When people have said to me, “You can’t do that, no one else does that,” I thought, “Let’s keep going with this and see if I can do that.”
Mary Beth Simon retired from her long corporate career in December 2018. As planned, she started her project management consulting company in early 2019.
Mary Beth is part of a growing number of Generation X and Boomers who aren’t interested in putting their feet up and playing golf all day post-retirement. She considers herself 100% retired from her corporate career, but that only means she now has all the time to devote to the next chapter in her professional life.
Planning for life after retirement started long before she packed up her office. Much of the research, deliberation, and seeking advice from her inner circle happened while Mary Beth was still working at Vanguard. This helped her get ready for her next steps such that by the time she retired, she wasted no time in setting things up.
In this episode, Mary Beth shares what sparked the idea for her unique consulting practice, how she fined tuned that idea so that it aligns with her vision for her next chapter, and where she focused her energy as she got it off the ground.
This is a great episode to listen to if you’re nearing retirement or beginning to consider possibilities beyond your current career.
Highlights of Episode 122
- How Mary Beth prepared for her post-retirement career while she was still at Vanguard
- The surprising areas where she felt challenged initially
- Why she felt sharing her initial ideas were important, even if she were not sure about them yet
- Letting go of attachments to old career identity
- What helped her the most during her transition
Mentioned in this episode
- The New Business of Consulting (amazon affiliate link) by Elaine Biech
- 3 Word Rebellion (amazon affiliate link) by Michelle Mazur
- What Works Network
Lou Blaser: Mary Beth, welcome to Second Breaks. Thank you for joining me.
Mary Beth Simon: Thank you, Lou. It’s a pleasure to be here.
LB: You were in the financial industry if I’m not mistaken. You retired from your corporate career in 2018. And then earlier in 2019, you started your own consulting practice.
Did you always know that you wanted to do something after retirement? Was this the game plan all along, or was this something that came to you after you retired?
MBS: Well, I always knew that I wanted to do something after retirement. The challenge was trying to figure out what that would be. Of course, working in a corporate field, you’re just so busy with the demands of the career that you’re in. It’s really difficult to figure out what your next move will be. I knew my goal was to retire early, to retire by the time I was 55. Everything in the benefits package made sense at that point. And so, I thought that I’m young enough and in good health that it really makes sense to do something else. To try and wrap up all of that experience that I had from my corporate career and bring that to my community and enhance the lives of people where I could help them in a more direct fashion than I was in my corporate world.
LB: So, you knew you were going to do something, but you didn’t know exactly what form or what exactly that would be.
Can you walk us through how the idea of this unique consulting practice came about?
MBS: The consulting practice is called Niche Partnership Consulting. I provide project management services to individuals and to businesses. It’s a very unique service. I love project management. That is the majority of what I did in my corporate life. I was a project manager and a program manager for multimillion-dollar technology projects. It was very technical, but my area of expertise was helping business areas get what they needed from their IT teams. So really building relationships, translating needs to different areas who don’t always understand each other. I wanted to bring that project management service to my community, but I didn’t really ever see consultants in the Philadelphia area at least who were working in project management, serving businesses. So that was one Aha that there may be a gap in that service.
And then while I was planning my retirement, a friend of mine had retired a few years before me. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I was going through the process of helping her through that process. She died in July 2018. So, while I’m getting ready to retire, I also started a process of helping her husband navigate that corporate retiree benefits world. He had no experience dealing with corporations. And so I used project management techniques to help put a process in place. We were both learning as we went. That’s when I realized that this struggle that I was experiencing with the loss of my friend and helping her husband was actually an inspiration for this new business where I could help individuals and I could help businesses.
LB: You mentioned in an exchange that we had prior to this call, that one of the challenges you faced starting up this consulting practice is that there were not a lot of similar businesses or service companies that you could use to as a model for what you wanted to do. Did I understand that correctly?
MBS: Yes, that’s exactly correct. I was doing some market analysis before starting the business and there were no similar businesses for me to benchmark against. It made it difficult to make data-driven decisions in starting this business. Some of it I really just needed to make decisions based on anecdotal feedback that I received from my sphere of influence, my local community, entrepreneurs, friends, and family. When I would talk through things, people would say, yes, we need you. And then there were just a couple other experiences that helped me realize, Oh yeah, this is a service that’s needed.
Sharing her ideas early on
LB: Were you openly sharing and talking about it with people in the beginning?
