119. From Idea to Side-Project to Full-Time Gig with Zoha Abbas

January 16, 2020

“When you’re doing your own thing, it’s like you’re off the rails. You can literally go in any direction that you want. You have to be able to trust yourself in order to make the decisions and take the steps toward where you want to go.”

Zoha Abbas was one of the people affected by the recent round of layoffs at the advertising agency where she worked as a senior copywriter. Fortunately, she had already been working on a side gig for three years. Though it was a bit earlier than her original plans, she took the opportunity to go all-in and turn her side project into her full-time gig.

Today, Zoha runs her business called The Ownership Method full-time, where she helps creative entrepreneurs take ownership of how they work on and in their businesses to they can step into their power as CEOs.

I was lucky to have had this conversation with Zoha very soon after she made her transition. As such, a lot of the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes things were still fresh in her mind and we were able to get into those in detail.

Zoha and I talked about how she found clarity around the kind of side business she wanted to grow, the first few steps she did to get off the ground (which by the way, included one thing I wished I had done and the thing I would do differently if I could do a Mulligan), and how she manages the inevitable fears and gremlin voices that chime in when she wants to do something courageous.

The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks*
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin*


Lou Blaser: Zoha Abbas, welcome to Second Breaks. Thank you so much for joining me.
Zoha Abbas: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

LB: Let’s set up our conversation. Talk about what your full-time job is and what you consider to be your side hustle.
ZA: My full-time job was as a senior copywriter at a digital ad agency. I just recently transitioned to doing my side hustle as my main thing. It’s been only about eight weeks now, so very fresh. But I’ve been building my business, The Ownership Method, on the side for the past three years. Basically, the mission is I want to kill the hustle. I help creative entrepreneurs combine their values with their business purpose to power the unique structure of their business so they can have more ease, more intention, and more strategic growth.

LB: What prompted you to start this side business?
ZA: Especially in the advertising world, I saw so many creative resources getting abused and misused, a lot of breakdowns in the process. And as somebody who was working on those teams, it was hard to go through. It was also hard to see it in my other coworkers. It just sort of made me mad.

I was laid off from my first-ever advertising job and I started freelancing after that. I knew that there’s a different way for me to be able to make money. It doesn’t necessarily have to be working full time at an ad agency. At that time too, I thought, okay, let me try out different agencies. Maybe this thing of the broken process and the misuse of resources, maybe that thing will be different. I went from agency to agency and it was exactly the same. It was like the same movie, different scenes. After a while, I was just angry and I was like, there’s got to be a better way to do this. There’s got to be a better way for me to make money. And there’s also got to be a better way for organizations to use their resources. That’s how the business came about.

LB: So, you had a full-time job and then you decided that you were going to start something on the side. How did you get started that? What did you actually do first?
ZA: That’s a great question. First, a funny story. My first business idea was that I was going to make jewelry and sell it. I’m not a master jeweler by any means, but I love crafting. I love creating. I’m like a total multi-passionate creative. But it wasn’t a clear enough idea. I could feel it in my gut that that wasn’t where I was going to end up.

LB: Did you actually do something about it or was it just something you had in mind?
ZA: Yeah, I started sketching designs. I started like creating prototypes. But I could feel in my gut that it wasn’t the right vehicle for what I wanted to create. So, the first thing I did was to hire a business coach. That was a scary moment because I had never hired a coach in that way ever before. And I think this is the case for a lot of people who are getting started with a side hustle. Hiring somebody to help you where you have gaps is both completely terrifying and feels like a huge time commitment, financial commitment. You’re like, Oh my God, where am I going to find the time and the money really to do this thing? But there is no way that I would have been able to get started without my coach. There’s absolutely no way.

LB: So, at the point in time when you hired the business coach, you were not sure what you wanted to do.
ZA: Yeah. I knew that I wanted to sort of empower people. So, when I hired this coach we really went through the full discovery process. Like, how do you deliver your message and what are you bursting to tell the world? How are you going to deliver it? And I actually fought the ‘coach’ label for the longest time. I came up with every other idea under the sun of how I could do this. Maybe I can write a book or maybe it’s just going to be an ongoing blog. Or it’s going to be a planner. And finally, I had to come to my coach. I fully remember this conversation with her. And I was like I need to own up to this right now. It’s going to be coaching and I need to accept that.

