Lauretta Ihonor: “There are no shortcuts other than doing the work”

You don’t have to do everything alone. I’m a very self-sufficient person and I used to see asking for help as a sign of weakness. However, when you’re running a business, you have to wear many caps and that can quickly grow exhausting. Last year I was literally doing everything on my own. I built […]

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You don’t have to do everything alone. I’m a very self-sufficient person and I used to see asking for help as a sign of weakness. However, when you’re running a business, you have to wear many caps and that can quickly grow exhausting. Last year I was literally doing everything on my own. I built the company’s website, wrote the articles, planned and hosted the events, ran the mentorship program, designed the digital course, did the accounting and so on. It was truly exhausting. When I finally brought someone in to help me, I couldn’t believe the difference it made.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauretta Ihonor. Lauretta is the founder of The Ambition Plan — a global online career change platform designed to help high-potential women discover their ideal career. Lauretta started The Ambition Plan after a decade-long search for her ideal career. During this time, she noticed a distinct lack of online resources for women wanting to change careers after 30. Within one year of launching, The Ambition Plan has amassed a global audience of over 200,000 women and helped hundreds find the career clarity they desperately seek through its events, digital courses and bespoke mentorship programs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I have always been a high achiever. I was the child who got 100% in school tests, sailed through high school and got the top grades required to get into medical school. Coming from a medical family, I always felt that becoming a doctor was expected of me and so after finishing high school, I went to medical school. Deep down, however, I knew that being a doctor wasn’t a great fit for me. I’ve always been questioning of the status quo, creatively minded and constantly on the hunt for a new adventure. Once I graduated from medical school and started working as a doctor, I realized I wouldn’t get the freedom and spontaneity I thrived on if I stayed in that profession. I’ve always been a believer that it is better to regret the things you’ve done rather than wonder ‘what if?’, so I handed in my resignation from my job as a junior doctor at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and began a long journey to discover what I was really meant to do with my life.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

When I started trying to figure out my life purpose I struggled. There was no advice or support for people who had willingly walked away from highly-coveted professions (if anything I felt a lot of resistance and suspicion when trying to enter new industries as people assumed I was temporarily rebelling against something and would eventually go back to being a doctor), so I made it up as I went along. In doing so, I went back to university three times, got four degrees and tried a total of six different careers. I went from being a doctor to a fashion stylist, journalist, TV producer and then a nutritionist before finally becoming an entrepreneur and starting The Ambition Plan.

I realized I needed to start The Ambition Plan because the one constant in my life had been my obsession with finding my purpose. I wouldn’t call it a hobby, but it was certainly an all-consuming passion.

Rather than continue to complain about the lack of support for others in my situation, I realized I could use my experience to fill that gap and provide a space for women trying to figure out their purpose. I wanted to give them the inspiration, advice and mentorship they needed. Most importantly, I wanted to remove the stigma associated with changing careers multiple times and reassure others that refusing to settle isn’t the same as being flaky.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

If I’m honest, I didn’t know if it was a good idea or not when I started it. However, I could see a clear gap in the market and suspected I couldn’t be the only person struggling this problem. What I didn’t expect was that the idea would resonate with as many people as it did. Within the first 12 months of launching, I’d run several sold-out events for hundreds of women, the business’s Instagram account had attracted a following of almost 100,000 — completely organically — and the website and newsletter were attracting thousands of new users and subscribers each month.

That was the sign I needed. Based on the growth of The Ambition Plan’s audience, I began working to offer the kind of content our audience wanted, which now includes bespoke mentorship, online career clarity courses, industry insider events and articles on personal development, finding your dream job and changing careers.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Two things. One: make sure your hobby is something that can make you money. Two: test drive your idea before launching it.

It’s important to make sure you can monetize your hobby because it’s easy to buy into the idea that because you love to do something, people will pay you to do that thing. They won’t. People pay from products and services that solve a real problem for them, so always consider how your hobby can be used to solve a legitimate problem.

It’s also important to test drive your idea as cheaply as possible (create a minimum viable product), to make sure that it really has legs. That’s exactly what I did when I launched The Ambition Plan. I built the website myself, wrote all the articles myself, organized the events myself, etc. By keeping costs as low as possible, I was able to test out my ideas with little risk. If they didn’t work (and some didn’t), I could easily pivot without feeling like I had invested too much time and money in them.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

That’s very true, which is why you need to think very carefully before turning your passion into your business. I’ve experienced this firsthand. One of my previous careers was as a nutritional consultant. Prior to starting that career, I was very passionate about healthy eating and fitness. I could talk about this topic for hours and would spend my spare time attending fitness events, nutrition talks, developing healthy recipes and trawling health food shops for the latest wellness trends, Once I began doing it for a living, I quickly reached saturation point and lost my zest for all things wellness.

Based on this, I often advise clients to consider what they will do for fun and relaxation if their favorite hobby becomes their job. It’s important to make sure you have other hobbies and interests if you are to turn your hobby into your job and remain interested in it.

