By Vikram Bharati
I want you to meet Anna. She is an entrepreneur and former management consultant. She just recently started her own firm, The Breimer Group, to help companies prepare for the future business landscape. She helps organisations deploy new technologies and methodologies like gamification, analytics and design thinking in creative, refreshing ways. Central to all her work is the human element: employee relationships and customer interactions. Her background is interesting, she holds both an MBA from INSEAD as well as an engineering master’s in Architecture. But most of all, I want you to meet Anna, because she is my wife. I decided to write about her because from close by I see her struggles, I see how she develops, and I know there are so many others out there who could find inspiration in her story. When I asked her permission, she answered me: “But I’m not successful yet.” Too often we share the stories that are finished. Read on for our personal conversation about how a story starts.
You had a successful career with McKinsey & Company, one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world. You were on track to become a partner; you had a big pay-check, and everything taken care of. Why did you leave such a cushy situation to start your own company?
I blame my husband, you. For years I was working my job witnessing you building your dreams. Just witnessing you having the freedom to do whatever you want to do in a day, and yet create something that is totally you. My parents were entrepreneurs. For years I only remembered the hardships, the struggles. Promising myself that a stable job was really a luxury. But when I saw you going through this, of course ploughing through all the challenges, but free, free to spend your time to what you thought was most important, even if that meant watching Netflix for a few hours, then I realised, yes, that was the life my parents had. They worked hard, but they could always switch their schedule to their liking. So, I guess that’s where I got infected, again, with the entrepreneurship virus.
But there are many more reasons why I left. Things like there is nothing more uncertain than a job that feels certain. Or: If you work for someone else, you realise their dreams, not yours. I had all these business ideas and I was just stacking them all on the shelf. I guess all these ideas united in some sort of protest to convince me, now is the time, just go do it, what do you have to lose. It kind of felt inevitable, the only logical next move.
What are you the most afraid of as you transition from your old environment to this new environment as an entrepreneur?
Well first and foremost I’m concerned about not being able to pay our bills. For the past years, as you were embarking on your entrepreneurial journey, I was the breadwinner. And so not having that income I had, is a big challenge. Yes, I have some savings, but because I was providing for two over the past few years, there is not a lot of savings I was able to build up. I’ve become accustomed to being very independent in providing for myself. I feel even if you would have had your own cushy corporate job and we wouldn’t need my income, I would still feel financial independence would be my biggest fear. What is interesting though is that I feel this fear was exactly what I needed to feel. I couldn’t do anything else than just face it and go ahead anyway, it didn’t really feel like there was a way back. And as I continued, spend money as prudent as possible, but still, spend money because I had to pay bills, and then not seeing any money come in for months. That was hard. I really struggled with my feeling of independence when I asked you to start paying some of our bills as well. It felt like I gave up part of my independence of being able to provide for myself. I think this has been the hardest part on me, financial security. You only know how comfortable you’ve become with your financial situation when it’s gone. I was never a big spender but being able to walk into H&M once or twice a year and just buy what I wanted, that felt like freedom to me. Well, that’s not the case anymore. For a few months I had to really detox, felt the anxiety physically in my body when I walked through a mall. Crazy as it sounds now! Imagine how addicted I had become to this cushy situation. Until, at some point, I realised (of course!!) that I was going to be fine. That things will be fine. That bills will get paid. That those friends you’ve treated for lunch or coffee are keen to treat you this time. And that money starts coming in. Slowly, but it is. I feel once you’ve made it through this phase, you really start to be truly free.
Then of course there are many more fears. The fear to not matter or not be noticed for the work you do. The fear of insignificance, to work on things that don’t have real impact. Or the fear of failure, having to come back to corporate life “because she couldn’t make it”. The fear of stagnation, staying at the same level and not growing. The fear of missing out, seeing my peers land the top positions, roles that matter, leading big organisations. There are so many fears, and they visit me every day. It’s like I hear the doorbell a few times a day: “Oh hello, I came to make you afraid of this and that today…”. But then on the other side of all these fears stands just one fear. The fear of not realising my dreams. The fear of not having tried at all.
You are a new mother. How does this impact your ambitions?
Well this had quite an impact on all of this. It is a tricky situation to leave your corporate job. I guess people kind of put one and one together and think: “oh she couldn’t do it.” Or maybe I think that people think that. That I expect people to think I opted out. And that bothers me. And we could chat for hours why does that bother me, but it does. Especially now that I have a daughter. I feel I need to show her what you can do with life, that you can follow your dreams. And I would hate to think one day she sees me as someone who opted out when all I had to do was push through. So, this is driving me to make whatever business I build the most successful business I could have ever built. I can only prove this wrong by being more successful than I could have ever been in my corporate role. Well there you have my ambition and also the challenge I face every morning I wake up. You kind of understand why I like to sleep in a bit, I put a huge load on my own shoulders, knowingly.
Also, being a mother, a parent, I realised I wanted to live life differently. I couldn’t see myself waking up at the earliest hour, coming back home late, or taking late-night conference calls, and barely seeing my own child. It just didn’t feel right to work my ass off and then pay someone to take my daughter to the park. As contradictory as it sounds, being a parent was probably one of the reasons I could give up financial security. I wanted to be flexible to spend time with her. Don’t get me wrong, it is not about working less hours. It is about working different hours. I now work seven days a week, instead of five. I work early morning till late evening. But I do step out to take her for a walk in the park. And I decide whether something is important enough to deserve my time. I have become ruthless in many ways, to cut all the ‘waste’ out of my time and purely focus on family and business.
You were a competitive rower in college. What parallels do you see with that and your new journey?
Rowing builds character, they say. I like to think it did. For five years I spent many hours on the water, practicing twice a day, in ice-cold winter, in gorgeous spring and in hot summers. Through this, rowing built my perseverance, knowing that practicing right through the hardships of the winter would pay off in spring and summer. Rowing also taught me that the race is only finished at the finish line. My most memorable race was when I felt halfway through that I had no chance of winning, felt pity for myself for another few hundred meters, and then suddenly realised I wasn’t too far behind (with rowing you go backwards so it is hard to assess your position in the field). Upset about my own self-pity I gave it a killer-twenty (like twenty of your most powerful strokes, a bit of all or nothing) and as I went, I could see the tail of the boat next to me. That gave wings and in the final few hundred meters I slowly but strongly made it to the front, eventually winning the race. This experience will always stay with me and remind me that everything is possible, even when you feel you have already lost or failed. You must always keep going. In whatever way possible. I guess it is the essence of life. You have to just continue to live it.
Do you have a plan B or are you all in on this?
Not really, if I’m honest. I don’t have anything carved out or a return offer to anywhere. I do trust my skills and credentials, the things I’ve worked for very hard in the past. My dad would always tell us: “you can always work at HEMA”, HEMA being a Dutch store a bit like Target. And though it sounds funny, he was right. If all else fails, and I need an income, I should put my pride aside and just apply for whatever pays the bills. Often, we get scared because we feel our plan B is not good enough. And that is why we’re too scared to start plan A, because if we fail, we fall back too much. But I guess that is exactly how plan B should be. If it is too good of a plan, it shouldn’t be plan B. You should be scared enough of plan B so that you have more drive to succeed with plan A. If plan B would be “oh I’ll go back to McKinsey and continue on the partner track”, then there is no risk for failing at plan A. No risk, and hence no real reward. So yeah, I don’t really have a plan B except for taking a waitress job or applying from scratch. And that is what keeps me going.