LB: What happened then?
ZA: She helped me figure out, okay thing number one, you need a website. Because I didn’t even have so much as a landing page at that point. She said, “You need a website, here’s what needs to be on there.” She also helped me develop my initial offering and what that was going to look like. And then since I’m a copywriter I went through and I wrote all the copy and everything. So, I did all the creation. I did my initial offering. And then, I started emailing friends and family, letting them know that I started this business, which was terrifying in the first place.

As a child of immigrants, I was also very scared because sometimes the immigrant mentality is very specific about what a job looks like and what things can make you money. In my culture — my family is Pakistani — it’s like you can be a doctor, you can go into finance, you could be an accountant. But like being a creative and starting your own random business? What are you doing? My parents, thankfully, were amazing and super supportive. But l was so scared to tell my entire family and all of my friends.

LB: When you had the site ready and you were ready to share it, you started emailing your friends and your family to let them know that this is what you are doing now. I just wanted to explore that with you because that step could be terrifying too. To come out and to say, “I am doing this.” Can you share what fears or gremlin voices were going on in your head at that time? And how you overcame those and managed to hit send anyway?
ZA: Yes. So thing number one, I don’t think the gremlin voices ever quite shut up and I wished to God that they would, but they are constantly in my head. Like, “Oh, really? You think that’s a good newsletter? Well, why don’t you hit send and see what happens.” But now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m very combative with them. You want to fight me, I’ll fight you.

LB: What did your emails say? Can you give us an overview of what it said?
ZA: It was very informal since it was with people that already knew me well. It was extremely informal. I think I said, “Hey everyone, I started this thing”. And I just sort of put it out there. I was like, “I have a business now. If you know of anybody who needs this, let me know. Or if you think it’s interesting, let me know.” It was literally that simple. It was completely just, “Hi everyone. I started a thing.”

LB: That is awesome. I love that approach. Sometimes we make it too heavy, too convoluted in our heads. Whereas that’s all it really needs to say. “Hey, I started this thing.”
ZA: Yeah. And I think that also helped take some of the pressure off those gremlin voices. I noticed that I do best when I just have this attitude of “let me just try it and see what happens.” And not all that pressure like, “I need this business to be successful because it’s going to be my full-time gig and it’s going to help me leave my soul-sucking job and I need it to replace my salary.” When you make it a very serious thing, it makes it feel like that one email is like life or death.

From the amount of perspiration and hyperventilation that I experienced in drafting that email and hitting send, like I think my body was like, Oh my God, I think there’s a mountain lion somewhere. You’re about to get eaten. We’re going to die.

Don’t hit that button. Do not hit that button. But I was just like, let me just try it and see what happens. You know? Because logically I know that the email is not a mountain lion and it’s not going to kill me. So, as far as being able to battle the gremlins, just going back to the logic of it and getting out of your feelings. I think feeling your feelings is valid and very important.

But I also think that sometimes your feelings are going to grab you by the hair and run. And you have to get back into that logical place of like, let me look at the facts. What am I doing right now? Okay. I am drafting digital communication to people who are technically obligated to still love me and talk to me afterward. Regardless of whether this is crazy or not. And if I hit send, it’s not going to make my laptop explode. It’s not going to open some magic door in the wall and a bunch of like alligators are going to come out and eat me. Like none of that stuff is going to happen. It’s not going to be as catastrophic as you think and feel it’s going to be. Coming back to the logic really helps.

LB: What sort of reactions did you get?
ZA: A few of them were like, “Wait, explain it to me more. I don’t really get it.” But I also got complete radio silence. I just sent out the email and it went out into the void and that was the end of it. That’s fine. And then I got a few of “Explain it to me further.” And then I got a few of, “Way to go. I don’t get it, but I support you.” Which is beautiful to me because everybody needs the cheerleaders that completely just don’t get it. But they’re so there for you, you know?

LB: Absolutely. How about your first clients? Where do they come from? Where did you get the first few clients?
ZA: My first clients actually came through my business coach. She was amazing and she features her clients on her website. I was in one of those client features and I got my first client from there. It’s the most insane feeling when you realize that somebody is willing to pay you money for what you’re trying to offer them. Seeing the number come in on your little Stripe dashboard is totally mind-blowing. I still remember that feeling and it was wonderful.

