I’m thrilled to be able to share this month’s interview with Serena. She was my very first office neighbour in the Geneva office of Procter & Gamble and has since become a client, a business partner, a coach and, most importantly, a loyal and ceaselessly supportive friend. In the interview, she talks about her experience of leaving the corporate environment to start her own businesses – because there have been several – and the challenges that she has come up against.
In a way, Serena was always destined for the entrepreneurial life. Her parents were entrepreneurs, although they were the ones who encouraged her to go into corporate employment in the first place. Her own strengths have also always been more suited to the entrepreneurial world: a creative mind, an innovative approach to business, and an incredible drive.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that she misses from that corporate world. Being part of a team is a big one. Access to decades of experience in the form of senior managers and mentors is another. And perhaps the biggest challenge with the entrepreneurial journey is the constant stream of failure after failure after failure. They’re not all big failures – more like little disappointments. You put your heart and soul into your work, you’re optimistic and enthusiastic and you believe you’re going to change the world… and then it just doesn’t work out as you had hoped.
I talk a lot of about the importance of celebrating those little wins that you do get from time to time – mostly because it’s something I know I’m not very good at myself!
Watch the full interview or read on below to hear Serena’s story.
How to run a successful cake business
Serena De Maio started her career in marketing at Procter & Gamble, where she spent more than ten years. Her parents had always been entrepreneurs – but for them, and therefore for Serena, success meant a career in corporate. Her dad even gave her a book on P&G when she was a teenager. Eventually she decided to embrace that entrepreneurial heritage and leave P&G, pursuing several interesting projects. And today she is running a cake business!
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
I always felt that I didn’t fit in 100% into what corporate, or maybe P&G, expected from me. A lot of people encouraged me to be an entrepreneur because I was so innovative; and sometimes I didn’t want to do things the way they had been done before, or how they were usually done. I also had the feeling that maybe I could perform better and be happier as an entrepreneur. I’m still finding this out – but I wake up happy!
I measure success a lot by sales: if I sell, I’m successful; if I’m not selling, I’m not successful. My vision would be to be a well-known and respected entrepreneur. If I manage a good advertising campaign or a good communication and I get orders, that’s success for me. Once I’ve sold the cake, if the cake was appreciated and people recommend me – that’s success.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
There are many challenges when you leave corporate to start your own business. For me, one of the biggest challenges is being alone: you’re alone all of the time. Compared to when I was either part of a team or leading a large organisation, I wake up in the morning and I’m alone, and I go to bed and I’m alone. And I’m happy, and I’ve usually had a good day and learned tonnes. But the interaction and the jokes, and just chatting with people and having a coffee… Especially at the beginning, I was missing it a lot.
Also growing people, passing on knowledge, is something that I love and that people appreciated so I think I was good at it! The way I compensate is that I started teaching at a university – that’s my way to pass on knowledge, have interaction and have fun with other people. I’m also coaching startups and young professionals.
Another one is that the life of an entrepreneur is just a sequence of infinite failures. And then from time to time, there is a blip of, WOW, success! So it’s: failure, failure, failure, you try, you try, you try – and then a little success – and then you try, you try, you try… It’s very different from corporate where you might argue those are not real successes or not as big as we think; but the entire team is behind trying to prepare a huge presentation, or convincing management. You have a cycle of build-up and then successful moments and then build-up again. And then celebration with the team – this I’m missing.
I don’t know if it’s being an entrepreneur or it’s our personality, but we never celebrate our successful moments. As a team, as a big organisation, you take the time – because people work so hard and you need to reward them. As an entrepreneur, since I left corporate, I don’t. I do write cards to my boyfriend thanking him, to let him know that I appreciate his work!
The final thing is not knowing how to succeed. It’s just a black box – if you ask me for advice, I give you advice, but I have no idea! This is very different from corporate, where you have an entire team and management that have years and years of experience. They might also then tend to do the same things, which is a bad thing, but at least there is a sort of database of high-quality knowledge. You can talk to people and learn from others. As an entrepreneur, you just don’t know. The people you could learn from perfectly are your competitors, so it’s a very strange situation. I’m missing that group knowledge.
As an entrepreneur, to succeed you need to sell. I learned and I’m scared… When I give a price, I know that it’s a high price, and I always wonder, “Is this person going to tell me to go to hell?” But they don’t. And I’m tougher and tougher.
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
In terms of people connections, on the cake business I work with my boyfriend! So of course we interact and exchange a lot.
I’ve just joined a women’s network in Geneva and hopefully I will be not just a member but also put in place trainings to pass on this knowledge. I like to be around people and I like to help people.
Then I have a couple of good friends who I call or message often.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
Learning a lot, learning so much.
And, from time to time, some stuff works! It feels amazing because it’s 100% your work, which is different from corporate.
I work all the time – I choose to do it, so I guess it’s good! – but I can decide, okay, let’s go to the movies, or work out. I never put an alarm clock anymore – although I wake up now at five because I want to work and I want my business to grow!
Whenever I feel someone is giving me orders, this I don’t like anymore. I think once you get out of the hierarchy of a company it would be very difficult to go back. Not having a boss is good! I like more freedom.
I also discovered that I’m pretty good with my hands: I can make cakes and good decorations, and that’s very surprising. I think it’s in my genes – my mother is very good at drawing – but my parents never fuelled it, or got training for me. Right now, I need to step up when we have a lot of orders, and I can do a lot of things. That’s very satisfying! Since being an entrepreneur, I had to learn Photoshop and all sorts of Adobe, I shoot my videos, I take pictures, I took classes… So a lot of creativity.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
I am 100% sure that you cannot be an entrepreneur in parallel to your current career. If you want to change career or have a business, it’s very difficult – and I tried – to do it in parallel.
However, I also do think that you need to try when you’re still in your career. I think human beings want to be secure and feel that they have their basic needs covered, and so it’s good to try your next career, or try to have a little business, so that you can see if you like it. In my first business, my partner realised that some of the elements of being an entrepreneur she didn’t like, and some other elements she loved. If you don’t try, you don’t know.
And what you’ll probably discover is that it takes more effort than you think. So you’d better try and be sure that you like it, and take your time before you move onto your next career or your next move.
I’d say you need to have at least ten sales – and not to your family and friends, because they show you love, they don’t show you that you have a good product or service! Then you have a feel for how to grow to the level you want your revenue to be: Okay, I’ve done this to sell 10 products, if I do this, this and this, then I will sell 20, or 30. But for sure, you need to sell and make sure that you really have a good product or service. In reality, selling is market research. You try – okay, he didn’t understand, or he didn’t buy, why didn’t he buy?– then you try again and again and again. You’re fine-tuning your offering until you crack it. That’s how I define a good idea.
Have you made big changes in your life and want to inspire others to do the same? Get in touch to share your story!