Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
In 2010, I quit my job to go to work for myself. At the time, it felt a little like jumping off a very tall bridge without any idea where I'd be landing, or whether I'd land at all. But I haven't had a moment of regret; to the contrary, I'm thrilled that I did it.
But I'm acutely aware of how lucky I am to have pulled this off -- in the midst of a recession, no less -- and I've thought a lot about the ingredients that were necessary to make that happen. Here's what I've learned from the experience:
1. Reputation is everything.
Without meaning to, I had inadvertently spent the years before quitting my job setting up the perfect conditions for making this work: I did good work, I did a lot of it, and I did a lot of stuff for people pro bono, which raised my visibility and got people familiar with my work. I wasn't perfect -- far from it -- but I worked really freaking hard.
I didn't do that with any master plan in mind; it was just fulfilling to me at that stage in my career. But as a result, when I wanted to quit my job and work for myself, people actually wanted to hire me. And that's 100% attributable to the above. If I hadn't built that reputation, there's no way I could have pulled it off.
I sometimes hear people ask, "Why should I work really hard and go out of my way for my employer when they don't show the same loyalty to me?" This is why: because becoming known as someone who kicks butt at work means that you'll have people excited to hire you when you need them to be, which will make your life a lot easier in the future. It is a huge favor to yourself.
2. Don't underestimate the power of savings in helping you make good career decisions.
I wanted to quit my job and work for myself for a lot of reasons. I was able to quit my job and work for myself for this reason: savings.
Having savings lets you act from strength, not desperation. That has huge ramifications for the decisions you're able to make and, therefore, for your quality of life. It took me many years to learn this.
If you're not saving, start now. Seriously, go put some money into a savings account right now and don't continue reading until you're done.
3. The people who say "since the job market is tough, just start your own business" are naive.
I see this advice all the time: "Can't get a job? Become an entrepreneur." There's no question that it works for some people, but it's far from being universally applicable, and I've never been more convinced of that than now that I've done it myself. The reality is that you need a specific skill set or brilliant idea that people are willing to pay good money for, as well as either a strong reputation or incredible marketing savvy. If you have those things, you are lucky. If you don't, you can work on developing them -- but unless/until you have them, taking that plunge is going to be a lot more challenging. (It's challenging even when you do have those things.)
So it annoys me to see this advice handed out like it's some easy thing to pull off. It's just not helpful to the majority of people, and it implies there's something wrong with them for not being able to do it, which is wrong.
That's not to say that people with the drive to start their own business shouldn't give it a shot -- but it does mean that we should be realistic about how hard it is and how much luck is involved.