An interview with Matthew Bellringer, who went from salaried tech manager to self-employed innovations consultant .
As a Career Transition Coach, I spend all of my time helping people embark on their journey to find their professional joy. Navigating away from a familiar role towards a new career route is both risky and scary in equal measure. I support people as they make the difficult decision to leave a job and place of comfort. I help them steer through choppy waters and feelings of self-doubt, until they settle on a destination, a job they love.
The fear factor can be even greater when people seek to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs, setting up their own small business. To minimize the dread and the anxiety it brings, it is always best to do a lot of research around a future role, plot a course to get you there, and stick to your plan. This can be the key to ending up in a calm place where you find autonomy and independence. In any event, the voyage can be overwhelming, sometimes making you feel like you are drowning.
This nautical metaphor will resonate with my interviewee, people-loving entrepreneur and Innovations Consultant, Matthew Bellringer. I sat down with Matthew this month for a candid discussion about why he left his secure role at a university to dive into the world of small business ownership and all the excitement and the stress it brings.
Matthew offers professional training and coaching through his Meaningbit consultancy, helping people to connect with meaningful, effective work through technology. He also runs a co-mentoring community called People Developing People, which enables likeminded people to connect in person in Brighton, London and online.
Hi Matthew, can you tell me your reasons for leaving your full-time job?
I worked at the University of Sussex for 13 years managing technology teams to deliver innovative digital products and services. It was a great place to work. I loved my job and my team. I rose up the ladder and was lucky enough to be promoted throughout those 13 years. But I reached a point where I had gone as far as I wanted.
The next rung of the ladder just wasn’t attractive to me and I realized that something had to change. I started to look around for other opportunities and came to the conclusion that I wanted to follow a different path. I wanted to move away from working directly with technology and into an area that would allow me to spend more time working directly with people and people-related challenges.
What were your greatest fears about leaving your job?
My biggest fear was letting go of the structure that having a day job brings. I was fearful that I wouldn’t know how to structure my day without the same 9-5 routine which I followed for 13 years. However, surprisingly, I quickly got used to not having anywhere in particular to go each day. I soon started to appreciate how luxurious it was to generate my own structure.
I now love the flexibility that each day brings. I can start late, finish early, work into the small hours and work weekends if I feel like it. I especially enjoy this new working pattern as many of my clients are in North America, so I can work flexibly in their time zone.
How did it feel when you walked out of the building for the last time?
It was a strange mix of relief and nervous excitement about what the future held. I was sad to leave a lot of wonderful working relationships and friendships. When you walk out of a familiar building for the last time, inevitably, you say that you will stay in touch with the people who have meant so much to you for so long. However, leaving a routine changes the nature of relationships. Sometimes, those relationships are never the same.
What kept you there for so long?
For 13 years, the job I did, my workplace, and the sector I was in, met my needs. The University of Sussex was a great, motivating place to work. I was working on exciting and innovative projects; I was learning a lot; the team I oversaw was great and self-managed; and my line manager let me get on with things with no intervention. I enjoyed the endless possibilities that technology projects brought.
How did you come up with the idea for your new venture?
I started with a big-picture approach, focusing on creating an idea that would allow me to be part of something bigger than myself. I knew that I wanted it to involve working with people and that I couldn’t achieve it alone. I started to explore ideas that played to my experience, which related to how people can work together more effectively, especially with the use of technology. I gave 6 months’ notice and left my job in November 2018. I wanted a lot of lead time to help me plan my business strategy and to ensure that I left my job after completing the projects I was working on, having done a clean handover to colleagues.
What were your greatest fears about setting up as an entrepreneur?
I was mostly worried about having a variable income and was concerned that I might not be able to set up a financially sustainable business. Nevertheless, having always been part of a Groupthink culture in a large organization, I was keen to put my head above the parapet and create a business that stands for something.
Working in your own small business means that there is nowhere to hide. Once I left my job, I took this to an extreme and did the opposite of hide: I went on a national speaking tour to promote the idea for my small business. The title of the talk I gave was, ‘Bots, Burnout, and Blame’, and the focus was on how to reduce workplace stress and build organisations that deliver high performance which isn’t the result of over-work.
I wanted to gauge interest in the idea of both connecting people in a meaningful way using technology; and creating a co-mentoring community to enable likeminded people to connect in person and online. The speaking tour helped me get clear on the value proposition of my small business.
I began to develop a trust in my inner voice which told me to have a flexible outlook. I now work flexibly and am at peace with, for example, working on a Sunday and sleeping on a Wednesday if I don’t have to see clients. I follow my own energy flow. I give myself a break regularly to refuel and rest when there are gaps in my work schedule. Working in this way minimizes my stress levels and allows me to be accountable for every decision I make, per the talk that I gave.
What is the best piece of advice you have received related to running your own small business?
Get out there and talk to people and find and/or build your community. For me, it’s all about the relationships we form in the service of our business. Building communities that benefit everyone involved is what I am good at, especially with the use of digital tools.
If you had your time again, would you change anything about how you left your job and the process you went through to get your business up and running?
- I would have spent more time before leaving my job working with potential clients and building my client base.
- I would have done more upfront thinking about how to describe my business more effectively.
- I wouldn’t have been so picky about finding the ‘right’ clients whose values overlap with my own.
- I would not have rushed to register my company. There is plenty of time for this.
- I would have focused more on growing my client base.
- I would have spent more time learning from my clients.
How is your business going?
It’s going well. I can’t say that it is sustainable yet, but I cope with that by doing some additional technology work on the side. My ultimate aim is to find a way of bringing the community I run, the human-centred coaching consultancy work I do, and the technology work all together in a single offering. I am working on this.
This is a journey of self-acceptance which can be summarized in a quote from Theolonius Monk, ‘A genius is the one most like himself’ (Theolonius Monk, 1960).
Thanks, Matthew. You are on an incredible journey.