Secondly, don’t forget that doing what you love is just one part of the equation of having a fulfilling career. You also need to consider if you’re good at the activity, if it helps others, if it meets your basic needs and if it allows you to work with people you like. If you have a hobby that you can turn into a business while meeting all of these criteria, it’s likely that it will remain fun.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

In a word, freedom. I choose how I spend my day, the people I work with and the type of work I do. As a free spirit, being the captain of my own ship is very important to me and running my own business helps me to remain in control of what I’m doing. The drawbacks are plentiful though. When you are the captain of your own ship, all the responsibility lies on your shoulders. It can feel incredibly lonely and overwhelming at times. Luckily, I’ve formed a friendship group with some amazing women who also run their own businesses. They are great for talking through problems. We champion each other to keep going when things get tough and bounce business ideas off each other. I also have two mentors who have been in business much longer than I have. I find it really useful to turn to them for advice and reassurance when I need it.

Another big drawback is never knowing for sure if I’m doing the ‘right’ thing — it’s a daily problem when you have made up your own business model. However, that’s also part of the thrill of business. If you take a risk and if it pays off, it’s amazing. If it doesn’t you learn to dust your shoulders off and try something else.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Countless moments! However, for me, it’s less about wanting to get a ‘real’ job and more about being tempted to close my business and start something new. Fortunately, those moments are usually short lived. That’s the great part about entrepreneurship, it really is like a roller coaster ride. One minute it all feels catastrophic and like you’ve made the worst decision ever, and then the next moment you’ll have a huge win and wonder why you thought about quitting. I keep my head in the game during those tough times by remembering why I started.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s funny you should ask this question because I never started The Ambition Plan with global ambitions, yet that has accidentally happened. We now attract readers and clients from all over Europe, the US, India, Australia and beyond. It’s pretty crazy! I think the key to The Ambition Plan going global has been focusing on impacting one woman at a time through our articles, digital courses, events and mentorship programs rather than wanting to take the world by storm. By doing this, we’ve spread our message of ‘aim high and never settle’ to over 200,000 women in just over a year. My hope is that our growth continues and allows us to create a new status quo — a new normal in which women (and men) worldwide who feel stuck in unfulfilling jobs feel that it is OK to make a change regardless of their age. You’re never too old to make a change for the better!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Just because your business is making money doesn’t mean that you are personally making money. It’s so obvious but this was something I overlooked. When I started The Ambition Plan, I had visions of the money from sales going directly into my pocket. When money actually started coming in, I quickly realized I needed to reinvest a lot of it to keep funding and growing the business.
  2. Online businesses can and do have significant overheads. It’s a myth that online businesses have no overheads because you don’t need to create, store or ship physical products. There are so many pieces of software and team members you need to run an online business smoothly — and that’s not including the cost of advertising. Too many people give the impression that all you need to run an online business is a laptop and a good wi-fi connection, but that simply isn’t true.
  3. There are no shortcuts other than doing the work. These days you only need to spend a couple of minutes on Facebook or Instagram before you’ll stumble across someone promising to have ‘the secret’ to making millions overnight. While I’ve successfully avoided falling for such promises, I will admit that they used to make me feel like I was doing something wrong because I hadn’t become an overnight success. When you’re not seeing a huge response to your efforts, it can be tempting to try a shortcut, but nothing beats doing the work and being patient.
  4. You don’t have to do everything alone. I’m a very self-sufficient person and I used to see asking for help as a sign of weakness. However, when you’re running a business, you have to wear many caps and that can quickly grow exhausting. Last year I was literally doing everything on my own. I built the company’s website, wrote the articles, planned and hosted the events, ran the mentorship program, designed the digital course, did the accounting and so on. It was truly exhausting. When I finally brought someone in to help me, I couldn’t believe the difference it made.
  5. Rest is essential for success. It’s easy to buy into the idea that you have to be doing something for your business every second you are awake and if you aren’t, you are wasting vital time. However, I find that my productivity suffers significantly on the days or weeks that I don’t make time to relax, go to the gym, eat well and get enough sleep. You’ve got to treat your body well to operate at your best.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As a black female entrepreneur, I have to pick tackling the inequality in the funding currently received by different genders and races. The most recent statistic I’ve seen regarding this is that out of $85 billion in VC funding awarded in 2017, only 2.2 percent went to female founders. Women considered to be from ethnic minority groups got less than 1 percent of the total funding. Fortunately, since these statistics hit the mainstream media, efforts have increased to tackle this funding inequality, but there’s much to be done. I would love to be in a position one day to give back and help other black women launch and grow their businesses. In the meantime, my hope is that continuing to raise awareness about this issue will help bring about change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Create a life that feels good on the inside, not one that just looks good on the outside.” That’s truly the ethos of The Ambition plan. In today’s social media obsessed society, it’s easily forgotten that true success is about how you feel inside rather than how you look to others.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

That’s easy. Serena Williams. She has an amazing work ethic, has (and continues to) defy gender and race stereotypes, and she shows all of us what can be achieved with tireless determination and self-belief.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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