out there now for you to be stuck saying, “What do I do next?” There are paths and roads and blueprints and all of that. Some of them are free, some of them are low cost, some are expensive – but there is information, so you don’t have to do it alone. You don’t have to be sitting there thinking, “What’s the next move?” Because the next move has already been planned. Someone else is in your shoes right now and because of this new digital economy, this new digital age and technology is right at our fingertips, you can connect with someone who is at the exact same place you are right this second, even if they don’t live where you live.
But then one person says, “Go down the shiny road,” and the other person says, “No, leave the shiny road alone. It’s the dog road you need.” So you have to at some point, after you get this help, make a decision: what you’re going to do, what your path is going to be… and then you do have to jump. Because sitting there, procrastinating, waffling back and forth, whatever you call it, is going to cause you not to do anything. And if you’re the type of person – like you and I are – where entrepreneurialism is just calling you, it’s going to eat you alive otherwise. So you’re going to have to do something.
Even if you fail. I have failed many times and still will fail many more times, and I don’t make the right decisions all the time… but I’m still moving forward on what I need to do. So, don’t contemplate on it too long. Find out as much as need and then just make a decision and go. If it’s the wrong decision, so what, you’re not the only one to have failed. Who was it, Edison? He said he didn’t fail a thousand times, he just found a thousand ways it wouldn’t work.