MBS: It was a small circle of confidants that I shared with. I was still working my corporate job. And I hadn’t given my retirement notice until like the fall of 2018. So, as these ideas were brewing, I would bounce them off of some close friends in the workplace and then my friends and family. I created that group that really became like a feedback circle for me as I was developing this idea.
LB: In my conversations with different folks who have already successfully transitioned into something else, there is a common theme that they look to their inner circle or they talked about what they were thinking. They shared their plans even if they weren’t 100% sure about it yet. In contrast, some of the people who are thinking about transitioning, I find they tend to not want to share because there is the concern that people might think, well what are you thinking? What are you doing? Why are you wanting to do something so different from what you do today? Or that’s so risky. Did you get those kinds of reactions or maybe in your case it was different because you were retiring.
MBS: I still received those reactions because I was continuing to climb the ladder in my corporate life. To some people, I don’t think it made any sense why I would retire and start something new. And being in a corporate career for over 30 years in one company doing multiple various jobs, it’s still — for everyone there — seemed very risky to leave and start something new. So yeah, you have to be ready to receive that feedback as well. But at the same time, I was receiving a lot of positive feedback. That helped to encourage me. Now, the people who thought that it was too risky, sometimes they asked me great questions that I really needed to think about. It helped me to continue to grow this idea and mature it. So, I was grateful for the negative feedback as well.
LB: Yes, exactly. Some of those questions that we get asked sometimes we haven’t thought about them ourselves or we haven’t come up with the right answer, yet. So we keep poking.
Learning New Tricks
LB: You’re clearly leveraging a lot of the skills that you have from your corporate career. But as you moved on to this new space, what new things did you have to learn that you felt like, Oh God, I don’t know anything about this. I have to learn this from the beginning.
MBS: There were so many things. One, I needed to really work on developing my local network. I had a fantastic network inside the corporate arena. So, I really needed to focus on developing my local network. Becoming better known in the local circles and leveraging my local entrepreneurial contacts for recommendations and referrals of who to work with for other consulting services that I needed to get started. Developing that network, that was one thing. And then another area where I had a lot of learning was related to all of the apps that I needed to run my business. I just listened to your technology episode yesterday and I was driving, and I thought, Oh my gosh, I can so relate to this. I felt like I lost about six weeks trying to find a CRM system, a client relationship management system. And I already knew so much about it because I led the project for Vanguard to bring that in for the company. And I thought, how can this be so difficult for me to choose an application? But it was.
LB: That reminded me of my own experience. I also have an IT background from my corporate career, and I had always considered myself tech-savvy. And this was not the area that I thought was going to ever pose a challenge for me. But I realized that the systems that I knew were all enterprise-level systems. They were for big businesses.
MBS: Yeah. And when we worked for the enterprise, they spent a lot of money customizing things that were not user-friendly. As a small business owner, we don’t have that flexibility to have a lot of customization. It takes time to weed through those applications and to critique what they are presenting as their features and evaluate whether they really work for us.
LB: I don’t know if you had this element in your previous career, but certainly for me, one of the biggest challenges that I faced was having to look for my own clients. I was in consulting for a long time before. I sold projects. I proposed on projects, I know how to sell, right? I knew how to look for clients. But then I realized that there’s a big difference between selling as a consultant for this big consulting company that I was part of versus selling as Lou Blaser. I was wondering whether you had that same sort of experience, if that was a challenge for you or that was a smooth sort of a fit for you.
MBS: That was a learning curve for me as well. Luckily one of my friends is a very talented realtor and I employed him as my sales coach. He was very straightforward with me about sales processes and what I needed to do to start to build my client base and how to network. He coached me to not be shy in any social arena, talking about my business. That was difficult for me, especially in the early phases because I felt like I was leveraging personal relationships for business needs. That felt like a challenge in the beginning.
Letting go of old identities
LB: Was it easy for you to let go of the previous hat that you’re wearing? The identity of Mary Beth as this corporate individual who worked in this corporate structure, who was climbing that ladder. And now this other hat as an independent business owner. How was that experience for you?
MBS: I think that I worked on that aspect of my identity being so closely associated with my work as I was working through this transition for about five years. While I was trying to develop what I was going to do, how I would make that transition and what my goals were. I really had to closely look at how I saw myself as being this corporate person. But it was not difficult for me at the time that I retired to let go of that hat.