LB: How, how did you come up with a decision? How did you come to the point where you knew it was time to make the jump?
ZA: It was both my decision and the company’s decision. There was a round of layoffs that happened. But I had already spoken to my managers several months ago and told them I had this thing that I’m working on and I want to help them get set up for success before I leave. They knew that eventually, in five or six months, I was going to be transitioning away from the team. But there was a round of layoffs. So, I got caught in one of the rounds of layoffs. It happened a bit earlier than I wanted it to or the timeline I had set in my head. But if I didn’t have this sort of plan, to begin with, if I hadn’t already made the decision for myself, I probably would have been a lot more distraught about it. I would have had more internal battles with myself. But thankfully I had pretty much already made the decision to eventually leave the job.

LB: That is a good point too, Yes, a lot of people start a side hustle or a side job for maybe a supplemental income or to pursue a passion. Or because they don’t like the work that they’re doing or they’re exploring a different sort of career. But one of the things that’s great about having a side hustle is basically, you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. So that when something like that happens, you’re not — to your point earlier — you’re not completely distraught. Because you have another thing there on the side that you could fall back on. As we move forward with the future of work that I talk about often, there’s going to be a lot of disruption. It’s about to come out affecting a lot of corporate workers. Having a side hustle, even if you don’t technically need the money necessarily, is a good way to hedge your bets or spread your risks around.

LB: Looking back now, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing one or two insights that you’ve gained about yourself having gone through this process where you had a full-time job, then building something on the side, and now having transitioned to doing that full-time. What sort of learnings or A-ha moments about yourself did you come out with?
ZA: One of the big ones is that it’s less about time management for me and more about energy management. I think this goes along with being very introverted. I’m passionate about the fact that if you’re not managing your energy, you could have all the time in the world and it will not mean a thing. Because if your energy is not where you need it to be and your mental health isn’t where you need it to be, it can be very, very difficult to go through. Even the crazy amount of transformation and growth that building a side hustle creates for a person.

First of all, you’re going to need to manage this full-time load at your day job. And then trying to figure out all these new itty-bitty little pieces and nuance and logistics and all of that stuff that goes into building your own thing takes a lot. And then just from a mental and emotional standpoint, I had no idea that starting a business would make me grow this much and that it would be like this level of uncomfortable. But I mean I’m glad that it is. I think it helps me be a better human overall. But you have got to take care of yourself so that you can take all that growth.

LB: I didn’t think about this myself, but I have talked with enough people who had transitioned from a corporate job to running their own business or being a freelance. And they often talk about this personal growth that happens. That it would not have happened had you stayed in a corporate job, even if you were getting promoted. I mean there’s a personal growth there too. But there’s a different sort of growth that happens when you leave corporate employment into self-employment.
ZA: Yeah. This is not always the case, but I think there’s a certain aspect of very guided growth when you’re growing in a corporate environment. There’s a very clear first step and a next step and your goals are defined for you. But when you’re doing your own thing, it’s like you’re off the rails. You can go literally in any direction that you want to. And you have to get strong in yourself and be able to trust yourself in order to actually make the decisions and take the steps in the direction that you do want to go in instead of just spiraling out into every direction.

LB: I was telling someone the other day I discovered fears that I didn’t even know I had. Could you tell us one or two books that have made an impact on you and your career or your transition?
ZA: The first book would definitely be the Four Tendencies by Gretchen Ruben. It blew my mind. It also helped me with my building my business and my career transition because a lot of the work that I do has to do with personal accountability and motivations and how I follow through with things.

The other book that I think really relates to the things we were talking about — all these random fears that come up and your gremlin voices — was The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, especially the talk about upper limits and your zone of genius. And it’s funny now after having read that book, my husband will come home and he’ll be telling me about the office things that are going on and all of that and I will be like, Well, you know what’s happening is that guy’s upper limiting. And he is totally trying to self-sabotage himself with these actions. Clearly, it’s not you. Anyway, I think everybody should read that book. It has really helped me with my mindset a lot.

LB: And then lastly, where can we find you or follow you online?
ZA: You can find me on my website and you can follow me on Instagram. I’m on there constantly posting, doing stories and fun stuff. Come and say hi.

LB: All right. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you peeling the curtains a bit and sharing with us the behind-the-scenes of your career journey.
ZA: This was such a great conversation. Thank you for having me.

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