I didn’t start out intending to be an entrepreneur. Like many Gen Xers I had memories of a parent spending decades working for the same employer. My grandfathers as well. While I was in my early twenties my upbringing and family history guided me into seeking a corporate career path as my father before me. Not until I reached a critical crossroad in my life would I be abruptly redirected. At the time the crossroad was traumatic but it opened my eyes to new opportunities I had never considered.
Using some career alchemy I had mixed a chemistry degree with an MBA to create a long business career in the automotive industry. Plastic parts at an automotive supplier were my first assignment. Next I ascended to a Product Management role at Mercedes-Benz in its then-new Tuscaloosa manufacturing facility.
Alabama would be one of many places that I would live for the auto industry. They included numerous US states but also Egypt, Russia, Vietnam, and Thailand (where I currently reside). I ran the Latin America Region for one automaker and visited over 20 countries in Central America, Caribbean and South America over four years. I soaked up as much knowledge about my locations and their cultures as possible. I curated the networks formed within my past employers and locations.
Like the generation before me I embarked on a career with progressive promotions, assignments in new locations, and even a few jumps to new corporate employers. I led business units, built up a large network of contacts across the industry and the world, and was generally content to navigate the corporate path for the remainder of my career.
But in early 2020 the status quo came crashing down.
During a restructuring at my automotive employer numerous executive positions were eliminated, including mine. Three months later COVID 19 forced the shutdowns of global markets and the executive jobs market dried up. What to do? How to keep the mind fresh and active until jobs became available again?
During this hiring lull I tried to keep the brain warm by participating in over 50 on-line webinars and conferences relevant to my career field. I even completed two on-line college classes in “developing innovative ideas at new companies” and “digital analytics”. The courses seemed interesting but there was not yet a formulated strategy on how to leverage them. I was still stuck in the mindset of seeking a new executive role.
Entrepreneurship was not something I had learned at my undergraduate institution, first because I was a science major, and second because it was not yet so prevalent a campus topic as it is today. An MBA, however, did provide a career sidestep from science to business. I had always enjoyed developing and growing the businesses I was responsible for at automakers. But it did not dawn on me to go into business on my own even after being out of work for 12 pandemic-impacted months.
Then one morning I opened my e-mail account.
Overnight I had received three separate emails with a single theme – they requested access to my knowledge and experience. One project was related to the Chinese auto industry, the second to vehicle product placement in films and TV, and the third to advising startups in an international internet incubator. Each was tied to my automotive or international experience. It was exciting that they found me, not the other way around and the variety felt intriguing. An idea started to percolate in my mind.
I spent a month getting fully engaged into the three consulting projects. They were fun, refreshing, challenging, and in my sweet spot – international or automotive. I was motivated by the variety of conversations, people, and nationalities. Could I make a go of consulting independently? Did I have the bandwidth, drive, time, and commitment to go it alone? Could I earn a living by this route? All of these questions were churning in my mind, especially the financial aspects.
I laid out a business plan, identified the areas I would consult in, and generated a list of potential clients within my network. I formalized the decision to target the electric vehicle sector and its supporting areas like charging or on-board technology. Shiftgate Consulting LLC was formed, a brand whose name refers to a manual transmission shifter but whose logo denotes an electric vehicle. I would become part of the solution in the transition from old to new mobility technology.
My languishing LinkedIn account, long a passive networking archive, would be reborn as a business development platform as I combed through my contacts for potential projects. Amazingly, numerous projects in the EV-related energy industry sought me out and I thought I was on track. But my checkbook painfully reminded me otherwise. Hourly or project consulting was quite spotty with feast and famine periods dominated mainly by famine as Covid era budgets remained tight. How can I make this work?
During this period my partner and I also started a food business, an automotive-themed hot sauce company. We were in pure entrepreneur mode developing a product line, learning about food certification, finding suppliers, a production location, building a brand and a website, and attending automotive events to build brand awareness. It was fun and we both learned a lot!
As I was trying to solve the riddle of increasing consulting revenues and building the hot sauce business, an opportunity came out of the blue. I was recruited to advise the Chairman of VinFast, the Vietnam’s first automotive brand and an aggressive startup player in the EV space. The opportunity would allow me to use my cumulative industry skills to help VinFast expand beyond its home market to foreign shores.
During intensive preliminary research I learned that VinFast was a highly volatile environment, a true revolving door for international executives. With nothing to lose I opted to sign on and relocated to Vietnam. It was an incredible working experience with pivots, fast sprints, and grueling 16-hour workdays. And as fast as it came, it was gone. Globally, VinFast cleared out many foreign executives in a cost-saving effort six months after my arrival.
During my first post-VinFast week, I sat at my Hanoi apartment’s breakfast table and ruminated on my next steps. Would I return to full time consulting or do I seek out another corporate job. The preference was clear – consulting and its flexibilities – but under one critical condition. I had to radically change the business model to ensure a more sustainable income and less “feast or famine” fluctuations.
Over a four-month period I contacted dozens of people in my network. I focused conversations on a combination of business development and exploring different business models. Several individuals in my network were particularly helpful and their advice ultimately led to my current business model. Revenues are now based on a portfolio of retainers, commissions associated with supporting clients in business development, participation in new technology funding deals, cooperation with a software company that helps my clients flow straight from strategy development to software platform, and yes, some remaining hourly consulting.
Arriving at this point was not a straight line but an arduous journey of twists and turns in the post-corporate career. I picked up new skills and technologies, broadened my network, and expanded my fields of business interest beyond automotive. I also experienced extreme frustrations as potential projects arose but vanished before kick-off. My drive and hope were occasionally dashed when projects fell through or did not escalate as rapidly as expected. Exasperation and fear of financial ruin were a recurring emotion as revenues were not at expected sustainable levels. But I persevered and pushed on.
Every day is a new day with additional contacts made, new opportunities uncovered, agreements signed, and further knowledge and experience gained. Being an entrepreneur is what I thought it would be and not. A mix of success, fear, sheer will, risk taking, exhaustion and elation that I have grown to accept and love. I can now reside anywhere thanks to the flexibility of my work and the technology advancements for WFH.
It all makes me wonder about the next generation. My children have watched me through this transition period from “corporate type” to “go get ‘em” entrepreneur. Which one will they remember, and which will form their choices as they set out on their path of life? Time will tell.