It’s easy to make a career path sound intentional and brilliant in hindsight, as though you actually had a clue what you were doing. My sexy sounding path would probably read something like this:
One year into her business Anaïs delivered weekend workshops, had a consistent income from online mentorship programmes and spoke in front of international crowds in 3 countries. She moved herself and the business from Cairo to Munich and did not die of German bureaucracy. She did a Master of Science in Organizational Behaviour on the side, looking at all things glass ceiling, work motivation and wrote her thesis on entrepreneurial isolation. Anaïs has developed a 4-week online curriculum for founders who find that neither business plans nor the Lean Startup methodology quench their worries or help them grow business balls. Anaïs' approach is humorous, forward-thinking and inclusive. She has worked with start-ups, heavily tattooed graphic designers, opera singers and almost every type of coach on the face of this planet.
Ok fine – the bit about bureaucracy wouldn’t go in there. But all in all it sounds pretty grand, right?
So much that it feels completely removed from the truth. So in line with my belief that radical honesty works best, here is the untamed version of how I started my own business.
(GRAB YOURSELF A GLASS OF WINE BECAUSE I WILL WHINE TO MAKE THIS REALISTIC.)
I was 23 and on my way up the hotel management career ladder when the (r)evolution hit Cairo and I inevitably asked myself what to do with my life (nothing like the smell of teargas and a Facebook shutdown to cause some serious introspection).
I saw two potential paths: continue climbing that ladder (with the same hotel chain but in a different country) until I have a financial buffer and a better idea what I really want to be doing. Then do that. Or leave at that point, without a clue, nor the financial buffer and be willing to fall flat on my face (because that’s what you do when you are 23). The only thing I knew was that ‘business as usual’ was not a good longterm solution.
I considered the career story I had been told all my life:
Some day (preferably a few months before graduating from high school) you will miraculously know exactly what you want to do. That clarity will help you make an unmistakable choice of a degree at a (preferably prestigious) university. If you work hard, you will have good grades, which will land you a fantastic job, which in turn will result in an orderly, career-ladder-ascending CV and a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. And 3 beautiful kids who go through the same happy motions.
It’s not that I didn’t want the fairy tale to be true. Rather, none of that was true for anyone I knew. When I regarded successful decision-making in my admittedly short life to that day, I discovered that it hadn’t been true for me either:
I had had no clue what to do when I graduated from high school, had sent applications to 6 different universities for different degrees and was horrified when I got accepted for all of them because: vertigo of freedom. I had chosen psychology because it sounded intriguing and attended a single lecture only to realise that this was not the right place for me (picture a uniform group of turtle-necked black-rimmed glass wearers before they were in fashion) (<— uniform groups of anything freak me out).
I chose hospitality management based on what I did not want (and on the fact that my friend did not want to drive all the way from Berlin to the Hague on her own so I was lured into accompanying her to the selection day). The degree resulted in impeccable wine tasting skills, the knowledge that a business plan is 90% invention and 10% argumentation skills and that first job in Cairo, opening a 5* hotel. (I had impressed the hotel manager with an irreverent rant about the industry and he gauged me a tough enough cookie for a 95% male hotel.)
My path to that point path felt random and based on “trying what did not feel wrong” rather than on knowing anything.
The tipping point: I could not stand another fake 5* smile.
So I left. The job. Cairo. My then boyfriend.
And spent 2 months living on couches in Maastricht and Berlin, suffering severely from that self-inflicted heart break, glued to the TV watching news about Egypt and feeling selfish and ungrateful because in comparison to most of my Egyptian friends, I had a European passport, the freedom to travel and a degree from, yes, one of the most prestigious hospitality management schools.
Whining eventually turned into research (and bless my mom, whose ear was almost chewed off in the process). After three more drama-infused months of “I am worth nothing”, I eventually stumbled upon an Image Consulting course and a Masters degree in Organisational Behaviour.
I was curious. To my own astonishment, both options did not feel wrong, so I used my grandmother’s inheritance to take both courses. The plan: build the Image Consulting business while doing my Masters.
After learning how to do colour analyses, style analyses, personal shopping and organising wardrobes, I took my starry-eyed business self back to Egypt and got busy (turns out there is nothing like political disaster to make people invest in image consulting). I began speaking almost immediately – at international business women’s groups and cultural associations. My first talk was called “How to Look Taller and Slimmer in 10 Seconds” and the hostess accidentally printed “How to Look Taller and Slimer in 10 Seconds”.
I saw a bunch of individual clients, designed a first (horrible) website (if the first is not horrible you’ve probably thought about it for too long) and to my mother’s (and my own) dismay soon realised that image consulting was a tad superficial. Even the deeper applications of colour psychology and presentation skills felt like a useful medium, but not like a piece of content that I wanted to be teaching.
Note that while I am mentioning this en passant, at that time I experienced it like another huge crisis (“I keep dumping stuff – first hotel management, then image consulting. Will I ever stick to anything in my life??”). But I don’t want to take you down the chocolate-drenched drama lane again, so let me summarise:
Image consulting soon made way for personal branding and then brand strategy for small businesses. I devoured 20 books, worked with 1:1 clients, lead workshops, rebranded the website, moved to Germany, was screwed over by a legal accountant, continued speaking, spent 10,000 bucks on a coach, launched a 2-month virtual mentorship programme, then a 6-month-programme and then decided I was fed up of 1:1 work.
I teamed up with a business partner to create a women entrepreneurs conference aka business party. We secured big media deals, amazing international speakers and delicious vegan food… And then that went down the drain. My business partner had an emergency surgery and had to leave the business.
I was faced with the choice of burning up my last energy reserves to make a stunted version of the event happen or practice what I planned on preaching (that you cannot build a business while being emotionally and physically burned out) and let the conference go. I did the latter. (Having to call off the press was a horrible punch in the face for my ego.)
Instead, I finished the Masters thesis (on the isolation of online entrepreneurs), went on a US road trip, moved apartments, got my shit together and launched my online store with my very first e-book 3 months later.
Today, I sell a beautiful online course for people who have a business dream that feels completely removed from anything that could ever resemble a business plan. There are big speaking gigs on the books. There will be Mediterranean retreats. And we might or might not be creating a beautiful online group curriculum for people who want to marry business and spiritual growth and become good at selling without pretending.
Is this IT?
I plan to keep growing and opening up, spiritually, financially, heart-wise.
And when you grow, you leave behind all that doesn’t work and all that has reached the level “as good as it gets”…