LB: Because you had already been preparing yourself?
MBS: Mentally, yes. And then I think for me because I’m always looking towards the future and I feel most comfortable when I’ve created a plan for how to navigate. I’m a natural planner. Once I was able to really formulate that concept of where I was going, I was all in.
LB: How long in terms of elapsed time did it take you to finally say, this is what I’m going to do next?
MBS: I knew from the time I was 50 that my goal was to retire at 55 but I didn’t know what I would do. But then in that last year, like the whole year of 2018 was when I really formulated what I was going to focus on. I started working on formulating my business in September while I was still working at Vanguard. that by the time I retire, the end of December, I was ready. I had my attorney set up. I had already filed the business with the state. I was starting to move along. I was starting to build my website. When I retired, I had things to focus on right away, which was great.
LB: Was there a period of, you know what, for the first three months, I’m just not going to do anything and I’m just going to put my feet up? Or was it immediately getting into a new work situation?
MBS: I probably did a little bit of my version of putting my feet up. I was working on the new business, but then in January, I decided that I always wanted to become a yoga instructor. I was taking a body flow class, which is yoga-inspired. And in that class, I thought I could do this. I can teach this. That was in January 2019. I talked to the director at the fitness center and she said they could use more instructors and would love for me to get certified. I started that at the same time and became certified at the end of April. But that was a really healthy way for me to approach the business because the business is such a mental exercise. Sometimes there are things that you can’t move faster just by putting more time in so I can have a tendency to overwork. It was good for me to have a physical focus as well to work through and to keep me balanced as I was building that this.
LB: That’s actually a good segue to my next question. Do you consider yourself primarily retired and just doing something on the side or do you consider yourself primarily running a business?
MBS: I consider myself primarily running a business. I consider myself 100% retired from my corporate job and primarily running.
LB: I live in Clearwater, so there’s a big retired community here. And some of the people that I’ve come across who are retired, I consider them primarily retired. Maybe for 10-15 hours a week, they might do something to earn a little. But they are, for the most part, retired. But that’s not your situation. You are actually running a business.
MBS: I am actually running a business. It’s likely that we’re going to live into our mid-eighties. And I feel strongly that it’s important for people, if they retire in their 50s, to find a way to bring their talents to their community to help improve the lives of others.
How has your corporate experience been helpful with your business today?
MBS: That’s a great question. My corporate experience was varied. I think in the resiliency and the ability to learn different business areas. Like every business area in a corporation has its own culture and its own technology. That’s very strong training for being a consultant to various businesses and helping individuals with their specific project management needs. And I also have a lot of structured training from my corporate experience, which is a great background to bring to local businesses who may not be as well versed in those types of disciplines.
LB: Regarding this whole employee mindset versus I’m running my business mindset sort of thing. What has been your experiences? Has that been a huge shift that you?
MBS: It’s interesting because when I was running projects, there was never anyone to step in for me when I was out on vacation. You really had a kind of an entrepreneurial approach when you’re the project manager or a program manager. In that way, it wasn’t really different. But sometimes people have a perception that it’s easy to work for yourself. Now that you have your own business, you can make your own hours and you have no stress. So people say that to me like, Oh, now you have no stress. And I say, Nope, I have stress, but I only have myself to blame for it now. Cause I’m the boss.
LB: Funny that you said that. Earlier on in my journey, I found myself creating a business that I didn’t particularly enjoy. It was my first foray into the business world and lots of suggestions, advice out there, says go a certain path — which made sense as an entryway. I didn’t realize until I was already in it that I ended up creating a job for myself. And I looked around and I said, is this really what I want to build? I don’t really want this. I’m not enjoying this. And I bring that up because something you said earlier as we were preparing for this call struck me. You said that it took you a while to feel excited about your consulting business. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind expanding on that and talking a little bit about that.
MBS: When I was trying to figure out what I would do next, people often suggested that I become a consultant. I worked with a lot of consultants in my corporate role and I just wasn’t’ sure that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to work for a large consulting firm. I didn’t want to really work on large projects for corporations. What would that look like? I was trying to figure out how could I be excited about that kind of work. And I think really the key for me was when I realized that I could focus on small local businesses who needed project management services and individuals who are going through times of transitions, for example taking over retiree benefits or planning for contingency events in their own life. Then I felt really excited about what I could do.
LB: Do you think that was more of I don’t want to be part of another structure?
MBS: Yeah. Part of what I realized through this journey was that I didn’t want to be an employee again. That was an important realization for me. And then it was hard to say what I wanted because I hadn’t seen it yet. I didn’t see anyone else doing it. Until I figured it out through this journey, I didn’t really know what it looked like. And then once I figured that out that I could say, Oh, this is what it looks like. And then when people would say to me, you can’t do that. No one else does that. And I thought, well, let’s keep going with this and see if I can do that.
LB: When they say nobody does that, is it because this kind of work is typically offered by larger companies?
MBS: Yeah. Small businesses can engage with larger consulting firms for projects, but the larger consulting firms are not interested in the smaller projects that a small business would have. For example, I helped one small business create a strategic planning leadership offsite for the owner and his team. You know, Accenture wouldn’t want to come in for that. And then for another small business owner, there was an accident. One of his buildings was impacted by an accident and he needed help pursuing the insurance claim. It was a machinery shed, so all of his machinery had to be replaced and he didn’t have the bandwidth to pursue that and keep this business running. So, he hired me to do that. These companies don’t really have other alternatives to hire a short term project manager to come in and help them.
LB: When you talk to small businesses, do you approach them as a project manager for hire? Is that how you show up?
MBS: Yes. As a project manager, yes. For short term projects where I can come in and I can enhance their current employee structure for the short term and provide those services.
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What has been most helpful to you in terms of your transition?
MBS: I think of two things off the top of my head. First I would say that my circle of confidants, my friends, and family who I’ve been able to connect with and get coaching from to help bring this whole concept to fruition. Second, which I never even saw this on the radar, is the community of podcasters. Yes. although I had always listened to podcasts, I had no idea how important the podcast community would be in my professional development as an entrepreneur. One of the consultants that I hired for marketing, she recommended that I connect with the What Works Network. And so I connected there and that’s where I met you. And I’ve just been devouring the podcasts because it really helps me to learn and grow and to expand my connections.
LB: I learned so much about my business through the podcasts that I listen to. That’s the reason I started one myself. I thought, I gained a lot out of it, why not start one too for my audience.
MBS: It’s just so valuable. It’s a wonderful resource for all of us and really how we can learn from each other and support each other in growing this larger community of entrepreneurs.
LB: Speaking of growing your community, you’re particularly focused in growing your local community. Am I right? Unlike, for example, an online sort of entrepreneur who is far and wide?
MBS: Yes. My focus is really in my local community. The work that I do with individuals to create a personal contingency plan where their loved ones would be able to pick up and, and continue on with running the finances for the home if anything were to happen to the person that is the primary manager of the money, that kind of work. I actually go to people’s homes as part of the work because all of the information is there. It’s easier for us to work that way. And then for my clients who are beneficiaries inheriting a retirees accounts, that’s also a lot of work that I do at the client’s home.
LB: Are you showing up in local events? Is that what you’re doing to get clients?
MBS: A lot of it is word of mouth. I can only take so many clients at this point next year. I’m considering potentially expanding and adding on maybe some other retirees to help me out. And then I would be able to help more people. But for the time being, I can only help a limited number of people. Part of it is my clients tell their friends and then they reach out to me. I also do speaking events at small business associations.
LB: Was that something that you were doing before at Vanguard?
MBS: I was always in the mode of doing public speaking at Vanguard. We always had to do a presentation, so that’s not new. But connecting with these organizations is new.
Is there a book or two that has made an impact on you that you’d recommend?
MBS: The first one I would recommend is called The New Business of Consulting and that’s by Elaine Biech. I had her old version of the book on my coffee table for a few years before I retired. And thought, well, maybe I’ll become a consultant. I read it from cover to cover. And it has tons of templates and information to help you navigate through the world of becoming a consultant. I used that as my roadmap. And then the second book is the Three Word Rebellion by Michelle Mazur. I heard an interview with her, and I got the book and I just worked through it over the last couple of weeks. And I’ve incorporated it into my signature talk that I am using for the small business community. I just loved that book. I think it’s so worthwhile.
LB: Where can we find you and your business online? Where can we find you on social media?
MBS: Niche partnership consulting.net is my website. And then I have a Facebook page for the business, and I’m on LinkedIn.
LB: Cool beans. I will definitely put a link to all of that on the show notes, but this has been fantastic. Mary Beth, Thank you so much for sharing your journey with me.
MBS: Thank you so much Lou.